All season, the Buckeyes have faced good offenses with good quarterbacks. But Michigan mixes run-pass balance, with quick-score explosiveness, like no team they've seen.
On the flip side, the Wolverines haven't seen a defense this good since last year in the Horseshoe.
"(Michigan) will challenge what I think is a very, very good defense in the Ohio State defense," Jim Tressel said. "Our guys know that they're in for their stiffest challenge of the year."
Defensive tackle Darrion Scott is a veteran of the OSU-UM rivalry and knows what it will take to win: control the line of scrimmage.
"I've always been a firm believer that whoever wins the trenches will win the game," he said. "If you look at any game, whoever's dominating on the offensive line, or the defensive line, I'm pretty sure that's the team that's going to win the game. And this game is no different. Whoever wins the trenches is going to win the game. As a defensive line, we are going to take it upon ourselves to win that battle."
As it always does, Ohio State's defense will look to stop the run first. Michigan tailback Chris Perry is having a big year and will be a marked man Saturday.
"Of course against any team you need to stop the run," OSU linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "Especially in our defense, we like to try and make teams one-dimensional. But, Chris Perry – some have talked that he's a Heisman candidate – he's had a great year and we know that he runs hard. Last year he ran hard against us, so, yeah, for our defense to be successful, we need to stop him."
As for slowing down John Navarre and the UM passing game, the obvious key will be getting pressure. The Buckeyes haven't blitzed all that much this season – they've seemed content to rush just four linemen most of the time – so they might have been saving a few special blitz packages for Michigan. Or, at least one can hope.
"We have to get pressure on the quarterback," DT Tim Anderson said. "That's no different than any other game, but it's even more important against a team like Michigan. We just have to mix it up and keep coming after the quarterback and never let him get comfortable."
Enter Will Smith. The senior defensive end has been abusing offensive tackles all year to the tune of 20 tackles-for-loss and 10.5 sacks. He needs three more sacks in the last two games to pass Mike Vrabel for OSU's single-season record of 13.
"Will's unbelievable," Hawk said. "I think anyone can see that. A normal spectator that watches the game can see every game he seems to get even better. Me being a linebacker, with him in front of me, he helps us out so much. You can't even talk about what he does for us as linebackers just because he gets up there and gets so much pressure on the quarterback and helps everybody out in the secondary getting interceptions because the quarterback is always worried about Will being in their face. He's an unbelievable talent."
Hawk thinks that Smith is one of those rare defensive players that can take over a game from time to time.
"Yeah, I think he is. He's like a Lawrence Taylor-type player that can take over the game. And you know the other team is always worried about him coming in, so they might have to try and change a few things because they know Will is going to stop certain plays all by himself," Hawk said.
Tressel pointed to Smith's explosiveness, as well as his underrated versatility.
"Will is a force," he said. "He puts pressure on you from a pass standpoint. He puts pressure on you from a run standpoint. We played a lot of nickel-and-dime packages where he even played a linebacker-type position. He's versatile. In my estimation, one of the best defensive players in the country."
Anderson, who always seems to draw a double-team, is having an excellent year in his own right. The All-American stats aren't going to be there for a blue-collar guy like him, but 10 tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks aren't all that bad.
Anderson's play will be a big factor this week. If he can control the interior, which is very possible, Michigan will be another step closer to being one-dimensional.
* At linebacker, Hawk leads the team in tackles with 88 and Rob Reynolds is fourth with 63.
The Buckeyes will probably use a lot of nickel and dime sets this week, leaving just two LBs on the field. But, Fred Pagac Jr. and Bobby Carpenter will of course see quite a bit of playing time as well.
The question is how much Mark Dantonio will decide to blitz his linebackers. Carpenter is the best of the bunch in that role, but will Hawk and Reynolds get some blitz opportunities as well? It's something to think about and something that Michigan probably wouldn't be ready for. As was mentioned earlier, the Bucks haven't blitzed much this year, so they could be saving a few of their blitz schemes for UM.
* In the OSU secondary, Dustin Fox just keeps on keepin' on.
He's become the Donnie Nickey, if you will, of this year's team (in terms of fan criticism), but it just doesn't add up.
Or, maybe Tressel keeps naming him defensive player of the week for the hell of it.
"Dustin had an extraordinary game (against Purdue)," Tressel said. "He had 10 tackles. He had five pass break-ups. He covered an outstanding receiver (John Standeford) and held him under his average and just played a tremendous game and what I've always felt is one of the most difficult places to play, and that's that boundary corner where many times most of the pressure comes off the field and you're left over there by your lonesome, and he did an excellent job fighting that fight all night long."
Of course Fox isn't the greatest cover corner that has passed through OSU, but he's better in that area than he gets credit for. Notice how much better he plays when he plays bump-and-run. Same could be said for Chris Gamble. The Bucks have been giving too much of a cushion this year, but things started to change against Purdue with more press coverage. Look for more of the same against Michigan. Not strictly bump-and-run coverage the entire game, but just enough to try and throw UM off.
"All our DBs have played good this year," Hawk said. "I think some people on the outside had some questions about them coming into the year, but they've just been great back there."
* If "The Game" follows the rules of Tresselball like most think it will (translation: a close game dominated by a field position battle) that should favor OSU's defense. The Buckeyes are accustomed to pressure situations and shutting teams down in the second half.
"Our defense, we like being in pressure-type situations near the end of the game," Hawk said. "Sometimes the game will come down to what the defense does on the field in tough situations. We always talk about handling adversity as a defense and we have to do that and see how we respond to adversity. We know that with the players we've got, we have enough talent and we should come up with big plays sometimes.
"We always talk about turnovers and as you can see last week, that was a big key in the game. A turnover like that results in a touchdown and that's a huge momentum swing in the game. If we can get some turnovers against Michigan, especially late in the game like the one we got last year, that would be huge."
As for Scott, he was asked to give the "key to the game" for OSU's defense.
"We always start out by saying we need to stop the run, but the key is just going to be to stop whatever they bring to us," he said. "I believe our defense is capable of doing that. I believe that the defensive line that we have up front is very good. We're tough against the run and when it comes to the pass, we have good pass rushers and good coverage guys on the back end. I feel real good about our team and whatever Michigan brings at us, I'm sure we'll be ready for."
* Looking at the stat sheet, the Buckeyes are giving up 275.7 total yards per game (1st Big Ten; 6th nationally), 15.1 points (1st Big Ten; 6th nationally), 50.5 rushing yards (1st nationally) and 225.1 passing yards (7th Big Ten; 66th nationally).
They are also first in the conference in net punting at 41.0 (Michigan, interestingly, is last at 30.2).