Fee Fi Foe Film: Minnesota Defense

Submitted by Seth on November 2nd, 2017 at 2:00 PM



image[Author note: Ace is out sick this week; you’re stuck with Seth again.]


Fancystats-wise P.J. Fleck’s first defense in St. Paul is treading water with the top 25 outfits that Kill and his successor were putting out: 23rd in S&P+, 21st in scoring, not standout in any facet. (Except the nose tackle, but we’ll get to him.)

We’ve said this before, but that appears to be a mirage. Throw a rock in any of a thousand Minnesota lakes and a magical fairy will appear to tell you the Gophers are banged up in the secondary and living on scrap, luck, and an easy schedule (against which they’re 4-4 but the offense is another day). The Gophers had to burn a 174-pound kid’s redshirt last week just to get two cornerbacks on the field. That, predictably, did not go well.

On paper, Michigan’s players are better. I’d be comfortable about this, if I wasn’t being reminded every day about the last time Michigan faced a paper-thin secondary in Ann Arbor in the rain at night with a trophy on the line. This thing isn’t that thing. But they’re not far off.


Personnel: [Big formation diagram can be made bigger with a click]


(Stelter was starting NT before Richardson emerged)

Michigan things: Sorry no star for Peters yet. Michigan lists Onwenu as questionable; I imagine Runyan will play if he can’t go by Saturday night.

Minnesota things: As you may gather from the cyan, the degradation from #DBU to a Rodriguez-era Michigan secondary has much to do with who’s not on the field. The sexual assault scandal that got embittered doofus Tracy Claeys fired hit the defensive backs hardest. For three and a half games this year, the lone survivor of those suspensions, spacebacker Antoine Winfield Jr. (yes, old person, you read that correctly) was the star of a defense giving up 4 YPP. His replacement Kamal Martin is closer to the linebacker end of the spacebacker spectrum and close to a cyan’ing—he’ll bust at least one coverage bigly per game but make a handful of good plays against the run.

The Gophers subsequently lost both starting cornerbacks, Kiondre Thomas and Antonio Shenault. Replacing one meant moving the Troy Woolfolk-like Kunle Ayinde to cornerback and dimeback Jacob Huff to starting free safety. This worked and didn’t: Ayinde is more natural at corner and his run defense is as valuable off the edge as it was coming down from on high. If Ayinde is Woolfolk, Huff is Michael Williams, i.e. a born nickelback who’s a bust waiting to happen as the deep safety. Losing Shenault was the last straw: true freshman CB Justus Harris started against Iowa and there’s your Boubacar Cissoko. They’ve also pulled the redshirt off of safety Ken Handy-Holly, the highest rated player of Fleck’s first class; he tends to fall down at an alarming rate.

The lone returning starter still on the field is SS/OLB Daletavious “Duke” McGhee, a heavy-hitter whose rap sheet of targeting suspensions is an apt description of his game.

MLB Thomas Barber (yes THOSE Barbers) passed 2016 starter/walk-on Cody Poock and has a knack for dodging OL then missing a tackle. WLB Jonathan Celestin doesn’t pop out but he’s decisive and avoids mistakes against the run, and can handle a large middle zone in pass pro.

NT Steven Richardson is trouble; he doesn’t have enough NFL hype to justify a shield, however his PFF numbers argue otherwise and I can see why: think Ryan Glasgow. The other inside spot is a rotation between planet-sized DT Merrick Jackson, who’s rather eventful, and Van Bergen-ian DT Gary Moore who’s more sound but more pliable. Former blue chip SDE Carter Coughlin is undersized for a 4-3 over strongside end and makes up for it by getting aggressive, for better and worse. In their passing down sets Coughlin will often drop into coverage, where he was a consistent disaster. WDE Nate Umlor is just a guy; he’s solid against the run and not much of a pass rush threat.

On passing downs Minnesota normally went to a 3-3-5 Okie look to get Jake Ryan-esque sophomore DE/OLB Blake Cashman on the field. Cashman had 10.5 TFLs and 7.5 sacks last year as a situational Furbush/3-4 OLB but they haven’t gotten him as involved this year.

