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.