The Ohio State football team lost its first game of the season against then-No. 9 Michigan State last week. But for the Buckeyes, the going is only getting more tough, as they are set to travel to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to take on archrival Michigan (9-2, 6-1) on Saturday.
Under the direction of first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines have solidified their place back in the discussion as an elite program.
After finishing just 5-7 a year ago, Harbaugh has changed the culture and turned the Wolverines into one of biggest surprises in college football this season.
Here is a look at Harbaugh’s squad.
Coming out of high school, Jabrill Peppers was one of the most sought-after recruits in the country. Peppers, a consensus top-five player, eventually chose to take his many talents to Ann Arbor, but his freshman season was cut short after being injured in September. He appeared in just three games, which allowed him to pick up a medical redshirt.
Now, the New Jersey native is healthy and showing why college coaches around the nation did everything in their power to get him on their teams.
Although he is technically going to start at safety, that is just a label. It doesn’t restrict him.
On defense, he will play nearly everything except defensive lineman.
In a base package, he plays as the strong safety, but the former state champion in the 100-meter dash will become a cornerback in the nickel. When defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin sends out the dime package in passing situations, Peppers often will slide over and play linebacker to have extra speed on the field.
He’s fourth on the team with 40 total tackles, 5.5 of which have been for a loss, and second in pass breakups with 10.
When Michigan’s defense gets a stop on third down — which is often, evidenced by the team ranking second in the country in third-down percentage (.232) — Peppers doesn’t leave the field.
Instead, he drops back to return punts. On the season, he is averaging 11.4 yards per return, with a long of 41.
Now, increasingly more often, Peppers won’t leave the field after he handles his return duties.
To take further advantage of his skillset, Harbaugh has begun to play the redshirt freshman on offense, like Charles Woodson did for the Wolverines during his tenure.
Peppers has gotten handoffs out of the backfield and taken direct snaps out of the wildcat while also splitting out wide to catch passes. He doesn’t always touch the ball when he lines up on offense, but the possibility of him getting it requires defenses to know where No. 5 is at all times.
In total, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Peppers has 17 offensive touches for 97 yards and two scores. His offensive snaps have increased as the season has progressed, so expect Harbaugh to use him often against the Buckeyes.
Incredibly, Peppers is fourth on the team in all-purpose yards with 514.
Coaches often talk about players that impact the game in more ways than one. Peppers is the gold-standard of that mantra.
Expect him to be all over the field making plays during Saturday’s game.
The defense is suffocating
OSU’s offense got smothered by Michigan State’s defense last week. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, they’re going to be going up against an even better defense on Saturday.
Michigan’s defense ranks second in the country in total defense, allowing just 263.1 yards per game. The Wolverines are allowing just 100.2 yards rushing per contest, while Peppers and the secondary are surrendering only 163 yards through the air. Both marks are good for fourth in the nation.
The success in shutting down opponents starts with the defensive line. Senior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow had been anchoring the unit, but he was lost for the season against Rutgers.
Despite the loss, junior Maurice Hurst has filled in nicely at nose tackle. Flanking him on both sides are seniors Willie Henry and Chris Wormley.
The trio does an incredible job occupying blockers, creating opportunities for the linebacking corps to crowd the line of scrimmage and pile up tackles. Two linebackers — senior Joe Bolden and redshirt senior Desmond Morgan — lead the Wolverines in tackles with 67 and 64, respectively.
When teams get the ball on the perimeter, like Utah did against Michigan in the season opener, the linebackers get exposed a little bit because they’re not necessarily elite athletes. They’re an instinctive, hard-nose group, but that is their one weakness.
Alongside Peppers in the secondary, juniors Chandler Stribbling, a physical 6-foot-2 cornerback, and Jourdan Lewis, are fundamentally sound.
Durkin, who was a graduate assistant at Bowling Green under OSU coach Urban Meyer from 2001-02, will be creative in his blitz and coverage packages to try and confuse the Buckeye offense.
The Scarlet and Gray offense will be motivated to get back its high-powered ways, but to do so, it will have to navigate its way past the talented Wolverine defense.
From the season opener to now, the Michigan offense is different like night and day.
The unit started slow, but as redshirt senior Jake Rudock, a graduate transfer from Iowa in his first year with the program, started to become more confident in Harbaugh’s scheme, the offense started to click.
After scoring just 17 points against Utah in Week 1, the Wolverines have not scored fewer than 23 points in any game.
Michigan, arguably, has the most talented group of pass catchers that OSU has faced at any point this season. Redshirt junior wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson — who have combined for 1160 receiving yards and 12 scores — will test the Buckeyes’ secondary with their top-end speed and precise route running.
Complementing the duo is 6-foot-6 junior tight end Jake Butt. The Pickerington, Ohio, native uses his size to his advantage and is one of Rudock’s favorite targets on third down.
Beyond those three, a strong group consisting of senior tight end A.J. Williams, freshman wide receiver Grant Perry and junior running back De’Veon Smith provide Rudock additional hands to throw to.
Smith is also the leading rusher, carrying the ball 145 times for 621 yards and six touchdowns. The Warren, Ohio, native is a serviceable player, but this Michigan offense relies heavily on Rudock’s play.
But as of late, Rudock’s play has been as good as any quarterback in the Big Ten. In the past three games, he’s thrown for over 344 yards and three touchdowns per game.
As long as he continues that level of play, the Michigan offense will test the OSU defense on Saturday.
Beyond the Buckeyes
If Michigan beats OSU, and Michigan State loses to Penn State, then the Wolverines will be traveling to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec 5. If the said scenario does not happen, then Harbaugh and his team will wait patiently for its undecided bowl game.