[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown]


Base Set? EXTREME 4-2-5 over that often treats its backside hybrid safety like a 3-4 OLB.


This plays well into the personnel above: the SDE is the smaller, pass rushy, edge defender-y guy and the WDE is as or more capable of taking on doubles. This also puts their huge DT in the frontside gaps that burly offenses like to run through.

Against Iowa’s frequent heavy sets Minnesota regularly stacked the box and ran Cover 1 behind it.


Iowa ran into this because Iowa versus anyone but Michigan is more DeBord than the offense that’s literally coached by Mike DeBord

The SLB in this case is hanging out like a normal 4-3 SAM on the linebacker level and McGhee is rolled down off the double-TE edge, whence he’ll follow the motion man.


no YOU’RE second and ten is a passing down

You might think Iowa play-actioned from this and chucked it deep to a tight end matched against a true freshman cornerback starting because there literally wasn’t anybody else. You would be correct that they play-actioned.

Busting them out of this is going to take a bit more punishing version of Peters than we saw in his debut.

Man or zone coverage? They’ll mix it up. It used to be you could rely on Minnesota to play man all day, but there’s been so much turnover they’re now more of a Cover 2 team that goes old fashioned Cover 4 (not Quarters) on long passing downs. There’s still plenty of Cover 1, especially from their big box sets. The ZERO that was the hallmark of Jerry Kill’s defenses has disappeared but for some fancy blitzes.

Pressure: GERG or Greg? Split the middle. Minnesota will bring usually four, often five, never more, rarely fewer. The extra blitzer is most often one of the hybrid safeties off the edge. Iowa has a decent pass pro OL so this is probably unfair, but pressure was just about nil in this game except out of their Mattison-like Okie 3rd down package.

They still do the Minnesota thing where the linebackers show blitz then usually back out into short zones. That can cause havoc when they break tendency.

That was Cashman, Minnesota’s version of Josh Uche, faking a back-out then looping around. I don’t think they trusted the DBs yet enough to pull Celestin or Barber out of coverage in this game but you can bet they’ll be way more Don Brown against Michigan’s dodgy right side.


Dangerman: I admit I’m not being consistent with the stars. I think we’ve covered Ayinde and Celestin in the personnel section; those stars were given out to differentiate the B+ players from the rest of the guys. The stars I gave to Rutgers’s NTs were similar, and I point that out now because Minnesota’s NT Steven Richardson is a bona fide star, even if he just misses the shield cutoff.

Since I’m sucking at this for you let’s get our starter Ace’s take from this year’s HTTV “Key Players” section:

Sr. DT Steven Richardson. According to PFF, Richardson recorded four or more pressures in six of nine Big Ten games last year, and he also took a huge leap forward against the run. After he was relegated to third-team all-conference honors last year, he’ll be up there with Maurice Hurst in contention for a spot on the first team.

Mo Hurst performing at Suh level and Ohio State’s endless parade of murdertanks is putting a damper on the all-conference talk but Richardson’s game should be amply familiar to you who closely observed the collegiate careers of Messiers Mike Martin and Ryan Glasgow.

#96 in case the Glasgow-ity wasn’t apparent

Richardson doesn’t get many opportunities to pin his ears back and rush the pocket, but when he does he’s got that core middle strength to demand attention or go where he pleases:

Iowa spent most of the day running outside zone away from this guy but that meant trying to double the 330-pound DT who’s really more like 360 pounds and Richardson would just flow down the line and stop it anyway. Michigan was able to run power (which attacks much the same spot as outside zone) all day against the good DTs of Rutgers but Kugler is going to find keeping Richardson out of the backfield hard enough; cuts to the backside are unlikely to feature nearly as much.

Oh, and don’t even bother trying your fancy Harbaugh crap here:

it’s a trap! /blows up Death Star anyway

Needless to say I really hope Onwenu’s ding last week was precautionary. Kugler and Runyan versus this guy sounds like a bad day.



