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Film Focus: Michigan's Defense vs. Maryland

After reviewing the Michigan-Maryland film, Drew Hallett finds new ways to say how dominant Michigan's defense has been, finally talks about the linebackers, and discusses the impact of Mario Ojemudia's season-ending injury.

Patrick Barron-MGoBlog

While Michigan's offense sputtered for much of the time against Maryland, seeming content to run into stacked boxes and waiting for a few big plays to materialize, Michigan's defense continued its stretch of dominance and led the Wolverines to a 28-0 win over the terrible Terrapins. This was Michigan's second straight shutout win, recording back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 2000. Further, this was the second straight week that Michigan held an opponent to no more than 105 total yards, becoming just the second team to achieve this feat in the past two decades. And, to top it off, in their last 15 quarters against Michigan, opponents have totaled only 447 yards -- mind you, 124 of them were tallied by UNLV in garbage time -- and averaged only 2.17 yards per play. This is mind-blowing.

Of course, the caveat is that Maryland does not have a potent offense. The Terrapins are 99th in scoring offense (23.6 PPG), 99th in yards per play (5.18) and 104th in S&P+, and they are -- or were -- guided by a quarterback in Caleb Rowe that has tossed 12 picks in 90 pass attempts for an astronomical rate of 13.3 percent in only his last four contests.

But Michigan did even more than what an elite defense -- second in scoring defense (7.6 PPG), second in yards per play (3.10), and third in S&P+ -- is supposed to do against an inferior offense like that. In Maryland's first four games, the Terrapins had averaged at least five yards per play in all of them. Against Michigan, Maryland averaged just 1.69.

Here are my thoughts on Michigan's defense after watching Michigan-Maryland film:

H2: Henry and Hurst, Jr. Harassed Maryland's Quarterbacks

In a trend that continues to repeat itself as Michigan excels on defense, the Wolverines won the war in the trenches against Maryland. Michigan has so much depth along the line, particularly at defensive tackle, that who stands out in a given game can rotate each week. In Michigan's first two games, it was Chris Wormley, who notched six tackles for loss. In Michigan's next two games, it was Ryan Glasgow, who had four tackles for loss. Against Maryland, it was a tag-team effort by Willie Henry and Maurice Hurst, Jr., who combined for three tackles for loss and two sacks. But it was more than just the sacks for Henry and Hurst, Jr. It was how fast each harassed the quarterback after the play began.

Let's take a look at Henry first. In the third quarter, Maryland has a 3rd & 2 on its own 39-yard line. The Terrapins are in a three-wide shotgun set with Daxx Garman behind the center. Michigan is in its nickel and plans to send five with Joe Bolden as a blitzer:

FF - Maryland - Henry - Sack - 1

With 3:52 on the game clock, Darman calls for the snap. Maryland's center begins to hike the ball back to Darman, and Henry is out of his three-point stance before the center has even flung the football back to Darman. That reaction time is unbelievable. Goodness:

FF - Maryland - Henry - Sack - 2

With 3:51 on the game clock, Henry has run right past Maryland's right tackle, who fails to bring Henry down with a cut block his teammates have done to U-M's other linemen:

FF - Maryland - Henry - Sack - 3

With 3:51 still on the game clock and as Darman finishes his drop, Henry closes in:

FF - Maryland - Henry - Sack - 4

Henry holds Darman and hurls him to the grass for a seven-yard loss:

FF - Maryland - Henry - Sack - 5

Darman never had a chance.

Then there's Hurst, Jr. On 1st & 10 on its own 31-yard line, Maryland is in a three-wide shotgun formation. Michigan is in its nickel, but, unlike the play diagrammed above, U-M will rush only three Wolverines, dropping Mario Ojemudia and Jourdan Lewis back into what will be a Cover 3. Ojemudia hasn't revealed this, but Lewis has by turning his hips:

FF - Maryland - Hurst - Sack - 1

With 5:00 on the game clock, Darman calls for the snap, and, boom, Hurst, Jr. is off. He has a one-on-one match-up with Maryland's center, which likely would not have been the case if the Terrapins had recognized that Ojemudia was dropping back into coverage. Thus, Maryland has three blockers assigned to Matt Godin and just one to Hurst, Jr.:

FF - Maryland - Hurst - Sack - 2

With 4:59 on the game clock, Hurst, Jr. completes his quick swim move past Maryland's center and speeds into the pocket towards Darman, who has just finished his drop:

FF - Maryland - Hurst - Sack - 3

With 4:58 on the game clock, Garman feels the pressure behind him and tries to move up and to the right in the pocket, but Hurst, Jr. will have none of that and closes the gap:

