Michigan football: 5 players who need to step up against Ohio State
Michigan, Ohio State meet in top-5 matchup
Michigan and Ohio State are just days away from a matchup that could send one team to the College Football Playoff and dump the other team out of contention.
Michigan football hasn't won a game in Columbus since 2000, and enters this year's matchup as an underdog. What will it take for the Wolverines to pull an upset? Here are five players who need to step up to give Michigan a chance.
We'll start with the most obvious player, as he figures to have the greatest chance to impact the game.
Jabrill Peppers is nationally regarded as one of the best players in college football, but he still hasn't had that huge breakout game on a big stage. All of a sudden, his college career is likely coming to a close, and Saturday could be his last chance to make an impact in a game with national importance.
It's hard to believe that a household name like Peppers, who came to Michigan as a five-star cornerback, hasn't had an interception in his three-year career. Needless to say, Saturday would be a great time to change that.
Fellow Heisman Trophy hopeful J.T. Barrett hasn't had a great season throwing the ball, but his 24 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions gives him one of the best ratios in the nation. If Barrett makes a mistake, Peppers and the secondary have to be ready to capitalize on it and give their struggling offense a short field to work with.
Peppers also has to step up in the rushing game, where Barrett burned Michigan a year ago in the Big House. Barrett is the most dangerous player in the country on third down because he can make plays in the air and improvise with his legs if things break down. Last season, Michigan's inability to stop Barrett was a death sentence. This year, Peppers will be instrumental in changing that tune.
Incredibly, Peppers has even more work to do beyond battling with Barrett on defense. The Wolverines have scored just 33 points in their last two games, and it's unclear if starting quarterback Wilton Speight will return against the Buckeyes. The offense was completely out of sync Saturday with John O'Korn at the helm, so Peppers will have to be a factor in both the running and return games to give Michigan a chance.
Peppers is an elite punt returner and a dangerous offensive weapon, and if he can rip off a couple of explosive plays, that would go a long way toward reviving an offense that has gone flat.
No single player's struggles more closely reflect the offensive slump than Jehu Chesson's. Chesson was named Michigan football team MVP at the postseason banquet a year ago, but his redshirt senior season hasn't been nearly as impressive.
In 11 games, Chesson has just 29 catches for 458 yards and two touchdowns, but his biggest problem has been dropped passes. In Michigan's lone loss against Iowa, Chesson dropped three passes that weren't quite on target, but should have been hauled in by the veteran receiver.
Last year, Chesson was the definition of clutch, catching a touchdown pass from Speight to save the Wolverines in Minnesota and making a diving grab on fourth down against Indiana to extend the game. He caught nine touchdown passes in Michigan's final six games and looked primed for a breakout final season.
But that just hasn't happened.
Chesson is Michigan's best chance to stretch the field and make big plays downfield against a good Ohio State defense. He dominated some of the toughest defensive backs in college football last year and opened up the short passing game for players like Jake Butt and Amara Darboh.
In his final regular season game as a Wolverine, Chesson could put an exclamation point on a solid career by helping Michigan earn a Big Ten East Division title.
On a star-studded Michigan defense that ranks No. 1 in the country in several major categories, Ryan Glasgow is an unsung hero who many fans outside Ann Arbor haven't heard of.
The fifth-year senior is the best run defender on Michigan's defensive line and is having another excellent season clogging up the middle and stuffing opposing running backs. Glasgow has 38 total tackles this season, including eight tackles for loss and three sacks.
Michigan's top-10 rushing defense is largely thanks to the pack of defensive linemen who dominate the line of scrimmage and rack up the tackles for loss. Glasgow's ability to clog up the middle of the line and get into the backfield will never be more important than on Saturday against Ohio State.
Mike Weber is by far Ohio State's most-used running back, earning 166 carries over the team's first 11 games. He is already over 1,000 rushing yards for the season and averages more than six yards per carry.
Michigan fans remember the thrashing Ezekiel Elliot and Barrett put on D.J. Durkin's defense last season, and Glasgow will lead the charge against that kind of attack this year. If he can bottle up Weber and force the Buckeyes to throw the ball from long-yardage situations, Michigan's defense can feast on an inconsistent passing attack.
All season long, Jim Harbaugh has used a deep stable of running backs, but all season long, De'Veon Smith has remained the No. 1 option in terms of carries. Michigan has four running backs with well over 50 carries on the season, but with 144 carries, Smith has almost doubled the rest of his teammates.
Smith doesn't have breakaway speed, and his vision has often left Michigan fans frustrated after missed holes and short gains. But Smith's potential was on full display Saturday against Indiana, when the Wolverines needed it most.
With Michigan trailing late in the third quarter, Smith ripped off a 34-yard run to give the offense its first touchdown and retake the lead for good. On the next offensive possession, Smith's number was called again, and he broke two tackles and danced away from another for a 39-yard score that iced the game.
Chris Evans and Ty Isaac provide Michigan with more explosive options, but Ohio State has more than enough athletes to offset their speed and elusiveness. Smith, on the other hand, gives Michigan another dimension on offense. He's a tough, hard-nosed runner who can help the Wolverines control the pace of the game and keep the Ohio State offense off the field.
Harbaugh will want to turn Saturday into a short, defensive battle that's decided by special teams and field position. He believes Smith is the most reliable running back to carry the offense, so the senior needs to be very productive.
As an All-American cornerback, Jourdan Lewis is always important to Michigan's defense. But as he prepares for the toughest matchup of his college career, his role will be even more crucial against Ohio State.
When fans think about Ohio State, they immediately picture Barrett, who has been in the national spotlight since first winning the starting job in 2014. But Barrett isn't even the best player on his own offense -- that honor belongs to Curtis Samuel.
For Michigan fans who aren't familiar with Samuel, the best way to categorize him might be "Jabrill Peppers if he only played offense." While Peppers only factors into the offense game plan a few times each week, Samuel has been the focal point of the Ohio State offense since its loss at Penn State.
Samuel has 84 carries as a running back and 61 receptions as a wide receiver. Meyer loves to get the athletic junior involved in creative ways, including screen passes and jet sweeps, so Michigan will have to be ready for everything the Buckeyes will throw at them.
Lewis is the best bet to contain Samuel -- at least, as much as possible. He's the top cornerback in the Big Ten and has the speed and fundamental tackling ability to stick with Samuel, unlike most other defenders in the conference.
In an injury-shortened season, Lewis has nine pass breakups and two interceptions -- and that's with opposing offenses mostly avoiding him altogether. When he's lined up against Samuel, Ohio State will not avoid the matchup, and Lewis will have to step up to the challenge. Michigan's offense won't be putting up a huge point total, so Samuel is one of the players the defense needs to contain in order to keep the game close.
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