Every Thursday during football season, we'll be reaching out to opponent SB Nation sites or opponent beat writers to give readers another perspective on Saturday's upcoming game.
This week, No. 13 Northwestern is in Ann Arbor to take on the 18th-ranked Michigan Wolverines (2:30 p.m. CT, Big Ten Network). It's one of the biggest games of Week 6 in college football. To help get you prepared, Drew Hallett of SB Nation Michigan site Maize N Brew takes our questions.
INU: One of the biggest—if not the biggest—storylines of the offseason was Jim Harbaugh coming back to coach at his alma mater. Everything from his khakis to his shirtless coaching to his fiery demeanor seems to have re-energized the program. What specifically has Harbaugh done both on and off the field since getting to Ann Arbor to revitalize it? What's the biggest difference between Harbaugh and Hoke?
DH: This is over-simplifying it, but there are two distinct differences between Jim Harbaugh and Brady Hoke that have revitalized the Wolverines on and off the field.
The first is that Harbaugh has assembled a staff that better understands how to adapt its schemes to the personnel it has and develop its personnel within those schemes. Hoke was an excellent recruiter, but his staff didn't know how to develop that raw talent or use it properly.
There are numerous examples of this on the offensive side of the ball, but one of the best examples is what happened to former Michigan cornerback Blake Countess. In 2013, Michigan used lots of zone coverage, in which Countess thrived because he was adept at baiting quarterbacks into throwing at zones he had covered. The result was six interceptions and an All-Big Ten first team spot. In 2014, U-M opted to shift to press man coverage, hoping that an aggressive scheme would lead to a more-disruptive defense. However, the assistant tasked with teaching U-M's corners how to execute in press man was Roy Manning, who was Michigan's linebackers coach in 2013 and never before had coached corners. It was a disaster. Countess regressed from an All-Big Ten first-teamer into burnt toast and was demoted to nickel. It was sad to see.
This season, Michigan has employed a press man scheme once again, but it is being taught by assistants Greg Jackson and Mike Zordich, both of whom have spent multiple years coaching defensive backs in the NFL. And the results have been spectacular. Jourdan Lewis has become one of the nation's top cover corners, and former reserves Channing Stribling, Jeremy Clark, and Delano Hill have experienced tremendous growth. Accordingly, Michigan's pass defense has leapt from 45th in 2014 to second in 2015 per S&P+. Great assistants make that much of a difference.
The second difference is the attitude in Schembechler Hall. When Hoke was the head coach, he spoke often about instilling toughness in his players and returning the Wolverines to their former, power-football glory. But there were reports that Hoke was talking more than he was instilling. This hasn't been a problem with Harbaugh. Everything inside the program has been more intense and focused on football. Practices have been longer and more demanding. Everything is a competition. And there is no such thing as entitlement. Everything must be earned. Plus, football consumes every waking — and some sleeping — thought of Harbaugh's mind, and that personality trickles down to the players. The result is a more focused, disciplined, and intense outfit that seeks victory. That has been evident through five contests.
INU: Jake Rudock has been far from perfect, but at least on paper, he has improved since his three-interception Michigan debut against Utah. What does the senior transfer bring to the table, and what's been different since that first outing?
DH: Rudock has actually regressed since his three-interception effort against Utah. No, three interceptions are not laudable — though one was not his fault — but what shined through was his confidence and decisiveness. He made quick reads and strong throws and was the main reason that Michigan was able to move the football down the field against the better-than-expected Utes. However, since then, I think the turnovers have chipped away at his confidence. He has begun to second-guess himself and what he sees on the field. This is why Rudock has struggled with his progressions after the first read and often is late with his throws. He's too afraid to make another costly mistake, which, in turn, leads to him making costly mistakes.
As for what Rudock brings to the table, he is a game manager. Pure and simple. He has not been asked to win games for Michigan. Just not to lose them. Rudock won't take many shots over the top, and, even when he does, he has yet to connect on one. He has overthrown an open receiver downfield at least five times, including once last week against Maryland. Michigan's pass offense relies on the shorter stuff, whether it is hitches, slants, outs, and screens. Even then, Rudock's accuracy has been suspect. He'll complete those passes, but, sometimes, he's not throwing them at a receiver's numbers. Instead, the pass is too low or behind the receiver, which takes the receiver off of his feet and erases potential yards after the catch. However, I will say that Rudock has great pocket presence — it helps that U-M's adjusted sack rate is seventh in the nation — and he can surprise defenses with some lengthy scrambles.
