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Film Focus: Michigan's Defense vs. Rutgers

A review of the Michigan-Rutgers film reveals that Michigan's defensive performance was much better than the box score suggests, but some red flags may be materializing.

Bryan Fuller-MGoBlog

Despite not having Leonte Carroo, who is the Big Ten's most explosive receiver and the only dangerous weapon on the roster, available, Rutgers still managed to score 16 points, exceed 200 total yards, and run for 128 yards against the Wolverines. For many defenses, this would be considered a fine performance. More so, perhaps. But Michigan isn't many defenses. By most metrics, Michigan has the nation's best defense, and its effort last Saturday might have left some to wonder if the unit is displaying its cracks since Minnesota moved the ball well against it the prior weekend.

Though I have a few minor concerns, I'm not worried overall after re-watching the film.

Missed Penalties Pumped Up Rutgers' Numbers

Yes, I'm going to complain about officiating after Michigan rolled over Rutgers, 49-16. However, I'm not doing it to rant about how poor the officiating has been this season relative to others -- you've all noticed it, too -- but to reveal that Michigan's defensive performance against Rutgers actually was much better than how it may appear on paper.

For starters, the number to which many pointed was Rutgers' 128 rushing yards, and, when the sacks are removed, that total jumps up to 160 yards on 28 carries, which is 5.71 YPC. This would reflect poorly on Michigan's run defense, which has been a top-five unit all season, considering that Rutgers' offensive line has floundered with regards to opening lanes for its backs. But it doesn't because that average should have been lower.

Much lower.

Of Rutgers' true 160 rushing yards, 54 of them were accumulated on one run: a Robert Martin scamper up the gut in the first quarter. It's the longest run that Michigan has surrendered since the 2012 season. And, yet, it never should have counted. Why? As you'll see, the officials missed a blatant holding penalty that'd have wiped out the play.

It's 2nd & 8 on the Rutgers 31-yard line. The Knights are in an I-formation, and Michigan is in its 4-2-5 nickel. However, from a personnel standpoint, James Ross III is the BUCK because Royce Jenkins-Stone's helmet popped off during the previous snap, forcing Jenkins-Stone to miss this play. Rutgers will call what will appear to be a zone stretch:

FF - Rutgers - Bolden - Hold - 1

However, when the Rutgers center hikes the ball, he heads straight for the second level to engage with a linebacker -- Joe Bolden to be specific. This leaves the left guard to handle Ryan Glasgow by himself. The major problem for the left guard is that Glasgow was shaded to the inside of him, so, with the center no longer there, Glasgow has a straight shot into the backfield if the left guard can't get in front of him. In shocking news, Glasgow is too quick and powerful for the left guard and fires into Martin's lane:

FF - Rutgers - Bolden - Hold - 2

Martin sees Glasgow, downshifts, and hops to the inside to avoid the Michigan defensive tackle. This is a fantastic play by Glasgow and should end with a Wolverine cleaning this up on the backside. But there's no one there. Jabrill Peppers and Willie Henry are trying to crash down from the far side, Chris Wormley has been blasted out of the front-side gap by a double team, Ross has been escorted around the area by the Rutgers tight end, and Bolden initially ran himself out of his assigned gap. So Martin is able to accelerate:

FF - Rutgers - Bolden - Hold - 3

Martin finds a hole between Wormley and Ross and speeds through it. However, this shouldn't get more than five to seven yards because Bolden has corrected himself and is about to slide back inside to tackle Martin. Bolden isn't able to, though, because the Rutgers center blatantly is holding Bolden. He grabs Bolden's left arm and shoulder and yanks down to prevent Bolden from stopping Martin. This is an easy penalty to spot:

FF - Rutgers - Bolden - Hold - 4

However, the officials don't throw the flag. Why? [shrugs] It's an obvious hold, and it should have wiped out the run. Instead, Martin shoots through the gap into the secondary and cuts to the right of a block that a receiver has landed on Dymonte Thomas:

FF - Rutgers - Bolden - Hold - 5

Now Martin has a clear path to the end zone:

FF - Rutgers - Bolden - Hold - 6

But Peppers saves the day by turning on the jets and hauling down Martin after 54 yards:

FF - Rutgers - Bolden - Hold - 7

It should have been 2nd & 11 at the Rutgers 28. Instead, it was 1st & 10 at the Michigan 15.

That's a huge swing. If holding is called, it removes 54 yards from Rutgers' rushing and offensive totals. That would leave the Knights with 106 non-sack rushing yards on 27 carries and 171 total yards on 58 plays. Those would be averages of 3.93 yards per carry and 2.95 yards per play. That resembles what an elite Michigan defense would do, right?

And, because that drive ended with a field goal, the non-call handed Rutgers a free three.

It wasn't the only free points the officials would gift Rutgers either. There were 10 other points that never should have been added to the scoreboard for Rutgers because they were the result of two missed penalties. The first was on Janarion Grant's 98-yard kickoff return for a score, during which Michigan's Wayne Lyons was flagrantly held:

FF - Rutgers - Grant - KO Return - 1

FF - Rutgers - Grant - KO Return - 2

FF - Rutgers - Grant - KO Return - 3

The second was on Grant's 67-yard punt return down to the Michigan nine-yard line with fewer than 30 seconds left in the first half. After Grant fielded the punt and began to speed up the field, a Rutgers blocker came from longsnapper Scott Sypniewski's left side, lowered his helmet, and drilled Sypniewski in the helmet, knocking him off of his feet:

FF - Rutgers - Grant - Punt Return

Rutgers was flagged for targeting, only for the the booth to overturn it. It's incredulous that this, where a blocker willfully makes helmet-to-helmet contact to deliver a crushing blow, which the rule was specifically designed to punish, isn't targeting but Bolden being pushed by a Michigan State offensive lineman on top of Connor Cook is. There is no consistency with how targeting is enforced, and it seems to break against Michigan each time it pops up in a game. This seemed pretty cut and dry, and, yet, the flag was picked up. This permitted Rutgers to have the ball inside the 10-yard line with nine ticks remaining. The Knights took one shot at the end zone before they kicked a field goal.

