As usual, Michigan has a balanced, diversified offense and the Wolverines will be the toughest test of the season for Ohio State's defense.
Usually, starting true freshmen at key positions like quarterback and tailback will make for a long season in the Big Ten. But UM's Chad Henne and Michael Hart are bucking the trend.
Henne has thrown for 2,188 yards (62.7 completion percentage) with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Hart has rushed for 1,311 yards (5.4 per carry) and eight touchdowns.
No one has been able to do it yet, but can the Buckeyes take advantage of the Wolverines' inexperience?
"I think definitely with some young players there's always little areas where they show their inexperience," OSU defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock said. "But both Hart and Henne have had great seasons, I'm guessing they work hard and practice hard and they're definitely good players."
Ohio State linebacker AJ Hawk would like to think that the Buckeyes could rattle a young QB like Henne, but he has stayed cool under pressure so far this season.
"I think he has a lot of confidence coming in now winning eight straight," Hawk said. "They've really been doing well and he's been playing well. But, with any quarterback, when they're coming into Ohio State… it will be his first time playing in our stadium. You want to get pressure on him and throw new looks at him. You have to see how he reacts. There's been some teams that have gotten pressure on him, but he's reacted well so far. So, we'll have to see what we can do and how he'll react."
Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel has obviously been impressed with Henne.
"Chad Henne is the guy in command," Tressel said. "You can see he knows what they're doing. He knows what to check in and out of. He knows where his big play guys are and he knows to go to them in the crunch time, really evidenced by the fact that there he was in his own stadium down 27-10 (against Michigan State) and brought them back to go into overtime and then win it. I have nothing but kudos for Chad Henne."
Hart is another player that is making a name for himself on a national scale. He wasn't nearly as highly recruited as Henne, but has made just as big of a splash.
Hawk was asked how Hart became so good, so fast.
"He does a great job of keeping his shoulders square and breaking a lot of tackles and making guys miss and I think that's his biggest thing," he said. "Obviously the biggest thing, I think, for a running back to have is great vision, which he has.
"And when you have a good O-line like that playing in front of him, he really finds the holes and finds out where the ball can be taken. We just have to make sure that we're tackling well and playing gap sound defense."
Michigan always has a good offensive line. Its line is big and physical, but is still athletic enough to run traps, counters and throw screens.
"Their O-line is definitely good," Pitcock said. "I know they've rotated a few guys from last year at different spots. They're going to be physical and tough and they're going to fight to the end. They're a good O-line and they're always going to play better against us too."
But of all the weapons Michigan owns offensively, no one has been more valuable to its team this season than senior receiver Braylon Edwards. He has turned some average throws from Henne into spectacular touchdowns. Henne has been able to just throw the ball up, knowing Edwards will usually win the jump balls.
Edwards has caught 76 passes for 1,049 yards (13.8) with 11 touchdowns.
"We'll have to wait and see what happens," Youboty said.
MICHIGAN WEEK EXCITING, NOT STRESSFUL
Ohio State's players enjoy the emphasis that is placed on the Michigan game. They do not look at is as a burden, they look forward to it.
"It's definitely exciting," Pitcock said. "I was watching the
film of last year's game (Sunday) and it just brought back the excitement and
I'm ready to play this week. It's going to be a big game. The Michigan game,
it's almost like the Big Ten playoff in a way. You know, last game of the
season. It's the game and we want to finish off strong here."
"I wouldn't call it more stressful than other weeks," he said. "It's a lot of fun being a part of this. This is one of the biggest rivalries in sports and it's an honor to be a part of it and just can't wait to get out there and play Saturday. The game can't come fast enough."
Ohio State's seniors have taken a lot of flack this year for not performing on the field. Some have even questioned their leadership abilities. But Hawk would like nothing more than to send the seniors out in style with their third pair of gold pants.
"Oh yeah, the seniors we have on this team have been great leaders and have been great players for us," Hawk said. "Me being really just one year apart from them, they've brought us up and shown us what to do and how to play. So, this is huge. Words can't describe how big it is for these guys and how much we want to win for these guys. The season hasn't gone as well as we wanted to, and like we've said before, a win here would right a lot of wrongs."
All football games in the Big Ten are physical. But the hitting is turned up a notch in the OSU-UM rivalry.
"Yeah, it usually is," Hawk said. "And as a linebacker, that's why you play football. You want to get in physical games and that's why you come to the Big Ten, because it's a physical conference and there's always a lot of talent on the field. So, it's a fun game and it's an honor to be a part of something like this. It's the 101st time we've played Michigan and it seems like it's always a great game."
Hawk doesn't try and hide the fact that the Buckeyes' defense will be out to stop the run. They know Michigan can pass the ball well, but they need to stop the run before they can do anything else.
"We know, playing against a great team like Michigan - they've been running the ball over people - that you have to stop the run," Hawk said. "That's our biggest thing is coming out stopping the run and make a team one-dimensional and try and make a true freshman quarterback beat you."
One key for the Buckeyes will be getting pressure on Henne. Pitcock thinks the defensive line has been doing a better job in that area recently.