INU: Jake Butt has been really good this year, already nearing the 21 catches he recorded last year (he has 19 so far) and already having surpassed last year's yardage total, and on the outside Rudock has two outstanding athletes in Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. Northwestern's pass defense has been terrific this year though, ranking seventh in passing yards allowed despite possessing second half leads. It also ranks third in yards allowed per attempt. How will Michigan plan to attack this sturdy defensive secondary?
DH: Michigan likely will settle for the underneath stuff. As I noted above, Rudock doesn't take many shots downfield. There will be lots of shallow patterns for Amara Darboh, Jake Butt, and Jehu Chesson, all of whom have been targeted over 20 times while no other Wolverine has been thrown to more than 10 times. Darboh is a big-bodied receiver that boxes out defenders on slants and hitches. He doesn't have the burners to beat defenders over the top, but he has enough to be effective on flanker screens. He also has great hands, as evidenced by the one-handed, Odell Beckham, Jr.-esque grab he had against BYU. Butt is one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the country, and Rudock likes to check down to him on outs and crossing patterns. And Chesson has the speed to be a vertical threat, but he struggles to adjust to the flight of the ball and make the catch.
Will this year be different?
Will this year be different?
Michigan will try to connect with these three on shorter routes and hope they can break some tackles and accumulate enough yards after the catch. However, it most likely will be lots of dink and dunk for Michigan's pass offense. I will say, though, that Jim Harbaugh tinkers with his offense each week and adds new things that defenses haven't seen. Last week, he called a beautiful play where it seemed Rudock would fire deep, causing Maryland's secondary to bail. But it was all a setup for a delayed tight end screen to Jake Butt, who had three linemen pave the way for him down the sideline for a 44-yard gain. Harbaugh will have something up his sleeve.
INU: De'Veon Smith should be back and ready to lead an impressive rushing attack that ranks 29th in the nation in total yards. How will Michigan divvy up its carries among he, Ty Isaac and others, and what's a reasonable run/pass balance to expect from the Wolverines?
DH: The two Michigan running backs that Northwestern fans will need to know are De'Veon Smith and Drake Johnson — not Ty Isaac. Smith has been Michigan's feature back this season, carrying the ball 69 times (nice) for 331 yards (4.8 YPC) and four touchdowns. Smith is a bruiser of a running back. He'd rather run through a defender than around him, and he has the strength and lower body to shed tackles and churn out extra yards after contact. Harbaugh loves this brash style from Smith. However, Smith has his flaws. He lacks top-end speed, so, if he breaks a long run, either Michigan's offensive line dominated the point of attack or something went really wrong for the defense. Also, Smith sometimes is so keen to barrel up the middle that he doesn't have the patience to permit a lane to open or the vision to see a backside gap. Assuming Smith is back, he'll receive about two-thirds of the carries.
Johnson will be the second back, not Isaac. Both were competing to be Smith's sidekick, but that was settled last week against Maryland when Johnson had two impressive runs en route to a 13-carry, 68-rushing-yard, two-total-touchdown day and Isaac put the ball on the turf twice. Johnson was Michigan's most impressive back at the end of 2014 before he suffered his second ACL injury. He didn't practice at full speed until the end of fall camp, so he's been shaking off the rust for the past month. However, after last week's performance, he seems to have returned to form. Johnson complements Smith well because he is a one-cut-and-go type of back that is more explosive and owns the vision to hit the backside. And, because Northwestern is susceptible to allowing long runs, NU should fear Johnson more than Smith. But both will be the key for Michigan on Saturday. If U-M can't run the ball, it won't win.
INU: In some really unfortunate news, Michigan lost defensive end/linebacker Mario Ojemudia to an Achilles injury. How does this impact the Wolverines' defense, who will replace him, and what do his replacements bring to the table skillset-wise?
DH: There is no denying that this is a big loss for Michigan's defense. The defensive line has been exceptional this season, and the main reason for that was its depth. The Wolverines have been rotating seven players in that unit, all of whom are talented and capable of starting in the Big Ten. This has allowed the line to remain fresh and wear down offensive lines late in games. However, the one spot on the line where there had been little to no rotation was at BUCK - the term for Michigan's hybrid weakside end-linebacker — where Mario Ojemudia was stationed. And Ojemudia had been playing some of the best football of his career there in recent weeks, tallying tackles for loss (six in five games) and holding the edge. His absence will be noticed.
