protip: avoid this guy
There were two full Indiana games from this season against FBS competition available online: Virginia and Penn State. Guess which game I went with to get the best representation of how IU would fare against an offense of Michigan's quality?
(Sigh.) Hello, Hoos.
To add to the depressing nature of this post, Indiana completely shut down Virginia, ceding only 3.5 yards per play by eliminating the run and forcing UVA to dink and dunk their way to any success. Virginia drives in this game before garbage time:
- seven three-and-outs
- two turnovers on downs on drives under 50 yards
- 7 plays, 20 yards, field goal
- 8 plays, 55 yards, touchdown, drive extended via iffy DPI call
- 10 plays, 75 yards, touchdown, drive featured two turnovers (one a strip/sack/touchdown) that were negated by extremely dubious penalties
This was a thrashing of the #62 S&P offense in the country. Michigan ranks 69th, which in this case is not nice. Not nice at all.
Personnel: Seth's diagram [click to embiggen]:
On Michigan's side, we're no longer pretending to know the starting running back, and we've replaced Nolan Ulizio with Juwann Bushell-Beatty at right tackle after that change was made during the MSU game.
Indiana is dealing with some injuries, mainly in their secondary. Cornerback A'Shon Riggins and hybrid safety Marcelino Ball are "questionable at best" according to coach Tom Allen. Nose tackle Nate Hoff, who missed last week with an undisclosed injury, is expected to play this weekend; IU was being cautious last week given their matchup with Charleston Southern.
Base Set? 4-2-5, and they'll stay in that personnel against most opposition looks—the main variation was lifting a safety for another lineman when UVA was in a goal-to-go situation. As Seth noted in last year's FFFF, it essentially functions as a 3-4:
Base Set? A 4-2-5 that’s spiritually more like a 3-4. I pulled this from the MSU tape to show you what it tends to look like against how Michigan lines up:
The “husky” is a hybrid space player who for Indiana leans toward the blitzy linebacker end of the scale. As Michigan fans we’re used to 4-2-5 defenses we face being those MSU/OSU/Virginia Tech quarters things that make the WLB a coverage LB. This is more akin in spirit to “true” 4-2-5s like Michigan’s 4-3, where the SAM is an attack piece and the WLB/MLB are mostly interchangeable light linebackers.
Much like in a 3-4, the defensive linemen are mostly charged with taking on blocks so the linebackers and safeties can flow to the ball unencumbered.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]
Man or zone coverage? A ton of Cover 1/Cover 4/pattern-matching, so most of what Indiana runs functions like man coverage. Virginia's passing attack was almost entirely limited to quick-hitters to the tight end off play-action, which were good for 5-7 yard gains against the aggressive linebackers, but not more than that because of the aggressive safeties.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? Tom Allen, like Don Brown, likes to solve his problems with aggression. You can expect some exotic looks and five or six rushers on passing downs, and he's not at all afraid to bring heat on early downs, either.
Dangerman: Indiana's best player in this game was cornerback Rashard Fant, who's very much on the NFL radar despite his small stature. He recorded 39(!!!) pass breakups over the past two seasons; for some reason (presumably his size), opponents love to target him even though it rarely works. The deep shot that graces the top of this post shows off Fant's remarkably quick feet and recovery speed. That was far from the only shot Virginia took at Fant. Let's see how they went:
I actually clipped another but I think you get the point. This was akin to watching UVA bang their head against a wall. Fant is technically sound, comfortable in both press man and off coverage, and handsy in a way that occasionally draws a flag (he picked up a hold in this game) but usually just makes it extremely tough to make a clean play on the ball. His style is reminiscent of Jourdan Lewis and his ability isn't far off.
Indiana's most heralded defender, inside linebacker Tegray Scales, had a relatively quiet outing against Virginia, but mostly because the Hoos couldn't get through the D-line and then abandoned the run. "Relatively quiet" by his standards still featured eight tackles, 1.5 for loss, and half a sack.
