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Scouting Report: Previewing Michigan Vs. Ohio State With Team Insider

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Ohio State fifth-year senior quarterback J.T. Barrett leads the No. 4 offense in the country against Michigan on Saturday. (Scott Stuart)

After a season that hasn’t exactly gone according to plan, Michigan can still accomplish one of its biggest goals — beat Ohio State.

The team’s arch-rival has dominated the series of late, winning 12 of the last 13 matchups and each of the last five. The most recent Michigan victory came in 2011.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is still searching for his first win against the Buckeyes as the man in charge after last year’s game slipped away late.

Coming away with a victory will be no easy feat. Ohio State enters the game as the No. 9 team in the country, according to the College Football Playoff rankings, with a 9-2 overall record and 7-1 Big Ten mark, and already has a date with No. 5 Wisconsin lined up next week in the Big Ten championship game. But the Buckeyes have their flaws — many highlighted in the team’s blowout loss to Iowa three weeks ago.

“I don’t think people know which Ohio State team we’re going to see from week to week,” writer Kevin Noon said. “I’ve seen a team come out and score on pretty much every drive and stymie opponents, and I’ve seen a team get shellacked by Iowa on both sides of the ball.”

Since that Iowa game, Ohio State has blown out Michigan State (48-3) and Illinois (52-14) in impressive fashion, but questions remain.

Ohio State has the No. 4 ranked offense (546.2 yards per game) in the country and has racked up 500 or more yards in eight of its last nine games. That group is led by fifth-year senior quarterback J.T. Barrett, who is enjoying another season with gaudy numbers.

He has completed 66.9 percent of his passes this season for 2,698 yards, 32 touchdowns and seven interceptions — six of which came in back-to-back weeks against Iowa and Michigan State.

“It’s amazing that a guy that has 35 different records at Ohio State is so polarizing in the eyes of so many fans,” Noon said. “You either love Barrett or hate Barrett. There’s always a segment of the fans that want to know what’s behind door number two.”

Barrett is also Ohio State’s second-leading rusher, with 115 carries for 605 yards and eight more touchdowns. He’s a true dual-threat quarterback that has improved his passing ability this season according to Noon.

He’s been much more comfortable and has had solid protection all season from the Buckeyes offensive line. There’s been fewer deep balls and more short throws that have turned into long runs after the catch.

“He’s just a winner,” Noon said. “He just seems to be able to put the team on his back and get them the win.”

Fans simply can’t forget the memories of his last year's struggles against Michigan (15-of-32 passing for 124 yards and an interception) and Clemson (19-of-33 passing for 127 yards and two interceptions) in the 31-0 loss in the College Football Playoff, Noon says.

The offense has been more balanced this season than year’s prior, which were more centered on running the ball. Ohio State uses a group of wide receivers without a single top target like last season.

“I think the receivers are playing a lot better this year, maybe you don’t have a Curtis Samuel type like last year, but I think the committee as a whole is a lot better than last year,” Noon said. “Barrett is very opportunistic in finding the right guy and making smart decisions. That Iowa game remains an anomaly.”

Ohio State has six different receivers with 20 or more catches and eight different receivers with more than 200 yards — three of which have over 400 yards. For comparison, Michigan has two players with more than 20 catches and just four with 200 or more yards receiving.

Redshirt junior wide receiver Parris Campbell leads the Buckeyes in yards with 35 catches for 518 yards and two scores, while redshirt sophomore wide receiver K.J. Hill leads the team in receptions, with 49, and has totaled 466 yards and three touchdowns through the air.

Noon said that Ohio State simply doesn’t have one guy defenses can focus on and shut down, because there are too many others who can step up and make plays. The wide receivers know their roles and don’t stray from them.

The Buckeyes' ground attack is just as formidable as the passing game. Freshman running back J.K. Dobbins is second in the conference in rushing with 1,089 yards on 149 attempts (7.3 yards per carry). He’s scored six touchdowns.

Michigan native and redshirt sophomore running back Mike Weber provides Ohio State with another nice option out of the backfield. He’s come on strong of late after missing time earlier this season with an injury. He’s run for 545 yards and nine touchdowns.

“They have a very good 1-2 punch with J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber,” Noon said. “Dobbins is much more of a shifty back, and he can do that jump step, which you either have or don’t have. Weber is more powerful. He’s able to break more tackles than Dobbins, who would rather make you miss.”

Ohio State brings the nation’s No. 8 defense to Ann Arbor (291.5 yards allowed per game). It’s the second straight top-10 defense Michigan will have faced after being shut down by Wisconsin's No. 2-ranked unit a week ago.

The defensive line is the Buckeyes' strength, and is widely regarded as one of the best units in the country, if not the best. They are tied for No. 23 in the nation in team sacks, with 29 (2.64 per game); Michigan is tied for No. 8 with 36 (3.27).

“They’re very deep at both end and tackle,” Noon said. “They really don’t have two guys I’d consider starters at end. They have four guys, [sophomore] Nick Bosa, [redshirt junior] Sam Hubbard, [fifth-year senior] Tyquan Lewis, [senior] Jalyn Holmes that all rotate.”

Lewis is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and has 4.5 sacks this season after back-to-back eight-sack seasons. Bosa, whose older brother Joey was drafted No. 3 overall by the now-Los Angeles Chargers, may be the most talented of the bunch.

“I think that Nick Bosa has shown that he may have the most talent and be the highest-upside guy right now, but don’t take anything away from Hubbard, Lewis or Holmes for what they’ve been able to do,” Noon said.

Bosa has a team-high five sacks this year.

Noon said that Ohio State will play all four guys on obvious passing downs in order to maximize pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

“I think they’re looking forward to the opportunity to face an offensive line that’s in flux and a pretty unsure quarterback situation,” Noon said. “But I don’t think it’s going to be a case of them saying, 'On paper, this offensive line is not really putting up huge numbers and they don’t know who the hell they’re going to start at quarterback, let’s start fitting ourselves for hats and t-shirts after the game.’”

The secondary has been an area where opponents have found success, so it will be up to whomever starts at quarterback for the Wolverines to exploit that. Junior cornerback Denzel Ward is a lockdown player, but the second cornerback spot has been a question mark all year.

“The recipe is there for Michigan to struggle offensively, but I think they’re going to play their best game, which will get them a couple of scores,” Noon said.

The key to the contest will be turnovers and penalties, Noon believes. Ohio State is tied for No. 54 in the country in turnover margin (plus-2) and tied for No. 107 in penalties, averaging 7.3 fouls per game — most in the Big Ten.

“I think it’s going to come down to turnovers,” Noon said. “Ohio State has done a pretty bad job. They seem to commit bad turnovers at awful times, and they’re pretty undisciplined when it comes to penalties as well.”

Noon thinks Ohio State will win 31-14 to finish the regular season 10-2. He said that he doesn’t see Michigan being able to stop Ohio State enough times and won’t be able to hang with the Buckeyes if they score into the 30s.

“The Ohio State offense has really been rolling, and while Michigan presents a lot of challenges on the defensive side of the ball, I think that Ohio State was able to go to school on what Wisconsin was successful with,” Noon said.

“Say what you will about J.T. Barrett as a passer, but I think that he is a much more effective passer than [Wisconsin redshirt sophomore quarterback] Alex Hornibrook.”


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