Game Preview: Michigan

No. 10 Ohio State finishes the 2008 regular season Saturday by hosting archrival Michigan on Senior Day. previews the game with Ohio State's thoughts on how down the Wolverines are, notes on the squad's key players to watch and a breakdown of the team's offensive and defensive units.

Michigan (3-8, 2-5)
Saturday, Nov. 22, Noon
Ohio Stadium (102,329)
2007 Record: 9-4, 6-2 Big Ten Conference
Head Coach: Rich Rodriguez, 3-8 at Michigan (first season)

The numbers are hard to ignore.

Michigan is 3-8. That latter number represents the most ever on the right side of the column for the university. The Wolverines have been kept to 20 points or lower in six of 11 games and allowed 35 or more in five contests. They are in the bottom four of the Big Ten in every major offensive category, and only one player is in the top nine in the conference in any individual offensive chart.

Yet, as one would expect, that means very little to the Ohio State football team.

"It's going to be a tough game," fullback Brandon Smith said. "Everybody's concerned about their record being not as great this year, not having a huge season, but they're going to be a tough opponent. It's just going to be another one of those tough Michigan vs. Ohio State games."

In fact, listening to some of the Ohio State players and coaches, one would think Michigan would be the ones entering ranked and with six more wins than its opponent.

"You watch film and you realize how good of a team this is," linebacker Marcus Freeman said when asked if the team would talk up a team with this record if it were someone like Indiana. "Whoever this team was, if you watch film and say this team is really a lot better than what their record said, you better be ready to go.

"It is the Ohio State-Michigan game so each team is going to play better than they ever have, but at the same time, we say this team is really good. You better not try to overlook these guys.

"If I would have watched the film without knowing their record, I would have thought they were undefeated."

Head coach Jim Tressel was magnanimous to an extreme level.

"I've been impressed with the way they continue to play and get after it," he said. "They've had the ball bounce some ways that you wish they wouldn't and they've found themselves in a situation that they haven't been in before, but you sure can't tell as you watch the film that there's any less passion. They look like the Maize and Blue from an effort standpoint that I've watched for many, many years, and I've been very impressed."

Wolverine Players To Know
RB Brandon Minor: Through six games, one had to wonder what happened to Minor. The 6-1, 208-pound junior had come down with a slight injury during camp and by the time the season started, he was firmly behind Sam McGuffie on the depth chart. Through six games, Minor had just 86 yards rushing and bruised his ribs while making a touchdown catch vs. Toledo.

But he was ready to go next week and made the most of his chance, rushing for 117 yards and two touchdowns against Penn State. Two games later, he had three scores and 155 yards against Purdue.

"I just decided to work hard and get it back," he said of the starting role.

An injury suffered against Minnesota kept him out of the Northwestern game last week, but he says he's ready to go and will not miss the game against Ohio State. With McGuffie questionable, Michigan would love to have the back, who has rushed for 466 yards and eight touchdowns on 89 carries, against the Buckeyes.

"The biggest thing he brings is he brings a physical presence when he runs," Rodriguez said. "He's a big guy that runs downhill pretty well."

WR Martavious Odoms: The diminutive 5-9, 168-pound true freshman has been Michigan's most consistent receiver with a team-leading 44 catches for 406 yards. The shifty wideout is often the target of Michigan's quick passes and bubble screen plays.

"He's a tough little guy," Rodriguez said. "He's 165 pounds, and he's blocking 220-pound linebackers. He's one of those guys that are tough. He is competitive. That's why he's playing as a true freshman."

DE Brandon Graham: Michigan's defensive line, to a man, has said it has benefited from the new conditioning program established by new strength coach Mike Barwis, and Graham is no exception. The slimmed down junior has had a monster season. His 1.8 tackles for loss per game place him second in the nation, and his raw numbers read 43 stops, 18 TFL and nine sacks to go along with two forced fumbles.

"I was about 280," Graham said, "and now I'm down to 260-something, trying to play fast all the time. I feel slimmer, I feel quicker, I feel a whole lot stronger than last year. I'm learning new tricks for this year plus old tricks I learned last year, so I've just been trying to take it in and stay conditioned so where I can go out and do what they're teaching me every play."

