Ohio State-Michigan Deep Dive: Will Michigan’s Star Edge Rushers Make the Difference?

The college football world has been consumed with talk about Ohio State-Michigan all week. And rightly so: it’s the biggest game of the year to this point. We have not yet seen two teams each ranked this high square off in a conference game.

Most of the talk has been from the perspective of Michigan: how can Michigan win this game, what do they have to do, etc.

The talk has mainly been focused on Michigan’s two standout defensive ends, Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, and their ability to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.

And it’s well-deserved: they are the two best players on the Michigan defense, and possibly the two best players on Michigan’s team overall. Both are projected first round picks in the 2022 draft depending on where you look: Hutchinson is a for-sure first round pick, with some mock drafts even having him going #1 overall, while Ojabo is seen as a borderline first rounder.

So those two edge rushers will present quite a challenge for Ohio State. Michigan also has a safety named Daxton Hill who is a projected first or second-rounder in next year’s draft.

The thing is, though, Ohio State has PFF’s #1 ranked offensive line in all of college football, so they are more than capable of putting up a fight against those two star defensive ends.

Michigan has never faced an offensive line as strong as Ohio State’s. In fact, not even close. Wisconsin’s offensive line is not elite. Penn State’s is straight-up bad. Even Michigan State’s offensive line is nothing special. No team that Michigan has faced this year has an offensive line anything like Ohio State’s. This is completely uncharted territory or Michigan.

Ohio State’s left tackle, Nicholas Petit-Frere, is one of the nation’s best offensive linemen right now and a borderline first round pick in the draft. He’s a former 5-star recruit who has really lived up to the hype.

On the other side, Ohio State has a real monster in Dawand Jones, the right tackle. This dude is 6’8″ and 360lbs. He’s a former basketball player who might be the biggest player in college football right now–even bigger than Jordan Davis. PFF has him rated as one of the top tackles in the nation.

Not only are those two tackles great, Ohio State’s interior line is great as well: Thayer Munford, a guard, is expected to be drafted in either the first or second round next year. Center Luke Wypler and guard Paris Johnson are both rock solid. Plus, there’s a guy named Matt Jones that rotates in and out of the lineup. Ohio State has something of a rotation at offensive line, kind of like how a lot of teams manage their defensive lines. They have a surplus of great talent. So if any team out there can handle Michigan’s two edge rushers, it’s Ohio State.

I bring up the Ohio State offensive line because it feels like all week the talk has been about Michigan’s edge rushers, as if they’re going to absolutely eat CJ Stroud alive and dominate the game.

Ohio State has the #1 rated offensive line in the nation. Maybe you don’t want to believe PFF’s grades, but at the very least, the Ohio State offensive line is one of the best in the nation. Football Outsiders has them graded elite as well. Michigan may have a dominant pair of edge rushers, but as a unit, Ohio State’s offensive line is potentially better overall than Michigan’s defensive line.

They’ve already gone up against Purdue’s George Karlaftis, another projected high first round pick in next year’s draft, and completely neutralized him. He had zero sacks and just 1 TFL total in the game.

Now, the fact that Michigan has two great edge rushers complicates matters somewhat. It’ll be impossible to double either Hutchinson or Ojabo in the game, the Ohio State offensive line will have to deal with them straight-up. Sure, they’ll have running backs to help chip if they get past the line, and tight ends to help double when needed, but having two elite edge rushers is obviously way more difficult to deal with than one.

Michigan defense sacks by game:

  1. Western Michigan: 1
  2. Washington: 4
  3. NIU: 0
  4. Rutgers: 1
  5. Wisconsin: 6
  6. Nebraska: 1
  7. Northwestern: 1
  8. Michigan State: 3
  9. Indiana: 2
  10. Penn State: 7
  11. Maryland: 2

By my tally that’s 28 total sacks on the season, however 13 of them happened in just the Wisconsin and Penn State games. A further 7 happened between the Washington and MSU games, meaning 20 of Michigan’s 28 sacks come from just 4 of their 11 games. They’ve had at least one in all but one game, though, so it’s not such a huge deal.

I would say that Michigan’s defensive line has the potential to be dominant, as it was against Penn State and Wisconsin, but it has not been consistently dominant.

And for all this talk about how great Michigan’s defense is, when you look at the advanced statistics, it’s really not all that much better than Ohio State’s defense.

I was surprised to learn that, actually, Ohio State has the better run defense. Ohio State ranks 11th in rush yards allowed per game at 103, Michigan ranks 28th at 127 per game. Ohio State ranks 11th in rush yards per attempt allowed at 3.1, Michigan ranks 29th at 3.6.

Michigan, as I went over above, let Kenneth Walker run for 197 yards on 23 attempts.

Ohio State held Walker to 6 carries for 25 yards.

This is a big deal because Michigan is primarily a running team.

As I went over in a prior post, Ohio State’s gameplan of jumping out to an early lead by way of an explosive passing game is so effective because so few college football teams can throw the ball effectively. When forced to abandon the run game, most college football teams are screwed.

