The Ohio State defense will enter Saturday’s game against Michigan with an obvious prime directive.
Stop the Michigan running game from blasting the Buckeyes into deep space again.
In his first year as defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes, Jim Knowles knows the challenge the Wolverines present and has plans to combat it — at least as much as possible before the snap.
“You just try to do everything you can to put guys into position, but it does become like controlled chaos, right?” Knowles said. “We try to make all these moves and chess pieces and we think we’re doing a good job of it, but it’s hard to control the uncontrollable, so you guys the best shot and then it’s a matchup and you go from there.”
Just having a plan could be as important as whatever the plan might be.
The Buckeyes played a fairly static defense last season, and players have since then described feeling like sitting ducks at times because opposing offenses generally knew where they would be and what they would be doing on a given play.
Michigan provided just one example as the Wolverines were able to get favorable numbers at the point of attack frequently and finished the day with 297 yards rushing and a 42-27 victory that didn’t feel that close.
They had nine runs of 10 yards or more (defined as “explosive runs”) and were particularly effective on first down, when they averaged 8.3 yards per carry and gained 208 of their rushing yards.
Knowles said he did not spend any time reviewing last year’s game, and his time spent preparing for this one can’t be assigned a number.
“It’s been constant,” he said.
The tip of the spear for the Wolverines is Blake Corum, a junior running back and Heisman Trophy candidate who is third in the nation in rushing and second in scoring.
Corum suffered a knee injury last week against Illinois, but Knowles said the Buckeyes are preparing as if he will play.
Even if he does not or is limited, the Buckeyes will have to deal with a unique scheme and a formidable offensive line that looks as strong as the one that punished them all afternoon a year ago.
“They’re a complete offense, and they challenge you in a lot of different ways,” Knowles said. “So you have to have some some different things that you can go to at different times to try to keep the offense off balance.
“The things that they do, they do well, and you’ve just got to counter attack. And that’s what we’ve been working on all year.”
Among the ways Knowles figures to try to disrupt Michigan’s running game is use of the “Jack” package. Seen only occasionally so far this season, it turns one of the linemen into a hybrid player who can be moved around from play to play like a chess piece.
Sophomore Jack Sawyer fills that role primarily, and he could be seen rushing from the edge on one play or lining up inside on another to disrupt blocking schemes like Michigan’s preferred “Power” and “Counter” plays that pull linemen to get extra blockers to the point of attack.
“All the different things that an offense like this throws at you, and it’s definitely a fix-it tool for us,” Knowles said of the “Jack” position. “And we’ve worked hard to get it ready.”
Beyond the running backs and offensive line, Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy presents a threat both in the running game and passing game.
He can keep the ball on run plays, which creates an extra gap for the defense to worry about and prevents it from overloading the play side, and he has the scrambling ability to do damage with his feet or arm when the original design of a pass play breaks down.
“We’ve just got to rush smart,” defensive lineman Zach Harrison said. “I feel like we can do that, just rush smart and know where the escape lanes are, know where I’m going and know where the other ends are going, know where the D-tackles are going, know where the linebackers fit. You know, just being aware of everything that the defense has going on, all the pieces to it.”
Knowles acknowledged sometimes the best-laid plans of mice and football coaches oft go awry, but the players say he’s given them another weapon independent of Xs and Os: Confidence.
“I think it makes it easier for the player when you know you can trust the staff, you know that they’re gonna put you in the best position,” safety Ronnie Hickman said.
Linebacker Tommy Eichenberg, who has gone from part-time player to one of the defense’s stars this season, agreed.
“He’s a great teacher,” Eichenberg said. “He tries to put us in the best position to succeed so we’ve just got to do our jobs.”
Michigan at Ohio State, Noon, Fox, 1410