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Niyo: Michigan can validate its defense vs. Ohio State

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan defensive end Taco Charlton tackles Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow in the fourth quarter on Saturday at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.

Ann Arbor — It’s Ohio State week, and Jim Harbaugh has his game face on, that distant look he adopts when it’s time to leave you in the lurch. Like when a reporter from Toledo tries again to take Michigan’s coach back to his playing days, asking him what he remembers about that famous victory guarantee before facing the Buckeyes 30 years ago.

“Not much,” Harbaugh replied Monday.

Erik Magnuson, Michigan’s senior offensive tackle, sounds ready, too, smartly avoiding a loaded question about Ohio State coach Urban Meyer — “This is how we get in trouble,” he jokingly warned his teammates — and later adding his own twist on Harbaugh’s words.

“I personally guarantee,” Magnuson said, “there will be a football game this Saturday.”

There will be, yes. And given the stakes, there will be a lot more written than said this week, right up until the football game is played. That’s how these rivalry clashes tend to go anymore.

But as this one goes, with No. 3 Michigan traveling to face No. 2 Ohio State with a berth in the Big Ten championship game on the line — not to mention both teams’ national playoff hopes — this might be the most telling statement we’ll hear.

“Well, I mean, any big game, any championship game — also any road game — you pack your defense,” said Harbaugh, who’ll do just that Friday when the Wolverines board the bus bound for Columbus.

While much of the speculation will focus on Michigan’s quarterback situation — will Wilton Speight play, or won’t he? — Meyer kept coming back to the other side of things.

“When you face an elite defense like this,” he said, “you need everything you got.”

Struggling offense

What Michigan has, beyond a decided edge in experience and the burden of losing 11 of the last 12 to Ohio State in this series, is the nation’s top-ranked defense, statistically speaking, under new coordinator Don Brown. Despite some recent bumps in the road — including that upset loss at Iowa two weeks ago — the Wolverines still sit No. 1 in multiple categories: total defense, scoring defense, third-down defense.

Good thing, too, because their offense, which was humming along as the month of November began, has stumbled down the stretch, with three touchdowns the last two weeks. Michigan managed just 201 total yards at Iowa, and only 57 through the air Saturday against Indiana as backup John O’Korn struggled in wintry conditions.

Michigan’s ‘entire season on the line’ against Ohio State

This won’t be the first time the Wolverines face the Buckeyes with either a bruised or broken quarterback, or simply a backup one.

If anything, it has become a tradition of sorts in recent years — Devin Gardner leading three late touchdown drives on one good leg in a 2013 upset bid, or Denard Robinson running for his life because he couldn’t throw it in 2012.

Last year, it was Jake Rudock getting slammed to the turf by the Buckeyes’ Joey Bosa, though that injury came in the fourth quarter after most of the insulting had been done by Ohio State’s offense, which had its way with Michigan.

The Buckeyes, fresh off a crushing loss at home to Michigan State the week before, turned a highly-touted defense on its collective ear in Ann Arbor, rushing for 369 yards, led by Ezekiel Elliott. They dusted off the inverted veer early in the game, then simply demoralized the Wolverines from there.

“They kicked our (butts),” Peppers said back in August, in case anyone thought he’d forgotten that embarrassment.

Now with the rematch looming, they still haven’t.

They just don’t plan on reliving it.

“I don’t think you throw it out,” senior co-captain Chris Wormley said, when asked about last year’s 42-13 thumping.

“But at the same time, we’re a different team, we’re a year older and we have a different defense with Coach Brown.”

Still packing punch

It’s a different Ohio State offense without Elliott, clearly, though redshirt freshman Mike Weber (Cass Tech) has emerged, surpassing the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season on Saturday in East Lansing.

The Buckeyes’ offensive line has been exposed, at times, most notably by Penn State.

And they don’t have quite the same collection of receivers, though junior Curtis Samuel is a dangerous, dynamic threat. The kind of athlete who can get in a defender’s head, Lewis noted Monday, and get them to “lose their technique.”

That’s something Michigan’s staff has harped on in recent weeks — staying grounded — and something they’ll have to do Saturday, for sure, amid all the blitzing. They did another solid job of that against Indiana, racking up a dozen more tackles for loss, giving them a nation-best 102 for the season.

Henning: Harbaugh puts UM on par with gifted Meyer, OSU

But that’s easier said than done against Ohio State’s dual-threat quarterback, J.T. Barrett, an elusive runner — “slippery” was the word Harbaugh used Monday — who also can beat you with his arm.

The last two meetings Barrett has rushed for 228 yards and five touchdowns, while passing for 289 yards and two more scores.

“He’s just one of those players that when you don’t have somebody watching him at all times,” Wormley said, “he can be a problem.”

Peppers might play the spy’s role Saturday, but make no mistake, the Wolverines started looking for ways to bottle up Barrett and the Buckeyes long ago. It began last winter, and continued last month as Michigan spent its bye week dissecting Ohio State film.

“It was just a week to watch a team that we thought we’d have to beat to achieve our goals,” Wormley said.

Now comes the real test, though. And while the keys sound simple enough — “Don’t try to make the hero plays,” Lewis reminded — they know the difficulty involved.

“So no matter the situation,” Lewis added, “just understand that what got you there is why you’re dominant.”

The defense is what got Michigan here, on the verge of a championship berth. Now we’ll see how well it really travels.