Ohio State football: Buckeyes always mindful of Wolverines

COLUMBUS -- A sure sign of the health of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry’s health came this week when the Wolverines were the subject of about as many questions as Indiana.

The Hoosiers are next on the docket Saturday, but the Wolverines are always on the minds of the Buckeyes. The Game is slated for Nov. 26.

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That has been the mantra for two decades (since Jim Tressel arrived to reverse a negative trend for Ohio State), but it is most likely more true this year after the beating Michigan handed out last season in Ann Arbor.

“What we say around here is we live it every day — working at it every day of the year,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said this week. “We have to focus on beating Indiana this week, but the way that we approach it is we’re working on that game every day of the year.”

In recent seasons as Ohio State dominated, the philosophy may have been more big picture.

This season, there is a feeling that it is more literal given Michigan having snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Buckeyes last season with a 42-27 victory.

The defense is especially on notice after giving up 297 yards on the ground to the Wolverines.

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While Jim Knowles was brought in to fix that unit in full, the road to the Big Ten Championship Game will require a much better showing than Ohio State made against Michigan last season.

And Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines offer a unique challenge.

Knowles’ 4-2-5 base defense — with a true defensive back as the fifth player in the secondary rather than an athletic linebacker, as is more common — is built more to stop the high-powered passing attacks that most national championship contenders have possessed for the better part of 15 years.

Michigan made the College Football Playoff last season with a run-first attack, though, and the Wolverines are back at it this year with an undefeated team that has been grinding opponents down first then going to the air when necessary.

Knowles is known for having a plan to stop any type of offense, and he is not afraid of making significant changes to his game plan for a given opponent.

Where that is particularly relevant this week is that he says he likes to put in new things before they are needed.

That means, in a throwback to the days of Woody Hayes when the Ohio State coach was said to use weeks against weaker opponents to prepare for the Wolverines, what the Buckeyes do this week could really be preparing for Michigan even if it is not specifically stated.

“I think we’ve adjusted the system to be able to handle some things that you get in the Big Ten,” Knowles said. “Never good enough. I mean, there’s always room for growth and we’re working on it. Taking from every opportunity we get to get better, but I think it’s gone smoothly so far.”

That could include using a 4-3 alignment with three true linebackers more, something Ohio State has done sparingly this season.

Knowles likes to stay with his base defense as much as possible as it includes a greater variety of defensive calls he can make.

“You have to work on it, and you’d like to have some change-ups off of it, too, so you’re not just doing the same thing when that personnel group is in there,” Knowles said. “But it’s definitely something you got to practice and then it becomes, ‘How much do I need to use it?’ based on what kind of success they’re having against the base because you’d rather stay in base because the base gives you more options.”

Ohio State safety Ronnie Hickman did not give away any secrets Wednesday night, but he confirmed the Buckeyes have practiced things that haven’t made it into the Saturday game plan yet, and he said he likes getting a preview.

“Yeah, just to get it in early, just so at the time when we need to use it, it’s not something that we’ve never seen before, never ran before,” Hickman said. “So I think it’s good just to kind of sprinkle it in throughout the weeks.”

SATURDAY’S GAME

Indiana at Ohio State, Noon, Fox, 1410

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