Ohio State Football

OSU/Michigan Preview: Strategy and Tactics

11.16.06 | Comment?

One of the reasons I like football so much is that each game is comprised of 120 or so individual battles (plays) and each one has an unique context and can be viewed individually, as part of a sequence (a drive) and/or as part of a strategy (game plan.) It’s sort of like a fast series of live multi-channel chess games where the totality of your effort throughout the course of these events dictates the overall outcome of the game.

Michigan coach Lloyd Carr’s approach to the game is very straightforward. Run the ball, control the clock, and use the passing game to keep the opposing defense honest. On defense, it’s much the same way, take away the opponent’s ability to run, pin your ears back and bull rush the passer, put the opponent in 2nd and long and 3rd and long situations. Play fundamentally sound football in other words. This team, with many of the same faces as last year’s team, is not the same team. In the offseason, changes were made at the assistant coach level that reallly seem to have taken hold. This Wolverine team is leaner, meaner, and hungry for a victory over the Buckeyes.

Carr’s record as the Michigan head coach is 103-34, head to head against OSU he’s 6-5, and head to head against Jim Tressel coached Buckeyes he’s 1-4. Coach Carr has won a (shared) national title at Michigan (1997) and has had a Heisman Trophy winner in his tenure. In recent years (the Tressel years) he has come under fire for not consistently beating the Buckeyes. As a result, I can’t help but think we’re going to see some interesting wrinkles from the Wolverines in this particular game. For instance, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if we saw gadget plays like a halfback pass or even if, gasp, the Wolverines lined up a few times in the spread. Given what I’ve seen of the matchups between the two teams, I don’t think Michigan will change a thing on defense. I think they’ll experiment a bit on offense with misdirection, screens, and stretch plays where opponents have had some success against the Buckeye defense.

In terms of coaching personality and demeanor, Coach Carr is fiery. He’s always in the referee’s face, pacing the sideline with a stern look punctuated by small outbursts that reflect his frustration. I believe Coach Carr is a perfectionist – he demands perfection out of each phase of the game and is not happy when it’s not delivered. He appears to tighten up a bit in big games and I believe his team takes on the persona of its coach.

OSU coach Jim Tressel is a longtime head coach with an overall record of 196-70-2, an Ohio State record of 61-13, and is 4-1 against Michigan. During his coaching career, Tressel has won 5 national championships (4 at D1-AA Youngstown State and 1 at OSU.) Tressel’s outward appearance is one of steadiness and calm. He rarely reacts during positive or negative developments on the field and approaches each play, series, and game in a thoughtful manner. One would be mistaken if one didn’t think there was the spirit of a competitor hidden in there – during the Iowa game on the road this season before a key offensive series Tressel can clearly be heard saying to his offensive unit “rip their hearts out.” Which is decidedly different than his buttoned down sweater vest image would suggest. In big games, Coach Tressel seems to be in his element, he relaxes and often goes against established tendancy.

Tressel’s approach over his 6 years as the Buckeye head coach has been very consistent. Play fundamentally sound, disciplined football in all phases of the game, with special attention paid to special teams. On offense, aside from this year, there have been calls to install an offensive coordinator as Tressel’s play calling (he does call the offensive plays) was perceived as predictable and boring. This year, it’s been anything but predictable and boring (setting aside the 2nd half of the Illinois game where there were 5 consecutive series of run, run, pass, punt.) The difference is Troy Smith, in Smith Tressel has an on field commander who doesn’t make many mistakes (4 int and 1 fumble for the season) which has enabled the offense to open up. We’ve seen a vertical passing game, power running, the option, the spread, and gadget plays (in fact, in one game, they ran consecutive reverses.) You’re going to put 8 men in the box to stop the run, fine, we’ll pass. You’re going to bring in a nickle or dime package against the pass, fine, we’ll run. You’re going to be hyper aggressive with the pass rush, fine we’ll burn you with the screen pass.

On defense, it’s been the standard stellar year, which in all honesty, no one expected or predicted. Losing 9 starters from one unit does not typically bode well for the upcoming season. I’ll say it now, this year’s defense is better than last year’s star-studded line up. They only give up 16 more yards per game than last year’s unit and have generated 21 interceptions season to date vs. last year’s 6. The scoring defense is ranked first nationally giving up just under 8 points per game and opposing quarterbacks are tossing an interception 6.12% of the time they throw against this unit. Tackling was something of an adventure early on and that has, over the course of the year become more sound. Coach Heacock, defensive coordinator, has been excellent in making adjustments as the game goes on and the first team defense simply doesn’t give up points. Rotation has been used extensively this year giving many different looks in combination with an excellent defensive line that applies pressure routinely rushing only 4 men.

In this year’s matchup, I think we’ll see Coach Carr borrow a page or two from Coach Tressel. I expect the unexpected in this year’s game. Neither coach will change from their core, but we’ll definitely see wrinkles in this match up. OSU’s defense is likely better than Michigan’s offense, and Michigan’s defense and OSU’s offense are pretty evenly matched. How the lines execute and turnovers will be key in this game. If Coach Carr relaxes a little, this will be a close game. If turnovers happen and Michigan gets in a hole early, this will be ugly. Michigan is very capable of winning a close, competitive game but will be unable to effectively compete in a shootout barring a spate of Buckeye turnovers. Expect to watch a well coached, well executed game through all phases – fundamental football. It’s going to be great.

2 days to OSU/Michigan
Ohio State’s 2006 record: 11-0 Next up: Michigan 11/18
Tune: The Fundamental Things by Bonnie Raitt
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