Michigan’s offense is better now that Shea Patterson’s leading it, but the main reason the Wolverines are in line to make their first College Football Playoff is just what everyone thought it’d be. A defense that ranked No. 2 in S&P+ in 2015 and 2016 and No. 10 in 2017 is back in the top two this year, jostling with Clemson for the No. 1 spot.
S&P+ says Michigan has about a 60 percent chance to beat Ohio State in Columbus the Saturday after Thanksgiving, following what should be a freebie against Indiana. Big Ten West champ Northwestern stayed close with Michigan earlier this year but really shouldn’t be able to beat the Wolverines in the league title game. So The Game is even more of a massive deal than usual. This time, Don Brown’s defense should push Michigan to a win.
Everything starts with aggression in the secondary.
Aggressive is that offseason buzzword you hear from every defensive coach in America. But it’s the building block for everything Brown does. He’s gonna match up his Jimmies with your Joes, and it’s up to them to find a way to win the matchups. It’s a somewhat pro-style defense in that it’s more matchup-specific than a college defense.
There is little in the way of zone coverage happening here ...
... and that’s the point. From a 2017 clinic talk Brown gave:
Defensive backs are instructed to play press coverage without regard for risk. “We’re going to come up and deny any free access,” Brown said. “You might be a DB, look behind you and say, ‘Holy s—, there’s 90 yards behind me.’”
The aggression works, because Michigan’s secondary is loaded with blue-chips who have developed. Lavert Hill and David Long were both top-12 cornerback recruits in the class of 2016, and both have turned into excellent players. They get valuable help over the top from two upperclass safeties, Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus.
Take a play against Penn State in Week 10. Michigan loves to use its safeties to bracket receivers, forcing them either inside or out. The Wolverines might line up all of their corners in press coverage, but Kinnel or Metellus might start with his hips open, so he can funnel a receiver somewhere the offense would rather he not be forced to go:
Here, Kinnel (circled) carries a vertical route up the field, but he doesn’t turn his back. He keeps his eyes on Trace McSorley and closes fast to escort him out of bounds. And every receiver’s pretty much blanketed in the first place, because Michigan’s corners are good.
Mettelus is a one-man cleanup crew and a true throwback strong safety. This sometimes gets him into trouble, like when he got thrown out of Week 1’s Notre Dame game for targeting. But other times it just makes receivers think twice about going near him.
The secondary makes things easier on the front, and vice versa.
While the back of the defense stays the same most downs, Brown loves to get creative with his front to further throw offenses off balance.
Brown has been a coordinator in plenty of places, but he’s on record saying Michigan allows him to be creative. Creativity isn’t really something we associate with football coaches, but Brown enjoys the freedom, and you can see it in the way he gets rushers to the quarterback, with an emphasis on stunts designed to confuse linemen:
That controlled chaos regularly helps the Wolverines get pressure with only four rushers, which makes all that aggression in the secondary a lot less risky:
But this team does blitz a hearty amount. Brown’s creative in where he brings pressure from, too, like looping his Mike linebacker around to play like an edge rusher:
And, of course, his Wolverines will still just brute-force you from time to time:
The situation for offenses gets even more dire on passing downs, when the Wolverines lean on pass-rush specialist Josh Uche. He leads the team with seven sacks, and a lot of them have come on long passing downs. He’s a nightmare of a speed rusher.
If Michigan’s defensive tackle and edge rusher on the other side of the formation hadn’t collapsed the pocket there, Michigan State’s QB could’ve stepped up and eluded Uche.
Again, look upfield there. Every receiver’s blanketed
With this mix of overwhelming pressure and steadiness at the back, the Wolverines have made it almost impossible to be either efficient or explosive.
The defense is eighth in Marginal Efficiency allowed and seventh in Marginal Explosiveness. Explanations for those stats are here, but in short, Michigan is great at keeping teams off schedule and equally great preventing chunk gains. (Let’s all just agree to pretend the 80-yard TD Rutgers scored against it did not happen. OK?)
Only about one in three carries against Michigan reaches the 5-yard threshold (the third-best rate in the country), and more than one in four doesn’t get beyond the line of scrimmage (the ninth-best rate). The Wolverines have pulled that off despite the best line recruit of recent times, junior Rashan Gary, injuring a shoulder and missing three games.
It helps to have maybe the best linebacker in the country in Devin Bush, whose season might be remembered for a pregame dustup at Michigan State but should be remembered for the kind of brilliant all-around play that can close up holes wherever they appear.
You want run support? Watch Bush, No. 10:
Maybe you’d like to see him in pass coverage?
And you know he can dip a shoulder and get to the quarterback:
Most defenses, even the best ones, have at least one weakness. Michigan sort of does, but it tends to not even matter.
The Wolverines are 110th in Success Rate allowed on plays run inside their own 10. They’re 73rd in points allowed per Scoring Opportunity, giving up 4.6 points per possession when teams do manage to get inside the Michigan 40.
Of course, that’s not often. The Michigan defense starts its average series at the other team’s 24.3, the fourth-best defensive field position in FBS. The average drive against Michigan then goes 18.6 yards before the Wolverines just take the ball back. That’s the second best mark in the country this year and one of the best in S&P+’s history.
This is the list of the shortest average defensive drive lengths since 2005. See if you spot the thread here:
1. 2011 Alabama (15.5 yards)
2. 2008 TCU (16.9)
3. 2008 USC (17.3)
4. 2009 TCU (17.6)
5. 2006 VT (17.6)
6. 2018 Clemson (17.9)
7. 2014 Clemson (18.0)
8. 2009 Texas (18.3
9. 2018 Michigan (18.6)
10. 2007 Ohio State (18.8)
11. 2015 Boston College, also coordinated by Brown (18.8)*
Clemson and Michigan have flip-flopped for first place as the season’s gone along, and we’ll see who settles where. The Wolverine defense is not perfect. But it’s so good that its biggest imperfection is almost irrelevant.