With this Michigan offense I’d much rather face a defense like Rutgers’s with bad linebackers and iffy edge defenders, than one with an iffy secondary (hullo Michigan State). Despite Ferentz’s antediluvian offensive playcalling, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley is a legit (141.3 QBR, 17 TD/4 INT this year) quarterback who broke a bevy of erstwhile sack tackles (sackles?—sorrynotsorry) and regularly found the openings that a sushi raw secondary left him. His one interception should have been a 94-yard touchdown (note the backup NT is in).

…that his receiver derfed. Can we do that? This is my concern: as with the MSU game you can throw verts and somewhere there will be a 5’9” guy on a Zentry or a linebacker-like safety getting dusted by Donovan Peoples-Jones. As with MSU it’s a gorram night game in the rain, except this time add cold and an unblockable nose tackle. Part the skies, hold back the flood, find the open land: Brandon Peters’s savior checklist is getting literally biblical.

Then again, this isn’t the Red Sea.

That’s the first-ever start for a true freshman cornerback in a defense that runs multiple coverages. His second-ever start is liable to come with similar borfs if you watch him. Get him out in space against, say, Perry, and you don’t have to be Tom Luck.

I wouldn’t give up on running the base power stuff either, especially if Onwenu is okay. Iowa tried a few pulls in this game and they went fine:

They use the safety as an edge defender, which wins them another guy able to hit the point of attack, but also adds to the wipeout factor of kickout blocks. On the above Iowa’s excellent right guard took advantage of the BigMcLargeHuge DT’s build by getting under him. That dude, Merrick Jackson, is really hit or miss, and as you can see when you pair his misses with a 200-pound guy trying to set the edge there’s quite a gap.

The backups, with the exception of the other DT, are also a big step down if you can get them locked on the field. Here they are versus a thing Michigan does:

Past events have taught me never to expect nice things. But barring an epic amount of crap luck I think Michigan’s offense can score enough to come out ahead in a 1950s game and hold onto a trophy that’s way better looking anyway.



November 2nd, 2017 at 2:18 PM ^

At what point does JBB's run blocking prowess outweight his pass block liability to remove the cyan? Not a rhetorical, I'd really like to know.


November 2nd, 2017 at 2:39 PM ^

but if he grades 65% vs the run, and only 35% against the pass - but Michigan runs 60% of the time vs 40% passing plays, JBB rates above average each play throughout the game, correct?

- asking for a friend

- hot take of the day

did i miss any dumb buzz-phrases?


November 2nd, 2017 at 2:40 PM ^

"On paper, Michigan’s players are better"*

I love you guys.

I love MGoBlog.

I listen to Sam/Sam's podcast every day(as face-palm inducing as that can be sometimes). But at some point we have to accept who we are until we're not that anymore.

*(I realize you qualiified the above statement by stating that you're reminded everyday about MSU).

This is a trophy game, at night, in the probable rain, with a new QB, new-ish receivers, new-ish OL, and only glimpses of being a complete team when playing inferior opponents.

We were in a dogfight with Rutgers for 1.5 quarters. I expect this game, and every remaining game, to be hotly contested until such time we "ground & pound" teams not named Indiana or Rutgers.

I'll take all the negs and get off my soapbox.


November 2nd, 2017 at 2:46 PM ^

for Michigan
  • Perry/Gentry >>> derpy tiny true fr cb
  • McKeon/TWJ >> Backup SAM
  • Peters > Borky free safety replacement
  • Hammer Panda > hothead hitman HSP
  • Onwenu > the DT rotation
  • Bredeson > WDE
  • Cole > Barber


  • Higdon = Celestin

for Minnesota

  • Kugler <<< Richardson
  • JBB << light SDE
  • DPJ/Schoenle < Ayinde

10-1-6. Not a blowout, but this is a decent enough ratio. Anyway that's what I meant by on paper.


November 2nd, 2017 at 3:03 PM ^

Peter's > borky safety.  Here's hoping so, but we really don't know.

