Niyo: Wolverines 'D' fixated on shutting down Buckeyes

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — There are no guarantees at this point.

And before that gets lost in the debate about what was said and what Michigan or Ohio State plans to do about it Saturday in Columbus, this is worth remembering: What they’ll all be talking about years from now depends on what happens next, in the rivalry game that does more than simply define seasons.

Karan Higdon understands that. It’s why Michigan’s senior running back paused and thought about what he wanted to say Monday, right before he went ahead and said it. Asked twice if he’d be so bold as to guarantee a victory over the Buckeyes, the way his head coach famously did way back in 1986, Higdon first looked at his teammate, Zach Gentry, standing next to him at the podium, before answering.

"Yeah, I do," Higdon said, finally. "That's how I feel. I believe firmly in my brothers, this team and this coaching staff. And as a captain, I'll take that stand. Why not?”

That’s an open-ended question the Wolverines will have to answer Saturday in a matchup of top-10 teams. But he’s right, of course. Why not say what you feel if you’re confident in what you believe? And really, Higdon’s “guarantee” is no different than what Michigan linebacker Devin Bush said on a couple occasions Monday, when he was asked to try to put the importance of this game — and the rivalry that precedes it — into perspective.

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“It would mean everything for us, and for our season,” said Bush, the junior who was named a Butkus Award finalist Monday. “We haven’t beaten them in a while, and that’s something we really want to do. That’s something we’re gonna do.”

They may have to do it without senior defensive end Chase Winovich, the self-appointed leader of the “Revenge Tour” — Ohio State’s the last box left to check, Bush noted — and the disruptive leader of Michigan’s front four. He was knocked out of Saturday’s win against Indiana with an apparent shoulder injury, and though Harbaugh says X-rays were negative, his status for this week’s game remains in doubt.

“I’m not sure if he’s gonna play or if he’s not,” Bush said. “If he does, let’s go. If he doesn’t, then we’re gonna have to hold it down while he’s out.”

Few teams have held it down quite like this one has, obviously. And while much of the pregame hype will focus on Shea Patterson and Michigan's offense heading into Saturday's game — he's the difference-maker at quarterback the Wolverines simply haven't had in recent years — the flipside is hard to ignore as well.

Blue wall

Michigan ranks first nationally in total defense and pass defense. They’re fourth in the country in scoring defense, allowing 13.5 points per game. In all, they’ve held eight of their 11 opponents to season-low yardage totals. And in that pivotal midseason stretch of games — against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State — Don Brown’s attack dogs were at their snarling best, allowing just four third-down conversions in 34 attempts.

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All of which draws inevitable comparisons to some of Michigan’s vaunted defenses of the past, including the 1997 unit — led by Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson — that dominated from start to finish in that undefeated national championship season.

But that’s where it all stops for now. Because none of that will hold up — none of it will matter — if they don’t beat Ohio State.

“Yeah, everybody’s gonna remember what you did against Ohio State,” defensive tackle Carlo Kemp said. “This game has huge implications, and for us to go out there and just continue the way we’ve been playing, it would really be that statement.”

As a team, but also as a defense, facing an archrival that has averaged 35.5 points over its current six-game winning streak in the series. And one that enters Saturday’s clash with the nation’s No. 2-ranked offense and fresh off a wild 52-51 shootout victory over Maryland.

The Wolverines got a firsthand look at Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins’ arm talent last November, when the redshirt freshman replaced injured starter J.T. Barrett in the third quarter and rallied the Buckeyes to a 31-20 win in Ann Arbor.

Now in his first year as a starter, Haskins already owns four of the top five single-game passing performances in Ohio State history. And though it has taken time for offensive coordinator Ryan Day to adjust Meyer's zone-read scheme to fit Haskins' profile — rather than trying to “force the square peg in a round hole,” as Meyer put it Monday — Saturday’s performance was more evidence they’ve figured out a way to make it all fit.

Offensive caravan

The Buckeyes piled up 688 yards on a whopping 105 offensive plays against Maryland — the eighth time they’ve gone for 500-plus yards this season — and Haskins actually finished Ohio State’s scoring with a 5-yard keeper.

 “Everybody has big dreams, and part of that is being a guy that can move a team — not just throw a pretty pass, but do things you have to do to win a game,” Meyer said. “Dwayne really took a step. No more important than the last play of the game, when he dropped his pads and had to get in there — and he got in there.”

And now here they all are, squaring off once more with a Big Ten championship berth up for grabs, and national playoff implications. Just like the last time the game was played at Ohio Stadium in 2016, with two 10-1 teams and a Big Ten division title on the line for Michigan.

The Wolverines have spent the last 12 months talking about finishing. Finishing plays, finishing drives, and finishing games.

And if you ask Bush what he remembers about that loss two years ago in Columbus, where he played on special teams as a true freshman, that’s where he starts.

With the controversial ending, as Meyer opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 in double-overtime, and the referees ruled J.T. Barrett gained the line after taking a big hit from safety Delano Hill. After a review, the call stood, and then on the next play Curtis Samuel went around left end and danced into the end zone for the winning touchdown.  

“That was one of those games where we didn’t finish,” Bush said. “But we’ve got another opportunity to go in there. And I believe we’re gonna finish the job.”

If they do — if they can pass this final regular-season test — then maybe they can start talking about how great this defense really is.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo