Ohio State poses toughest test by far for Michigan football's No. 1 defense

Wolverines allow fewest yards per game in country

Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown has become a household name for college football fans after putting together another elite unit under coach Jim Harbaugh.

In his first two years at Michigan, Brown's defense was ranked No. 1 in the country in 2016 and No. 3 in the country in 2017. This season, his defense is back at the top by a wide margin.

The Wolverines allow just 234.8 yards per game, 19.6 fewer than Clemson, which owns the No. 2 defense in the land.

No matter how you break down the numbers, Michigan's defense is elite. It's one of only two units in the country that allows fewer than 4 yards per play. It's No. 1 in the country against the pass and No. 14 against the run.

How Michigan shuts down passing attacks

In particular, Michigan's pass defense has been phenomenal. Brown has put together the perfect formula to shut down opposing quarterbacks.

It starts up front, where Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary and the rest of the defensive line can get pressure and force quarterbacks to throw before they want to. On obvious passing downs, Brown inserts two additional edge rushers on the inside of the line: Kwity Paye and Josh Uche.

Chase Winovich celebrates during a game against Rutgers at HighPoint.com Stadium on Nov. 10, 2018, in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Corey Perrine/Getty Images)

It's difficult for quarterbacks to set their feet and throw comfortably against Michigan. Often they're fleeing the pocket before routes can fully develop, and if they do have enough time to survey the field, Michigan has excellent cornerbacks that force throws to be perfect.

David Long has graded out as one of the best cornerbacks in the nation this season. According to Pro Football Focus, Long leads the country in passer rating when targeted and yards allowed per coverage snap.

He's coming off a 2017 season, in which he allowed the lowest passer rating when targeted among cornerbacks in PFF history.

It's difficult to appreciate just how dominant Long has been because quarterbacks have largely stopped throwing in his direction. Luckily for Brown, he has another elite cornerback on the other side of the field.

Lavert Hill has the fifth lowest passer rating when targeted and fourth fewest yards allowed per coverage snap.

Lavert Hill, Josh Metellus and Chase Winovich celebrate during Michigan's win over Nebraska. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

That suggests Michigan has two of the top five cornerbacks in the country.

It almost seems like overkill that Michigan's third cornerback, Brandon Watson, leads the team with three interceptions -- tied with Josh Metellus -- and returned two of them for touchdowns.

Due to Michigan's elite combination of pressure of front and suffocating man-to-man coverage, opponents need to be excellent along the offensive line and accurate on their passes to move the ball through the air.

Not many teams can pull that off on a consistent level.

Ohio State's pass game

Ohio State is one of the teams that can execute at an elite level in the passing game.

The Buckeyes have been forced to convert to a pass-first offense this season because of struggles in the running game, and it's a testament to Dwayne Haskins that the offense is still among the nation's best.

The first-year starter has ridiculous numbers, completing 69.3 percent of his passes for 3,685 yards, 36 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 11 games.

There's so much talk around the nation about Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa, Oklahoma's Kyler Murray, West Virginia's Will Grier and Washington State's Gardner Minshew -- and rightfully so -- but Haskins belongs in that group, as well.

Dwayne Haskins #7 of the Ohio State Buckeyes throws a pass in the second quarter of the game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Ohio Stadium on September 8, 2018 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

As a redshirt sophomore, Haskins has taken over a mostly one-dimensional offense and gained the second-most yard per game in the country behind Oklahoma. The Buckeyes are top 10 in scoring and No. 2 overall with 363.5 passing yards per game.

Brown hasn't seen a passing attack in the same stratosphere as Ohio State's this season.

SMU has the No. 31 passing offense in the nation, and the Mustangs passed for more than 200 yards against Michigan. Notre Dame and Indiana, which both rank in the top 50 in passing offense, failed to reach 200 passing yards against the Wolverines.

Michigan has faced as many passing offenses outside the top 100 nationally as it has passing attacks in the top 50.

Haskins has thrown for more than 400 yards four times this season and only been held below 300 yards four times. It's a perfect example of strength against strength, and it's the first time Michigan will be tested by a top-tier passer.

Both teams will pull out all the stops for "The Game," so in some ways, the previous numbers can be thrown out the window. But there's a good chance by the time Saturday afternoon arrives, the Big Ten East Division title will be decided by who makes plays when Haskins drops back to pass.

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