Every edition of The Game — the one Saturday between Ohio State and Michigan will be No. 116 — has its subplots, and strategy is often one.
Legend has it Woody Hayes used to spend some weeks during the season practicing for the Wolverines instead of their next opponent, and Jim Tressel was known to trot out something new against Michigan nearly every season as he won nine of 10 games in the series.
Fast forward to present day and Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown revealed earlier this season the Wolverines have been preparing for Ohio State throughout the season.
That might not come as a total surprise considering the Buckeyes scored a record 62 points against Brown’s No. 1-ranked defense last season, but it is something Michigan players and coaches have regularly scoffed at since Tressel famously made “Maize and Blue periods” part of the process in Columbus in 2001.
(Urban Meyer carried on the latter practice after getting the job in late 2011, and Ryan Day has maintained it since replacing Meyer as head coach in January.)
The relative ease with which Ohio State dispatched of its first 10 opponents this season allowed the Buckeyes to withhold some parts of their playbook, but they did unveil something new in a 28-17 win over Penn State on Saturday: A no-back set that spread the Nittany Lions defense out and gave quarterback Justin Fields easier passing reads and more room to run up the middle.
Day dialed up the latter on a key fourth-and-5 that went for 17 yards on the first drive of the game, a play center Josh Myers said he knew would work as soon as the Buckeyes got to the line.
“The way their defense was aligned, we knew if we got that particular look and I could get that block on that linebacker,” Myers said. “We knew he would be out as long as we did our job across the board.”
It remains to be seen if having to show that part of their repertoire a week before the Michigan game hurts its effectiveness against the Wolverines, but Ohio State is hopeful that whatever it lost in the element of surprise it will have gained from having to actually deal with some adversity for the first time this season.
Adding to the intrigue this year: Ohio State’s defensive coaching staff includes two assistants — Greg Mattison and Al Washington — who were on Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Michigan last season.
Along with fellow newcomers Jeff Hafley and Matt Barnes, they have overhauled the Buckeyes on that side of the ball, turning what was a weakness in 2018 into a strength through 11 games this season.
Hafley admitted being blown away by the intensity of the rivalry when he arrived in Columbus earlier this year but said Mattison and Washington haven’t said much about it to him so far.
The defense the group installed in the offseason bears some resemblance to Michigan’s but is not a carbon copy.
Meanwhile, Michigan has spent much of the season getting used to a new offense brought to Ann Arbor by new coordinator Josh Gattis.
Hoping to play more to the strengths of quarterback Shea Patterson and a corps of big, talented receivers, the Wolverines are running a spread offense that is more like what Meyer brought to Columbus in 2012 than what Harbaugh installed upon his arrival at Michigan in 2015.
After a rocky start that included losses to Wisconsin and Penn State, the Wolverines appear to have hit their stride on offense over the past four games.
They ran over Notre Dame 45-14 on Oct. 26 and have enjoyed three lopsided Big Ten wins since over Maryland (38-7), Michigan State (44-10) and Indiana (39-14).
Patterson threw five touchdown passes apiece against the Spartans and the Hoosiers and went over the 300-yard passing mark in each of those games, too.
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