Much has been said in the aftermath of Michigan’s first rivalry victory in 10 years. And at least on the Ohio side of the state, it hasn’t been forgotten in the past 12 months.
Immediately following the Wolverines’ 42-27 win over the Buckeyes last November, Jim Harbaugh took a perceived jab at Ryan Day in his postgame interview when he said “sometimes people at third base think they hit a triple , but they didn’t.”
But perhaps what stuck most in Ohio State’s collective goiter was when then-Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis questioned the Buckeyes’ tenacity.
“They’re a fine team, they’re not a tough team,” Gattis said on a Michigan radio show. “And we knew going into the game we can outrun them physically, we can outrun the tough guys and that was going to be the key to the game, and that’s what we’ve been preparing for all year.”
As a result, Ohio State has been answering questions about toughness all year. During his speech at the Skull Session before the Buckeyes meet Indiana on Nov. 18, 12, Zach Harrison said “nobody outside these walls thinks we’re tough.” Following Ohio State’s latest win over Maryland this past weekend, CJ Stroud admitted he “heard all the laughter and everything everyone said” about last year’s loss.
Whether further verification was needed, Harrison made it clear Tuesday when asked about the Ann Arbor remarks.
“Yes, we heard it.”
However, Harbaugh didn’t double down on those notions in Monday’s press conference. Wolverine’s eighth-year coach said “it wasn’t me” who questioned Ohio State’s toughness last season, and called the third baseman’s comment “irrelevant” to this year’s matchup at Columbus.
“We know Ohio State is our toughest competition. This will be our toughest test to date… I think they are a really good team, an improved team.”—Jim Harbaugh on the state of Ohio
Indeed, Harbaugh had nothing but pleasant things to say about his arch-rival during his presser earlier this week. Harbaugh said the 2022 Ohio State team looks “absolutely” badass and said he saw an “improved” group in the film as it prepares for the 118th annual The Game.
“We know Ohio State is our toughest competition. This will be our toughest test to date. … I think they are a really good team, an improved team. It’s a formidable team. And we are very grateful to be in this position to play this game. Winner takes East, you know, winner takes all there. So, strong opponent. And it’s the kind of situation that gives you an opportunity to show how strong our team is. No need to hate. Be grateful for the opponent.
“It’s like superheroes. It is through a strong opponent that you can find out who you are. They have a lot of players who are really good. They have great players, we have great players. They have great coaches, we have great coaches. They have players with Heisman habits, we have players with Heisman habits. And congratulations. Be thankful for having the opportunity to play this kind of great game.
Ohio State’s improvement has notably come in defense, where first-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has Ohio State’s defense ranked ninth in the FBS in total defense and among the top 15 teams in all major statistical categories through 11 matches.
“I would say the defense is really good. 17 takeaways, 10 interceptions, six fumble recoveries, 16 forced fumbles, three defensive touchdowns,” Harbaugh said. “Yes, I think they are a very strong team defensively.”
Michigan’s offensive staff saw the same. The Wolverines ran for 297 yards and six touchdowns on the Buckeyes last year, but when left tackle Ryan Hayes was asked about Ohio State’s toughness, he rivaled Harbaugh’s sentiments.
“I would agree with that statement (that Ohio State is tougher). I mean, they’ve got the new defensive coordinator,” Hayes said. “We watch them in movies every week a few shows, and we just think they’re really flying to the ball, they’re playing together this year and they definitely look a lot better.”
Wolverine quarterback JJ McCarthy is making his first start against Ohio State on Saturday, but even he acknowledges how much has changed in the Buckeye defense since the teams last meeting.
“They do a really good job with their safeties and their safety plays, disguising everything and getting into running attacks and stuff like that, which was different than last year,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “And it will be really cool to see how they match up with our big boys up front. … Jim Knowles coming from the Big 12 is a completely different defense than playing Big Ten football. So, be very interesting to test us against that.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan made Ohio State’s rushing game a non-factor in 2021. The Buckeyes rushed for just 64 yards on 30 carries in that matchup, which was total yardage and the program’s lowest carry average in a single game since 2011.
“I don’t give a damn what anyone else says about our tenacity… We know what we have.”—Cade Stover
But while the Buckeyes may look more physical on film in 2022, defensive lineman Mazi Smith said he can’t be properly judged until play begins at Ohio Stadium.
“I’m just looking at the O line. I’m looking at how they pass the block and how they execute the block. I’m looking for whether they move or not,” Smith said. “I’m looking at whether they’re being stopped or not. I’m looking at the perimeter players, I’m looking at the players going downhill, I’m looking at what kind of passes they’re making. good idea of who anybody is through tape. You have to go out there, play first three downs, or get a three-and-out or let them get a earned one first, see where it goes. See what it turns into from there.
“I only take two or three shows. For me personally, if I get my hands on someone and they’re going backwards, it’s going to be fine.
Ohio State’s defensive staff overhaul and offensive line coaching change during the offseason showed that there was at least a grain of truth to Gattis’ 2021 comment, though Day and company won’t admit it outright. Toughness has been a theme for the Buckeyes all season and they’ll get a chance to prove that he’s paid dividends on Saturday.
Before that, though, at least one Buckeye couldn’t care less about the perception the Wolverines had of them.
“To be honest with you, I don’t give a damn what anyone else says about our toughness,” Cade Stover said Tuesday. “We know what we have. We know what we are proud of.”