FF - Maryland - Hurst - Sack - 4

Hurst, Jr. grabs Garman's legs, and Garman falls forward for a six-yard loss:

FF - Maryland - Hurst - Sack - 5

These weren't the only times that Henry and Hurst, Jr. blew past Maryland's offensive linemen to pressure the quarterback. Henry's pressure here forced an interception:

FF - Maryland - Henry - Pressure

Hurst Jr.'s pressure here almost led to a safety, but Darman got the ball out just in time:

FF - Maryland - Hurst - Pressure

We've seen this explosion before from Hurst, Jr. It's the main reason why I selected him as Michigan's breakout defensive player in the preseason. His times the snap so well, and his first step is so fast that he can flash into the backfield before an offensive lineman even moves back. And he's becoming consistent, earning a sack in three straight games.

But this was the best Hurst, Jr. imitation I have seen from Henry yet. His reaction time was as impressive as Hurst, Jr.'s, and it allowed Henry to be a disruptive force behind the line of scrimmage. Henry also played well in other areas. He stood up to double teams well, which opened lanes for others to make tackles. He has been an excellent piece in Michigan's stunts as he repeatedly engaged two Terrapins, allowing Ojemudia, Taco Charlton, Royce Jenkins-Stone to fly in as a pass-rusher untouched. I see that continuing, though better offensive lines will be more prepared for it than Maryland was. Ultimately, the Terrapins just couldn't block Henry. It was easily his best performance of the year.

Michigan's Secondary Wasn't Perfect, But INTERCEPTIONS

Two weekends ago, Michigan's secondary played about as perfect of a game as that unit can. Tanner Mangum and his army of 6-foot-5 receivers were supposed to challenge Michigan's untested defensive backs. Instead, Mangum completed just 12-of-28 passes (42.9 pct.) for 55 yards (2.0 YPA), no touchdowns, and no interceptions. And it wasn't as if Mangum had open receivers that he just missed. Michigan had everyone covered down the field. Every time. Even Mangum's only completion that went longer than 10 yards ricocheted off Channing Stribling's hands for what should have been interception. The Cougars left absolutely no yards on the field because Michigan didn't give them any.

Michigan's defensive backs weren't perfect against Maryland, so they'll just have to settle for sensational. Caleb Rowe and Daxx Garman combined to complete 10-of-36 passes (27.8 pct.) for 76 yards (2.1 YPA), no scores, and three picks. You must be thinking, "Drew, how is that not a perfect performance?" Well, unlike BYU, Maryland left passing yards on the field. It wasn't enough to affect the outcome, but it wasn't chump change either. By my count, the Terrapin receivers dropped four balls that hit them right in the hands that would have gained at least 62 yards, and, if caught, all four of them would have moved the chains and extended Maryland's drives. So Michigan was more exposed.

Whereas BYU has tall, lankier receivers that lumber down the field, Maryland had smaller, shiftier pass-catchers. Michigan's defensive backs had no problem sticking to the hips of the Cougars' receivers, but they some trouble doing so against the Terrapins, particularly when Maryland's receivers ran slants and crossing routes over the middle.

But, ultimately, it didn't really matter because Michigan's defensive backs played tight enough coverage to be in a position to catch passes from the inaccurate Maryland quarterbacks. This was just the second time that U-M picked off three throws in a game since 2010 Notre Dame. And, heck, with this performance, the Wolverines already have more interceptions in five games this season (six) than in all of last season (five). So to see Michigan's secondary intercepting passes at this high of a rate is somewhat jarring.

There were two defensive backs that performed very well on Saturday. The first should come as no surprise: Jourdan Lewis. He notched three tackles, including one for a loss, a pass break-up, and his first interception of the season. On the pick, Michigan's defensive line swarmed Rowe, which caused him to scurry in the pocket before chucking this up:

FF - Maryland - Lewis - INT - 1

FF - Maryland - Lewis - INT - 2

FF - Maryland - Lewis - INT - 3

Nonetheless, Lewis' status as one of the nation's top cover corners shouldn't rely on the number of interceptions he has this season. Interceptions are a much easier statistic to track, which is why they heavily influence All-American and All-Big Ten honors, but shutting down half the field should be more important. And Lewis has been doing that:

The other defensive back that performed very well was Jabrill Peppers. This was the best grade he has received from me this season, and I don't think it was a coincidence that it occurred when Stribling was absent. In the first four games, Peppers had been U-M's hybrid-space player, which meant covering the slot. Though this has allowed him to showcase his ability as a screen destroyer, he has been beaten in coverage there. It's not easy for a freshman -- even one with world-class athleticism -- to prevent releases inside and outside when he hasn't mastered his technique yet. However, with Stribling out against Maryland, Michigan moved Peppers to the outside as the field corner in its dime package. And, with the sideline as his friend, Peppers locked down Maryland's receivers.