LB Obi Ezeh: After starting as a freshman last season, Ezeh dedicated himself to film work during the offseason in an effort to become a more well-rounded player. He's done just that. Ezeh is just one of eight non-specialist players to start all 11 games, and he leads the squad with 96 tackles to go with seven TFL, one sack, one interception and two fumble recoveries.

Series Top OSU Returnees
This section belongs to Chris Wells, who has outstanding stats across the board. The junior from Akron has 44 carries in two games against Michigan, compiling 278 yards and three rushing touchdowns. He's averaged 6.3 yards per carry and has a long rush of 62 yards.

Brian Robiskie has the best receiving numbers, having caught nine passes for 110 yards and a touchdown. He also has a 39-yard catch, which along with the touchdown came in the 2006 game. Brian Hartline has four grabs for 30 yards.

Defensively, James Laurinaitis has 16 tackles, while Marcus Freeman has 13 and Malcolm Jenkins has 10. Dexter Larimore has a sack to his name, while tackles for loss belong to Donald Washington, Anderson Russell and Cameron Heyward. No current Buckeye has been involved in a U-M turnover because the Wolverines have not turned the ball over during the last three games.

Game Breakdown
When Ohio State has the ball: It wouldn't be hard to expect the Buckeyes to pound this one out on the ground. Last week, Ohio State ran the ball 52 times and passed just 10, a striking dichotomy that brings to mind … last year's Michigan game. In that one, Ohio State threw just 13 passes and rushed it 59 times on the way to a 14-3 win in Ann Arbor.

"Any successful offense has got to run the ball first," Smith said. "I think we're going to try to establish the run and try to get the ball in the air if we need to."

Such a strategy might be a success against Michigan. Not only has Ohio State come off two straight excellent rushing days – during which they have 550 rushing yards over the last seven quarters – but Michigan had both Penn State and Purdue rush for more than 200 yards while Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan State all topped 150.

Then again, Michigan is coming into the game coming off of two straight excellent performances on the ground, as the Wolverines held Minnesota to 83 yards rushing and Northwestern to 59.

Overall, Michigan is sixth in the Big Ten and 45th in the nation in rush defense with 128.8 yards per game allowed.

Much of that might have to do with the team's front seven, which Ohio State spent much of the week talking up.

"When you look at their defensive front, it perhaps is the most talented defensive front that we've faced," Tressel said. "Terrance Taylor and Tim Jamison and Brandon Graham and Will Johnson, those guys have been here forever. We've played against them, some of them, three and four years. Those guys are outstanding football players."

They have had solid years according to the numbers. Tackles Johnson and Taylor are seniors, as is end Jamison, and combined those three have 98 tackles, 14 TFL, eight sacks, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles. Throw in Graham's excellent numbers and it's clear that the unit is capable of unleashing havoc.

"They're physical, they're big and they're experienced," Smith said. "They're good athletes and they've played against us before so they're going to know what it's like."

Michigan's linebackers are also a solid group, led by Ezeh. Outside linebackers John Thompson and Jonas Mouton have had growing pains during their first years as starters – even for Thompson, a senior – but they have combined for 116 tackles.

One place the Wolverines have struggled has been in stopping opposing team's big plays, a constant theme during the squad's defensive struggles of the past two seasons. Eight times this year an opponent has scored an offensive touchdown of more than 40 yards; six times, it has come through the air, often because of poor downfield tackling.

"We looked at a little bit of their big-play cutup last night and some teams have had some big runs on them," tight end Rory Nicol said. "I think they've probably given up the big play a little bit. That's obviously hurt them."

Just as painful have been long drives. Twenty-six times this year, teams have marched 60 yards or more to score, an average of more than twice per game. Factor in that teams average at least one scoring drive of 30 yards per less in each game, and it's easy to see where Michigan's struggles have come.

The Wolverines' secondary has had its share of troubles with both tackling and coverage over the past few years. This season, teams have thrown for 16 touchdowns against Michigan and just eight interceptions.

