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How Michigan’s offense matches up against Alabama’s defense

This Crimson Tide defense will present a new test of speed and strength for the Wolverine offense.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK
Matt Hartwell Matt covers all things Michigan football related for Maize n Brew and runs the social media accounts.

Michigan’s most recent 26-0 Big Ten Championship victory over Iowa played out pretty much as expected. The next day, Michigan earned the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff, as well as a date with the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Rose Bowl.

Michigan gained a season-low 213 yards in that game and averaged just 3.3 yards per play. In the team’s upcoming matchup with Alabama, J.J. McCarthy and company know they’re going to need to do better to win.

With the game set to be played in just a few weeks, let’s take an in-depth look at Michigan’s offense vs. the Alabama defense and how the two stack up against each other.

Michigan’s OL vs Alabama’s DL

Alabama defensive line starters: DT Tim Keenan III, DT Tim Smith, OLB Justin Eboigbe, edge Dallas Turner, DT Jaheim Oatis, edge Chris Braswell

Rotation: DT Damon Payne Jr., DT Jah-Marien Latham, edge Quandarrius Robinson

Sacks: 31

TFLs: 42.5

PFF Run Defense Grade: 91.9

PFF Pass Rush Grade: 87.4

Matchup Takeaway: Dallas Turner, the Crimson Tide’s star edge defender, is projected as a top-10 pick by most early mock drafts, and it’s easy to see why. Turner has been Alabama’s biggest disruptor on defense. He is the Tide’s best pass-rusher and can easily swing a game with his prowess for the big play. Turner is second in the SEC with nine sacks and third in tackles for loss with 13.5.

While Turner and Chris Braswell will be obvious choices to carry the bulk of the snaps on the edge, Bama also has several rotational pieces to provide rest or mix things up whenever defensive coordinator Kevin Steele wants to throw in some creative packages (think last season’s “Cheetah Package” with Will Anderson, Turner and Braswell all on the field at the same time).

Protecting J.J. McCarthy from Alabama’s pass rush should be a top priority for Michigan.

Michigan offensive line starters: LT LaDarius Henderson, LG Trevor Keegan, C Drake Nugent, RG Karsen Barnhart, RT Trente Jones

Rotation: LT Myles Hinton, LG Giovanni El-Hadi, C Greg Crippen, G/T Andrew Gentry, G/T Jeffrey Persi

Sacks allowed: 18

Rushing yards: 2,103

PFF Run Block Grade: 73.1

PFF Pass Block Grade: 70.4

Matchup Takeaway: What, if anything, do the Wolverines need to fix between now and Jan. 1? It starts up front with an offensive line that struggled at times this season and lost its best player in right guard Zak Zinter.

J.J. McCarthy was sacked four times by an Iowa defense that ranked eighth in the Big Ten in sacks, and Michigan averaged 1.9 yards per rush against the Big Ten’s fourth-best run defense. LaDarius Henderson will also have a lot on his shoulders to make sure Turner doesn’t wreck the game.

The key to this game for Michigan’s offensive line likely lies within the performance from Karsen Barnhart. The injury to Zak Zinter forces Barnhart inside and moves Trente Jones to right tackle. The result up to this point has been a lot of shuffling for an offensive line that has thrived on chemistry and continuity the past two seasons.

Alabama’s DB vs Michigan’s WR and TE

Alabama’s defensive starters: CB Kool-Aid McKinstry, CB Terrion Arnold, S Caleb Downs, S Malachi Moore, S Jalen Key

Rotation: CB Trey Amos, S Kristian Story

Interceptions: 10

Pass breakups: 32

Passing YPG Allowed: 188.8

PFF Coverage Grade: 92.9

Matchup Takeaway: Malachi Moore can be a bit handsy in coverage, but opposing teams only average about nine yards per target against him because he’s not going to give you clean looks. Kool-Aid McKinstry has a nice blend of speed and athleticism, but is prone to slipping on the occasional deep shot.

Alabama’s other corner, Terrion Arnold, has rebounded from a less-than-ideal 2022 season, while safeties Caleb Downs and Jaylen Key communicate well with their corners in terms of picking up receivers on the fly. Downs leads the defense in snaps, but is still just a true freshman. Downs can also be beaten on some deep throws with good route work by the receiver, which Michigan’s offensive weapons are no stranger to.

Michigan’s offensive starters: WR Roman Wilson, WR Cornelius Johnson, TE Colston Loveland, TE AJ Barner

Rotation: WR Tyler Morris, WR Semaj Morgan

Receiving yards per game: 218.77

Receiving TDs: 20

PFF Receiving Grade: 86.2

Matchup Takeaway: Roman Wilson’s speed is one of his biggest assets. He has no problem getting behind the defense, and when McCarthy feeds him the ball in space, he’s a threat to take it to the house any given play. Cornelius Johnson, on the other hand, has been more of a possession receiver. He hasn’t seen many yards after the catch, as he’s normally hit near the sideline or receiving a shorter look among multiple defenders.

Between Colston Loveland and AJ Barner, Michigan fully believes it has two NFL Draft-caliber players at tight end. Loveland has consistently served as a dynamic pass catcher for the Wolverines. Barner, alongside Loveland, has shown he can be just as reliable an option when called upon, with his best performance being against Michigan State in October, when he compiled eight catches for 99 yards and a touchdown.

Alabama’s LB vs Michigan’s QB and RB

Alabama’s defensive starters: LB Deontae Lawson, LB Jihaad Campbell

Rotation: LB Trezman Marshall

Tackles: 181

TFLs: 14

PFF Overall Defensive Grade: 93.7

Matchup Takeaway: We all know about the elite skillset possessed by the Crimson Tide’s outside linebacking corps, but the middle of the field may be just as experienced a position group. Deontae Lawson is the room’s MIKE and leads the pack in snaps.

From Turner and Braswell’s speed on the edges to Lawson’s explosiveness up the gut on middle linebacker blitzes, McCarthy could have a difficult time consistently delivering clean passes in the pocket.

Michigan’s offensive starters: QB J.J. McCarthy, RB Blake Corum, HB Donovan Edwards, FB Max Bredeson

Rotation: RB Kalel Mullings, QB Alex Orji

Passing yards per game: 218.8

Rushing yards per game: 161.8

PFF Passing Grade: 86.2

PFF Rushing Grade: 85.3

Matchup Takeaway: McCarthy has been one of the most successful signal-callers in college football this season. His experience, leadership and ability to make dynamic plays under pressure are what have helped lead the Wolverines to this point. There’s no denying McCarthy has weapons in his arsenal, but defenses are going to load up the box to stop Blake Corum and make the quarterback win the game with his arm. For that, McCarthy will have to channel his .742 completion percentage, which is second in FBS to only Bo Nix.

The potential impact of Corum in this game speaks for itself. The Big Ten’s back-to-back Running Back of the Year currently ranks No. 3 in the conference in rushing yards (976), No. 4 in yards per game (81.3), and leads the country in touchdowns with 22. With Corum teetering on the verge of passing the all-time record for Michigan rushing touchdowns held by Anthony Thomas, expect the Wolverines to run him early and often on New Year’s Day.