Michigan running back Hassan Haskins (25) breaks a tackle from Ohio State safety Ronnie Hickman (14) in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Michigan won 42-27. | Tony Ding, Associated Press
The Buckeyes are looking to get the bad taste out of their mouth by proving it can stop the run against a Utah run game that presents a lot of similarities to Michigan
LOS ANGELES — For a month, Ohio State’s defense has had to think about its performance against rival Michigan.
The Wolverines ran wild over the Buckeyes in a high-stakes matchup in the final regular season game of the year, beating Ohio State 42-27 to win the Big Ten East and knock the Buckeyes out of College Football Playoff contention.
In Michigan’s first win over Ohio State since 2011, the Wolverines rushed for 297 yards, including 169 from Hassan Haskins. On the final drive of the game, up eight, Michigan exclusively gave the ball to Haskins, who carried the rock five times for 63 yards, scoring the game-sealing touchdown.
“We weren’t able to stop them,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. “That’s really, really disappointing, especially when you know they’re going to do it. We have to take a hard look and figure out why that was.”
“For them to run the ball on us like that, it’s embarrassing,” safety Bryson Shaw said.
Now, Ohio State is looking to get the bad taste out of its mouth by proving it can stop the run against a Utah run game that presents a lot of similarities to Michigan.
“Just a chance to kind of hopefully get that bad taste out of our mouth about are we — can we — be a physical defense? And we certainly know we can,” Ohio State defensive play caller Matt Barnes said.
It will be the final game as defensive play caller for Barnes. Barnes will be relieved of defensive play-calling duties after the Rose Bowl since Ohio State hired Oklahoma State’s Jim Knowles as the team’s new defensive coordinator starting Jan. 2. Barnes has served as the Buckeyes’ defensive play caller since the firing of defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs after an early-season loss to Oregon, in which the Ducks ran for 269 yards.
How does Barnes think the Buckeyes’ defense will play against Utah?
“Just playing with a chip on our shoulder, playing with great energy. Those are big things. We’re moving past that game (Michigan) now. We’re excited about this game, another great challenge, great opportunity. We certainly have our work cut out for us,” he said.
Utah enters the Rose Bowl averaging 216 rushing yards per game. The majority of the workload goes to Tavion Thomas, who has 1,041 yards and 20 rushing touchdowns this year. The Ohio native has 20 rushing touchdowns, a program record.
The 6-foot-2, 221-pound Thomas is complimented by TJ Pledger, who has rushed for 671 yards and six touchdowns, and Micah Bernard, who has rushed for 492 yards and two touchdowns.
“Just physical, big guys. Guys that just want to run the ball down your throat. Just want to out-physical you. Run the ball, like, 30, 40 times a game,” linebacker Steele Chambers said.
Up front, the Utes have an offensive line that has improved greatly from a shaky start, led by Nick Ford and Bam Olaseni. Over the Utes’ six-game winning streak, the offensive line has kept quarterback Cam Rising clean and opened up holes for the running backs.
“There are some similarities (to Michigan), but enough differences where you’ve got to make sure you practice all that stuff and again give the guys a chance to go line up against those formations,” Barnes said.
Throughout practice leading up to the bowl game, Ohio State’s defensive focus has been on being more physical and stopping the run.
“The challenge has been being more physical, really. It’s pretty simple. I think we’ve been doing that in practice. We’ve been going pretty hard,” Chambers said. “So I think we’re definitely making adjustments to just be tougher in the run game and just tougher, in general.”
“Practice has been great, we’ve been getting after it on offense and defense. We’ve been getting stronger, it’s physical out there, so it’s a lot of fun,” Ohio State cornerback Cameron Brown said.
Defensive tackle Haskell Garrett, who leads Ohio State in sacks, opted out of the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes have players ready to step up and replace him, chief among them Tyleik Williams. Williams has five sacks in eight games played for the Buckeyes.
“We’ve played a whole bunch of guys throughout the year. We’ve got guys that are ready to go play in the game. Particularly with 15 bowl practices, you feel like you’re able to get those guys enough practice reps to get them ready,” Barnes said.
Other players to watch on Ohio State’s defense include safety Ronnie Hickman, who leads the Buckeyes with 95 tackles and two interceptions, defensive end Zach Harrison, who has three sacks this season, and linebacker Cody Simon, who has 54 tackles, one sack and one interception this season.
Ohio State is allowing 20.9 points per game and 366.6 total yards per game.
Asked in Friday’s press conference about the availability of Simon, defensive back Sevyn Banks (8 tackles this season), defensive tackle Antwuan Jackson (23 tackles) and defensive back Marcus Williamson (26 tackles, three pass deflections), Day said that “there are a few guys in there that are game-time decisions.”
The Buckeyes are eager to face the Utes, win a Rose Bowl, and to try and silence the critics.
“We definitely didn’t play our best against the team up north (Michigan) but we have been putting in the work and preparation, so we are excited to show that on Saturday,” Hickman said.
Practices have wrapped up, and the only thing left is to play the game on Saturday.
“It doesn’t take an expert to figure out what we need to really focus on here over the last month. I think the practices have been really good. They’ve been spirited. They’ve been physical. There’s been a lot of progress made, but the ultimate test will be on Saturday,” Day said.