Zach Boren, arms flexed and head cocked, is letting out a yell as he stands over Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner. It’s an iconic photo from Ohio State’s win last year in The Game.
How much it will motivate Gardner in the rivalry’s 110th renewal on Saturday in Michigan Stadium remains to be seen. But for Ohio State defenders, the image of Boren, the senior team leader a year ago, is indelible.
“That was a huge play, Zach coming in and just hitting the crap out of him,” defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “That photo’s really cool.
“But everyone wants that feeling when playing that team up north, getting that big hit on the quarterback and just feeling like you just, I don’t know, dominated them.”
Now check the stats on Gardner and the 2013 Michigan offense. The Wolver-ines lead the nation in tackles for loss allowed. They’ve given up 103, an average of 9.36 per game. That helps explain the lackluster offense in a 7-4 season, including losses in four of the past six games.
Enter linebacker Ryan Shazier and an Ohio State defense that has prided itself on a more-aggressive approach in the latter half of the season. Shazier is coming off a career-high 20-tackle game against Indiana in the No. 3 Buckeyes’ 23rd straight win. He had five tackles for loss.
Talk about a matchup made in tackles-for-loss heaven …
“That sounds good to me, but like every week, we’re always going to get their best,” said Shazier, a finalist for the Butkus Award. “I know they probably gave up a thousand tackles for loss this season, but I know going into this game they’re going to try to give up the least possible.”
What’s “kind of crazy for me is that they’re having struggles, because they have good players on both sides of the ball, especially on the offensive side,” Shazier said, naming Gardner and receiver Jeremy Gallon as examples.
But the Michigan offensive line has been a revolving door of personnel the second half of the season, and defenses have taken advantage by attacking the middle of the front.
“Watching film, they’re a good group of O-linemen,” Bennett said. “I don’t know what motivates them day by day, but I know that they will be motivated against us, so we’ve got to come to play, too.”
Shazier said he knows the OSU defensive front of Bennett, Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence — augmented by Tommy Schutt, Joel Hale, Jamal Marcus and Steve Miller — will be motivated, too.
“They’re doing an amazing job right now,” Shazier said. “Those guys are opening so many lanes for us to run through, they’re making so many plays in the backfield, just causing so much disruption to the offense.
“It makes it easier for the back half of the defense to play, those guys making all that noise in the front.”
Another motivating factor for upperclassmen such as Bennett and himself, Shazier said, will be memories of the last time they played at Michigan, in 2011. They lost 40-34 after leading.
“We had it, and we let it get out of our hands,” Shazier said. “I know that was the first time we lost to them in a while (snapping a seven-game winning streak in The Game), and I don’t plan on losing to them anymore.”