ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Michigan fans have seen the same story play out against Ohio State countless times.
Since the arrival of Jim Harbaugh, and even during the Lloyd Carr years, Michigan has gone into the game against Ohio State with some of the best defenses in the country.
Harbaugh took over as Michigan's head coach before the 2015 season. In his first year, with D.J. Durkin as defensive coordinator, the Wolverines had the No. 4 total defense in the country. In the past three seasons under Don Brown, Michigan has posted the No. 1 total defense, the No. 3 total defense and now the No. 1 total defense again in 2018.
The Wolverines have ridden those defenses to a 38-12 record under Harbaugh, but they haven't been able to get over the hump.
The main reason is Ohio State.
OSU's rushing quarterbacks
Since Troy Smith won a Heisman Trophy in 2006 as a dual-threat quarterback, the Buckeyes have molded their offenses around quarterbacks who can pass and run.
Terrelle Pryor rushed for 2,164 yards in three seasons at Ohio State, including 74 yards against Michigan in 2009 and 49 yards in 2010.
Braxton Miller brought more of the same to Columbus, running for 715 yards as the starting quarterback in 2011, 1,271 yards in 2012 and 1.068 yards in 2013. He ran the ball 16 times for 100 yards and a touchdown against Michigan in 2011 and 20 times for 57 yards in 2012. In 2013, he almost single-handedly kept Ohio state in the game against Michigan, rushing for 153 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries.
In four years as Ohio State's quarterback, J.T. Barrett rushed for 938 yards, 682 yards, 845 yards and 798 yards. He destroyed Michigan with his legs, rushing for 89 yards and two touchdowns in 2014 before suffering a season-ending injury, 139 yards and three touchdowns in 2015, 125 yards and a touchdown in 2016 and 60 yards and a touchdown last season.
He rushed for a total of 413 yards and seven touchdowns on 83 carries in his career against Michigan.
Dwayne Haskins as a runner
This season's offense has taken on a much different look in Columbus, as Dwayne Haskins has only 56 carries for 93 yards through 11 games.
He's an elite passer, completing 69.3 percent of his attempts for 3,685 yards, 36 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Haskins doesn't run often, but he might do so against Michigan.
When he took over for Barrett last season at Michigan Stadium, Haskins only ran the ball three times, but he did so effectively, gaining 24 yards. One critical run came on a second and seven from the 23-yard line, and Haskins scampered 22 yards to the 1-yard line to set up a touchdown that turned Michigan's 20-14 lead into a deficit it would never overcome.
The Heisman Trophy candidate isn't running very often this season, but that's because he hasn't had to. Ohio State cruised through most of its schedule before running into some tricky games down the stretch.
Last week, Ohio State was a two-point conversion away from losing to Maryland in overtime. Though it wasn't an impressive showing for the Buckeyes, they laid the groundwork for what could be a more active Haskins against Michigan.
Haskins ran the ball a career-high 15 times against Maryland, picking up 59 yards and three touchdowns. He prefers to pass, but against Michigan's No. 1-ranked pass defense, Haskins might resort to what's worked for the Buckeyes in this rivalry for more than a decade.
Michigan defending mobile quarterbacks
Mobile quarterbacks have been the one thorn in Brown's side at Michigan, from Barrett's impressive outings to Trace McSorley's 76-yard, three-touchdown explosion last season to Indiana's effort a week ago.
In Michigan's only loss, Brandon Wimbush led Notre Dame with 59 rushing yards on 19 carries. While the rushing total wasn't massive, Wimbush devastated the Wolverines with timely runs, converting on two third downs and a fourth down on scoring drives. He also converted a third and 18 with a 22-yard run on a drive that eventually ended with a field goal.
Wimbush's legs were the difference for a Notre Dame offense that put together four impressive drives against Michigan.
Brown made adjustments, and dual-threat quarterbacks such as Adrian Martinez, of Nebraska, Brian Lewerke, of Michigan State, and McSorley were all held to negative rushing yards. It's no coincidence Michigan dominated all three contests, winning by a combined score of 119-24.
But there were some red flags raised last week against Indiana. It was Michigan's first poor defensive performance in Big Ten play, as it allowed 385 total yards.
Peyton Ramsey's running ability played a major role in Indiana's offensive attack. He ran for 68 yards on five quarterback runs for an average of 13.6 yards per carry. (He was sacked twice for a loss of 17 yards, which lowered his official rushing total for the game.)
Ramsey proved that running quarterbacks are still Michigan's defensive kryptonite. In the two games in which Michigan allowed the opposing quarterback to run for more than 50 yards, it suffered its only loss and struggled to beat a 5-6 team.
Neither Wimbush nor Ramsey are on the same level as Haskins in terms of passing efficiency, which could open the door even wider for him to gain yardage on the ground.
How Michigan can combat quarterback runs
Michigan's strategy against Martinez, Lewerke and McSorley was simple: Let Devin Bush and Josh Ross contain the quarterbacks and get pressure without committing too many blitzers.
While Michigan's defensive line can get pressure on its own, that not only forces mistakes and turnovers, it also puts the offense in long second and third down situations.
Bush and Ross are fast linebackers who can get to the edge to cut off ball carriers, and they can also make tackles in the open field. Those are critical components of containing scrambling quarterbacks.
Michigan has the best secondary in the country, and that can often lead to more quarterback runs if the line can't get to the quarterback. If Haskins doesn't have any options open downfield, Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary and company need to bring him down, or else he will take off with many of Michigan's defenders deep in coverage.
Ohio State's offensive line has been solid in terms of protecting Haskins this season, allowing just 16 sacks in 11 games. For reference, Michigan has allowed 15 sacks in 11 games.
Brown knows he needs to get pressure on Haskins and finish sacks before he can escape the pocket. If he does escape, Bush and Ross need to make sure Haskins doesn't rip off a huge run.
One other player to keep an eye on is backup quarterback Tate Martell, who has already played in five games this season, so there's no reason for Urban Meyer to hold him out of the Michigan game for redshirt purposes.
Martell is a good passer, but he's more of a prototypical Ohio State quarterback from the last 15 years. Against Michigan State and Maryland, he was brought in as a running option, getting one carry in each.
On the season, Martell has attempted 28 passes and 20 runs. He torched Rutgers for 95 yard and a touchdown on eight carries, but he's been mostly quiet since that blowout.
If Meyer has something up his sleeve involving Martell, it will come out against Michigan.
What's on the line
This is probably the best Michigan football team since 2006, when the Wolverines went into Columbus as the No. 2 team in the country.
In 2016, No. 3 Michigan and No. 2 Ohio State squared off in the Horseshoe, but that wasn't a complete Wolverines team because of the weakness at quarterback and offensive line.
This year's team has an elite defense, a steadily improving offense and playmakers at every position.
If Michigan wins, it will play Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game. It would be the first conference title game in program history and an opportunity for Michigan to play its way into the College Football Playoff.
Ohio State is enormously talented, but Michigan has been a better team since September. If the Wolverines can contain the quarterback runs, they have a great chance.
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