Kugler <<< Richardson + JBB << light SDE = problematic for a team trying to execute Power.

My point is, I think sometimes we give ourselves a little more credit than we deserve while dismissing the opponents more than we should.



November 2nd, 2017 at 3:01 PM ^

Michigan is flawed. Buuuuuuut on paper Michigan is better. There's no debating that. Michigan is better in the following areas:

  • Record
  • Conference record
  • Points per game
  • Points per game allowed
  • Yards per play
  • Yards per play allowed
  • Yards per carry
  • Yards per carry allowed
  • Yards per pass
  • Yards per pass allowed
  • First downs
  • First downs allowed
  • S&P+ ranking
  • S&P+ offense
  • S&P+ defense
  • S&P+ special teams

I mean... shit, man.


November 3rd, 2017 at 12:18 AM ^

We have beaten every team we rank higher than.  We have lost to the two teams we rank lower than.  Per the fancystats, we should win this game by two scores.  What the fancystats don't tell us though, is that a RS FR QB in his first start, at night, in cold crappy weather might make things un-fancystat-able.  We have a ton of known positives, just don't know if Peters will help or hinder those positives Saturday night.  My gut tells me he will get a maximum of 20 passing attempts unless things get weird.  If he keeps calm and trusts his defense to get him the ball back, he should be fine.


November 3rd, 2017 at 5:58 PM ^

But I wonder how many of those would have held up in games in the last 12 months against MSU, FSU or Iowa.  

And that's about half of the comparable opposition faced, give or take a game based on your opinion of B1G mid level programs

snarling wolverine

November 2nd, 2017 at 3:07 PM ^

We were in a dogfight with Rutgers for 1.5 quarters

Of course, that was before a personnel change at a rather key position.

Also, are we considering playing at night at home to be a disadvantage?  I was at the MSU game; the atmosphere was terrific.  Playing at night only hurt us in that it happened to rain then, after having clear skies during the day.

snarling wolverine

November 2nd, 2017 at 3:50 PM ^

I get that you're playing the devil's advocate, but calling that his "first career start" is wrong in every respect.

His first career start was at Houston in 2013.

His first career Michigan start was vs. IU in 2016.

His first significant playing time this season was two weeks earlier against Purdue.

You're trying too hard here to shoehorn the Minny game into the narrative of the MSU game.  Minny is 4-4 despite playing a very weak schedule.  They are doubtful to make a bowl.




November 2nd, 2017 at 4:08 PM ^

John O'Korn has been a subpar college QB essentially for all of his career, getting benched at Houston, getting beaten out by an inexperienced Speight last year, struggling mightily against Indiana, and struggling again this year with the sole exception of his curious, Nick Sheridan-at-Minnesota-style outlier performance at Purdue.

We have far less data on Peters, but in his two public outings (the spring game and Rutgers) he's looked good.  Maybe he'll turn out to be a flash in the pan but there is no particular reason to believe that now.

Watching From Afar

November 2nd, 2017 at 3:35 PM ^

I don't remember the pre-MSU write ups all that well, but the game went about 1 of the 2 ways it could according to what most people thought if not for the monsoon. Unfortunately that 1 way it went was a close slog that ended in a loss rather than a 10-14 point win.

DPJ running a fly, 4 yards open down the sideline - JOK under throws him and lets MSU's 5'10" CB get back into the play.

Gentry running open at the 1 with a safety giving up 7 inches trailing 2 yards behind. JOK didn't throw it.

Perry matched up on a LB running a slant/in (huge mismatch) and JOK doesn't throw it.

MSU would script a drive together and score a TD - That happened. The other TD was on a short field after a fumble.

Running zone didn't work and we knew that going in, but the coaching staff ran it anyways and got swarmed up. The power stuff was working fine from what I remember but as the game went on and the passing game was poor, MSU just loaded up more and more into the box until JOK started throwing in a monsoon. It shouldn't have gotten to that point, but it did because Michigan missed 3 TDs in the first half through poor decision making and/or poor execution. MSU on the other hand, executed on the 30 yard jump ball that Watson missed out on and the screen play. To their credit, they executed the 2 plays they needed to get the lead and Michigan didn't.

