COLUMBUS — The most potent weapons for No. 20 Michigan and No. 4 Ohio State are undoubtedly their quarterbacks.
Pity their poor defenses in the big showdown Saturday.
Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson, who may line up everywhere but behind the center due to an arm injury, are the speedsters who lead the Wolverines’ attack. Meanwhile the Buckeyes rely on Braxton Miller, who likes to make tacklers grab handfuls of air when he’s not completing long passes.
Stopping, or at least slowing down, the trio will be the main objective for both teams.
Good luck with THAT.
Gardner provided six touchdowns, three running and three passing, in Michigan’s landslide win over Iowa in The Big House last week.
Robinson, with 41 touchdowns and 4,273 rushing yards in his career, dabbled at tailback and wide receiver while picking up 98 yards on 13 carries.
Ohio State is in a quandary, having to figure out just how Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges will utilize the two. Even he doesn’t seem to know.
“You don’t know — nobody knows — until the lights go on,” Borges said.
So the Buckeyes must prepare for a little bit of everything.
“I just know something’s coming,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said of the possible sleight of hand. “You just know something’s coming.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke has been tight-lipped about his plans this week. Gardner is the reigning Big Ten player of the week on offense, but Hoke hasn’t ruled out Robinson — famous for his lengthy streaks to the goal line as much as for not tying his shoelaces — under center.
The Wolverines refused to even hint at what they might do.
“I never caught a pass in a game before,” Robinson said innocently.
During closed practices this week he wore a padded compression sleeve on his right elbow, which suffered nerve damage from a hit earlier this season.
Asked if he can throw, he grinned and said, “You’ll see on Saturday.”
Despite the respect they have for Gardner, Ohio State’s defense knows it can’t ignore Robinson.
“I know about Denard here and there just from Big Ten media day, and he is a good guy,” said linebacker Etienne Sabino, himself just back from an injury. “But on the field, we aren’t friends.”
Gardner watched the video from the Iowa game, a 42-17 laugher, and saw the problems the combo created.
“Not just when Denard had the ball — of course he made big plays — but when he didn’t have the ball we had our even bigger plays,” he said. “Just the attention that he gets is amazing — it just helps us succeed.”
Ohio State defensive lineman Garrett Goebel said having two quarterbacks on the field creates double the headaches.
“It’s always hard to even prepare for one quarterback, (especially) when it’s Denard,” he said. “Two quarterbacks makes it tougher.”
Gardner was recruited by Meyer when he was the head coach at Florida. He was also pursued by Ohio State. Like a lot of athletes on both sides in what is already a grudge match, he has a sizable chip on his shoulder.
“They didn’t offer me a scholarship,” he said of the Buckeyes. “I was pretty bitter.”
Only after he had committed to Michigan did Ohio State make an offer. He posted a picture of himself online burning the letter.
Asked if he did that with any other letters, he said, “Just that one.”
It’s not as if it’s only Ohio State’s defense which has a problem. Far from it. Miller is considered one of the nation’s best quarterbacks and a danger to go all the way every time he touches the ball, even though he’s coming off one of his worst games in an unbeaten season.
Meyer takes the blame for that. He said he buttoned up the offense and leaned on the defense when the Buckeyes took a 14-0 lead at Wisconsin last week. As a result, Ohio State foundered when they had the ball throughout the second half.
Wisconsin came back to force overtime, but the Buckeyes scored easily and then held for a 21-14 victory.
“I take (the) fault,” Meyer said. “I was very conservative in the second half of that ballgame. We have to open it up a little bit and we’re going to do that this week.”
Michigan remains on high alert.
Despite the speed he has at the skill positions, Hoke didn’t have anybody to play the role of Miller during practice this week.
“I don’t think we can ever find a guy that can give us the look that you’re going to get from Braxton, his athleticism and the maturity,” he said. “That’s something that’s hard to find when you’re trying to replicate that. The other part about it is he’s surrounded by a great cast.”
A year ago as a callow freshman, Miller almost led an Ohio State team that would finish with a 6-7 record to victory at Michigan. An underthrown pass to a wide-open receiver streaking down the sidelines would have given the Buckeyes the lead in the final minutes of what would be a 40-34 defeat. It was only the second time in a decade that Ohio State left The Game with a loss.
Miller still isn’t mistaken for Peyton Manning, but he is a much improved passer. On top of that, he’s got speed to spare when he turns on the afterburners as he’s leaving the pocket on a scramble.
“He’s throwing the ball better, he’s very elusive,” said Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who was the architect of Meyer’s national-championship defenses at Florida. “He’ll take off running full speed and he’ll stop on a dime. He looks stronger. I thought he was good last time. He’s a very, very good quarterback.”
And he’s not alone out there. The Buckeyes may not have another quarterback with him, but they have tailback Carlos Hyde, with 824 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, and several other threats to spread the workload in Meyer’s hurry-up, spread attack.
“It’s a significantly different offense,” Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said. “It’s an uptempo offense that can run the ball downhill and they have a lot of athletes that they like to get the ball to in space. This year, they put a little bit more speed on the field.”
As the defenses know, that last statement is true for both teams.