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Film Focus: Michigan's Defense vs. BYU

Our film review of Michigan-BYU dissects how Michigan suffocated BYU's pass-happy offense and concludes that Michigan's defense is elite.

Eric Upchurch-MGoBlog

This is the film breakdown that I have been anxiously waiting to do since the clock struck 0:00 on Michigan's 31-0 shutout win against BYU on Saturday. Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed reviewing Michigan's offense against the Cougars, during which I noticed that Jim Harbaugh had tinkered with his formations and plays to confuse the BYU defense and put its defenders in vulnerable positions. But Michigan's offense didn't face a unit that had averaged 30.3 points and 432.3 total yards per game through the first three weeks and put it into a total submission. That would be Michigan's defense, which held the Cougars to no points -- Michigan's first shutout since a 45-0 win over Illinois in 2012 -- and an incredible 105 yards of offense.

And this wasn't some fluke where BYU committed unforced errors. This was a snuff film.


The Right Amount of Change: Nickels and Dimes

BYU is a spread-to-pass team. Similar to what they did in the first three weeks, the Cougars operated exclusively from the shotgun against Michigan, and, for all but a few snaps, there were three or four wide receivers on the field. This was no surprise. In the first three games, BYU averaged almost 41 pass attempts, which was 15th in the nation. Michigan knew this and knew that Tanner Mangum was going to sling the ball around.

Michigan countered by deploying its nickel and dime packages for the entire contest. Generally, whether the Wolverines were in nickel -- 4-2-5 or 3-3-5 -- or in dime -- 4-1-6 or 3-2-6 -- depended on the number of wide receivers that BYU had on the gridiron. Three receivers meant nickel, with Desmond Morgan and Joe Bolden as the linebackers and Jabrill Peppers as the nickel. Here, you see U-M in its basic 4-2-5 nickel package:

FF - BYU - 4-2-5 Nickel

But it was Michigan's dime package, which had been used for maybe two snaps in the first three games, that was much more interesting. When Michigan went to the dime, Jeremy Clark would come on for Bolden, leaving Morgan as the lone linebacker. Clark would become the boundary corner, Channing Stribling would flip over to field corner, and, most notably, Jourdan Lewis would slide inside as the dime back. For example:

FF - BYU - 4-1-6 Dime - Lewis in Slot

The idea behind this was simple. Morgan is Michigan's best linebacker and should not bust if BYU opts to run up the middle in a four-receiver formation. Peppers and Lewis are Michigan's two shiftiest defensive backs, so they match up better on BYU's shifty slot receivers. And Stribling (6-foot-2) and Clark (6-foot-4) can cover BYU's 6-foot-5 targets.

There were a couple variations to U-M's dime as well. Here is Peppers as a linebacker:

FF - BYU - 4-1-6 Dime - Peppers as LB

On obvious passing downs, U-M went to a 3-2-6 with Mario Ojemudia rushing as a LB:

FF - BYU - 3-2-6 Dime - Ojemudia - Rushing LB

But, regardless of the formation, Michigan's defensive strategy was clear: press man coverage with safety help over the top. When Michigan rushed only four, the corners, nickel, and dime were in press man with two deep safeties in Jarrod Wilson and Delano Hill behind them. When Michigan brought five, there was one safety. The safeties were there to protect Michigan from surrendering an explosive pass play, which had been a staple of BYU's offensive success in the first three weeks. And Michigan's press man coverage was an insult to BYU, with D.J. Durkin and the Wolverines proclaiming that the Cougars' receivers would not be able to separate from Michigan's defensive backs.

Guess what? Durkin and Michigan were correct.

Here is Lewis sticking to BYU's Mitch Mathews on a quick slant route. Mathews never turns his head to look for the ball, but, even if he had, Lewis was right there on him:

FF - BYU - Lewis - Sticks to Slant

Here is Hill smothering Colby Pearson on BYU's only true shot at the end zone all game:

FF - BYU - Hill - Defends Go Route

And here is Stribling running step for step with Terenn Houk on his fade route:

FF - BYU - Stribling - Step for Step

Get the idea?

