Michigan football faces huge challenge in Ohio State's trio of star receivers

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Free Press sports writer Michael Cohen looks ahead to Michigan football’s game against Ohio State on Saturday:

Next up

Matchup: No. 3 Ohio State (10-1, 8-0 Big Ten) vs. No. 6 Michigan (10-1, 7-1 Big Ten)

Kickoff: 12 p.m., Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor.

TV/radio: Fox; WWJ-AM (950), WTKA-AM (1050).

Line: Buckeyes by 8.

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Know the foe

Ranked third in the nation to begin the season, Ohio State endured an early hiccup with a non-conference loss to Oregon in Week 2. The Ducks traveled to Columbus and downed OSU’s redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud in a stunning 35-28 upset that rocked college football. Since then, the Buckeyes have ripped off nine consecutive wins to recalibrate and reestablish themselves as one of the premier teams in the country. They’ve averaged 49.6 points per game during their winning streak and topped 55 points four times. Their average margin of victory in those games is a staggering 33.7 points per game, including three games with margins of 47 or more — highlighted by Saturday’s 56-7 shellacking of Michigan State.

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C.J. Stroud of the Ohio State Buckeyes throws a first-half pass while playing the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium on Nov. 20, 2021 in Columbus, Ohio.
C.J. Stroud of the Ohio State Buckeyes throws a first-half pass while playing the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium on Nov. 20, 2021 in Columbus, Ohio.

Ohio State’s prolonged offensive outburst married with the continued improvement of QB C.J. Stroud, who has risen to the level of legitimate a Heisman Trophy candidate. Stroud has topped 300 passing yards in six of the last seven games while throwing for 28 touchdowns and only two interceptions, both of which came in a narrow victory over Nebraska. He ranks eighth in the nation in total passing yards (3,468) and tied for fourth in passing touchdowns (36). “I think his anticipation is off the charts,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said following the win over Michigan State. “I think he sees things really, really well. I think his touch is excellent. When he needs to put a little extra on it, he does. He’s accurate downfield. He doesn’t make the guys work for the ball. He plays catch. Certainly, our receivers are excellent and they create a lot of separation and make a lot of plays. But C.J. is special, too.”

Michigan Wolverines wide receiver A.J. Henning (3) returns a kick off for a touchdown against the Maryland Terrapins during the second half Nov. 20, 2021 at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium.
Michigan Wolverines wide receiver A.J. Henning (3) returns a kick off for a touchdown against the Maryland Terrapins during the second half Nov. 20, 2021 at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium.

Three things we learned

Jay Harbaugh loves watching film: Earlier this season, special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh diagrammed a punt block to capitalize on a deficiency he noticed in Northwestern’s protection scheme. The Wolverines practiced it during the week, tabbed wide receiver Cornelius Johnson as the player capable of getting the block and then ran it to perfection against the Wildcats. This past week, Jay Harbaugh noticed Maryland’s pattern of hitting lofted cross-field kickoffs once or twice a game. With the entire coverage unit bearing down on the planned destination of the kick, Michigan realized the weak side was extremely vulnerable. So Jay Harbaugh came up with the idea for a throwback pass in which linebacker Michael Barrett would catch the ball before heaving it across the field to wide receiver A.J. Henning, whose speed might allow for a big return as the Terrapins were forced to change direction. Once again, the plan worked beautifully as Barrett fired a dart to Henning on the right side. With plenty of blockers in front, Henning raced 81 yards for a kickoff return touchdown. As Michigan prepares for its biggest game of the season against Ohio State, it’s fair to assume Jay Harbaugh will devise something unique for the Buckeyes to handle.

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Donovan Edwards should be on the field: With arguably the best running back tandem in the country ahead of him on the depth chart, Edwards has spent most of his freshman year on spot duty. He's logged a few snaps here and a few snaps there depending on the score, the injury situation and the discretion of running backs coach Mike Hart. But as Corum remained on the sideline with a foot/ankle injury for the second consecutive week, Edwards ascended to the forefront of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ game plan against Maryland. Edwards became the primary receiving threat for quarterbacks Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy, who combined to throw 11 passes in his direction. Edwards caught 10 of them for 170 yards and a score to set a season-high receiving total for anyone on the U-M roster. He gained 134 of those yards after the catch while displaying the type of open-field ability the coaches should have capitalized on weeks ago. The highlight of the day was his 77-yard catch-and-run touchdown that saw Edwards reverse field from left to right and turn on the jets to leave Maryland’s secondary grasping at air.

