When I study the film after each Michigan football game, much of my time is spent "focusing" on what went wrong for the Wolverines and why it went wrong. This isn't to say that I'm not digging for positives, but more goes wrong on a football field than it goes right. Well, at least that's been the case for Michigan in recent seasons. Just look at my Film Focus column on Michigan's offensive performance against UNLV, in which I dissect why Michigan wasn't able to run between the tackles effectively and try to diagnose what's bothering Jake Rudock.
So, when I began to watch the film of Michigan's defense against UNLV, I tried to unearth any mistakes that the Wolverines made on that side of the ball. And I have to tell you: Michigan's defense was damn near perfect. Okay, that may be a bit hyperbolic because Michigan made more than a few mistakes, but let me just throw these out there:
- In the first three quarters, UNLV scored a grand total of zero points.
- In the first three quarters, UNLV gained only 111 yards on 42 plays (2.64 YPP).
- In the first three quarters, only three of UNLV's 42 plays were in U-M territory.
- In the first three quarters, UNLV had 10 possessions. Two ended with interceptions, three were three-and-outs, and only two saw UNLV gain more than one first down.
Those first three quarters were about as flawless as it gets.
To the anger of Mario Ojemudia, Jourdan Lewis, and others, I'm sure, Michigan's defense slipped some in the fourth quarter and lost the shutout. It was a similar mistake on two plays during UNLV's scoring drive, which I will break down below, that led to the Rebels' only touchdown. UNLV also racked up some yards on its final drive, but that was against U-M's second-string defense in a 21-point game. Garbage time is insignificant.
So, yes, except for two late miscues, Michigan's defense was dominant. Here's why:
Michigan's Defensive Line Tossed Aside UNLV's Offensive Line
Michigan's defensive line manhandled UNLV's offensive line. Plain and simple. And it wasn't just one or two Wolverines that inflicted the damage. It was most of the two-deep: Ryan Glasgow, Matt Godin, Chris Wormley, Mario Ojemudia, Maurice Hurst, Jr., and Taco Charlton. All of them graded out very well. The only defensive lineman that didn't make a significant impact was Willie Henry, whom the Rebels often cut down to the ground on the back side of zone runs. Otherwise, the line did whatever it wanted.
Here is Glasgow splitting a double team to swallow UNLV's running back behind the line:
Here is Godin getting low, gaining leverage, driving the UNLV left guard back three yards behind the line, and forcing the back to barrel into James Ross III for a loss:
Here is Wormley -- a 300-pound man -- teleporting from the line of scrimmage to the mesh point of UNLV's inverted veer in a heartbeat and blowing it up to smithereens:
Here is Ojemudia obliterating a UNLV receiver and knocking him flat on his behind:
Here is Hurst flashing his superb quick first step and pushing his way into the backfield:
Need I continue?
And, as you can see above, Michigan's defensive line didn't need stunts, twists, or any fancy tricks to spring its linemen free into the backfield. Rather, the linemen were able to do it with their pure talent, strength, and technique. Mind you, UNLV's offensive line was overmatched -- the Rebels didn't start one offensive lineman that cracked 300 pounds -- so Michigan's defensive line won't have this type of success on a routine basis.
Nonetheless, it would not be a stretch to label Michigan's defensive line as one of the best in the nation, particularly against the run. The Wolverines' defense is third in the nation in adjusted line yards, which is an indicator of a defensive line's success against the run. This checks out given how Michigan has stuffed Utah's Devontae Booker (22 car., 69 yards, 3.14 YPC), and Oregon State (33 car., 59 yards, 1.79 YPC) and UNLV (36 car., 92 yards, 2.56 YPC) as a whole. Plus, Michigan's 26 tackles for loss are tied for 10th in the nation. Twenty-one of those tackles for loss were against the run, and, of those, 14 belong to a Michigan defensive lineman. The only question that still remains is whether Michigan has a defensive lineman that can be a disruptive pass-rusher. Ojemudia had his moments against UNLV, just missing on a sack about four times or so on speed rushes, but I don't know if that will translate against better opponents. If it does, then opposing offensive lines better beware. Why? They may not face a better defensive line all season.
Jourdan Lewis is Batman, and Michigan May Have Found His Robin
Jourdan Lewis' status for the UNLV contest was unclear heading into Saturday. Lewis suffered a concussion when he landed hard on the turf after he broke up a pass against Oregon State. Though Michigan likely would have been able to handle the Rebels without Lewis, UNLV wide receiver Devonte Boyd -- whom Mountain West writer Jeremy Mauss believes will be a future NFL player -- was coming to town. Boyd was the one Rebel that could give Michigan fits if accurate balls were thrown in his direction. So Michigan wanted to put Lewis on him rather than an unknown commodity at corner like Channing Stribling or Jeremy Clark. Fortunately, Lewis was cleared to participate.
