Well, folks, we have nearly arrived to our destination — Pasadena, California for the Rose Bowl between Michigan and Alabama.
Maize n Brew staff members got together this week to discuss the upcoming game, look back at the Big Ten Championship, throw out some bold predictions, and more.
The month-long wait is finally almost over — Michigan vs. Alabama is just a few days away. Before we preview that, let’s go all the way back to the Big Ten Championship. What were some of your main takeaways, and what does Michigan need to clean up in time for Bama?
Von: I thought the Wolverines played a very mediocre game — for their standards — in the Big Ten Championship, and yet, they still managed to blowout and shutout Iowa. Michigan’s offensive line struggled mightily without Zak Zinter, and J.J. McCarthy suffered because of it. All of that is exactly what the Wolverines need to improve prior to the Rose Bowl — get the offensive line to mesh better with Karsen Barnhart and Trente Jones at right guard and right tackle, respectively, and keep McCarthy upright so he can deliver clean passes.
Andrew: Ah, the Big Ten Championship. Somehow that is the most recent Michigan football contest and it also feels like it happened 20 years ago. Going back, Michigan was there to do one thing: win. Mission accomplished.
The Wolverines wanted to escape with a win with minimal effort and avoid putting much on tape. The offensive game plan was more conservative than West Virginia’s senatorial race and the execution was sloppy, yet Michigan still won by four scores in large part due to a smothering defense and Big Ten Championship MVP Mike Sainristil.
To improve against Alabama, the Wolverines will simply need to focus on the task at hand. By facing a program the caliber of the Tide in the Rose Bowl, focus should be in a surplus.
Matt E: Michigan played not to lose, rather than to win. Ordinarily, I hate that logic, but it made perfect sense against a putrid Iowa offense. It gave us an ugly, non-aesthetically pleasing game, but it got the job done. On to the next one. Michigan will need to clean up pass protection before facing Alabama.
Matt H: It was the typical Big Ten Championship slobber-knocker you expected out of a Michigan vs. Iowa game. I thought the defense played its best game of the season while Mike Sainristil cemented himself as a Michigan legend. That said, Michigan allowed four sacks, and protecting J.J. McCarthy and keeping him healthy during the College Football Playoff should be a primary objective for the offensive line going forward. Despite some things to clean up, there was plenty of good to take away from what was still a shutout conference championship win.
Kellen: It’s hard to take much away from that game considering how bad Iowa’s offense was, but they did get thwarted by that Hawkeye defense a few times. Only 66 rushing yards against Bama is not going to cut it; the offensive line has to get off the ball and be better overall at the line of scrimmage. Additionally, the coaching staff needs to get creative in the run game to help with all that.
Alabama QB Jalen Milroe will surely be a focal point for Jesse Minter’s defense. What must Michigan do to contain him, and who are a few players that are key to making that happen?
Von: I’m looking at Mason Graham/Jaylen Harrell along the defensive line, and Mike Sainristil in the secondary. Graham (three sacks, three QB hurries) and Harrell (7.5 sacks, five QB hurries) have been great at putting pressure on and getting to opposing quarterbacks all season. These two are Michigan’s best disruptors along the defensive line, so they would be the ones to force Milroe to make mistakes. Meanwhile, as eloquently pointed out by my esteemed colleague Andrew Bailey in this film breakdown, Sainristil could very well play a huge role in this game from a blitzing standpoint. He forced a pair of key fumbles against Iowa in the Big Ten title, and he just has a knack for making a big plays.
Andrew: Jalen Milroe is a dynamic player with a few erratic tendencies. To slow him down, Michigan will need to be multiple in everything it does, but a few trends should stand out.
1) Expect Michigan to pressure Milroe throughout this game, especially from his right. Milroe is not a strong throw-on-the-move passer, and forcing him to his non-dominant side could all but remove his ability to take shots down the field.
2) Take away the big plays. Auburn solely focused on this and came within one play of upsetting the Tide in the last game of the season.
3) Play with discipline. Milroe is a wildcard and if one defensive piece is one yard out of position, it could result in a big gain for the improvisation specialist.
Shameless plug: If you haven’t already, please go read my extensive deep-dive on the threat of Milroe as a runner.
Players to watch: Mason Graham, Jaylen Harrell, Michael Barrett and Mike Sainristil.
Matt E: To contain Milroe, Michigan needs to not overpursue on the edges. It’s tempting to want to swing wide and go for the game-changing sack. However, Michigan needs to squeeze the pocket rather than allow for gaping holes for Milroe to run through. If you force him to throw from a constricting pocket, he’s prone to mistakes which Mike Sainristil, Will Johnson and company can clean up on. The key players are Jaylen Harrell, Braiden McGregor and the rest of the edges.
Matt H: I’m looking at guys like Mason Graham, Kenneth Grant, Kris Jenkins and Jaylen Harrell to have the game of their lives on New Year’s Day. It’s no secret Milroe has taken a ton of sacks in 2023, so exploiting that weakness could prove to be the difference in the Rose Bowl.
Kellen: The obvious answer to is to use a QB spy, but that might be sacrificing too much in the back seven. I’d say the Wolverines have to pick their spots and get crafty when it comes to blitzes. Utilizing some safety blitzes from Makari Page and Rod Moore could be beneficial; while it takes personnel away from the secondary, it will keep Milroe on his toes.