Michigan's Brad Hawkins, right, picks up a fumble from Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez, obscured, during the second half of U-M's 32-29 win on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Michigan's Brad Hawkins, right, picks up a fumble from Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez, obscured, during the second half of U-M's 32-29 win on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Safety is a concern following injury to Hawkins: The Ohio State passing attack against the Michigan secondary will be one of the dominant story lines leading up to Saturday. That’s why the injury to starting strong safety Brad Hawkins is worrisome. Hawkins exited the win over Maryland in the first quarter and did not return. The U-M radio broadcast said Hawkins was taken to the locker room for further evaluation. Without him, defensive pass game coordinator Steve Clinkscale turned to R.J. Moten, the player who lost his job the last two weeks as freshman Rod Moore passed him on the depth chart. Moten and Moore played well enough against the erraticism of quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and a modest group of receivers. Coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters he didn’t believe the injury to Hawkins was severe but wouldn’t know for sure until further tests were done in Ann Arbor. Hawkins is Michigan’s best box safety and a primary communicator for defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald.

Three things to watch

Three-headed monster at wide receiver: After failing to stop Kenneth Walker III, Macdonald responded beautifully when game planning for Penn State’s elite wide receiver Jahan Dotson. By relying on split-safety looks and doubling Dotson on nearly every play, the Wolverines limited him to 61 yards on nine receptions. How Macdonald plans to handle Ohio State’s trio of wide receivers is a different story. It’s impossible for Michigan to double cover all of them. Jaxon Smith-Njigba leads the group with 1,132 receiving yards, which ranks 11th in the country and second in the Big Ten behind David Bell of Purdue. Garrett Wilson has 11 touchdowns to go with 939 receiving yards, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten and 28th nationally. Finally there’s Chris Olave, who set the OSU school record for career touchdown receptions over the weekend. He ranks 38th in the country with 848 receiving yards and is tied for second in receiving touchdowns with 13. “I think Chris, as you can see, he’s such a weapon downfield,” Day said. “He did a nice job on a couple other things today on bubble screens and things like that. His run after the catch has been really good. Just fast. Zero to 10, just off the charts. Garrett is just so strong and just so sudden. His catch radius is extraordinary. He sees the field. And then Jaxon is just so quick inside. His spatial awareness, his ability to set guys up and change direction, he’s kind of built low to the ground with really strong hips and lower body. He’s got tremendous ball skills as well. Really knows how to run routes.”

Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara scrambles against Maryland during the first half Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.
Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara scrambles against Maryland during the first half Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.

Pass defense is a weakness: For much of the season, Michigan fans and critics have wondered if McNamara is good enough to spray the ball around should an opponent find ways to stop the running game. The Spartans did a solid job in that regard by limiting U-M to 146 yards on the ground and keeping both Corum and Hassan Haskins below 60. That opened the door for McNamara, who completed 28 of 44 passes and set a new career high with 383 passing yards A similar game plan might be needed against the Buckeyes, who rank 11th in the nation in rushing defense (102.3 yards per game) and 99th in passing defense (251.8 yards per game). If Ohio State is going to be exploited, chances are it won’t be on the ground. That puts pressure on Michigan’s wide receivers to win against man coverage, something Gattis said will be a significant challenge. “We’re gonna have to win some one-on-one battles, we’re gonna have to win with details, releases, ball placement, accuracy and all that deal,” Gattis said prior to Saturday’s game against Maryland, who also relied on man-to-man coverage. “But we’re gonna have to win in the contested catch ratio and that’s an area we don’t really have a ton of banked reps at this year because of how much zone and different type things that we’ve seen.”

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Both kickers are elite: Given the myriad storylines surrounding Saturday’s game between Michigan and Ohio State, it’s safe to say the kickers won’t be a huge part of the daily discussion. But that doesn’t mean their importance should be overlooked, especially considering the talent of OSU’s Noah Ruggles and U-M’s Jake Moody. A transfer from North Carolina, Ruggles is having a terrific first season. He’s made 16 of 17 field goals for a conversion rate of 94.1% that ranks second in the nation among Power Five schools. His only miss of the season came during Saturday’s win over Michigan State. The only possible concern with Ruggles is his range. His longest field goal of the season is 46 yards and he’s 0-for-3 on kicks from beyond 50 yards during his career. Meanwhile, Moody has made 22 of his 24 attempts this season and ranks fourth in the nation with a 91.7% conversion rate among players from Power 5 schools. He also ranks third in the country with 22 made field goals thanks to Michigan’s struggles in the red zone. Moody’s career long is 52 yards, which he set earlier this year. “Jake Moody, first and foremost, the best kicker in the country, hands down,” Gattis said. “Should win an award, so let’s make sure that he does that, get that on the national presence. But when you’re talking about the difference of touchdowns and field goals, you’re also talking about the difference in is it reasonable field goals that you’re giving your field goal kicker the chance to make? Not putting him out there for bad field goals. Are you taking care of the kick line? Are you getting in position to get those points? We feel very confident (at) certain points on the field, whether that be the 30 or the 25, that we’ve got guaranteed points. So your risk obviously goes down in that scenario.”

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football must find ways to stop Ohio State's star WRs