Peppers still is U-M's best hybrid-space player, but he can play cornerback if needed.

Michigan Has Linebackers? Really?! Let's Talk about Them Then!

For as much as I have written about Michigan's defensive line and secondary this season, I feel like I have written nothing about the linebackers. There has been a legitimate reason for this: the linebackers haven't had a significant impact on the outcome. One reason is that Michigan has used its nickel and dime packages often against the spread teams that it has faced in all five games. The other reason is that the defensive line and defensive backs have been so dominant that few plays have involved the linebackers. There was no better example of this than against BYU when Desmond Morgan essentially was the only linebacker that saw snaps and recorded just two assisted tackles.

But, boy, did Morgan come on strong against Maryland, posting nine tackles, a diving interception, and two additional pass break-ups. After a rough opening possession, he almost always was in the proper position to demonstrate his instincts and make the tackle or the deflection. The one play that stands out to me was not the interception, but his stop when Maryland tried to catch Michigan off-guard with a draw. Late in the first half, Maryland had the ball with a 2nd & 8. Michigan expected that the Terrapins would throw, so U-M called a Cover 3 in its dime. Except the Terps weren't throwing at all:

FF - Maryland - Morgan - Stops Draw - 1

The lineman tries to block Morgan, but Morgan shoots outside of him for the tackle:

FF - Maryland - Morgan - Stops Draw - 2

What could have been a larger gain goes for only three yards.

On the other hand, it doesn't seem like Joe Bolden will have that senior surge that we had hoped. Yes, Bolden leads the team with tackles (32), but, as I've said before, tackles do not reliably indicate how effective a linebacker has been. This is why we have the film review. And the film review shows that he still is very much the same player as he has been in the past. He doesn't have instincts like Morgan, so, when he is asked to read and react, he either makes the wrong read or doesn't react quickly enough, which can be the difference between a one-yard gain and a five-yard gain. Those errors add up over time.

For example, in the first quarter, Maryland has a 3rd & 10 on its own two-yard line. With a lackluster quarterback, the Terrapins don't have lots of options here. Yes, Maryland could run, but it would be only to give itself some breathing room for a surrender punt. Thus, Michigan doesn't need to be super aggressive and should be able to keep this play in front of them. Except, as Caleb Rowe fakes the handoff, Bolden crashes down hard and doesn't notice that the fullback is leaking out into the flat. Rowe rolls out and throws ...

FF - Maryland - Bolden - Bites - 1

FF - Maryland - Bolden - Bites - 2

FF - Maryland - Bolden - Bites - 3

First down, Maryland.

In the preseason, after Bolden's wonderful showing in the spring game, many selected him as Michigan's breakout defensive player for 2015. However, after five games, Bolden actually may be the weakest link on this stingy defense. What a strange turn of events.

How Will Royce Jenkins-Stone Fill In for Mario Ojemudia?

While playing in one of the best games of his career, Mario Ojemudia suffered an Achilles injury in the fourth quarter that will sideline him for the remainder of the 2015 season. It's terrible news, and, because Ojemudia has played in more than 30 percent of U-M's potential games, he isn't eligible for a medical redshirt. His career at Michigan is over.

The question now is whether Royce Jenkins-Stone can fill in for Ojemudia at the BUCK position without there being a drop-off. I think Jenkins-Stone can fill in admirably, but it's hard not to see a dip in production from that spot. Whereas Michigan had been rotating players often at the other three spots on the defensive line, Ojemduda had been playing almost all of the meaningful snaps in recent weeks. In fact, before Ojemudia's injury, I recall seeing Jenkins-Stone on the field for maybe two snaps against Maryland. It speaks to how well Ojemudia had been performing -- he amassed at least one tackle for loss in each game -- and the gap he had built between himself and Jenkins-Stone.

However, I don't think that this means that Jenkins-Stone will sink the masterful defense that Michigan has crafted. I paid close attention to how he played after Ojemudia was carried off the field. On one third down, Michigan ran a stunt like it has in the past for Ojemudia, and Jenkins-Stone sprinted through an open lane to force the quarterback to roll to his right and scramble for a minimal gain. He also had another play where he showed great discipline when Maryland tried to option him on a zone read and combined to make a tackle for no gain. It's this last part that I want to see from Jenkins-Stone on a consistent basis. Michigan needs to hold the edge and force the action back into the teeth of Michigan's defense. If he can do that and bring some pressure, Michigan will be fine.