The Michigan Wolverines strung together their sloppiest performance of the season against Bowling Green on Saturday and still won by 25 points. While the game was disjointed and plagued by miscues, at least the new stadium lights could serve as an entertaining distraction during the copious TV timeouts.
Two weeks ago we focused on offensive prowess; last week we focused on defensive line games; this week, it’s about interceptions because the biggest narrative leaving this game was Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy’s three interceptions. But that doesn’t tell the full story.
I broke down two of McCarthy’s three interceptions to better understand who was at fault and what the junior quarterback was thinking on each of these plays. Since McCarthy’s third pick is self-explanatory — and because I had to find ONE positive for self-preservation — the third interception breakdown is Michigan defensive tackle Kris Jenkins doing his best Ed Reed impersonation.
Let’s check the tape.
McCarthy’s first interception
The Bowling Green defense is running a split-coverage look, playing zone to the strong side and man-to-man to the weak side. Pre-snap, Roman Wilson (No. 1) identifies a potential blitzer, but the defender quickly shifts back into coverage once tight end Colston Loveland goes into motion.
Once the ball is snapped, McCarthy does a great job surveying the entire field. McCarthy glances to the left where Loveland and fellow tight end A.J. Barner are running routes, and continues his progression once he realizes they are covered man-to-man.
Next, McCarthy sees Wilson running a crossing route and understands that he is going to come open shortly. Instead of locking on, McCarthy quickly looks to Cornelius Johnson running a post, who actually comes open late, and then fires a pass to Wilson that is surprisingly intercepted. This interception was not McCarthy’s fault.
The tight ends were supposed to help clear up space and throwing lanes on this side, but Barner drifted too deep into his route. Instead of settling at the goal line or a yard or two before, Barner backs into the end zone and brings his defender with him. The defender does a nice job switching off Barner and jumping the route for an interception in the end zone.
This turnover is not on McCarthy, but following this play, McCarthy gets in his own head a bit as he tries to force plays and target other receivers beyond Wilson. This was what caused his second pick of the night.
McCarthy’s second interception
The Bowling Green defense is in quarters coverage, which for all intents and purposes is a four-deep, three-under zone with man-to-man principles. On this route concept, both receivers are running post routes with slot receiver Roman Wilson tasked with clearing out the middle of the field.
The play is designed for Cornelius Johnson on the outside and that is McCarthy’s fatal flaw on this play —he predetermines where he is going with the ball before the play develops. At the snap, McCarthy fakes to running back Blake Corum and sells the shoulder fake to Donovan Edwards in the flat before looking to Johnson. Once he looks at Johnson, there is nowhere else he is throwing this football.
McCarthy sees the corner playing over the top of Johnson and presumes he will maintain this leverage to effectively box out the defender. Due to some pressure and bodies flying around him, McCarthy glances down, steps up, and immediately fires. However, when McCarthy adjusted, the defender undercut the route and was waiting to make the interception. The defensive back did an excellent job baiting McCarthy, but this ball should have always gone to Wilson.
When McCarthy initially looked at Johnson, he should have completed his progression and he would’ve been able to fire the ball immediately to Wilson. Wilson was so good at clearing out the middle of the field that he sprung wide-open for what would have been an easy touchdown.
Kris Jenkins’s interception
The Wolverines are lined up in Cover 4 against a 3x1 formation. Bowling Green wants to fake a wide receiver screen to the field side and throw a running back screen toward the boundary. There’s only one problem: defensive end Jaylen Harrell (top of the formation) is past the right guard before the quarterback can fully hit his third step in his drop-back.
This pressure from Harrell forces the quarterback to continue to drift backward and throw an errant pass. While this is happening, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins — lined up next to Harrell before the snap — notices the running back leaking out of the backfield during his rush and changes his plan of attack.
Jenkins immediately slams on the brakes and begins playing zone coverage like a ball-hawking free safety. By the time the quarterback chucks up a short-lived prayer, Jenkins easily picks the ball off and begins barreling toward the end zone.
This play is a testament to film study even beyond Jenkins’s play recognition. Fellow defensive tackle Mason Graham is right on Jenkins’s heels to blow up the play and linebacker Michael Barrett is already a shoulder pad into block destruction and contain responsibilities when Jenkins makes the interception.
If McCarthy can match the film study of his defensive line this week, expect a return to form against Rutgers on Saturday.