Ohio State vs Michigan: How Wolverines hold edge at more position groups
Big Ten analyst Josh Liskiewitz offers a position-by-position preview of where each roster stands.
Ohio State vs Michigan: How Wolverines hold edge at more position groups
With Ohio State’s overtime victory over Wisconsin this past weekend, the path for the Buckeyes to their most-anticipated matchup with Michigan since 2006 is starting to clear. The toughest remaining game for the Buckeyes between now and Nov. 26 is likely their home game against Nebraska in three weeks, while road trips to Penn State (this weekend) and Michigan State don’t appear as formidable as they did before the season started.
Michigan has a home test against an Indiana squad that took the Wolverines to the limit last year, but like Ohio State, its toughest remaining road games (Michigan State and Iowa) appear to be large mismatches in favor of the Wolverines.
Keeping in mind that both teams obviously need to take care of business five more times before what is likely to be a matchup of two of the top three teams in the country, now is a good time to start assessing and comparing both rosters.
Who’s better, Michigan or Ohio State? Here is a position-by-position breakdown of where each roster stands, and a small preview of what we might see come the final Saturday in November:
Edge: Ohio State
J.T. Barrett’s running ability is an X factor
There’s an obvious running factor that skews this position heavily toward the Buckeyes, but in terms of passing, Michigan’s Wilton Speight and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett aren’t far different. Speight has been consistent on shallow throws, as he has completed 76.5 percent of his throws shorter than 10 yards through the air from the line of scrimmage. While he has shown flashes of being able to work the ball on intermediate and deep balls (seven of his 11 touchdown throws have been on balls at least 10 yards through the air), his accuracy has been very inconsistent from game to game. He has completed just six of 22 deep shots (throws at least 20 yards through the air), and has not completed any of his four deep attempts outside the right numbers.
Barrett has been more successful on his deep throws, as he has completed 13 of his 32 attempts in the category. His overall QB rating is 113.2, compared to Speight’s 101.9. However, Speight has been more efficient when under pressure, as he holds an 85.5 to 71.7 edge in QB rating when threatened by the rush, and only one of Barrett’s 16 touchdown passes have come while under pressure.
Barrett’s running ability is of course one of the man catalysts of the Buckeyes’ zone-read offense, as he is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and has forced 12 missed tackles on his runs. That’s the biggest deciding factor here.
Experience, Peppers give Wolverines advantage
Ohio State’s dual-threat running back Curtis Samuel is a legitimate Heisman contender, and redshirt freshman RB Mike Weber has been excellent, but Michigan’s talent level is very comparable and the Wolverines have an edge in terms of depth. Weber has forced 19 missed tackles while gaining 612 yards on 94 carries (good for an average of 6.5 per rush), ranking 13th of 25 qualifying backs in the Big Ten in terms of elusiveness. Samuel is averaging 7.3 yards per carry on the ground, and has caught all 29 catchable balls thrown his way.
Michigan boasts two backs in the top five of the Big Ten in terms of elusiveness, as Chris Evans and De’Veon Smith have forced 33 total missed tackles on 123 total touches and Ty Isaac is averaging 6.9 yards per carry over the last three games.
Outside of Samuel, Ohio State’s primary contributors in its receiving corps are WRs Dontre Wilson and Noah Brown. Wilson is averaging 14.5 yards per reception on his 16 grabs, and Brown equals him in receptions and surpasses him in touchdowns (six to four). While Brown appears to be the more dangerous of the two, five of his catches and four of his six touchdowns occurred against Oklahoma, and he has otherwise been held in relative check.
Michigan certainly holds an edge in experience, as TE Jake Butt and WRs Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson were the top targets for the Wolverines in 2015 as well. 210 of Darboh’s 400 receiving yards have been after the catch this season, and Chesson is not far behind in terms of average per catch (Darboh holds an edge of 16.0 to 15.4). Butt is likely to be a top 50 pick in April’s draft due to his athleticism and size.
Michigan has its own wildcard on offense in S Jabrill Peppers, who runs a wildcat package on offense and showed last season the ability to catch the ball well out of the backfield. Against Rutgers he gained 74 yards on three carries and scored twice, and it’s a pretty safe assumption that he Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has created a variety of unique plays for him on offense that we’ve yet to see at this stage. He’s been an absolute game-changer on punt returns, as he already has one score (and a second that was called back against Rutgers) and has been close to several others.
Edge: Ohio State
Both teams have good O-lines, but Michigan dealing with injury issues
Michigan is currently second in the Big Ten in pass-blocking efficiency while Ohio State is eighth, but the loss of starting LT Grant Newsome to knee injury is a major concern. Juwann Bushell-Beatty stepped into the role once Newsome went down against the Badgers and held onto it through the Rutgers game, but should he struggle the Wolverines could opt to put Mason Cole back at left tackle (he started there in 2014 and 2015 before kicking inside to center this year) and slide Patrick Kugler in at center. Cole and RT Erik Magnuson are the two best run-blockers on the line.
