Hoke: Intensity will be high against Ohio State
Ann Arbor — Michigan coach Brady Hoke tried his hardest at his opening-week news conference to drum up enthusiasm for the 111th version of The Game.
But he was quickly peppered with questions about his job security last Monday. That's what happens when you have a 5-6 record and are 20.5-point underdogs to the Buckeyes.
Michigan and Ohio State face each other today at noon at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State has won nine of the last 10 meetings, has wrapped up the East Division title and will play next week for the Big Ten championship and a shot at the national playoff.
The Wolverines are coming off a home loss to Maryland, thought to be their best chance in these final two games to get a win and become bowl eligible.
This week hasn't had the kind of buzz that used to define the week of The Game, but Hoke tried to get everyone to remember why Michigan-Ohio State is such a special day.
"This is one of those weeks where there's a lot of excitement and, obviously, with this rivalry, which I believe is the greatest one in sports and that, obviously, would make it the greatest one in college football, and so it's fun and it's fun to prepare.
"It's a game where the intensity level between both teams is always at its highest. I think we all want to play our best, and that's the goal, to play your best game that last Saturday in November. This is a game like no other, and we're excited about it."
It will be the maize and blue against the scarlet and grey, there will be the bands, the pageantry, the always raucous environment in Columbus. But will Michigan bring the surprising performance of last season against Ohio State, which resulted in a thrilling 42-41 loss in Ann Arbor after the Wolverines failed on a late, game-winning two-point conversion, or will it be more of the same from the Wolverines' offense this season, which has averaged 20.3 points a game, among the worst in the Big Ten?
"In a lot of ways they're two different teams, different individuals on the team, there's different leaderships and attitudes on the teams," Hoke said when asked about having another showing like the 2013 game. "Every team is different. What happened last year was a group of guys went out, played awfully hard together, executed and made some plays when they had to."
Ohio State has changed at quarterback from last season because of a season-ending injury to Braxton Miller. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, however, has played himself into Heisman Trophy contention this season, averaging 318.8 yards of total offense and throwing for 33 touchdowns while running for nine.
He has had plenty of backfield help from Ezekiel Elliott, who has had five 100-yard rushing games this season and, so far, has rushed for 1,061 yards and eight touchdowns.
Barrett is the difference-maker, though.
"He's very, very talented," Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "He can throw the football, he can run it. He runs that offense very, very well. We've played against some great quarterbacks, so our guys will be ready and we know what we have to do and we're looking forward to the challenge of doing it."
Mattison would not go so far as saying Barrett will be the Wolverines' biggest challenge this season, but Barrett brings a combination of accuracy and consistency in the passing game that could pose a major issue for the Michigan secondary.
"I always look at the next challenge as being the biggest challenge, so this is the next one, so yes, it is the biggest challenge," Mattison said. "It's the next one — whoever you're playing next. That's the way we look at it, and we're excited about it."
For Michigan to have a chance at upsetting the Buckeyes, the Wolverines will have to get steady production from fifth-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner, and they cannot turn the ball over. Michigan is minus-14 in turnover margin this season.
They have seen improved production in the running game from De'Veon Smith and Drake Johnson, but the Wolverines have struggled to score in the red zone. Twice against Maryland last week, they reached the Terrapins' 5-yard line and failed to score touchdowns.
"Obviously, our expectations are a lot higher than where we're at right now," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. "As I've touched on throughout the season, you talk about individual improvement, it hasn't necessarily led to total group improvement. Do I feel good about things we're progressing in? You talk about the ability to run the football — I believe in the last three we're averaging like 207 yards a game. Really feel like that line's starting to gel together.
"You go across the board you see a lot of individual accomplishments, guys that are getting better, groups that are getting better. We still need to bring it all together and get to a complete game. We haven't had that yet."
Hoke admires Ohio State's balance across the board, but he believes in The Game and that both teams prepare differently and often play differently on the last Saturday in November.
"There's a great deal of pride when you play in this game and coach this game," Hoke said. "That's special, and you talk to the guys who've played in it, and they can tell you how special it is. This is a game that is like no other."