For a five-week stretch from Week 2 to Week 6, Michigan's defense was like Superman. Powerful. Extraordinary. Invincible. The Wolverines held the five opponents that they faced in that time to only 2.8 points and 150.2 yards per game and 2.63 yards per play, and three of them couldn't muster a single point. As a result, Michigan soared to the top spot in nearly every major defensive category, leaving little room for debate as to which program had the best defense. Heck, not even a 386-yard effort from Michigan State in Week 7 altered how most viewed Michigan's defense because the Spartans' best play was to have their future first-round quarterback throw jump balls to their future NFL wide receiver with Jourdan Lewis in his hip pocket.
However, even Superman can bleed, and Minnesota gashed Michigan's defense on Saturday. The Wolverines surrendered 26 offensive points, 461 yards, and 6.78 yards per play to the Gophers, which are all season worsts by a wide margin. Some of this can be attributed to fluke passes that should not have been completed -- I'll explain this below, though Michigan can't blame only luck -- but there's more to it than that. Michigan made many uncharacteristic mistakes, and the Gophers strung together a great gameplan that attacked vulnerable spots -- the middle of the field -- rather than Michigan's strengths.
Nonetheless, when Michigan's defense had its back against the wall, it didn't break. Minnesota took four trips into the red zone but departed with only nine points. And, when the Gophers opted to go for the win on the half-yard line on the final play of the contest, the Wolverines' defensive line -- the best in the nation -- stuffed the Gophers.
So what went right and what went wrong? My thoughts after re-watching the game:
The Goal-Line Gladiators
Much of the attention in the immediate aftermath of Michigan's 29-26 win over Minnesota was focused on how the Wolverines formed a wall and held Mitch Leidner's sneak well short of the goal line. However, that was not the first but the third time that Michigan had prevented Minnesota from scoring a touchdown inside the two-yard line.
The first two times, Minnesota called different plays from different formations, but how Minnesota blocked up front was very much the same. And that permitted Maurice Hurst, Jr. to blow up both of those goal-line plays. The first time was at the end of Minnesota's second drive of the game. Michigan had just been whistled for offsides on a third-down sack, so the Gophers received another crack at it -- this time on the two. Minnesota tries to run it to the right side, and it wants its two offensive guards to help the center clog the A gaps, where Ryan Glasgow and Willie Henry are stationed. However, this means that Minnesota's right tackle is forced to attempt a reach block on Hurst. Yeah, about that:
Hurst's explosive first step has been praised over and over, and you see why here.
Then, the second time was on the play prior to the final goal-line stand. Minnesota has wasted 12 seconds by shifting from a goal-line formation into an empty shotgun. When Leidner calls for the snap, he rolls to his right, hoping to shift the defense to his side of the field before tossing a pass back across the formation to his tight end. However, the Gophers have the same blocking assignments as before. The guards help the center clog the A gaps where Glasgow and Henry are stationed, while the right tackle tries to stop Hurst with a reach block. And, just like last time, Hurst is too fast for that to succeed:
Hurst's pressure forces Leidner to sail an inaccurate pass, bringing us to the final play.
As for the final play, when I watch quarterback sneaks, it can be very difficult to grade them. Both the offensive and defensive lines fire off the ball as hard as they can, and, because both teams often have as many as eight or nine players on the line, it turns into mass chaos. This is somewhat how I felt when I re-watched the final goal-line stand.
However, MGoBlog's Adam Schnepp snagged an awesome interview with Glasgow, asking him how Michigan approached that final play, and his answer was enlightening:
"The way Minnesota likes to run QB sneaks is they like to run to a particular side, so Mo’s job was to stand up the guard who he likes to run behind. My job was to slant into the A gap and try to get in between the center and the guard. Willie’s job was slant into the other A gap and try and get between the center and the guard and just knock it back, create a wedge and push them back.
After I read this, I went back and watched the final play, and that's what Michigan did:
As Glasgow explained, Hurst (circled above) fired off the snap with much lower leverage than Minnesota's left guard, whom Leidner tried to sneak behind. Glasgow and Henry executed their responsibilities to create the wedge, and, after Michigan halted Leidner's initial push, the rest of Michigan's defense hopped in to prevent any further momentum:
MICHIGAN'S GOAL LINE STAND WINS THE GAME VS. MINNESOTA pic.twitter.com/UbQaoxhFMT— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) November 1, 2015
Michigan had lots of problems on Saturday night -- and we're about to dive into those -- but, if there's one area where the defense excelled, it was when it had its back against the wall. Hurst's ability to shoot the gap and the defensive tackles' ability to create that wedge ended two chances that Minnesota had to score touchdowns deep in the red zone. Not many defensive lines could do that. But Michigan's is no ordinary defensive line.
