Ohio State football: New-look Michigan defense presents different type of challenge

COLUMBUS -- After mastering Michigan’s defense in the last two meetings, Ohio State faces a new challenge this time around.

The Wolverines again have strong numbers on that side of the ball — ranking seventh in the nation in points allowed per game (16.3), eighth in pass defense (178.4 yards per game) and ninth in both passing efficiency and total defense (306.6 yards per game) — but are playing a new scheme after parting ways with coordinator Don Brown in the offseason.

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“This is significantly different,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “This is more NFL-oriented in how this is structured. Coach Brown’s style was a little more college-oriented. They’re good. They have very good personnel.”

Three years ago, Michigan entered The Game riding high. The fourth-ranked Wolverines had a strong offense, but their top-ranked defense was the Maize and Blue’s calling card.

Brown was the toast of college football for constructing an aggressive group bent on destruction, but Day proved to have all the answers he needed for Brown’s scheme.

Ohio State shredded his unit in a 2018 upset, and then did it again the following season, taking advantage of Brown’s preference for man coverage and piling up 118 points and 1,144 yards.

“Dr. Blitz” is gone, replaced by Mike Macdonald, a 34-year old coach who Jim Harbaugh plucked away from his brother John’s Baltimore Ravens staff.

The top players are ends Aaidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who share the Big Ten lead in sacks with 10 apiece. Linebacker Josh Ross leads the team with 80 tackles and is third with 7.5 tackles for loss.

Former five-star prospect Daxton Hill headlines the secondary, but fellow safety Brad Hawkins has a higher overall grade this season from Pro Football Focus.

That site is high overall on the Michigan defense with four players — Hutchinson, Ojabo, Hawkins and tackle Mazi Smith — having overall grades of 80 (“Pro Bowl caliber”) or better.

Hill and fellow DBs DJ Turner and Vincent Gray also have grades in the 70s range (“Starter level”), as does Rod Moore.

A true freshman from Northmont, Moore has started the last two games for the Wolverines at deep safety. He has 19 tackles in eight games this season and the respect of his head coach.

“He’s a really good player,” Jim Harbaugh told reporters in Ann Arbor last week according to MLive.com. “He’s developed well. Student of the game. On field, I think his best attribute is he’s in the right places. He’s got talent in space to get people on the ground. Really good tackler. You can just tell how much he was studying from the beginning of training camp.”

Day called Michigan, “a very good defense” that plays “with an edge,” but what did he mean by the difference in styles?

“It is NFL in the sense that they use a ton of concepts and want to have a package for everything,” explained Ross Fulton, a football strategy analyst for BuckeyeScoop.com who studies Ohio State and its opponents.

He said to look for the Wolverines to play multiple fronts, including a 2-4 with the tackles having their hands in the dirt but Hutchinson and Ojabo standing up at end when Ohio State is in its usual three-receiver base offense.

Michigan is not afraid to blitz and will challenge Ohio State with a variety of zone and man coverages, but the cornerbacks are not likely to line up as tight on the receivers as they have in the past.

“They’re also ‘NFL’ in the sense that they will play the pass first at times,” Fulton said.

That means unlike many current college defenses, the Wolverines are comfortable lining up with fewer defenders in the box than the offense has blockers, something that would also set them apart from most Ohio State opponents despite the emergence of the Buckeyes’ high-powered passing game.

Macdonald also has an affinity for changing personnel to match up with the offense — another NFL characteristic — but that has gotten the Wolverines into trouble at times when teams play up-tempo against them and limit how much they can substitute.

“They want to have a package or call for everything, so they’ve struggled with tempo and getting lined up,” said Fulton.


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