Wojo: Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines still scheming to crack the Buckeye nut

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The Wolverines have it tattooed on their psyche, embedded forever. It was 62-39, but really, it was more than that. It was an annihilation, and perhaps an enlightenment.

One year later, so much has changed, although a few things haven’t. Michigan still burns to avenge that crusher, its seventh straight loss to Ohio State. Jim Harbaugh still hunts that elusive rivalry-rouser, toting a starkly contrasting record: 0-4 against the Buckeyes, 47-12 against everyone else.

Technically, Saturday’s game doesn’t mean anything in the Big Ten standings, with the 11-0 Buckeyes already clinching the East. But it still means everything, with the 9-2 Wolverines on a roll that only truly matters if they finally beat the Buckeyes and stuff their playoff hopes.

Jim Harbaugh

Ohio State has won 14 of the past 15 meetings, but few had the repercussions of last season’s blowout in Columbus, when the 10-1 Wolverines were actually favored.

It forced Harbaugh to make a tough, honest assessment of his offense, and he brought in first-time coordinator Josh Gattis, whose spread concepts are starting to thrive with senior quarterback Shea Patterson and receiver Nico Collins. More telling, it forced coordinator Don Brown to make a tough, honest assessment of his defense, which has ranked in the nation’s top four each of his four seasons but has been exposed at times by elite teams.

More: 'We're taking this game personally': Jim Harbaugh, Wolverines weigh value of win over Ohio State

The Wolverines might not be as talented as last year’s defense, which sent several stars to the NFL. But they’re different, less stubborn, more flexible, not beholden to Brown’s Dr. Blitz persona. The 64-year-old coordinator had those 62 points burned in his soul (check the X-rays, I think it’s true.) He and his players talk about the painful 19 minutes when the Buckeyes turned a 24-19 game into a rout and finished with 567 yards.

“It fuels us,” linebacker Khaleke Hudson said. “We know the things we did, the things we messed up on, and what we’re gonna do to fix the problems.”

That’s about as deep as the Wolverines were willing to go Monday, knowing there’s really nothing left to talk about. The days of biting jabs and proclamations of hate have been dampened by the ridiculously repetitive outcomes. Do they have a legitimate chance as nine-point underdogs Saturday? They do, considering they’re playing their best football of the season, and even that assures nothing.

Hollow record

Harbaugh is fully fueled, but wasn’t straying from the message, no matter how many times he was prodded. When reminded the season is considered a failure if Michigan loses to Ohio State, he made it clear he knows the rules. Until he wins this game, his record is partly hollow.

“I’m very aware of the rivalry, having played in it, having coached in it, having grown up here and my dad (Jack) was a coach,” Harbaugh said. “I likened the Michigan State game to a state championship, this is even bigger. This is two states’ championship, Michigan and Ohio. My feelings? I’m excited for the game.”

The Wolverines’ defense faces pretty much the same challenge as last season. It’s now Justin Fields, with 33 touchdown passes and one interception, instead of Dwayne Haskins. It’s now Ryan Day, the play-caller last year, instead of Urban Meyer as head coach. It’s a stellar running back tandem of J.K. Dobbins and Master Teague, and more gifted receivers in a wide-open offense that leads the nation in scoring.

After a rough start that mirrored a rough start on offense, the Wolverines are fourth in the nation in total defense and 12th in sacks. Sometimes it takes a stinging exposure to reveal what you need to fix. Brown added more zone concepts and other elements to update Michigan from predictable man-to-man to a scheme that can adjust to specific opponents.

“We’re not really going to talk schematics going into any game, but there’s been a multitude of different fronts, different blitz packages,” Harbaugh said. “It’s pretty high-volume, and (Brown) does a great job of calling the defense, a great job of making adjustments, as well as I’ve ever seen it done. And just say everything’s possible for this one — everything could be done, anything could be changed, anything could be added.”

More: Hoosiers rout has short shelf-life; another crack at Buckeyes beckons for Wolverines

Harbaugh emphasized “everything’s possible” referred to Michigan’s defensive scheme, but he surely hopes it translates to the outcome of the game. In college football, you’re measured against your rivals, which means you learn from your rivals. Michigan clearly ramped its rancor and aggressiveness in clobbering Michigan State and Notre Dame this season.

The Buckeyes are a different beast, and their only remotely close game came last week, a 28-17 victory over Penn State. When Michigan controlled the 1980s and ‘90s, the games were generally close. Outside of the 2016 classic, when Ohio State won 30-27 in double-overtime, the Buckeyes have completely dominated, scoring at least 42 points in four of the past six meetings, capped by the big Six-Two.

So yeah, it’s personal for a lot of reasons and a lot of people, no one moreso than Brown. After last season, defensive line coach Greg Mattison jumped to Ohio State to become co-defensive coordinator. No one had much to say when asked Monday about Mattison, offering the standard platitudes of respect.

But that departure was the beginning of the self-evaluation, and Brown laid out the changes — and non-changes — before this season.

'More prepared'

“Like every other coach in the country, you have to evaluate, you have to adjust on a week-to-week basis,” Brown said in August. “The one thing I can tell you is, we’re more prepared versatility-wise in coverage, but the aggressive nature will never change.”

If the Buckeyes beat that nature out of them, it’s been reinstalled, in different ways. Instead of an offense that hammers the running game whether it’s working or not, Gattis brought in an RPO scheme to maximize Patterson’s mobility. More and more, the Wolverines have incorporated their dynamic receivers, Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Ronnie Bell. Patterson, of course, will have to dodge Buckeyes all-world defensive end Chase Young.

More: Michigan moves into top 10 in AP college football poll

You can reasonably argue the Wolverines are playing better heading into this game than last year, when the defense showed its first cracks in a 31-20 victory over Indiana. In last week’s 39-14 pasting of Indiana, Patterson threw five touchdown passes and became the first quarterback in program history with at least four in consecutive games. The Wolverines’ rebound from losses to Wisconsin and Penn State is impressive, winning four straight by an average of 30 points.

It means something, but not nearly as much without the next one. The Game reminds you, and also defines you.

“To win this game, obviously, would be incredible,” Kemp said. “Those last 19 minutes, you can’t erase that. We remember that score, we remember that feeling. I think we’ve grown from it.”

To forget it, you have to remember what caused it, then do something about it. The Wolverines, from the coaches to the players, did something about it, and now merely have to prove they did enough.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski