Maryland football plays Michigan on Saturday in what’ll probably be the Terps’ toughest game of 2016. Drew Hallett from Maize and Brew, SB Nation’s excellent Michigan site, was kind enough to help preview the game for us.
Testudo Times: Michigan's had one of the best defenses, if not the best defense, in the entire country this season. What's improved on that side of the ball? What units are the defense's best? Are there any weaknesses?
Maize and Brew: Michigan has improved at all three defensive position groups this season, which is hard to believe given how strong the defense was last season (2nd in S&P+). The defensive line was the foundation of the unit and punished offensive lines, but, as the season wore on, the line wore down with Bryan Mone, Mario Ojemudia, and Ryan Glasgow suffering season-ending injuries. This season, however, the defensive line is more talented and, more importantly, deeper. Though the Wolverines are led by Glasgow, Chris Wormley, Taco Charlton, and Maurice Hurst, Jr., all of whom could be selected in the early rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, defensive coordinator Don Brown rotates eight or nine defensive linemen with little drop-off, which keeps the defensive line fresh and disruptive for all four quarters.
Also, the pass defense has been just as stingy because Michigan has developed another lockdown cornerback in addition to All-American Jourdan Lewis. Channing Stribling has had a breakout senior season with opposing quarterbacks completing only 10-of-35 passes (28.6%) for 144 yards (4.1 YPA), one touchdown, and three interceptions against him according to Pro Football Focus. That equates to a passer rating of 18.0, which is the third-best among all cornerbacks. Just guess who is tied for first? Lewis, with a rating of 0.0.
However, because the defensive line and secondary were the strengths of Michigan's defense last season and are again this season, that leaves the linebackers as the most improved defensive unit. All three starting linebackers last season -- Joe Bolden, Desmond Morgan, and James Ross III -- graduated, causing fans to fret about the talent and depth Michigan had behind them. The decision to shift Jabrill Pepeprs into a SAM/nickel role mitigated those concerns, but MIKE Ben Gedeon and WILL Mike McCray, Jr. have been pleasant surprises for the Wolverines. With 58 tackles and 8.5 TFL, Gedeon has shown excellent instincts and aggression against the run, and McCray, with 48 tackles and eight TFL, has boasted his skills as a blitzer and ability to blow up plays in the backfield. The defensive line has assisted in the linebackers' surge by keeping them clean as they flow to the ball, but it's been clear that Gedeon and McCray are a step up from their predecessors.
Nonetheless, despite that Michigan's defense is first nationally in a handful of categories and has been performing at a historic level, it does have weaknesses. The biggest one is that Michigan can be vulnerable to uptempo, spread-to-run offenses. The Wolverines maul offenses that take their time, line up in heavy sets, and try to beat them one on one. However, when they are hurrying into their exotic schemes and spread over the field, they are more prone to making mistakes and surrendering explosive plays, particularly on the ground. Under Walt Bell's guidance, Maryland is building a spread-n-shred offense that can be Michigan's kryptonite, so to speak, but it isn't at full capacity yet. The Terrapins have the running backs in Lorenzo Harrison and Ty Johnson to poke holes in Michigan's defense -- Michigan State found some last week -- and break off some long runs, but the tempo isn't fast enough (83rd in adj. pace). However, if Maryland speeds it up, that may be interesting.
TT: What's changed on the other side of the ball? Looking at S&P+, Michigan's rushing attack has made solid improvements, while its passing game seems to have remained just as effective as the Wolverines move from Jake Rudock to Wilton Speight. How's Speight been in his first season as a starter?
MB: I must start by writing that Michigan does not have a juggernaut of an offense that will march long fields or reel off explosive plays. This is an offense that is third in scoring because it starts with excellent field position (1st via S&P+), converts third downs (7th via S&P+), takes care of the football (t-4th in giveaways), and finishes drives with points (9th via S&P+). It is very disciplined and makes few momentous mistakes due to coaching.
The biggest change for Michigan's offense has been the rushing attack, as you noted. Last season, the Wolverines were 43rd in Rushing S&P+ and 79th in YPC. This season, those ranks are 21st and 22nd, respectively. The catalyst of this change has been the right side of Michigan's offensive line. Right guard Kyle Kalis and right tackle Erik Magnuson were just an average tandem in 2015, and, if anything, Kalis often looked lost. This season, though, they have been rock solid and opening large holes for Michigan's quadraback. Yes, I write quadraback because Michigan will hand the ball off to four different running backs, all of whom are on pace to rush for over 500 yards. The two Maryland fans should keep an eye on are DeVeon Smith and Karan Higdon. Smith is Michigan's No. 1 tailback and the one the staff relies on the most. He is a one-cut bruiser, a back that likes to lower his shoulder and carry defenders with him down the field, but lacks the top-end speed to make him a home-run threat. On the other hand, Higdon is more of an all-around back and looks to be the Wolverines' back of the future. He gets low to the ground to burst through holes and shed tacklers and has demonstrated he has a keen eye for the end zone when he is in the open field. Given Maryland is 127th in Rush Defense S&P+, I expect Smith, Higdon, and the other two Wolverine backs (Ty Isaac and Chris Evans) will showcase their skills.
