Second Thoughts: Ohio State-Michigan

We take a look back at Ohio State's win over Michigan that had a few things in common with some previous meetings -- at least until the fourth quarter.

Normally we do these stories off a review of the last Ohio State game, you know, within a few days of the game. So this one from the Buckeyes' win over Michigan is admittedly more than seven months late.

The problem was re-watching the game closely takes time and things just get really busy in late November, particularly with basketball starting up. So we admit we never got around to getting this little project taken are of.

However, with the throes of the offseason in full swing, we figured what better time to get caught up? After all, everyone likes to watch football, and we know you're cool with reliving any Buckeye win.

So here goes.... (The Big Ten Championship, Sugar Bowl and National Championship Game will follow).

Among the many odd things about Ohio State's 42-28 win over Michigan was something that was not new, and that is Devin Gardner raising his game against the Buckeyes. He didn't go as bananas as he did in 2013, but he also had a worse supply of skill players to work with.

After his obviously ill-advised interception to open the game, Gardner repeatedly kept drives alive with great individual plays. Using his feet and his arm, he reminded everyone why he was a highly coveted recruit in high school, but of course decisions like the first one also revealed why he never reached that potential.

His job was made easier at times by the fact that for the second year in a row, Michigan was able to use the traditional running game against the Buckeyes. The Wolverines offensive line improved as the season went on, turning into a somewhat respectable unit after being the worst in the country in 2013, but the biggest key was probably Drake Johnson. Though he lacks the pedigree of the other backs on the Michigan roster, he has a knack for finding holes and making cuts. He's kind of a poor man's Boom Herron, and I don't think it was a coincidence Michigan's offense ground to a halt after he got hurt in the third quarter (until a garbage-time touchdown).

All that said, re-watching this game reminded me of why I did not like Ohio State's chances against Wisconsin as the Buckeyes headed to Indianapolis a week later. It's not that the Buckeyes were getting dominated up front (that hardly happens anyway to any team) but rather that aside from some obvious pass-rush situations (and aided by some timely blitzes) they didn't make a lot of plays up front. That was especially true against the run. Stalemates weren't getting the job done against Michigan and a walk-on tailback, so how where they going to work against Melvin Gordon?

As for the offense, I was struck by how much it felt like the units Braxton Miller led for much of the previous two years. And by that I mean that it spent most of the first half and part of the third quarter either going nowhere or ending up wherever the quarterback dragged it.

And as was sometimes the case with Miller, J.T. Barrett also had to overcome problems of his own doing -- but he was able to do it, at least until he got hurt.

At this point it is constructive to remember that Michigan's defense was a solid unit in 2014. Some struggles against it are not as perplexing as seeing the Wolverine offense create traction and make big plays. What Michigan didn't really have was anyone who could make plays, but the Wolverines were good if they could maintain contain and play downhill against the run, something they pulled off for much of the early afternoon.

Barrett's timely plays -- the big throw deep to Devin Smith and the stunning cut he made on the game-tying touchdown run in the waning seconds of the second quarter -- were really breathtaking, but he also seemed to have a hard time executing throws -- and that was when someone was open. The answer then often was to design something for his legs, a plan that only saw middling success. Again shades of the 2012 and '13 offense in some of the bigger games.

How to explain this? Well Michigan had a plan and executed it fairly well most of the afternoon, but one also wonders if Barrett's supporting cast was giving him as much, well, support. The tight camera angles makes this difficult to judge on TV.

Remember that the offense also seemed stuck in neutral for much of the Indiana game a week earlier -- and that came after what I (and probably anyone) would judge Barrettt's two best performances, first against Michigan State and then Minnesota.

I was more impressed by Barrett's play in Minneapolis not only because of the weather but because the Golden Gophers forced him to beat them with his legs and his arms. He created something out of nothing more often that afternoon than he did in East Lansing, where the story was more about Barrett exposing glaring holes in Michigan State's rebuilt secondary and following great blocking up front.