Bama’s defense is one of the better units Michigan will play this season, but the Wolverines have already played three that are statistically better (PSU, OSU, Iowa). What would you like to see Michigan’s offensive game plan look like to combat Saban’s defense?
Von: Stick to the script of getting the run game going and setting up play action passes. This has worked really well most of the season — the running backs (mainly Corum) churn out tough yards and pick up first down after first down, which helps McCarthy be able to fake a handoff, go deep into the backfield, launch a pass down the field and hit a receiver (typically Roman Wilson) for a big gainer.
Bama (No. 29) has a solid run defense — 3.7 yards given up on average per rush — but Michigan has already faced four better rush defenses this year in Ohio State (No. 22), Penn State (No. 1), Iowa (No. 13) and Nebraska (No. 8). In those games, respectively, Michigan has rushed for 4.0, 4.9, 1.9 and 4.9 yards per carry. Obviously, it sucks the most recent game was the worst performance, but the Wolverines have had a ton of success running the ball on some of the nation’s elite rush defenses. It can be done again in the Rose Bowl, which would help set up the passing game.
Andrew: Nick Saban scares me about as much as any human can. He is one of the best defensive minds of all time and is excellent at adjusting in-game. To have success against this defense, Michigan is going to have to run the ball (shocking I know).
By establishing the run, the Wolverines can incorporate play-action, offset the dangerous Alabama edge rushers and operate with a balance required to beat Saban. Furthermore, the X-factor for Michigan could be J.J. McCarthy’s legs. He has been banged up for the majority of the season and if finally healthy, his mobility could break down the defense and open up the entire playbook for offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore.
Matt E: Michigan’s offense has to include J.J. McCarthy’s legs. Nick Saban surely knows his pass rushers can beat Michigan’s tackles, so the Wolverines need to avoid obvious passing situations. To do that, Michigan needs to make misdirection, RPO’s and zone reads all a part of the equation. If you can keep the Tide defense on their heels and not ready to roll the dice for sacks, you can have success.
Matt H: If there’s an area Michigan could potentially find an offensive edge over Bama it’s in the run game. The Tide surrendered more than 240 yards rushing to Auburn and have shown they can be outplayed on the ground against better running teams on a couple of other occasions this season as well. The Wolverines have not run the ball this season like they have the previous two years, but have proven they can easily shift gears with guys like Blake Corum, Donovan Edwards and Kalel Mullings.
Kellen: I want to see a balanced attack, where they utilize the play action. I also want to see the Wolverines get creative when it comes to using McCarthy; throw in some crossing routes, some designed roll outs, maybe some designed runs. He is the best quarterback Michigan has had (by a mile) in the Harbaugh coaching era, so they might as well let him cook in a big game like this one.
Throw down one bold prediction for the game.
Von: Colston Loveland goes OFF for more than 100 yards and a touchdown.
Andrew: Mike Sainristil houses his third pick-six of the season.
Matt E: Michigan’s defense confuses Jalen Milroe and generates two interceptions, one by Michael Barrett and the other by Will Johnson.
Matt H: Taking a little bit of a swing here, but let’s say Kalel Mullings rushes for his season-high against Bama (current is 47 yards). With Blake Corum flying dangerously close to Anthony Thomas’ all-time rushing touchdown record, I wouldn’t expect Mullings to steal much of Corum’s thunder at the goal line — but at 6-foot-2, 239 pounds and averaging more than six yards per carry, it might not be such a bad idea to show the Crimson Tide something they haven’t seen much of during their pre-Rose Bowl film studies.
Kellen: I’ll say that both teams throw a pick in the first quarter, and one of them is a Will Johnson pick-six.
What’s the final score and why?
Von: I very well could eat some crow around 8 p.m. on New Year’s Day (and I’d be happy to do so!) but I am going to go with Alabama 31, Michigan 27. Until I see it, I can’t pick the Wolverines to win in the CFP. Again, I would love to be wrong, but until it happens, I can’t predict it to take place.
Andrew: 28-24, Wolverines, for the unofficial national championship. Michigan takes this one because of experience and balance on both sides of the ball. The Wolverines are one of the most battle-tested teams we have ever seen — from the last two CFP failures to the head coach suspensions this year — and they did not come this far just to fall short again. Expect the stars to be stars, and Michigan’s sum of its parts to be the difference in this fiercely competitive contest.
Matt E: Michigan 27, Alabama 25. Michigan has arguably the best defense in the country and is particularly well suited to slow down this offense. Alabama is well suited to slow down Michigan’s passing offense with an elite secondary and edge rushers, but it is relatively weak on the interior. Michigan should have success running the ball up the middle, which is what it always aims to do.
Matt H: Michigan 33, Alabama 20. I believe we see somewhat of a close game for a good portion of the Rose Bowl, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the final score appears closer to a two-touchdown victory. I predict a crafty Wolverine defense, as they always do, will find a way to make big plays/generate turnovers down the stretch — resulting in some possible late lead padding.
Kellen: Michigan wins, 34-28, earning its first ever CFP victory to head to National Championship.