D.J. Durkin isn't allowed to coach this year, and his DC was also implicated, so the defense is being run by LBs/Special Teams coordinator Matt Barnes, who followed Durkin since Florida (including to Michigan as a defensive analyst). You can be very forgiven—especially if you remember some of the linebacker issues at Maryland under Durkin—for thinking Barnes would walk in with the same system and exacerbate its myriad issues. You'd be wrong. In D.J.'s absence his defense has become suddenly very un-Durkin like. No more single-high safety in the parking lot. Very little 4-3 over. Maryland's Buck linebacker isn't a 100% defensive end! They're not even bad anymore. What are you doing Barnes?
Personnel: My diagram:
Last year Maryland was breaking in a lot of new starters, but only a handful are still on the field. FS Darnell Savage remains the Very Not Boring Safety but a prevalence of good coverage suggests that's now a plus. The rest of his game is attack dog—instances in this game were 75% wicked TFLs (or close to it) and 25% arm-flailing overruns. My guess is the shift to a lot more two-high looks this year has been to play to Savage's strengths. The other two guys we faced last year are DT Mbi Tanyi, now much more comfortable at 3-tech instead of getting blown out at nose all the time, and CB Tino Ellis, who seemed to be playing very far off whenever he was caught on camera.
Almost every spot that gave them trouble last year has been filled with an able non-freshman. BUCK (WDE/LB) Jesse Aniebonam, who had 14 TFLs in 2016, returned from the injury that knocked him out of last year's opener vs. Texas. They've swapped out a cornerback for an FSU transfer, CB Marcus Lewis who's athletic and good in run support, and a middle linebacker for an Illinois one, leading tackler and MLB Tre Watson. The star SS/HSP Antoine Brooks has moved down to the Peppers role full time and is excelling there, and former Michigan commit SS Antwaine Richardson, who filled in at safety for Brooks on nickel snaps in the past, is boringly fine. Auburn transfer and former 247 Composite #3 overall prospect SDE Byron Cowart is finally eligible somewhere and flashing that talent, though he's a step down from graduated Cavon Walker (UDFA to the Bears).
There's also very little drop-off from the starters to the four backup DL, who requested I honor them as a group:
Replacing the other two NFL prospects has gone less well. New NT Adam McClean, a former Top-150 prospect, is just a big big boy who gets stood up by doubles—I decidedly preferred the walk-on from his class, NT Oluwaseun Oluwatimi to the point of wondering why he's not starting. And since Watson had to take Jermaine Carter's old job, WLB Isaiah Davis is still on the field, and therefore still the best way to attack this defense.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown]
Base Set: It's an under now, so much so that I thought I was seeing a 3-4 at times.
The standup DE, which was 50% Aniebonam and 50% his very SAM-shaped backup Bryce Brand, does actually act like a linebacker quite often now, dropping into coverage maybe 15% of the time and even playing straight up linebacker-flavored linebacker. That's Aniebonam standing on the 40 yard line at the bottom of this formation:
On passing downs they are a 3-3-5 with wide splits and the occasional LB or S coming down to threaten blitz. It's still a one-gap system, but the slider toward 3-4 has moved to the point that you can attack this defense like you would a 3-4 (Down G should be back this week). Since Aniebonam stands up most of the time you are welcome to call it a 3-4 now. I won't because I'm pedantic: "Buck linebacker Taco Charlton," QED.
Man or zone coverage: It's an about equal mix of Cover 2, Cover 3, and Man. Again this is a departure from Durkin. It was hard to tell their Cover 1 sometimes from Cover 3 because the cornerbacks are playing off most snaps, another new and non-Durkin element.
It's also probably necessary. This game featured a lot of "5-10" former JuCo CB RaVon Davis instead of the taller FSU transfer, and that became a sore spot versus Texas's big receivers, who by the way are mostly leapy types and not fast.
Tino Ellis is taller but also liable to be overrun. I don't get why they're taking Marcus Lewis off the field. He's the most versatile and from what I saw the best in coverage. But the coaches are probably seeing a lot more that I'm not.
Pressure: GERG or GREG: This is weird because they rush five or six all the time on 1st and 2nd down and then rush just three and a spy or two and a spy on long downs. My guess is that was a response to playing an immobile, panicky, inaccurate true sophomore QB in a sauna and they won't try it against Michigan so much. Numbers is numbers though and theirs comes out to an average of 4.29 rushers per play, second-lowest to SMU. The chart more accurately shows how willing they were to send five on normal downs:
As we'll get to in the overview, the SMU approach is valid here—UMD may not have sent as many rushers as some at the snap, but they had linebackers coming down hard more often than not when they saw run action.