Scales is at his best when he's going downhill; he has five run stuffs and 3.5 sacks while leading the team in tackles this season. He's a bit undersized, but IU utilizes him a lot like Michigan does Devin Bush, sending him on a lot of blitzes so he can knife past linemen or build a strong head of steam before taking on blocks. His mobility also makes him an asset in coverage.
As mentioned in the personnel section, nose tackle Nate Hoff is expected to play after sitting out against Charleston Southern, and that's great news for IU. Hoff isn't super flashy—his three TFLs and one sack don't jump off the page—but his job is to take on doubles, and he does that with aplomb. On the rare occasion he does face single blocking, he often makes a play out of it:
If Hoff isn't 100%, his backup, Mike Barwick Jr., is similarly sized and looked quite capable against Virginia. Depth could be a problem if Hoff can't give it a go but it seems like him sitting out last week was more precautionary than anything.
Hoff led a really strong performance against the run by the defensive line, which consistently kept the linebackers clean. Both three-techs, Jacob Robinson and Jerome Johnson, had impressive TFLs after beating blocks in this game, and nobody stood out as a weak point. The defensive ends, Robert McCray III and Greg Gooch, hold up well against the run but have trouble generating pressure on their own; they'll probably generate pressure anyway against Michigan's right tackle, whoever that ends up being.
The linebacker level is where the plays really start getting made. Scales is a sideline-to-sideline demon, and while IU lost a quality ILB to graduation in Marcus Oliver, they have a worthy replacement in Chris Covington. I would've given Covington a star if not for a couple plays in coverage in which he appeared to blow an assignment. He was otherwise excellent. Like Scales, he's undersized and mobile; his best play came when he quickly beat a block and tackled in space on a screen pass that was otherwise going for big yardage.
While IU is probably going to be without hybrid space player Marcelino Ball, that might be addition by subtraction. Ball is a talented, athletic young player; he also routinely busts assignments and was picked on in the underneath passing game by Virginia. Meanwhile, Indiana boasts three safeties with extensive starting experience; one of the three, Tony Fields, has shifted down to Ball's spot, and he should be an upgrade in most aspects that aren't blitzing. That's still a hit, as Allen likes to send his HSP into the backfield, but I think this is their best lineup.
The primary deep safeties in this game were Jonathan Crawford and Chase Dutra, who'll fill those roles on Saturday. They were barely tested against Virginia. Crawford was one of the better cover safeties in the conference last year, though he's prone to taking some iffy angles against the run. Dutra is a solid fifth-year senior. While UVA wasn't looking to go deep over the middle, it didn't look like there was much to attack there in the first place.
A'Shon Riggins's injury means IU is down a good cornerback, but Andre Brown Jr. wasn't beaten in the spot snaps he saw against UVA, and he now has four starts under his belt. He's also facing Michigan's receivers. I don't expect M's wideouts to have much success on the outside.
Virginia ended up attempting to make an entire offense out of screens and quick hitters, hoping to either break a big play or get half-decent gains out of man-beating route combos. They never managed the former, though they came close on the Covington slip screen tackle, but they had success with the latter:
The vast majority of Virginia's offensive success came when they caught IU in a blitz and RPS'd them. I suspect Michigan will require a similar approach. Indiana has been excellent at preventing big plays this year. Given M's troubles stringing together positive plays this season, this isn't a great setup for an offensive turnaround. They're going to have to find a way to run the ball and consistently hit short-to-intermediate passes to keep the chains moving; I don't think anyone who's watched the offense of late is particularly optimistic that'll happen.
If Michigan is going to find a way to win, it's going to be through creative, timely playcalling. Virginia's long touchdown drive was capped by a flare screen that caught IU sending the house:
Three blockers, three defenders, walk-in touchdown. Virginia didn't dial up enough of these—and their quarterback didn't always execute when they did—to keep this game truly competitive. Hopefully Jim Harbaugh, John O'Korn, and company can do better.