The only player with multiple picks is senior cornerback Morgan Trent, who has three to go along with 39 tackles. They also boast a pair of talented young corners who were five-star prospects in sophomore Donovan Warren (48 tackles, one pick, three pass breakups) and freshman Boubacar Cissoko (14 tackles, one PBU).

Safety Stevie Brown has run hot and cold in his career, and this year he has 60 tackles and his share of big plays with two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one interception and one sack. Senior Brandon Harrison of Dayton has been a utility player who has worked in the nickel and as a linebacker, and he has 65 tackles.

When Michigan has the ball: This is where most things have gone wrong for the Wolverines in 2008. The leading rusher (Minor) is 10th in the conference, the leading quarterback (Steven Threet) is 12th in passing efficiency and the top receiver (Odoms) is sixth in receptions, making him the only Michigan player in single digits in the league in any offensive category.

The two quarterbacks in Threet, who is injured and probably won't play against Ohio State, and former walk-on Nick Sheridan look like square pegs compared to the round holes of Rodriguez's spread option offense. Six times Michigan has been held under 300 yards of offense, the same number of times they've been kept to 20 points or below.

On top of that, just about every major contributor has been injured at one time or another, and important players Threet, Minor, McGuffie and right tackle Stephen Schilling are fighting injuries before the OSU game.

Finally, Michigan has turned the ball over 28 times, the most in the Big Ten.

Still, Tressel expects a good game plan out of Rodriguez, whose offenses were tremendously successful at previous stops like West Virginia, Clemson and Tulane.

"The thing I like about watching Rich with his offense – or I remember facing Paul Johnson when he had his offense at Georgia Southern and now at Georgia Tech – is you know those guys know if you decide to stop them this way, they've got a package ready," Tressel said. "I know they're not concerned with well, which of Ohio State's things are they going to do because they know they have an answer to all of them."

If there's a strength on the U-M offense, it is the running attack, which places just eighth in the conference but has topped 170 yards in seven games, including the last three.

The lack of a true rushing quarterback has hurt – neither Threet, a tough runner despite his 6-6 frame, nor Sheridan boasts that much speed or agility – a bigger problem at times has been injuries. The top four tailbacks in Minor, McGuffie, Saturday's likely starter in Carlos Brown and true freshman Michael Shaw all have dealt with their own injury concerns throughout the year.

Brown just came back form a litany of injuries against Northwestern and ran for 115 yards.

"You have to prepare for everybody," Ohio State linebacker James Laurianitis said of Michigan's depth at the backfield skill spots. "That helped us a little bit last week. We had that same kind of situation. Look at Illinois, they played a lot of different running backs, it's the same thing this week. It depends who is in the game at quarterback. We'll pick up more as the week goes on, but you have to be aware of everybody and what their talents are and how each running back is different and how their styles are different."

Michigan could also use true freshman Justin Feagin at quarterback. The plan was to redshirt Feagin, but he has gotten into some recent games. He ran seven times for 49 yards against Minnesota, but he has not yet thrown a pass.

The depth at receiver drops off precipitously after Odoms and the experienced Greg Mathews, who has 35 catches for 409 yards and two touchdowns. Only two other wideouts in Darryl Stonum (13 catches) and Toney Clemons (11) have more than three catches. The backs and tight ends do take part in the passing game, though, as McGuffie has 19 catches, tight end Kevin Koger six, Shaw six and Minor and Brown five.

The offensive line has been hit or miss, placing fourth in the league in sacks allowed and helping a run game that has improved throughout the year. The right side has been dependable behind center David Molk, right guard David Moosman and Schilling, though injuries have led to alternation on the left.

Michigan has been a team known for zone blocking over the past few years, but they've made a slight change this year with the scheme upheaval.

"Yeah," linebacker Marcus Freeman said. "They've just got a totally different offense than they did last year. Coach Rodriguez brought in his offense and although their record may not show it they're doing a good job. I think as the year goes on you see their offense getting more and more confident and I think it's going to be a challenge."

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