Was the pre-game post probably too cocky? Yeah. I wouldn't doubt it.

Did the pre-game post say "Do this and it will succeed" only to be followed with doing "that" but not throwing the damn ball early? Resulting in MSU getting up and then suffocating the life out of Michigan's offense? Absolutely.


November 2nd, 2017 at 3:47 PM ^

You all can make excuses all you want, but people, both employed and not, on this blog were very dismissive of State before the game. In fact, most people on this blog seem to have regained that old time Michigan arrogance (that I do indeed love), despite the fact we haven't truly earned it back yet.

I miss the old days of OSU area code 1-9-1 too, but 3-9 is not that that.


Watching From Afar

November 2nd, 2017 at 4:00 PM ^

I'm not justifying it so much as I'm saying that the pre-game posts about how Michigan could beat MSU based on doing X,Y, and Z weren't unfounded. The schemes and plans that were written up in the psots were right, they just weren't executed. The cocky 1 liners and such don't take away from what did work in that game up until the point of execution.

MSU's secondary isn't good. NW just put up over 300 yards in regulation on them and MSU hasn't faced a good passing team all season. Michigan wasn't going to throw for 300+ yards, but they COULD have had 3 TDs that were for not because of bad/no throws. Not because MSU's secondary is great and the posters before the game were completely wrong.

MSU's offense was going to get a TD on a scripted drive that had plays Michigan never saw before. That screen was exactly the play (and the jump ball). That doesn't mean the original post saying "MSU will need a scripted drive and some luck to score" is wrong because it wasn't.

Flip it around and say I predicted MSU wins because Lewerke is Tom Brady and their defense is MSU circa 2013. I could be right that MSU would win, but not based off of the reasons I gave.


November 3rd, 2017 at 9:21 AM ^

Sure, Michigan didn't execute on everything we needed to. 


That doesn't negate the fact that the Writers here thought MSU was much worse than they actually turned out to be. Their defense is very solid. And Lewerke is looks above average for sure. 


MSU is probably going to go 8-4, but they'll be/have been closer to 9-3 than 7-5 (their closest game is actually a loss this year so far, vs. Northwestern).

A lot around these parts were predicting a 5-7/6-6 type of year. 

Watching From Afar

November 3rd, 2017 at 11:17 AM ^

"That doesn't negate the fact that the Writers here thought MSU was much worse than they actually turned out to be."

Sure, you could definitely say that. I'm not arguing that so much as I'm saying that even though MSU's defense is solid, the pre-game posts that said "don't run zone, the LBs will crush it, pick on their safeties, and hit downfield throws to win." The post wasn't "MSU's CBs are slow and can't cover a high school WR." It was the MSU CBs have left guys 3 yards open multiple times (shown by screenshots from previous games) but no QB has hit any of those throws.

Michigan ran zone something like 40% of the time IIRC. Those plays didn't work. Chalk that up to the post being correct.

Michigan had 2 TDs on the safeties/LBs specifically that weren't even thrown because JOK apparently doesn't see 6'7" guys and no one will throw Perry the damn ball in cover 0 on a LB who can't touch him. Again, the post was correct.

The other TD would have been a 70 yard bomb with DPJ outrunning MSU's best CB in Scott, but it was underthrown. So again, the post was correct.

MSU's record this year is obviously better than last year's and a lot of that has to do with QB play. The defense is better, but it's propped up by playing teams with 0 passing game and that allows them to sqaush the run by putting their safeties at 8 yards. I fully expect PSU and OSU to come out and lay the wood on them because their QBs will at least throw the for sure passes they're supposed to. Something JOK didn't do.


November 2nd, 2017 at 4:28 PM ^

People were rightfully dismissive of sparty, they were not and are not any good. I think most people assumed that in year 3 of the Harbaugh era we could count on something approaching competent QB play, which I still contend is a reasonable expectation. If that happens they win that game, probably easily.