5 keys: Michigan trying to reverse struggles against mobile quarterbacks (with prediction)
ANN ARBOR -- He rushed left. He rushed right. Sometimes he even went middle.
And he had little trouble with any of it.
Who is he?
He was Air Force's Connor Dietz. And Nebraska's Taylor Martinez. And Northwestern's Kain Colter.
He was even Braxton Miller last year.
And this year, Miller is better.
No. 20 Michigan (8-3, 6-1) is riding a three-game winning streak heading into Saturday's showdown with No. 4 Ohio State (11-0, 7-0). It's feeling good after last year's skid-busting win against the Buckeyes, and has momentum with a new-look two-quarterback offense.
But the path to victory lies on the other side of the ball.
Michigan's defense has allowed fewer points and yards than anyone else in Big Ten play, and the second-fewest passing yards. It's fifth against the run.
But its one Achilles' heel has been defending mobile quarterbacks.
Martinez completed 58.3 percent of his passes against Michigan, and also rushed for 58 yards. Nebraska scored 23 points, when Michigan hadn't allowed more than 13 since the second week of the season.
Colter was more productive, carving Michigan's defense on 8-of-14 passing for 96 yards and one touchdown, as well as rushing for 82 yards. Northwestern scored 31 points, the most U-M has allowed since the opener, and racked up 431 yards of offense.
Dietz toyed with Michigan's defense, rushing for 130 yards and three touchdowns. The Falcons' triple-option offense is nothing like Ohio State's scheme, but the quarterback still found the edge of the defense.
And Miller is better than any of them.
So, too, is Ohio State as a unit, averaging a Big Ten-best 38.2 points per game.
"I think they’re the No. 1 offense in the country right now," Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "It’s going to be a great challenge for us. (Miller is) a great football player.
"The good news is we’ve played against some really, really good quarterbacks this year, and we play against a great one every day in practice (in Denard Robinson). So we’ll be ready to go.”
It's true the Wolverines have faced some good quarterbacks this year. It's also true, though, that they have struggled against the ones who run.
The biggest problem is Michigan's defense on the edge. Martinez and especially Colter were able to break containment, bouncing outside the coverage to pick up big-chunk plays.
And that's Miller's game.
And that's a problem.
Miller was 14-of-25 passing for 235 yards in last year's game -- entered it averaging 76.2 yards per game -- and also ran for 100 yards on 16 carries. He accounted for three touchdowns.
“I think some of it’s been schematic," Mattison said. "Some of it’s been athleticism. Some of it’s just been they’re pretty good, the guys we go against. We’ve addressed all that. We’re very, very conscious of that, and we know that that’s this week, that’s the type of quarterback he is, so we have to be on our A game."
What's the key to fixing this problem?
"Braxton is a guy who has improved his passing game, his running game, his pocket presence," senior defensive end Craig Roh said. "He's a good player, and that's undeniable.
"The thing is, defensively, if you just play your key, do your job, you'll stop him."
Can it be as simple as that? Probably not.
Michigan won't show its hand of what exactly is ailing it, and what needs fixing -- "I guess you’ll find out on Saturday," safety Jordan Kovacs said coyly -- and that's to be expected in a game that means so much, and where incremental competitive advantages can make a difference.
But the symptom of whatever has gone wrong is clear: Running quarterbacks are tearing up a defense that otherwise has been impregnable.
Michigan won't earn its first victory in Columbus since 2000 if it doesn't figure a way to stop the bleeding.
"It’s something if we all do our jobs and get off blocks and make plays, then we’ll be able to come out victorious in that game," Roh said.
Four other keys to Saturday's game:
Michigan's tailbacks have failed to deliver all year, and now starter Fitz Toussaint (who had 120 yards against OSU last year) is out for the season after undergoing surgery on his left leg. Sophomore Thomas Rawls, with 65 career carries, is next in line.
Is he ready for the greatest pressure of his life? To paraphrase Devin Gardner and Brady Hoke: He better be. He has to be.
Rawls has ability, certainly. Coaches have championed him for two years, although he's only sparingly received action. Now, he'll get a chance to show his stuff.
Vincent Smith will also be in the mix, and of course Denard Robinson is a wildcard.
Move the chains
Gardner's exploits at quarterback have been impressive. His play on third down has been superhuman.
Michigan has converted 23-of-33 third downs (69.7 percent) in three games with Gardner at quarterback. The junior accounts for 18 of the conversions, completing 10-of-13 passes for 165 yards, five touchdowns and no picks and also scrambling 10 times -- eight times for a conversion.
Ball control is key in any game, but especially so on the road because time-consuming drives help take the crowd out of the game. It also keeps the opposing offense off the field, which would limit Miller's chances to do damage.
Protect the quarterback
Michigan moved to more of a pass-first philosophy with Gardner under center, and it has yielded a big payoff. But he's also been sacked four times in three games, after the Wolverines allowed seven in their first eight.
The uptick is natural, considering Gardner is passing more than Denard Robinson, and he's also less elusive. But the offensive line has struggled this season, and Ohio State has been good this season at getting to the quarterback, registering 26 sacks.
That matchup could become a problem, especially if the interior line can't improve its lackluster play.
Cancel out distractions
It's cliche. But man, is it a key in this game.
Michigan puts so much energy into playing Ohio State, and Ohio State does the same. U-M could be playing for a Big Ten title game berth, and at the very least, an at-large big into the BCS. Ohio State is playing for an undefeated season and possible AP national title.
The Wolverines won in Ann Arbor last year. Urban Meyer enters the picture.
The game is at the Horseshoe, where Michigan hasn't won in 12 years.
A lot is on the line, no matter who much Michigan tries to downplay it, and the pressure is ramped up. It needs to maintain composure on the road, especially with a quarterback expected to make his fourth start.
Ohio State will win this game for two major reasons.
First, a regression from Devin Gardner can be expected. He's been terrific in his three games at quarterback, but those also came against teams that are a combined 18-15. The only away game came against Minnesota, which is 2-5 in league play, and TCF Bank Stadium was half-filled at best.
The Buckeyes are 11-0 and Ohio Stadium is one of the most hostile venues in the country. Gardner, for as good as he's been, remains a young quarterback, and young quarterbacks are susceptible to mistakes in games such as this. Ohio State, by the way, leads the league with 11 interceptions.
Second, Ohio State's offense seems perfectly designed to exploit Michigan's biggest defensive weakness: Containing mobile quarterbacks. Martinez and Colter had big days, and so did Miller last year.
Maybe the Wolverines figure out a way to limit the damage, but Ohio State should be able to move the ball against Michigan. The teams are evenly matched, but that, along with the home crowd, should give the Buckeyes enough to prevail. Ohio State 28, Michigan 24