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Michigan Football: Outplayed and Outcoached in Columbus

Big Ten Football East 2018

For many football fans, it was hard not to drink the Kool-Aid coming out of Ann Arbor this season. There was a defense that has smothered offenses for most of the year with their size and speed, an offense that has controlled the time of possession battle with minimal turnovers, a run game that has improved every week, a strong play-action passing game off their ground attack and an Ohio State team who has squeaked by and has struggled defensively all year.

On Saturday afternoon in The Shoe in Columbus, the Wolverine faithful were stunned as their Wolverines, for a high percentage of the game, looked like they did not belong on the same field as Ohio State.


Michigan’s offensive philosophy is not built for a shoot-out against their opponents. Their concept on offense does not get thrown away based upon playing Ohio State. If anything, that philosophy makes the most sense against OSU’s explosive offense that sat at second in the nation in total offense heading into that game. OSU’s offense can’t score if they are not on the field.

The idea of Michigan being an “ancient” offense is far from the truth. Is Michigan a true spread, RPO, option team like Oklahoma, Clemson and Texas? No, but they incorporate every element of the spread as well as smash-mouth, pistol, under-center, two to three tight end sets to balance out defensive fronts. Michigan is a multiple offense, and always will be under Jim Harbaugh. Alabama, besides this year with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, in the Nick Saban era, is exactly what Harbaugh has incorporated at Michigan. 

Big Ten East Football 2018
Image courtesy of The Journal Gazette

Stats cannot lie. Michigan, with Karon Higdon as their featured back, is 12-0 when he hits the century mark. He did not accomplish that on Saturday with only 15 carries for 72 yards, averaging close to five yards a carry. Harbaugh and company decided to spread the rock more between Higdon, Chris Evans and Tru Wilson. Anything less than 20 to 25 touches for Higdon is just unacceptable when he has been the most consistent player on the offense all season, regardless of going down 34 to 19 late in the third quarter after a blocked punt by Ohio State.

At week 12 in the season, the offensive line should be at its peak performance. That was not the case for the Wolverines in Columbus. The big fellas up front could not tame the pass rush of Ohio State for four quarters. Though Patterson was only sacked three times on 34 pass attempts, he did not have a comfortable pocket to throw out of for most of his attempts, especially off of Michigan’s hard play-action, down the field shots that Michigan takes three to four times a game.

Michigan only ran one screen the entire game to slow down OSU’s pass rush where they got close to 15 yards on their attempt to tight end, Sean McKeon. The Buckeyes ran a lot of twists up front, which sets up screens great due to lineman taking themselves out of the play by looping to a different gap. Three to four screens would have changed the mentality of OSU’s defensive coordinator and if executed right, could have been huge chunk plays for the Wolverines.

Big Ten Football East 2018
Image courtesy of AP College Football – Associated Press

When Patterson did have time, he underthrew most of his 12 to 15-yard strikes down the hashes, middle of the field or top of the number throws to targets like Zach Gentry and Donavon Peoples-Jones by not giving his wide receivers great chances to make plays. Patterson did throw some excellent back shoulder fades to Nico Collins for two out of his three passing touchdowns. Those were elite throws at any level of football. With one more year at Michigan, he would benefit greatly before taking a shot at the draft.


Ohio State had the most depth at running back and wide receivers than the Wolverines faced all season. They had five or six playmakers that can take over a game, which is tough to prepare against as a defensive coordinator. 

Ohio State’peakedgame peeked at the right time for the Buckeyes. They caught their stride against Michigan State three weeks ago, and haven’t looked back. A balanced Urban Meyer spread offense attack is extremely tough to tame.

This was the first time since Penn State on the road in 2017 where defensive coordinator, Don Brown, got out coached by not making the proper adjustments to put his players in the best spots to be successful. 

Everyone knows man-to-man is Brown’s signature coverage in his aggressive, press the line of scrimmage, pressure happy scheme. There is no defense that takes away everything an offense can do. That is the great chess match between and OC and a DC. Co-offensive coordinators, Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson, knew exactly the matchup advantages and schemes to run to exploit Brown’s defense.

Big Ten East Football 2018
Image courtesy of USA Today FTW

No matter what level of football, speed kills. OSU has multiple players that run a sub 4.4 40 yard dash that gave them advantages all over the field by doing simple things like tight bunch sets, short, quick motions to create natural separation off the ball to allow a receiver to make an extra move to get open on any route. The two routes that Michigan couldn’t defend were drag routes by receivers and wheels out of the backfield.

Cornerback, Brandon Watson, got picked on all game. He could not compete with the speed at wideout no matter who he lined up against, and Ohio State knew that. Though Watson is a physical player at the line of scrimmage, he loses his fundamentals way too quickly to be a solid every down corner. Cornerback, Ambry Thomas, though young, should have taken Watson’s spot the second time he got beat on a drag route because of his equalizing speed that the OSU receivers had.

Michigan, multiple times, went to zone coverage to contain the drag routes, but did not do it enough to keep the Buckeyes from going back to it consistently. When man-to-man is a primary coverage and it works for many weeks, using other coverages in games is not necessary. Practicing zone coverage is completely different than executing it in a game. That happened in the first half when the nickel corner and safety both took the intermediate route from OSU’s outside receiver, leaving the slot wide open down the middle of the field for a touchdown. At that point, Brown lost faith in zone and lived and died by man most of the game.

Any offensive coordinator will take man-to-man on an outside linebacker with their speedy running backs any day of the week. Any time Michigan has played a running back that can run, they have struggled to contain him. Indiana, the week before, multiple times isolated their running backs by lining them up as receivers and letting them create separation with their athleticism to create matchup problems for the Wolverines. OSU saw that and used their own variation of that to gain an advantage.

Big Ten East Football 2018
Image courtesy of Yahoo! Sports

The most disappointing part of the Michigan defense was their front seven play. That group for the entire year has been their driving force for success as a unit defensively. There was no question defensive end, Chase Winovich, played hurt, losing middle linebacker, Devin Bush Jr to a quad injury in the game and corner, David Long in the secondary, wounded the Wolverines. That happens in football, and it is the coaches job to make the right calls to ensure his players can be successful. In that scenario, that was all the more reason to adjust defensively, but Don Brown didn’t. And because of that, the Buckeyes put up a whopping 62 points.

Special Teams

Giving up blocked punts for touchdowns and making dumb decisions on special teams with the football, adds up quick to a teams overall success in a football game. The blocked punt in the second quarter was the turning point in the game. Momentum swung and Michigan never recovered.

Outside of that and Ambry Thomas losing his balance off a kick return giving the football to the Wolverines inside the 10 yard line, they had excellent field position for most of the contest. They did not capitalize enough on the opportunities given with a short field to work with.

If Michigan has another season where they win 10 regular season games with a win over MSU and another loss to OSU, Jim Harbaugh will be fired the following Monday. Period.


Featured image courtesy of Plainview Daily Herald

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