Dangerman: he one thing about Maryland's defense that absolutely reminded me of Durkin's time at Michigan was the "Nickel" who looks and plays a lot like pre-Viper Peppers. That would be Antoine Brooks. This was a guy I had to defend in our Big Ten preview this year, but I'm not at all happy about being (closest to) right.
Whereas Michigan under Brown asks its hybrid space player to set the edge of the defense on running plays, Maryland often gives Brooks a tight end gap he can shoot—swapping on the fly with another defender—and a lot of freedom to take a risk when jetting inside. Brooks responded by destroying just about everything they put in his path.
Brooks vs. a Tight End:
Brooks vs. a Bubble Screen:
Brooks versus a Zone Read:
Brooks vs. a Kickout Block:
Brooks vs. What Did I Tell You About a Bubble Screen?
Brooks vs. Pass Protection:
Brooks vs. a Guard Wanting Any Part of This:
Brooks vs. Both Sides of a Speed Option:
Brooks vs. Any Chance of Texas Winning this Game:
Brooks wins. In fact there was just one battle all game that Brooks didn't dominate…
Brooks vs. Man Coverage Downfield
A-HAH! You are not Peppers after all!
That's the one knock: While Brooks has insane acceleration and directional change, the pure long speed isn't there. Also he's playing the position Jake Ryan played so that matters once a game when this team is sending everybody else and not getting to the quarterback.
The thing about this defense is they're not very sound, and Texas was not very good at exploiting that. Early in the game I decided to go back and track how the linebackers reacted to run action before a handoff was made, since blitzballiness seems to be a theme among Michigan opponents this year. The results on 29 snaps with inside runs or play-action were:
- 6 times they held back in position to drop into coverage
- 8 times they stepped toward the line but warily, watching for an option
- 15 times the LBs charged hard toward their gaps
In other words 79% of the time when Texas put a ball near the running back's basket, the Maryland's middle linebackers didn't wait around for the survival analysis before charging into the Rookery. For some boggling reason, Texas kept making the Leeroy Jenkii right. The Longhorns threw just two play-action passes, both in the second half, before the option was taken away from them by gotta-pass-it time. When they did…
…it was wide open, at least until Savage came down like a kamikaze from his cover two overhang.
The other interesting thing about New Maryland is they're using the Buck linebacker as a 3-4 team uses its weakside OLB. It's not going particularly well:
#6 on the end of the line of scrimmage
But it does present issues when you've got guys like Cowart and Brooks hanging around the opposite edge and the line call was expecting to worry about the pass rush specialist guy.
Speaking of that, pass rush is still an issue—hence the bringing five or max coverage tricks, probably. The tackles occasionally muscle through and you get the odd play from Aniebonam or Cowart, but for the most part Texas's OL was able to keep their QB clean. I didn't give Aniebonam the star I was expecting to because he struggled to get any pass rush in this game, even when matched with the left tackle in a ton of space on a pure passing down. I also remembered far too late who Texas's (very good) left tackle is.
That's a different timeline. In ours, Maryland's defense has cobbled together something approaching respectable, and is probably only suffering in S&P+ because their DBs give up too many big passes in man coverage, and their competition outside of this game was atrocious. While they can't live forever playing linebacker the way they did in this game, those edge rushers will be another test for Michigan's offensive tackles, who by the way lost their circles as a reward for surviving The Gaz intact. If Runyan looks as good against Aniebonam as that guy who plays for Texas, Michigan's season might be in business.
Quickly, Special Teams
The punter Wade Lees is a 30-year-old Aussie who lost his star this year because his leg is starting to lose its oomph in his old age. He's accurate but they should probably try to get a deep guy for the next 1.5 years of Lees's eligibility. He's also nearly twice the age of the starting kicker, Joe (no relation) Petrino, a true freshman who can kick with either leg, nailed 60-yarders in high school, and is 3/3 this year (40, 33, chip shot).
The punt returner is the slot bug Taivon Jacobs, who's so old I think we drafted him in 2014 Draftageddon. He is a standard Maryland slot bug of moderate danger. As mentioned in the offense section Ty Johnson is their kick returner. He doesn't like to fair catch, which good for you Ty I appreciate kick returners who want the dang ball. He is also Ty Johnson so if you're going to let him take his shot you have to corral and don't let him make that upfield cut.
— Ace Anbender (@AceAnbender) October 5, 2018