Knock Down the Damn Ball
For the second straight week, a quarterback threw for over 300 yards and averaged more than eight yards per attempt against Michigan despite not completing at least half of his passes. This screams one thing: Michigan is surrendering long passes. And it's true. Connor Cook connected on passes that gained 74, 30 (TD), 28, 27, 27, and 25 yards, and Leidner completed passes that gained 52 (TD), 40, 39, 31, 23, and 22 yards. That's six 20-plus-yard catches allowed in each of the past two games after opponents recorded just six such receptions in Michigan's first six games. Michigan State's explosive passes are more understandable given that the Spartans have NFL talent at quarterback and in their receiving corps and completed most of these passes with jump balls. Minnesota? Well...
The Gophers were very fortunate to complete as many of their deep throws as they did. In fact, on three of the six that went for at least 20 yards, Michigan had perfect coverage.
The first on a 31-yarder to Brandon Lingen in double coverage, which led to a field goal:
The second on a 52-yard touchdown to Rashad Still on a "back-shoulder" corner route:
The third on a 39-yarder to Lingen that flew through Dymonte Thomas' hands:
The third one led to another field goal. So that's 13 of Minnesota's 26 points.
It's also 122 of Leidner's 317 passing yards. Forget whether Michigan intercepts any of those. If all three just are knocked down for incomplete passes, here's Leidner's stat line through the air: 13-of-33 (39.4 pct.) for 195 yards (5.9 YPA) and no touchdowns. Of course, the caveat is that, if one of these three passes fell incomplete, it would have changed how the remainder of the game would have been played, so it's unreasonable to deduct completions from one's stat line. Nonetheless, the purpose is to show that Leidner's stat line was more of a product of fluke and luck than actual passing skill.
However, some of the blame must land on Michigan's defensive backs. These weren't the only times that Leidner threw inaccurate passes or made poor decisions by throwing into double coverage. There were many others, and Michigan knocked those throws down:
Of course, you can see a similar problem even in the latter two of these plays: Michigan is in perfect coverage but doesn't finish the play. In the second photo, Jarrod Wilson had a chance for an interception in the end zone but couldn't corral it as he fought for it with Drew Wolitarsky. In the third photo, Jabrill Peppers jumped a screen and should have taken this back for a touchdown, which would have been a monumental score given that Michigan trailed in the second half and Jake Rudock had just exited with what would be a game-ending injury. It's important to have excellent coverage because it puts a player in position to make a play. But, if he doesn't finish that play, it doesn't matter too much.
The good news is that Michigan wasn't burned on the two plays just discussed. But, on the three plays first shown in this section, it absolutely did. On the 31-yarder to Lingen, both Jourdan Lewis and Peppers are right there. Peppers has trailed Lingen down the seam, and Lewis, who was in zone coverage, comes over the top from the left side to bracket the tight end. This pass has no business being completed. However, Peppers never once looks back for the ball. Instead, he puts both hands in the air and runs right past Lingen. And Lewis seems to be see the ball dropping down from the sky but doesn't even try to knock it down. He just stands and allows the ball to drop in Lingen's lap.
On the 52-yarder to Still, Jeremy Clark has employed perfect trail technique on Still's corner route. Clark undercuts the route, and, if Leidner throws this pass to where it's designed to be on the outside, Clark intercepts it. However, Clark is beaten to the inside because Leidner fires the first ever back-shoulder corner route. Nonetheless, Clark needs to turn his head around and locate the ball quicker. I think that Clark turned his head but didn't see the ball until it was behind him and too late. I wonder how much playing at night and under the lights affected Clark's -- and Michigan's -- ability to see the football.
And, on the 39-yarder to Lingen, well, Thomas has to intercept that. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Michigan made other mistakes when it defended the pass -- Channing Stribling biting on a double move on the final drive when only a touchdown beats Michigan stands out the most -- but, otherwise, there isn't much about which to be concerned. It is rare to see Michigan's secondary burned by an excellent route, and, for the most part, the defense has had great coverage. But that isn't enough. Now Michigan needs to finish the play.
Desmond Morgan's Disastrous Day
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.
Where do I even begin?
I guess I'll start with the one that was most surprising to me. One of Morgan's strengths is his ability to read the cues in front of him and react without hesitation. However, there's a difference between reading and reacting and only reacting. In this game, it felt like Morgan was reacting more than he was reading, which is unusual for him. I think this because there were many times when Morgan just shot out of a cannon after the snap and plowed into a gap at the line without regard as to whether it was the right one. Maybe this was part of Michigan's gameplan, though I don't think that these were designed blitzes, but the problem was that Morgan often took himself out of position.