But even if Michigan’s pass rush is getting home, and it’s severely affecting Stroud and the passing game (something I don’t expect to happen, but let’s just humor the idea here), Ohio State should be able to run the ball well on Michigan’s defense. If we get even deeper into the stats, Michigan ranks just 103rd nationally (14.8%) in defensive line stuff rate, which measures the percentage of opponent carries in which the ball carrier is stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage.

And this is another aspect of the game that I feel isn’t getting talked about as much as it should be: Ohio State’s running game against Michigan’s run defense. While certainly we can expect Ohio State to come out trying to throw the ball, I think given the expected weather conditions (low 30s, possible snow), Ohio State may try to run the ball quite a bit. And they should be able to with Henderson, as well as Miyan Williams, who is more of the bruiser back.

Ohio State’s run game may be the most underrated aspect of their team. The passing game gets all the love, but Ohio State averages 197 rushing yards per game, which is good for 32nd nationally. But they average 5.9 yards per rushing attempt, which is #1 in the nation. They only rank 102nd in rushing attempts per game, but if they actually have to run the ball, they are obviously more than capable of doing so. In fact, I’d guess they’d be more than happy to play that type of game, as establishing the run will only help them throw the ball.

The larger point is that Ohio State is not some one-dimensional pass-happy offense. If need be, they can absolutely run the ball all day long. Nobody’s really talking about this.

Of course, I expect Ohio State to try to throw the ball in this game. CJ Stroud is on the verge of winning the Heisman right now, and Ryan Day wants to get him that hardware. But I would not be surprised if the run game is a much bigger part of Ohio State’s game plan than everyone’s expecting.

Where Michigan’s defense does rank way ahead of Ohio State’s is in pass defense, though. Michigan is 8th in passing yards allowed at 178 per game, Ohio State is 98th at 252 per game.

The question is, can Michigan take advantage of Ohio State’s somewhat soft pass defense? Michigan only ranks 71st in passing offense, averaging 229 yards per game through the air.

I really don’t know. Plus you have to figure Ohio State’s passing defense numbers are skewed to the low side because of how often they’re way ahead of teams, and teams usually abandon the run pretty quickly against them. Ohio State’s defense averages the 4th most passing attempts against per game at 38.

I think if the game is tighter, Ohio State’s pass defense will be better.

The point of all this is that I think it’s overly simplistic to just look at the game as being all about Michigan’s two stud edge rushers. I highly doubt those two will be able to control the game. This is Ohio State we’re talking about. When is the last time you’ve ever seen a game of theirs where they couldn’t block the other team’s defensive line? Even in the National Championship game last year against Bama, Justin Fields only got sacked once and Bama recorded 0 QB hurries. This year’s offensive line is even better than the one Ohio State had last year.

Even if Ohio State’s tackles can’t block Michigan’s edge rushers, there is still another way for Ohio State to get around that: CJ Stroud getting rid of the ball quickly. And he does that:

There are two ways to neutralize a strong pass rush: running the ball up the gut and allowing the edge rushers to get too far into the backfield, and getting rid of the ball quickly on passing plays. Ohio State has the ability to do both.

And that’s if their top-ranked offensive line can’t handle Michigan’s edge rushers, which I don’t expect to happen.

Stroud can throw the ball underneath to JSN, who is his primary possession/intermediate route receiver. Treyveon Henderson can catch passes out of the backfield. And Ohio State has a really good tight end, Jeremy Ruckert, who can catch passes underneath if need be.

This is what makes Ohio State such a dangerous offense. They have the two home-run hitters Wilson and Olave on the outside, but they also have underneath/intermediate threats as well.

The more I think about this game, the more it’s sounding like a complete fantasy to expect that Michigan will be able to stymie this top-ranked offense with a strong pass rush.

Michigan’s highly-ranked defense has not faced an offense even close to Ohio State’s all year. Nobody has, really. We’re talking about an offense that ranks #1 in points per game (47.2), #1 in total yards (559), and #1 in yards per play (8.0). There’s a reason it’s referred to as “The Death Star.”

Here’s the offensive rank in terms of average yards per play of all the teams Michigan has faced this season so far:

  1. Western Michigan: 42nd
  2. Washington: 110th
  3. NIU: 52nd
  4. Rutgers: 123rd
  5. Wisconsin: 71st
  6. Nebraska: 18th
  7. Northwestern: 116th
  8. Michigan State: 19th
  9. Indiana: 126th
  10. Penn State: 100th
  11. Maryland: 67th

Only 2 of Michigan’s 11 opponents have had offenses that currently rank in the top 40 in YPP: Nebraska and Michigan State. Michigan barely beat Nebraska, and lost to Michigan State.

Ohio State’s offense is on a completely different level than those two teams.

And I do want to talk about the Michigan State game here, because Michigan State is the best offense Michigan has faced all year to this point. We can debate whether Nebraska, Penn State, Wisconsin or Sparty is the best team in general that Michigan has played this year, but I don’t think there should be much doubt that Sparty is the best offense Michigan has faced this year.

Michigan was fortunate enough to pick Sparty off twice in the first quarter, and yet Michigan still found themselves down 14-13 midway through the second quarter.