The end result: Mangum completed just 12-of-28 passes (42.9 pct.) for 55 yards (2.0 YPA). And his longest completion of the day -- 14 yards -- should have been intercepted:

FF - BYU - Stribling -Missed INT

Re-watching this was breathtaking. This was a dominant performance by Michigan's secondary. That the Wolverines feel comfortable that it can put six defensive backs on the field with a press man scheme and still thrive speaks to the depth that they have at that position. We knew that Lewis was an All-Big Ten candidate this season. We knew that Wilson was a boring free safety that limits explosive plays. We knew that Peppers would bring an athleticism to the hybrid-space position that Michigan hadn't had in a long time. But we didn't know that Stribling would develop into a Big Ten-caliber corner after vanishing last season. We didn't know that Clark, who was a reserve safety until he moved to corner just two months ago, would be effective at that spot. And we didn't know Hill would fit right in at strong safety, allowing Peppers to move closer to the line.

This was the secondary's first real test in 2015. It's safe to say that they got an A+.

"You Trying to Say that Joseph Smith Can't Block a Stunt?"

Michigan's secondary played lights out, but it wasn't the only reason why the Wolverines shut down BYU's aerial attack. While the defensive backs were smothering BYU's receivers, the defensive line was pressuring freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum. By the end of the game, Mangum was so rattled that he once did a 360 ... in a clean pocket:

Tanner Mangum 360 in Clean Pocket - GIF

So why was Mangum this rattled? Well, Michigan did a myriad of different things. U-M brought blitzes from various positions whether it was linebacker Desmond Morgan, nickel Jabrill Peppers, or even free safety Jarrod Wilson. But nothing worked better than when U-M stunted with Willie Henry, which led to two sacks and several other hurries.

During BYU's second drive, the Cougars have a 3rd & 6 on the Michigan 36-yard line. This is a pivotal play because a first down would put BYU in scoring position to cut into Michigan's lead and this is four-down territory even if there is no gain. The Cougars are in their four-wide shotgun set, so, as discussed above, Michigan counters with its dime package. However, Michigan has six defenders at the line of scrimmage in an Okie pattern. Mario Ojemudia will rush from his spot over the center, Peppers will blitz on the edge, and Morgan will fake a blitz before he drops back. Behind them, Michigan has called a Cover 1 press man with Hill taking BYU's slot receiver and Wilson roaming deep:

FF - BYU - Henry - Sack - 1

At the snap, Michigan runs a stunt. Ojemudia runs into the center and pushes him left. Similarly, Willie Henry engages with both BYU's right tackle and right guard and tries to push them in the same direction. Ojemudia and Henry do this to create a lane in the middle for Taco Charlton, who is stunting behind them from his spot at defensive end:

FF - BYU - Henry - Sack - 2

BYU's center doesn't realize what is happening until it is too late. The center disengages from Ojemudia in an attempt to obstruct Charlton's path to Mangum, but Charlton runs right by him. And, because the center disengaged from Ojemudia, BYU's right guard has slid down off of his block on Henry to prevent Ojemudia from closing in on Mangum:

FF - BYU - Henry - Sack - 3

The problem for BYU is that its right tackle saw that Peppers was blitzing off the edge and shifted away from his block on Henry, too. So now both Charlton and Henry have clear running lanes at Mangum, who tries to escape to the right side of the pocket:

FF - BYU - Henry - Sack - 4

But Peppers has the right side walled off, and Henry clobbers Mangum for a sack:

FF - BYU - Henry - Sack - 5

It's a 10-yard loss for BYU, and the Cougars have no choice but to punt.

Then, in the third quarter, BYU has a 1st & 10 on the Michigan 33-yard line. This is the deepest into U-M territory that the Cougars have been, and BYU needs to keep moving to end the shutout. BYU is in a five-wide shotgun set, so Michigan is in dime. The Wolverines will rush all four of their defensive linemen, blitz Morgan off the edge, and play a Cover 1 man press. The trick, though, will be the stunt with Ojemudia and Henry:

FF - BYU - Ojemudia - Sack - 1

At the snap, Henry engages with both the BYU left guard and left tackle and pushes them to the outside. At the same time, Ojemudia feigns that he'll do a speed rush on the edge:

FF - BYU - Ojemudia - Sack - 2

The left tackle sees Ojemudia's first steps to the outside and disengages from Henry in preparation to block Ojemudia. Except Ojemudia has sliced back behind the penetrating Henry into the wide-open gap inside BYU's left guard, who doesn't recognize the stunt:

FF - BYU - Ojemudia - Sack - 3

Ojemudia bears down on Mangum in an instant:

FF - BYU - Ojemudia - Sack - 4

Mangum tries to run away, but it's lunchtime for Ojemudia. Sack for a loss of 14 yards:

FF - BYU - Ojemudia - Sack - 5

That was as close as BYU would get to Michigan's end zone on Saturday.