And Minnesota capitalized. Look at this play in the second quarter. It's 1st & 10 on Minnesota's 24-yard line, and the Gophers have called a run for Rodney Smith. Minnesota has creased Willie Henry and pulled its left guard into the gap, but there is only one blocker for two Michigan linebackers: Ben Gedeon and Morgan. This should be simple. Gedeon should engage with the lineman while Morgan storms into the hole and stones Smith for no gain. Even the offensive lineman is looking at Gedeon for his block:
But that's not what happens. Instead, Morgan sprints towards the pulling lineman and blasts him backwards at the same time Gedeon gets there. That's great and all except for the part where Smith now has a tunnel into which he can run without being touched:
Smith scampers for a 24-yard gain:
That's a freshman mistake, not one committed by someone with 39 starts under his belt.
I wonder if this aggression and how it led to defensive lapses caused him to hesitate on a 3rd & 17 on Minnesota's final drive. The Gophers called a slip screen to Smith, and, when Smith caught it, his back was turned towards Morgan, who had a clear shot at him:
But, rather than take a direct path at Smith and crush him the backfield, Morgan takes a few steps to the outside as if he is trying to contain the screen. Not only does this allow Smith to turn inside after the catch, Morgan has set himself up to be picked off:
Smith slithers through the blocks, and Morgan can't shed his fast enough:
It's 1st & 10 at the Minnesota 35-yard line rather than 4th & 17 or even longer.
Another mistake that surprised me was how far down to the line of scrimmage Morgan would come before trying to extend out laterally to cover someone or run down a ball-carrier. If there has been one knock on Morgan in his career, it's that he is not the most athletically gifted player and lacks the lateral agility and speed that are necessary to be a superb linebacker. Morgan usually does a good job to compensate for this by being smart with his footwork and the angles he takes. Morgan can't afford to take one misstep.
Unfortunately, it happened twice. One time didn't punish Michigan because, after Leidner pulled the ball on a third-down zone read and headed for the sideline, Jeremy Clark was able to shove him out of bounds before Leidner could cross the first-down marker. However, the other time it happened ended with a 40-yard gain for the Gophers.
On Minnesota's second play of the third quarter, the Gophers called a wheel route for Shannon Brooks. Michigan was in man coverage, and it was Morgan's responsibility to stick with Brooks. This is a matchup nightmare for Michigan because Brooks is much faster. Therefore, it is imperative that Morgan take the proper angle out to the sideline to cut off Brooks' wheel route. However, Morgan took one step too far towards the line before breaking out on Brooks. Morgan couldn't keep pace, and this was the result:
Morgan had performed very well this season until last weekend, so, at this point, it's only an aberration. But it's more concerning because it wasn't just one bad mistakes. There were numerous ones of great severity and different variety. My guess is that Morgan will bounce back fine against Rutgers this weekend. But it's something to keep an eye on.
James Ross III Replaced Royce Jenkins-Stone at BUCK
James Ross III received his first extensive action as Michigan's hybrid BUCK against Minnesota, and I'm not sure as to why. It wasn't because Jenkins-Stone was injured. Ross started the game at BUCK, and Jenkins-Stone did earn some playing time, though not much. Jenkins-Stone relieved Ross at BUCK on occasion when Michigan was in its nickel and was inserted at weak-side defensive end when Michigan would shift Ross back to the SAM in a 4-3. Maybe it was because Ross has been the odd man out in the linebacker crew with how much Michigan has been in nickel, but that's not a compelling reason to make a switch, particularly because Jenkins-Stone had manned the BUCK spot well.
However, Ross did fine at BUCK and came out with a positive grade. There were some plays where his lack of size hurt Michigan against the run. One such play was in the second quarter when Shannon Brooks ran up the middle into a pile of bodies at the line. If Ross could stand strong and hold the edge, Brooks would be brought down for no gain. But Brandon Lingen -- a tight end, not an offensive lineman -- tossed Ross aside like a rag doll, and Brooks was able to bounce to the outside and escape for an 11-yard gain. According to the official roster, Jenkins-Stone weighs only eight more pounds than Ross, but Jenkins-Stone has a much bigger frame. He likely would have shut that play down.
It'll be interesting to see who starts at the BUCK against Rutgers this weekend. Jenkins-Stone was listed as the No. 1 BUCK on the depth chart that was released at Monday's press conference, and Jenkins-Stone should be the better option there in the future. Maybe Ross played because Michigan trusted him more against Minnesota's zone reads.
I guess we'll learn on Saturday.