Michigan’s defense blew a 30-14 lead that they jumped out to with 6:47 remaining in the 3rd quarter. They ended up losing the game 37-33. That means they allowed a 23-3 scoring run over the final quarter-and-a-half.

The Michigan defense got absolutely gashed by Kenneth Walker, who ran for 197 yards and 5 TDs on 8.6 yards per carry. Treyveon Henderson of Ohio State may not be on Walker’s level quite yet, but like Walker, he’s a home run hitter who can house it from anywhere on the field. And Henderson is running behind a much stronger offensive line than Walker was. Ohio State also has a deeper stable of running backs, all with different specialties. It’s not just Henderson.

I really can’t get past that Michigan State game when I look at Michigan, especially after seeing how Ohio State just massacred Michigan State when they got a crack at them. Look, Michigan absolutely could’ve won that game against Sparty, and maybe you can say Michigan should’ve won. After all, they were up 30-14 at one point. Michigan kinda choked in the game, and that’s something we can’t write off because they have a tendency of choking in big games under Harbaugh. There were some controversial calls by the refs, too.

But the point is, Michigan and Michigan State are around the same level. The game could’ve gone either way, you know? If they were to play 10 times, I’ll bet Michigan would win 6 times and Sparty 4.

Ohio State, though, is leaps and bounds ahead of Sparty. I mean Ohio State treated them like they were some cupcake team. Like they didn’t even belong on the field.

Michigan State isn’t even close to Ohio State.

But they’re close to Michigan. They beat Michigan!

What are we supposed to take away from that?

Obviously comparing common opponents is not a foolproof strategy for determining how good teams truly are, because the individual games only tell us how well a team played on a given day, not how good a team is in general.

Resumes tell us how good teams are in general–in other words, games in the aggregate tell us how good a team is. Winning one game doesn’t make you good. Winning repeatedly makes you good.

But still, I think we can conclude that when one team beats another 56-7, the teams are on completely different levels.

The point is, while it is debatable whether Michigan is better than Michigan State, it is not debatable whether Ohio State is better than Michigan State. Ohio State is significantly better than Michigan State.

And that’s really the way I look at this Ohio State-Michigan Game.

Everyone’s talking about how Michigan has these stud edge rushers, but nobody’s really talking about the fact that Ohio State may have the best offensive line in the nation.

Michigan lost to Michigan State, Ohio State beat Michigan state by 49. I just can’t get past that.

There’s too much of a gap between Ohio State and Michigan State for me to look at Michigan and think they’re going to beat Ohio State.

Sure, I think Michigan will fare better against Ohio State than Michigan State did. And I think it’s entirely possible Michigan can even win the game–after all, it is a massive rivalry game, and my power ratings have Michigan as not being too far behind Ohio State, plus the game is being played in Michigan.

I’m not ruling out the idea of a Michigan win.

But I’d only give it like 25% chance of happening.

Ohio State’s offensive line will be able to hold up well against Michigan’s pass rush, if not neutralize it entirely.

Ohio State will be able to run the ball on Michigan’s soft interior line.

And Ohio State’s stout run defense should be able to hold Michigan’s run game in check.

Normally in college football, the key to victory is to both establish the run and stop the other team from running the ball.

Even if we completely ignore the fact that Ohio State has one of the greatest passing attacks the sport has ever seen, probably in the same ballpark as last year’s Bama and 2019 LSU, Ohio State is the team better equipped to both stop and establish the run in this game.

People are looking at this matchup with the assumption that, sure, Ohio State has the superior offense, but Michigan has the superior defense.

That is overly simplistic. As far as the run game goes, Michigan’s run defense is not superior to Ohio State’s at all. And the difference between Ohio State’s offense and Michigan’s offense is leaps and bounds.

I really don’t see how Michigan wins this game unless Ohio State just completely unravels and turns the ball over like 4 times or something.

Obviously we know of Ohio State’s red zone woes as well. You’d think they have those all figured out given their performance against Purdue and Sparty the past two weeks, but you never know. If Ohio State cannot execute in the red zone, then obviously this is an entirely different game. It could go the way we saw things go when Ohio State played Penn State and Nebraska.

Beyond that, there’s just a general feeling out there that Michigan has to get a win in this rivalry sooner or later, right? The answer to that is no. Ask Indiana, who is 0-26 against Ohio State since 1990. Ohio State is pulling away from the Big Ten, and that includes Michigan. Ohio State is one of the elite programs in college football, Michigan is not.

Michigan is certainly better than Indiana, but I think because Ohio State harbors a special hatred for Michigan and never overlooks them, it’s much harder for Michigan to steal a win over Ohio State every now and then, like Purdue and a select few other Big Ten programs have done in recent years. Ohio State’s entire program is built around the mission of beating Michigan every single year.

Obviously one day in the future Michigan will steal a win in this series, but I don’t think it’s today. For Michigan to win it would require Ohio State to have a down year, or a team that is either injury-plagued or deeply flawed somehow. This team is none of those things. In fact, this might be one of the best Ohio State teams in the past decade.

My final score prediction is 42-24 Ohio State.

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