"Yeah, I think we've definitely been getting more pressure up front," he said. "We've been working a lot more on getting to the quarterback more and it's an ongoing process. We're still trying to find what we're really good at and stick with that. It's just letting loose more and having fun is the biggest thing."
PITCOCK COMING ON
Pitcock, just a sophomore, has developed into the leader of the D-line. He has enjoyed a very good season for a first year starter, but is humble about it.
"I think the season's gone pretty well for me," Pitcock said. "I would have maybe liked to have gotten more pressure on the quarterback and gotten a few more sacks, but I'm doing my job. I'm usually holding my gap and making tackles when I can. You know, doing anything to help the team, I'm satisfied with."
Like Tim Anderson last year, Pitcock is facing a lot of double teams up front.
"We're all getting double-teamed," Pitcock said. "I'm getting it, Marcus (Green) is getting it, David (Patterson) is getting it. It's just part of the game. I'm used to it. You just have to fight through it."
Ohio State's defense is designed for the tackles to clog up the middle and for the linebackers to make plays.
"Yeah, I would say so," Pitcock said. "Any two inside guys - the D-tackles - are going to play that role. You look at film a lot of times and I'll take two guys and AJ will clean up for me. I'm happy that AJ, Bobby (Carpenter), or (Anthony) Schlegel make the play. Or, if not, if I let one of the guys go, I need to make the play. So, it's a give-take kind of relationship out there. Just as long as the defense does well, I'm happy."
Pitcock can't say enough good things about OSU's starting linebackers.
"They're great players," he said. "They work hard in season and off season. They're always in the weight room, they're always watching film. Practice, you know, they never want to take rests. They're always going in wanting to practice. In games, they want to be on every special team. They love to play football. They love to hit. They just love the game. I think that's the biggest thing is they have such a love for the game and play so hard."
The Bucks have a first-year defensive coordinator in Mark Snyder. Pitcock admits that there has been some frustrating times this year for the defense, but says he likes playing for the fiery Snyder.
"Yes, I've always enjoyed him," Pitcock said. "I think he's a great coach. He's changed up the defense a little bit this year and I think it still works out well for us. He's still in the learning process of being a head defensive coordinator. Well, I guess he has before (at Youngstown State), but for our team it's a little frustrating at times, but I think he's doing well and we're going to finish off well this year."
The member of the coaching staff with the longest tenure at OSU is defensive line coach Jim Heacock.
"He's my coach and he's a great coach," Pitcock said. "He knows everything basically. He knows a lot more than you actually think he knows. He knows every position. Offense, defense, everything. He's been around the game long enough and he knows everything. I've learned so much from him and I continue to learn. Just watching film with him you'll pick up on little insights that he may think is common to him, but it's new to me. Just the little things that make you better. So, it's always been a pleasure working with him."
HAWK: 125 STRONG, AND COUNTING
Hawk has racked up 125 tackles so far this season and has established himself as one of the best linebackers in the nation (never mind what the people at the Butkus Award think). He was asked if he has exceeded his personal goals so far this season.
"I didn't really have any individual goals or anything like that," Hawk said. "My goals are just to win every game. I mean, you've got to take the good with the bad. Sure, I've made a lot of tackles, but we've lost four games. So, what does that mean? I'll take 25 tackles if we won every game.
"I don't know, it seems like a lot, but I have a lot of great players around me. The D-line in front of me has a huge part in all those tackles."
Hawk can be humble all he wants, but when he leaves OSU, he will be mentioned along with some of the great linebackers that have played there.
"Coming in and growing up, you hear about all the unbelievable linebackers we've had here at Ohio State with (Chris) Spielman and Randy Gradishar - he was up here as our honorary captain this year - guys like that," Hawk said. "You hear about them growing up, but you can't come close to mentioning me with those guys. Those guys are legends here. I think it helps a lot being here and I've gotten to talk to those guys like Spielman and Gradishar and really having them to help you out, they can tell you how to handle stuff that is going on on and off the field and really how to conduct yourself on the field and how to play hard. And that's really all I try to do here is come out and play hard. I don't want anyone to ever turn on the film and question whether I'm going full speed or not."
Hawk says OSU's defense won't change things up too much against Michigan. He says there are no tricks up their sleeves.
"I can't speak for the offense, but defensive-wise, we don't really try anything new against Michigan, we just try and brush up on everything we've been doing all year and bring it all together," Hawk said.
Hawk was asked if there is more pressure on the linebackers since so many of OSU's secondary players are banged up with injuries.
"I think anytime people are hurt, the rest of the team kind of has to rally around them," he said. "I think we're getting a lot of those guys back this week. We don't know if they're all 100 percent, but they can't wait and they want to play. But, yeah, as a linebacker I think we feel the responsibility to come out and we feel we need to play well every game just because we feel we have a lot of experience in the whole linebacking corps."
Hawk says he is definitely returning for his senior season next year. The NFL will have to wait.
"Oh yeah, I'll be back," Hawk said. "I still feel like kid trying to earn a scholarship. I'm not going to the NFL. I'll be back here next year."
We can hold him to that?
"Yeah, you can hold me to that," he said.