C Pat Elflein started slow for the Buckeyes during the first three games but has been outstanding since, as he has made the Big Ten Team of the Week two of the last three weeks due to outstanding run-blocking and only one pressure allowed in that span. Tackles Isaiah Prince and Jamarco Jones have been solid run-blockers (up until this past weekend against Wisconsin), but each have struggled in pass pro as of late, as they’ve combined to give up 11 pressures the past two games. RG Billy Price has been the steadiest performer for the Buckeyes, as he is averaging one pressure yielded per game (no sacks and just one hit surrendered).
While the Buckeyes have yet to deal with injury issues as Michigan is currently coping with, the offensive line as a whole lacks the experience and versatility the Wolverines have.
Buckeyes talented up front, but Michigan rivals Bama for best D-line in nation
The Buckeyes have come together quickly up front, and have been particularly adept at rushing the passer. DEs Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Nick Bosa have combined for 11 sacks and 62 total pressures through six games (four sacks and 18 pressures against Wisconsin). The run defense had been solid until this past weekend, when Wisconsin used a mixture of power inside running and speed with WR end-arounds to rack up 270 yards on the ground at 6.4 yards per carry, both tactics the Wolverines also love to utilize.
But the level of dominance the Michigan defensive line has achieved to date can only be challenged by Alabama, as six players have run defense grades of at least 80.0 (by comparison, Alabama has two) and five have pass-rush grades higher than 75.0 (Alabama has six). DTs Ryan Glasgow and Maurice Hurst and DEs Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton are all likely top 100 picks (should they all choose to enter the draft this year), and last year’s No. 1 recruit DE Rashan Gary has been as good as advertised.
Peppers’ hybrid role boosts Wolverines’ LB group
The mainstream opinion will be that Ohio State has the edge in this category due to the highly regarded Raekwon McMillan, but he’s had a bit of an uneven season and has been outplayed by teammate Jerome Baker, who has more solo tackles (27 to 24) and has yet to miss a tackle (McMillan has missed six). Baker has been the better of the two in coverage as well, as he has given up just five catches (on nine targets) for 24 yards and a QB rating against of just 21.3, while McMillan has a QB rating against of 111.9 (four catches yielded on seven targets, including a touchdown by Indiana).
This was without question the biggest area of concern for the Wolverines heading into the season, but both Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray have played well thus far. Gedeon’s 89.1 run defense grade is second-best in the country behind only the Ohio Bobcats’ Blair Brown, and McCray has graded well in all three phases while posting 10 pressures (three sacks) and a QB rating against of 42.1 in coverage.
As he is on offense, Peppers is the “cherry on top” of the Michigan linebacker corps. This isn’t meant to read that he is third-best of the group, as it is more commentary on the fact he has no real defined classification on the defense. While most outlets still list him at safety, he has played just 32 of his 331 defense snaps from either safety position, while 183 snaps have been from a variety of LB alignments. He has racked up 17 total defensive stops this season (seven against Colorado) and 13 total pressures.
CB tandem of Lewis, Stribling leads a shutdown unit
I wanted to call this category a push due to the early-season playmaking of the Buckeyes, but the struggles that several of the back seven defenders had against Wisconsin in comparison to Michigan’s complete dominance against the same team makes it unrealistic to say the two teams are on even ground at this stage.
Buckeyes safety Malik Hooker had three interceptions over the course of Weeks 1 and 2, but has given up catches five of seven times he was the primary defender each of the last two weeks and has given up a QB rating of at least 94.8 both weeks. CB Marshon Lattimore had three interceptions and five passes defended through the first five games, but gave up catches on four of six targets last week. CB Gareon Conley has been just average in run support, but has been completely dominant in coverage. On 20 targets this season he has given up just four catches for 41 yards with two interceptions and five pass breakups, including a near-interception at the end of regulation against the Badgers that forced the overtime period.
Michigan was without star CB Jourdan Lewis the first three weeks of the season, but his absence did little to aid opposing offenses. Recovered from his injury in Week 4, he has been every bit as dominant as Conley. He has given up just two receptions on 10 targets for a total of seven yards, and opposing QBs have the same rating when targeting him as they do Conley – 0.0. CB Channing Stribling is having a breakout senior season, as he has three picks and three breakups on the year while giving up just nine receptions on 27 targets. His QB rating against of 9.6 best portrays just how outstanding he has been this year, and obviously Michigan having two perimeter defenders producing at this level has made it next to impossible for teams to move the ball against the Wolverines through the air.
Josh Liskiewitz | Analyst
Josh joined PFF as an analyst in 2015. During the season, his primary focus is college football (mainly the Big Ten). He is also heavily involved in PFF's NFL draft coverage. Prior to joining the team, he worked for six years with GM Jr. Scouting, an independent draft scouting service.