If going off script at Minnesota opened the eyes of this writer and more across the country, did it also have an effect on his teammates? Did they feel less urgency to help him out after he practically won a game on his own? Did the coaches heap too much on him as a result, or were they just responding to what they were seeing from the unit as a whole as the afternoon unfolded against Michigan? I'm not sure we'll ever know the answer, but it's an interesting situation the Buckeyes found themselves in. I wonder if perhaps the offense had reached its peak under Barrett but no one knew it at the time -- and perhaps through no fault of his own, though he was not exactly the pillar of efficiency in executing throws or reading the option against the Wolverines, either.

Cardale Jones' debut in that game was not exactly a smashing success, but the rest of the team took care of most of the heavy lifting. The offensive line opened up a huge hole for Ezekiel Elliott on that crucial fourth-and-one, then Darron Lee played Johnny On The Spot again as he picked up a fumble and ran it back for the score that really clinched it.

The rest, as they say, is history.... but we'll get to that soon enough.

Other notes and observations:

  • It started simple enough for Ohio State with the Buckeyes turning the gift interception into a touchdown that was scored despite a changeup from the Wolverine defense. Michigan showed a zero coverage bear look while OSU was in a two-tight end set. After a nice fake by Barrett, he found Nick Vannett wide open when the safety wasn't able to stay with him in coverage across the formation. Buckeyes lead 7-0.
  • Ohio State had two sacks on the next drive, one when a blitz up the middle gave Adolphus Washington a good matchup he won and then when Lee was unblocked because of a bad adjustment by Michigan.
  • Michigan fullback Joe Kerridge was impressive throughout the day, and that was no fluke. He's a heck of a player, first and foremost as a blocker but also a solid option to handle the ball.
  • Michigan flooded the left side on its first touchdown and seemed to catch Ohio State unprepared. Still Gardner had to throw blind against a pass rusher to complete the pass to Jake Butt. The safeties talked after the play as if they weren't on the same page.
  • Ohio State played a lot of 12 personnel, which was a curious decision given that Michigan only had one decent cornerback and no pass rush to speak about. They could protect the coverage by playing off if the Buckeyes were behind the chains, and that often resulted in Barrett dropping back with nowhere to go with the ball.
  • Barrett was a bit off early, but he set up the big touchdown to end the first half with a tough run to convert a third down that was manageable because he hit Michael Thomas with a good, tight short throw and Thomas broke a tackle. Barrett also had a nice dump down to Curtis Samuel for a nice gain that kept the chains moving.
  • Ohio State came out in the second half still with the heavier personnel and tried to force the QB run game but to little success. Then Barrett found Heuerman open short against a deep zone to convert a big third down. The QB followed that with a well-designed pass play that got Devin Smith isolated against one of the suspect cornerbacks, and Barrett made a great throw for a huge gain.The Buckeyes scored on first-and-goal despite being outnumbered.
  • In the third quarter Ohio State got stuck in one of those ruts defensively where no call seemed correct. I guess it can happen to anybody... Also Michigan kept converting in big situations. Ironically enough, Ohio State later got a big stop on a third down in the fourth quarter when the game was still in doubt in which they rushed only three.
  • The QB run game continued to flounder in the third quarter for Ohio State, but they opened it up on a great throw by Barrett to Thomas then a nicely designed play to the tight end in the flat for a big play.
  • The first full drive Cardale Jones led in a meaningful situation included a big run by Jalin Marshall out of the Wildcat formation in which he got a couple of key blocks and made a man miss. After an awkward play-action pass went awry, Tom Herman seemed to catch Michigan leaning with a quarterback counter that went for a big play when the Wolverines probably didn't expect Jones to keep it. The Buckeyes executed a bubble screen to Corey Smith (great blocks by Heuerman and Devin Smith) to set up the fateful fourth-and-1 run by Elliott. On that short-yardage play, Ohio State initially lined up with its strength to the field but flipped after a timeout then ran back to the field, where they had better numbers. This was not a common play for Ohio State and I don't think Michigan was ready for it. The only guy who seemed worried about the dive to Elliott was Jake Ryan, who wasn't really in position to stop it, either, which is why he didn't get good contact and Elliott had a pretty clear path. Taylor Decker turned his man out and the backside safety and linebacker took the option action hard and got out of position. Game, set, match.

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