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Opponent Defensive Preview: Michigan Wolverines

For all the marbles

Ohio State v Michigan Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This is it Husky Fans.

Game #15 to win it all comes on Monday down in Houston, TX, 32 years and one week to the day since the Don James-led 1991 team played in the Rose Bowl to earn us our last national championship. Monday’s National Championship Game will be the long-awaited return to the mountain top for two programs that have a tradition of excellence, a deep shared history, and periods spent wandering the wilderness since their last great program-defining head coaches.

Under their current head coaches, both teams have adopted clear identities that define their play styles and cultures. UW has been defined under Kalen DeBoer by its high-flying passing attack, led by Michael Penix Jr., a deep WR corps, and an excellent, if underrated offensive line. Michigan on the other hand has been defined by a physical throwback style of play under Jim Harbaugh where aggressive defense and a strong run game are their preferred recipe for success. Styles make fights, and Michigan’s defense versus UW’s offense will be a deciding factor in the game.

Let’s take a closer look at this matchup.

The Scheme & Personnel

Rose Bowl Game - Alabama v Michigan Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images

For the entirety of Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan, the Wolverine defense has had talented players and played an aggressive style of defense, but there’s more nuance to it. Early on under former DC Don Brown, Michigan played a simplistic, and arguably overly aggressive man-blitz scheme. Those defenses were often at the top of defensive statistical categories, but once Michigan played tougher, more talented opponents late in the year, like Ohio State, there were clear schematic weaknesses that could be exploited by opposing offenses.

To take the next step, Harbaugh shook things up in 2021 by bringing in Mike MacDonald from his brother’s Baltimore Ravens staff to revamp their defensive scheme. Under MacDonald, and now DC Jesse Minter (another former Baltimore Ravens assistant), the Wolverines maintained the aggressive style of defense, but they became more varied in their coverages and took more calculated risks than in the past. By dialing back on Cover 1 or Cover 0 man looks, the Wolverines are able to mix in more simulated pressures and zone blitzes that utilize the NFL-style strategy of moving around your best and most versatile players. Unlike in past years, Michigan does not have one dominant pass rusher to focus on neutralizing, and instead they lean on these simulated pressure and zone blitz concepts to get various LBs and DBs involved.

The two key players that make this strategy work are CB Will Johnson and DB Mike Sainristil. Johnson has been a shutdown CB for the Wolverines, and his ability to regularly play on an island and shadow the best opposing WR has allowed them to focus the rest of the defense’s attention elsewhere and unlock better coverage disguises. Sainristil has been their defense’s moveable chess piece. He primarily plays in the slot as a nickel defender, but he has the versatility to play off ball, deep at safety, in 1v1 man coverage, and blitz.

Against Alabama, Michigan leaned on 5-man defensive fronts that utilized three down defensive linemen and a mix of EDGEs, LBs, and DBs against 11 and 12 personnel aligned in 5, 6, or 7 blocker offensive fronts. Much like UW’s MUG looks that put 6 defenders on the LOS to disguise who might be blitzing, Michigan utilized these 5-man fronts to disguise the direction of their pressure. The difference was that Michigan used these fronts regularly on base downs instead of just in passing situations. Between Johnson and Sainristil, Michigan has been able to maintain different defensive fronts despite opposing offenses attempting to use shifts and motions to manipulate their well-disguised pressure looks. Alabama tried to utilize a similar approach on defense against Georgia in the SEC championship game, but they were forced out of these looks when Georgia’s offense used motion to draw one of their EDGEs in space against a TE. Sainristil and Johnson’s ability to cover a variety of positions make them more matchup proof and allows them to play odd fronts with less risk of getting exploited in this fashion.

Keys to the Game

2024 Rose Bowl Game Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

This offense versus defense matchup will be determined in the trenches. Michigan’s defensive front may not be quite as individually dominant as Texas’s interior defensive line, but they are a tougher match up against our OL. The Longhorn unit was an elite run stuffing group but lacked Michigan’s juice in the pass rush. Michigan’s DL will play more 1-gap techniques and look to create havoc in the backfield. It’ll be a tougher blocking match up, but the difference will come in how our auxiliary blockers (RBs & TEs) do in picking up Michigan’s extra blitzers. Getting a good pass protecting performance from a hobbled Dillon Johnson or one of his backups will be absolutely critical in setting up our downfield passing attack.

One way of slowing down the pass rush will be our own run game. Odd fronts like Michigan’s can be tough to scheme against because of the fewer double teams that you can utilize at the point of attack, but there will be opportunities. Tight bunch sets where we can get good blocking angles and advantageous mismatches from auxiliary blockers could be a useful schematic tool. The screen game could be used as well, but Michigan’s secondary is fast and well-versed in stopping the screen game, so we should be careful in leaning too heavily on it without readying a deep shot counter to take advantage of their aggressive screen play.

As far as individual coverage matchups on the perimeter, we should have opportunities against the Michigan secondary. The problem is that Michigan will rarely play their CBs up on the LOS without safety help. Their defense is very good at preventing the deep ball and hedging their risk when sending pressure. We can’t get over reliant on the deep ball or hunt too hard for the opportunity. Penix will need to take what the defense gives him and let our excellent WRs do more of the heavy lifting than they typically do.

It’ll be a tough match up, but one that we should be ready for. This one’s for all the marbles.