With regards to Wilton Speight, he has been very solid and may be experiencing a second-half rise in his performance. The one thing that Michigan really needed Speight to do was protect the football, and, so far, he has done that, tossing just three interceptions in 207 attempts. In addition, his strengths lie in his pocket presence. Speight isn't very mobile by any means, but, at 6-foot-6, he is a monument that many defenders have slid off of while trying to sack him. His ability to avoid those sacks and keep his eyes down the field have led to very positive plays for Michigan. However, that doesn't mean he hasn't had negative plays because, for a four-game stretch, Speight's intermediate and long throws became very inconsistent as he underthrew lots of them. It left many wondering if Speight could make the plays needed for Michigan to win its bigger games. However, in two games since the bye week, Speight has been much more dialed in and on point, having two of his best three games of the season. If this trend continues, Speight could peak at the perfect time.
TT: So I can't have a Q&A about Michigan without asking about Jabrill Peppers. Has he gotten even better this season, and what's his switch from safety to linebacker looked like?
MB: Jabrill Peppers has been better this season because Michigan fully is utilizing his versatility and many talents. Last season on defense, Peppers mostly played strong safety and nickel with some boundary corner sprinkled in, but, to accomodate this, Michigan often had to make personnel changes based on the offense's formations. That is no longer the case. By shifting Peppers into a SAM/nickel role, Michigan's defensive schemes have become much more fluid. If an offense lines up in a heavy 4-3 set, Peppers will tuck in as a SAM and play close to the line of scrimmage. If an offense spreads out three receivers, Peppers will become the nickel and cover the slot. If the slot receiver motions to the other side and Michigan does not want to reveal whether it is in man or a trap zone coverage, Peppers will slide back to safety as another safety comes down to defend the slot on the other side. Offenses can try to exploit that by creating certain mismatches by getting a safety on a slot, but it's rare that Michigan is caught in a bad position or with the wrong personnel on the field. Then, once you add in that Peppers is an all-world athlete that is a bullet as a blitzer, cannot be blocked in space, brings a ferocious punch to his hits, can adequately cover receivers, and is a weapon with the ball in his hands, you realize he is a special player.
TT: What would the environment in Ann Arbor look like if Michigan somehow lost?
MB: First, the residents of Ann Arbor and the Michigan faithful around the world would need to come out of shock because, with the Wolverines as 31-point favorites, a comfortable win is expected. Once that shock had subsided, they would be quite alarmed with some disappointment and frustration settling in, too. I do not think the disappointment and frustration would be as prevalent (ah, silly me, of course it would) because, even with a loss to Maryland, Michigan would still control its destiny in the Big Ten. However, the alarm would be at DEFCON 1 because much needs to go wrong for the Wolverines to lose and a loss would be an indictment of their ability to win out and get back in prime playoff position.
As for what would go wrong ...
TT: If Michigan were to lose, what would have to go wrong?
MB: 1. Michigan loses the turnover battle by a significant margin. However, this seems unlikely. Michigan is plus-7 for the season and has had a negative turnover margin in only one game (minus-1 vs. Colorado), while Maryland is minus-7 in its five Big Ten games. Nonetheless, if the Terrapins force Wilton Speight to commit numerous errors and receive excellent field position in the process, their offense will have an opportunity to put up enough points.
2. Lorenzo Harrison and Ty Johnson shred Michigan. Maryland's passing game relies heavily on screens, but it's unlikely those will be successful against the likes of Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis. However, those screens -- and other offensive elements -- will open up if Harrison and Johnson follow their blocks to the left side and find lanes. If they are able to keep Maryland ahead of the chains and put the Terps in manageable third-down situations, Michigan will be forced to make adjustments and leave itself vulnerable elsewhere. This is the one area where they must succeed to have any chance of winning.
3. Maryland stuffs Michigan's running backs. The Terrapins won't force Speight to make mistakes if he isn't forced to throw the ball. Given that Jim Harbaugh very likely will want to feed his running backs against Maryland all game long, that won't happen unless Maryland can put Michigan in clear passing situations, which means actually acting as some sort of obstacle against the run. Michigan may run a "manball" offense, but this won't be just a power-counter-power-counter repeat. Harbaugh constructs top-notch running schemes and fits that vary and play off each other every week. This makes it quite a challenge to defend. Nonetheless, Maryland's defense has to be ready for that challenge to battle Michigan.
TT: Prediction time. Who wins, and why?
MB: The spread is a bit too high for my liking. Michigan as a 30-plus-point favorite against Purdue, Rutgers, or Illinois makes sense. Michigan as a 31-point favorite against Maryland does not. The Terps are not a walkover, and I wouldn't be surprised if Michigan felt a tiny rivalry hangover after its win versus MSU. The duo of Lorenzo Harrison and Ty Johnson will test Michigan, using their big-play ability to propel Maryland to two touchdowns. However, the Wolverines will run the ball down Maryland's throat, and that will be all she wrote.