‘Big Branch’

A maize and blue Branch is poised to fall on the Buckeyes.

When No. 1 Ohio State (11-0) meets No. 2 Michigan (11-0) today in the ultimate showdown between college football’s ultimate rivals most of the pre- and postgame talk is certain to be focused on high-profile playmakers like the Buckeyes’ Cleveland connection of Heisman candidates Troy Smith and Ted Ginn Jr., and Michigan’s touchdown trio of tailback Mike Hart and wideouts Mario Manningham and Steve Breaston.

Even if the ABC broadcast bunch of Brent Musburger, Kirk Herbstreit and Bob Davie deign to talk a little defense, chances are they’ll concentrate on stat sheet-stuffing standouts like Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis (91 tackles), Michigan sack master LaMarr Woodley (15 tackles for loss) or Wolverines’ cornerback Leon Hall (15 passes broken up and three interceptions).

But the biggest man on the field this afternoon might also have the biggest impact on the game’s outcome. Because Michigan’s superb defense, a stop squad perhaps better against the run than any unit the college game has seen in nearly 50 years, is built around defensive tackle Alan Branch, Michigan’s 6-foot-6, 331-pound mobile mountain in the middle.

“That guy just killed us,” Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said after Branch obliterated the Irish offensive interior in Michigan’s 47-21 victory over Notre Dame in South Bend two months ago. “He’s a serious handful.”

If Branch merely held his ground in the center of the Michigan defense which is yielding just 29.9 rushing yards a game (the fewest allowed since Syracuse gave up 19.3 in 1959), his enormous frame would make him a daunting defender. The junior from Rio Rancho, N.M., routinely draws double teams from opposing offenses, leaving players like senior defensive end Woodley and linebackers David Harris (13 tackles for loss), Shawn Crable (111/2 tackles for loss) and Prescott Burgess (61/2 tackles for loss) to make plays and pad their statistical resumes.

“Big Branch tends to attract some attention, and that makes life a little easier for the rest of us,” Woodley said recently.

But “Big Branch” can also move, really move, and that makes life a whole lot harder for opposing offenses.

How quick is Branch? He’s quick and agile enough that he played some point guard in high school, averaging 13.0 points and 6.0 assists as a senior at Cibola High School. “Big Branch” likes to tease Breaston, the Big Ten’s all-time leading punt returner, that he should be receiving punts for the Wolverines. Why? Because Branch is quick and agile enough that he returned five punts for touchdowns during his high school career.

“When I first saw film of Alan, I realized he was very, very special,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “The first play on the tape he was lined up in the backfield, at 6-6, 300-something, and he runs past, over and through people for like a 35-yard touchdown.”

Branch was recruited to Michigan by first-year defensive coordinator Ron English, who discovered the mammoth prospect while serving as the defensive backs coach at Arizona State. And when the entire recruiting world found Cibola during the mega-prospect’s senior season, Branch stayed loyal to English, following the defensive coach to Michigan.

In Ann Arbor, the pair have progressed together. After Michigan allowed a galling 137.3 rushing yards a season during last year’s 7-5 debacle, English was promoted from secondary coach to defensive coordinator. And Branch has developed into perhaps the game’s premier defensive tackle, his 21 tackles, two sacks and five tackles for loss this season belying his import to the team.

“The key to their front seven is Branch,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said after the Wolverines held Wisconsin freshman sensation P.J. Hall to a season-low 54 rushing yards on 20 carries in a 27-13 victory over the Badgers earlier this season. “He really disrupts your continuity inside, whether it be the middle rush or trying to establish a decent pocket and throwing lane.”

That’s unlikely to stop the Buckeyes from testing the Wolverines up the gut this afternoon at the Horseshoe. After all, Smith and Ohio State tailback Antonio Pittman have gouged Michigan on the ground en route to posting back-to-back victories in college football’s most heated rivalry.

“I give them credit. They are good. I have watched them on film and people can not really run the ball on them,” Ohio State senior guard T.J. Downing said. “But I think we have the best tailback in the country, and we are going to strap it up and see if we can get some yards.”

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