And, boy, did Lewis demonstrate why he's Michigan's best corner and one of the best in the Big Ten. He was fantastic in coverage as UNLV's receivers, including Boyd, could not create separation. Lewis stuck to them like hot glue. Despite this, UNLV quarterbacks Blake Decker and Kurt Palandech tried to challenge him. Result: four pass break-ups:
The common denominator for these pass break-ups was that Lewis was in press coverage for each. Like he's done for more than a season, he used excellent technique to get his hands into the receiver's chest at the line to jam him. This permitted Lewis to run side by side with the receiver regardless of the route ran. For example, of Lewis' four pass break-ups, two were on comeback routes ran by the receiver, one was on a slant, and one was on a go route. Lewis always was there. Accordingly, through the first three quarters, UNLV targeted Boyd six times, and Boyd caught only one of those for a measly six yards. This is why Lewis was named Michigan's defensive player of the game against UNLV.
But Lewis wasn't the only Michigan corner to perform well against Boyd and the Rebels. One week after I questioned whether Michigan had a reliable second corner, Lewis may have found two sidekicks in the defensive backfield. Stribling had an excellent game, recording his first career pick and a pass break-up, while Clark tallied his second pick.
And these weren't fluky interceptions either. On the fourth play from scrimmage, UNLV's outside receiver planned to run a dig route about 20 yards down field. As Stribling backpedals, he thinks that the receiver plans to cross and opens up his hips:
The UNLV receiver cuts inside on what is not a very crisp route. This plus the fact that Stribling already has anticipated an inside route allows Stribling to break on the receiver:
Stribling closes the gap in an instant and is drafting behind the receiver. Decker could still complete a pass to the receiver if it is thrown perfectly in front of the him. But, as you can see, the receiver steps on the brakes a bit because Decker's pass is behind him:
Stribling sees this, hits the turbo button, and perfectly undercuts the route. Interception:
And Clark earned his interception by running the UNLV receiver's go route for him:
Whether it was Lewis, Stribling, or Clark, Michigan's corners shut down UNLV's pass offense. All three harassed the Rebels' receivers, and UNLV could not get anything going through the air until the fourth. Lewis performing well was just further confirmation that he's one of the Big Ten's best. Stribling and Clark performing admirably was the first evidence this year that Michigan may not need to be concerned about its second corner.
How a Telegraphed Corner Blitz Cost Michigan the Shutout
With a 28-0 lead in the fourth quarter, Michigan probably would have preserved the shutout if its defense had played more conservative. The odds that the Rebels, after gaining just 111 yards through the first three quarters, would be able to march down the field for an extended scoring drive were slim to none. However, defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin opted not to be conservative, calling two cornerback blitzes -- both of which were telegraphed -- that put a safety in man coverage against UNLV's most dangerous receiver, Devonte Boyd. This is a matchup that Michigan wanted to avoid, particularly because Michigan's corners had done a tremendous job on him all game until that point, but it would have been okay if Michigan's blitzes got home. Unfortunately, they did not.
The first time it happened was when UNLV had 1st & 10 on its own 42-yard line. The Rebels are in a three-wide shotgun set with twin receivers to the far side. Michigan is in its nickel package and has Jeremy Clark lined up over Boyd on the boundary sideline:
Prior to the snap, Clark begins to sneak inside, showing Blake Decker that he will blitz. At the same time, Delano Hill rolls down and lines up over Boyd. Decker knows that, with Jarrod Wilson helping on the other side, Boyd has a one-on-one matchup with Hill:
After the snap, Clark's blitz doesn't get home, but it does allow Mario Ojemudia and Maurice Hurst, Jr. to rip through UNLV's offensive line. Both put pressure on Decker, and, for a second, this appears like it will be a sack. However, Decker knows that Boyd is one on one against Hill. So, off of his back foot, Decker just chucks one up in the air:
Hill provides decent coverage, but he is no match for Boyd, who slips behind him. And it just so happens to be that Decker threw a dime right into Boyd's outstretched hands:
Boyd races away from Hill, but not before Wilson chases him down after a 53-yard gain:
Then, two plays later, Durkin tried the same concept again. And it had the same result. It's now 2nd & Goal on the Michigan six-yard line. Like before, the Rebels are in a three-wide shotgun set with twin receivers to the far side, and Michigan is in a nickel package. This time, though, Michigan plans to blitz nickelback Jabrill Peppers from the slot. How do I know? Peppers has set up inside the slot receiver, who is Boyd. This means that Wilson, who is lined up over Boyd, has man coverage against him. Decker knows this:
Once again, after the snap, the Wolverines are able to put pressure on Decker. Michigan has three defenders rushing in from Decker's right side. But, because Decker knows Boyd only needs to beat a safety, he lobs up a pass to the corner before Michigan can hit him:
Decker throws another dime:
Touchdown, UNLV. The shutout is over:
I first must give credit where credit is due. Decker made the correct pre-snap read both times and made two superb throws. Those are the type of plays that one expects from a senior quarterback. But Michigan needs to shore up those corner blitzes before this Saturday. BYU and Tanner Mangum love to throw the ball around -- the Cougars average almost 41 pass attempts per game, which is 15th in the nation. This will be the first time that Michigan's secondary, particularly the safeties, will be attacked in coverage. If the Wolverines opt to call the corner or nickel blitz again, one of either two things must happen: Michigan must hide the blitz pre-snap or U-M's safeties need to cover better.