So, all in all, 13 of Rutgers' 16 points should not have been tallied.

That means Michigan's defense truly allowed only three points and 2.95 yards per play.

Sounds like how Michigan's defense should perform against a Carroo-less Rutgers.

Injuries Are Taking Their Toll on the Defensive Line

Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers are the two best players on Michigan's defense, but no unit has been more instrumental to its success than the line. Michigan's defensive linemen have been so disruptive versus both the run and the pass that most offenses have not been able to discover a consistent means of moving the football. The line has been excellent not only because it has top-end talent but because it has had incredible depth. Michigan has quality defensive linemen throughout its two-deep, which enables the coaches to frequently rotate them and keep them fresh late in the game. That's when offensive lines wear down and feel like they're being overpowered by tsunami waves.

However, that depth may be starting to wear thin. Bryan Mone suffered his season-ending injury in fall camp, so he shouldn't be included. But Mario Ojemudia is done for the season with an Achilles injury, Matt Godin has missed time in the past two games with an ailment of sorts, Maurice Hurst, Jr. was dinged up against Rutgers, and Ryan Glasgow may have severely injured his shoulder while dragging down a Scarlet Knight.

This has become a concern. Michigan has done a tremendous job filling in for fallen players on the line, but Michigan doesn't have infinite depth. It can do only so much before performance begins to trail off. And Michigan may hit that point if Glasgow's injury is severe. When asked on Tuesday whether Glasgow has practiced this week, Hurst said he couldn't comment. Michigan hasn't offered many "no comments" this season. In fact, this seems ominous given that Michigan had no issue discussing the health of Jake Rudock and De'Veon Smith last week and both competed against Rutgers.

If Glasgow misses more than one game, that is a significant blow for Michigan's defense. Glasgow doesn't post the flashiest numbers -- he has 25 tackles, five tackles for loss, and one sack -- but he is the Wolverines' best and most consistent defensive lineman. He wins his battles against the offense's interior linemen on a regular basis and rarely makes mental mistakes. His victories inside provide his teammates opportunities to make plays.

Without Glasgow and Godin, Michigan's defensive tackles are down to Hurst and Willie Henry. Both are great players, but they haven't had to play almost every snap of a game and are prone to errors, particularly Henry. For example, on 2nd & 10 on the Michigan 32, Henry misheard or failed to execute the play, sliding right when he should be left:

FF - Rutgers - Henry - Mental Error

Rutgers was able to run for 11 yards and a first down.

Glasgow doesn't make those kind of mistakes. Michigan better hope that he can return.

A Follow-Up on Desmond Morgan

I wrote a section about Desmond Morgan after the Minnesota game. It started like this:

I've often praised Desmond Morgan for being a solid, instinctual, hard-hitting linebacker, and one game doesn't change that. But, man, Morgan had a disastrous performance against Minnesota. Not only did the Gophers pick on him through the air, he made some very uncharacteristic decisions that resulted in humongous gains. Morgan made some nice contributions here and there, but, because the poor plays were so poor, he finished with the worst grade that I've given any Michigan defender this year. It was that bad.

I thought it was an aberration and that Morgan would respond well vs. Rutgers. He did.

But Morgan made another mistake similar to a few that he made against the Gophers, and I want to point it out because I think offenses will continue to attack him in this regard. Generally, Morgan has been solid when he drops back into coverage. We saw him make a spectacular interception against UConn in 2013 because of this. However, offenses have realized that they can neutralize this positive attribute by running play-action fakes and throwing over the top. Morgan always has trusted his reads when defending the run, but he can be overzealous, of which offenses are taking advantage.

In the second quarter, Rutgers has a 1st & 10 on the Michigan 25-yard line. Chris Laviano takes the snap and fakes a handoff to the running back, Martin Robert. Morgan sees this and begins to flow towards the left side of the line where Robert is running. However, Morgan doesn't know it's play action or that tight end Matt Flanagan is running a post:

FF - Rutgers - Morgan - PA - 1

Morgan is almost to the line of scrimmage when he realizes his mistake. He tries to recover to the middle of the field where his zone is, but Laviano has a huge window:

FF - Rutgers - Morgan - PA - 2

Laviano winds up and fires:

FF - Rutgers - Morgan - PA - 3

And, to Morgan's luck, Laviano is inaccurate and throws it too far in front of Flanagan:

FF - Rutgers - Morgan - PA - 4

If Laviano's pass is accurate, that's at least a 15-yard gain and possibly a touchdown.

This is the second week in a row that opponents have been able to suck in Morgan with a play-action fake before targeting their open tight end running a seam or skinny post over him. Minnesota executed it very successfully, while Rutgers did not. Nonetheless, opponents will see this trend and try to exploit it. Morgan and Michigan better be ready.