Michigan began the season with an inauspicious 3-3 record. However, the Wolverines have won four straight and offensive production is a big reason why.
Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk has watched a lot of film on Michigan and he thinks it is a much improved team compared to the early stages of the season.
"I think they're playing with a lot of confidence now and they've found some playmakers on their team," Hawk said. "A guy like (quarterback) Chad Henne has been playing well. He's settled down and is playing with a lot of confidence. They have a bunch of running backs that can hurt you as well. It's not just all (Mike) Hart, they've got other guys that can step in and play well. "Michigan always has a great offense and they can throw different things at you and they're a good, physical team. I think that's probably what they've been doing is playing with a lot of confidence ever since the Penn State game."
Michigan handed Penn State its only loss of the season with a 27-25 victory on Oct. 15 when freshman wideout Mario Manningham caught a touchdown pass from Henne on the final play of the game. It's a play that might have saved UM's season.
The 5-9, 192-pound Hart was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season when he rushed for 1,455 yards and nine touchdowns. However, he has been hampered by injuries this season and has rushed for just 573 yards and four scores.
Hart is expected to play against Ohio State. In fact, he likely could have played last week against Indiana, but Michigan decided to save him for OSU.
In his place, true freshman Kevin Grady has helped carry the load. The 5-9, 228-pound bruiser has rushed for 455 yards and five touchdowns.
"For us, we're not going to prepare any differently regardless of which back is going to be in," Hawk said. "We know to stop any running back they have is tough. With the scheme they have and how they attack you and how their offensive line always is big and physical, it all depends on us and how we're going to play gap-sound defense and like we always say, flying around and making tackles."
Hawk does not have fond memories of his first trip to Ann Arbor in 2003. Michigan got a big lead in the first half and held on for a 35-21 victory over OSU.
"I think it was one of those days when they played great and we played bad," Hawk said. "It was just one of those things where we couldn't seem to get it going. We had a couple chances there during the game when we could have turned it on. The defense made a few big stops to help our team have a chance to win, but we didn't stop them when we needed to. You have to give them all the credit; they played really well."
Hawk knows one of the keys to this year's game is to prevent the Wolverines from getting an early lead and allowing their fans to get involved in the game.
"Yeah, any time you let a team like that have some momentum it makes it tough," he said. "On the road, it's a little different game and you know you only have the guys you came with. When you let the crowd get into it and you give the other team some confidence, it makes it tough. It's really tough to come from behind, especially at a place like Michigan."
Hawk was asked if OSU head coach Jim Tressel does anything special during Michigan week to help further prepare his players.
"I don't think he does anything real special," Hawk said. "I think there's enough hype and enough talk about the game surrounding it that he doesn't have to do anything special. From anything from the media, to your families and everyone that you talk to, they tell you all year, ‘Make sure you beat Michigan.' Now the week is here, so I think everything leading up to this plays into it. You don't have to do anything special, or any special talk from Coach Tressel to realize how big of a game it is."
There was a rumor going around on Internet message boards earlier this week that Hawk was in an automobile accident and had broken his leg.
"I'd love to know who started that," Hawk said with a laugh.
But you know it's Michigan week when rumors like that are being tossed around.
"I guess," Hawk said. "My mom didn't even believe me when I told her I didn't get in a wreck. But, I don't know, I don't know how any of that happened. But it's funny. I laughed at that. Whoever starts that and gets that going, that reminds me of being in high school and you're playing your rival and both teams are playing pranks on each other. It's something like that, I guess."
Ohio State has had a lot of great linebackers over the years and Hawk's name will go down right next to them. In fact, some believe that Hawk could be the best 'backer in OSU history. Northwestern coach Randy Walker said last week that Hawk is the best linebacker he has ever seen on the college level.
"Well, I just heard it from you," said Hawk, when asked for his reaction to such praise. "I don't really get to hear about what other people say about me, aside from my family and stuff like that. But, I don't know, I think you have to take that with a grain of salt. I have a lot of respect for the coaches around here and anyone who says anything like that. But you also have to realize that if you start buying into that stuff, you're just going to be an ordinary person and an ordinary player. I don't want to sit back and work hard. I'm going to come out, regardless of what people say good or bad about me, and still do the same thing I've done for 21 years now."
Hawk knows it's important for Ohio State's defense to make some big plays against the Wolverines. The Buckeyes have struggled in creating turnovers this year, but this is the week they would like to reverse their fortunes. But at the same time, Hawk warns that OSU's players cannot try and force the action and take gambles, or they could give up big plays.
"If you go out and try and make plays, a lot of times you're going to start pressing and mess up and try and do other people's job," he said. "And then before you know it, they're breaking an 80-yard run on you and stuff like that.
"So, I think the biggest thing is that you have to make sure you play within the scheme, especially defensively. And make sure you come out and don't press and don't think you have to do everything. Just come out and trust your teammates and realize that good things are going to happen to someone on the defense eventually."
Hawk believes the game will be decided in the fourth quarter. He can't imagine either side winning via blowout.
"That's what makes it a great game," he said. "It means so much to both teams, both schools, both teams want to win so bad that it makes it a great game every year. It seems the games are never out of reach. It's always in question and both teams are going to come out and play hard."
Hawk leads Ohio State with 102 tackles (55 solo) and 12 tackles for loss. He is also second on the team, behind Bobby Carpenter, with 7.5 sacks (Carpenter has eight). Hawk appears to be a shoe-in for the Butkus Award. He is also a finalist for the Lombardi.
"It would be nice," Hawk said of winning the Butkus. "Obviously 20 years from now it will be better, it will be nice to look back. But for now, it would be a huge honor, but I don't really put much into it. It's not going to change anything. Who I am, or what I do, honestly."