But I don't think that there will be a drastic drop-off in production from the BUCK. Ojemudia's replacement will be Royce Jenkins-Stone, with hyped redshirt frosh Lawrence Marshall moving into the No. 2 spot on the depth chart. Jenkins-Stone is a senior that has been more of a contributor on special teams than on defense during his career. However, when Jenkins-Stone has relieved Ojemudia at BUCK this year, he has played well. When I reviewed the Michigan-Maryland film, I paid extra attention to him after Ojemudia exited with his Achilles injury. There was one play when a stunt sprung Jenkins-Stone free into the backfield, forcing the quarterback to flee to his right and scramble for a minimal gain on third down. There was another when Maryland tried to option him off, but he formed up and then combined with another Wolverine to make the tackle for no gain. This was encouraging to see. This is what Michigan needs from its BUCK — not a speed rusher, but a player that holds the edge, forcing runs back into the teeth of the defense, and can pressure on stunts. I'm sure Jenkins-Stone will err more than Ojemudia, but U-M's defense will be fine.
INU: Jabrill Peppers leads a very talented defensive backfield that ranks second in the nation in pass yards per attempt. What makes Peppers so good, and who are the guys around him in the secondary that make this unit, like Northwestern's, so tough?
DH: Michigan's pass defense starts up front, where the defensive line has been disruptive and rattled the quarterbacks it has faced. When defensive tackles like Ryan Glasgow, Maurice Hurst, Jr., Willie Henry, and Chris Wormley are exploding off the ball at the snap and shooting into the pocket, it helps the secondary quite a bit.
But, as I indicated in my response to your first question, the defensive backs have been much better this season than last. Michigan prefers to play a two- or one-man under with the corners pressing the receivers and throws in an occasional Cover 3. This has worked because Michigan's corners are exceptional at jamming receivers at the line and trailing them in man coverage. Even though he hauled in his first pick of the season only last week, Jourdan Lewis is one of the nation's best cover corners. According to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks have completed only 23.1 percent of their passes when they target Lewis. That is utterly insane. Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark are lankier cornerbacks with length that compensates for their agility. Stribling likely is the better corner, but Clark leads the roster with three picks. And then there is Jabrill Peppers, whose world-class athleticism makes him a weapon as Michigan's hybrid-space player. Though he's a better cover corner when outside, his ability as a blitzer and screen destroyer from the slot is too good to let go to waste. Oh, and I have little to say about safeties Jarrod Wilson and Delano Hill because teams haven't tested them over the middle. It has been a boring first five games for them.
INU: Prediction time. It might be #M00N 2.0. Who wins and why?
DH: Saturday's showdown between No. 13 Northwestern and No. 18 Michigan will be decided in three areas: the run offenses, special teams, and turnovers. We can talk about the quarterbacks, but, honestly, neither Jake Rudock nor Clayton Thorson will find success against the nation's No. 7 and No. 2 pass defenses according to S&P+, respectively. Their purpose will be to convert on third downs and not throw picks.
However, Michigan has the advantage on the ground. Michigan is 30th in rushing offense and fifth in rushing defense according to S&P+, while Northwestern is 85th and 50th in those two categories, respectively. The Wildcats run the ball all the time but need big plays to get moving, and, unless Justin Jackson and Thorson can expose Royce-Jenkins Stone on the edge, that won't happen against Michigan. And, because Michigan is deep on the line, Northwestern's fast tempo shouldn't wear them down.
On the other hand, while I think De'Veon Smith will have a tough time against NU's front and budding star Anthony Walker, Drake Johnson will be in for a big game. The Wildcats are prone to allowing longer runs, and Johnson has the vision and speed to see those holes and burst through them. I think he'll be the difference in this game.
Additionally, this will be a low-scoring contest, which makes special teams and field position critical. Michigan also seems to have the advantage here as the Wolverines have had some of the best average field position in the nation, while Northwestern has had some of the worst. Add in that Michigan is at home, and U-M has the edge.
Prediction: Michigan 13, Northwestern 6