These stunts were very effective. Henry did an excellent job of occupying one side of the line with his massive body to open a lane for a speedy rusher. Props should also go to Ojemudia on the second sack. The timing of the stunt is critical, and those first steps to the outside to deceive the tackle into thinking it'd be a speed rush couldn't have been better. It also didn't hurt that BYU's linemen struggled to communicate with each other.

And, when Michigan didn't stunt, it would just earn the sack on a three-man rush:

FF - BYU - Hurst - Sack - 1

FF - BYU - Hurst - Sack - 2

FF - BYU - Hurst - Sack - 3

FF - BYU - Hurst - Sack - 4

That first step by Maurice Hurst, Jr. is insane. I would be rattled if I was Mangum, too.

Ryan Glasgow: Wrecking Ball

I need to take some time to heap praise onto Ryan Glasgow. Glasgow is a former walk-on defensive tackle that has been somewhat under-appreciated by Michigan fans because, well, he wasn't a scholarship player. And, when we hear that a walk-on has broken into the two-deep and become a starter, the initial reaction generally is PANIC. But, when that happened last season with Glasgow, it didn't take very long to learn that he was worthy of being a Big Ten starter. By Michigan's sixth game of the 2014, MGoBlog's Brian Cook awarded Glasgow the Most Noble Order of St. Kovacs. Glasgow was disruptive against the run, but he had issues standing up to doubles and rushing the quarterback.

This was one reason why Michigan fans anticipated the emergence of Bryan Mone, who is behemoth of a lineman who can be a two-gapping nose tackle and withstand double teams. And, when Mone suffered his season-ending injury in fall training camp, there was concern that Michigan didn't have the available personnel to plug the interior lanes.

But there was no need because Glasgow has improved and filled that role quite nicely. No, Glasgow won't be the two-gapping nose tackle that Michigan may desire, but, in 2015, he has been much better at holding up against doubles and putting pressure on the passer even if he doesn't have a sack. And he still can slant inside with the best of them:

FF - BYU - Glasgow - TFL - 1

FF - BYU - Glasgow - TFL - 2

FF - BYU - Glasgow - TFL - 3

FF - BYU - Glasgow - TFL - 4

In his last two games, Glasgow has amassed four tackles for loss, already matching his total from all of last season. He'll only add more to his name because, well, he's no scrub.

Yes, Michigan's Defense is Elite

One of our editors, Peter Putzel, penned a column this week that asked whether Michigan's defense is elite. I will answer that question for you. The answer is yes.

The raw numbers certainly suggest so. After the first month of the season, Michigan is second in the nation in total defense (203.8 YPG), third in yards allowed per play (3.47 YPP), and tied for fourth in scoring defense (9.5) -- mind you, seven of the 38 points that Michigan has allowed were the result of a Jake Rudock pick-six, so the scoring defense has been even better than that. Then, there is the fact that Michigan's last three foes either have failed or struggled to break 200 total yards. Oregon State managed only 138 yards, UNLV had only 111 yards in the first three quarters before the Rebels earned 124 in garbage time, and BYU didn't crack 100 total yards until the final minute of the game.

That is utter domination.

The advanced metrics agree, too. According to S&P+, which evaluates teams based on play-by-play data, adjusts for opponents, and removes garbage-time stats, Michigan has the fourth-best defense in the nation, 10th-best run defense, and 21st-best pass defense.

Some have said that they want to wait until Michigan faces better offenses before they make such a declaration. I understand that sentiment. But Michigan won't face many:

Offensive Prowess of Michigan's Remaining Opponents
Date Opponent Offense S&P+ Rank
October 3rd at Maryland 73rd
October 10th Northwestern 105th
October 17th Michigan State 19th
October 31st at Minnesota 67th
November 7th Rutgers 86th
November 14th at Indiana 25th
November 21st at Penn State 68th
November 28th Ohio State 33rd

Only Michigan State (19th), Indiana (25th), and Ohio State (33rd) have better offenses than BYU (56th). And you just witnessed and read about what Michigan did to BYU.

This isn't to say that Michigan will shut down  the Spartans, Hoosiers, and the Buckeyes. Or even any of them. It's to say that Michigan's defense is playing at a level fans haven't seen since 2006. And, with seven starting-caliber defensive linemen in the rotation, three senior linebackers, an All-Big Ten corner in Jourdan Lewis, a freakish hybrid-space player in Jabrill Peppers, two emerging corners in Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark, and two solid safeties in Jarrod Wilson and Delano Hill, it should remain that way.