Previously: Northwestern Offense
Matthew Harris forms half of arguably the best corner duo in the B1G. [Fuller]
Let's get this out of the way: Minnesota's offense is bad, they should feel bad, and trying to scout an opposing defense based on their performance against the Gophers is difficult because of that. I stopped charting when Minnesota benched Mitch Leidner for a true freshman. I hope you understand.
Personnel: Seth's diagram [click to embiggen]:
This is a defense with standouts on every level; it was tempting to give both of their safeties stars as well, but I didn't see enough of them in coverage, and that wasn't their fault.
Base Set? 4-3 under, though Northwestern will shift to an over depending on the offense's alignment. When Minnesota went three-wide (which was rare), nickel Keith Watkins replaced SAM Drew Smith. Former four-star recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo comes in as a pass-rush specialist for the most part.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]
Man or zone coverage? Northwestern ran a lot of Cover 3 on passing downs in this game, allowing Leidner to throw dumpoffs into the flat and making sure nothing was open over the top. They were also comfortable letting their corners play man, though they usually played off instead of pressing.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? The Wildcats mostly played straight-up until obvious passing downs, when they'd often bring a couple extra rushers. They'll bring a defensive back off the edge or go with a double A-gap blitz from their nickel set.
Dangerman: MIKE Anthony Walker flew under the radar heading into the season, but it's hard not to notice him now that he's amassed 44 tackles and 8.5 TFLs through five games for one of the most surprisingly strong defenses in the country. While he's a tiny bit undersized at 6'1, 235, he's got great athleticism for an inside linebacker, and his ability to read and react only makes it easier for him to shut down plays in a hurry:
Walker is at his best going sideline to sideline but he can also shed blocks and make plays between the tackles; he's also a solid cover linebacker.
Both of Northwestern's cornerbacks, Nick VanHoose and Matthew Harris, also deserve mention here. Both have good size and are tough to beat in coverage; Minnesota didn't test VanHoose at all and when they went at Harris, it burned them:
That throw is a bad idea but Harris makes a great break on the ball; that's not unusual for him—he plays the ball very well in the air. VanHoose is less of a playmaker but is in the receiver's hip pocket so much that he doesn't get thrown at much.
While Minnesota's offensive ineptitude certainly played a factor, this defense is legit, if a little light on playmakers in the front seven outside of Walker and defensive end Dean Lowry.
Starting up front, Lowry has taken the Ryan Van Bergen track; always solid, he's now reached the point where he's stronger than most linemen he faces, and when he's not making the tackle himself he's usually in the right spot to drive the play towards free hitters. The rest of the D-line didn't really stand out, good or bad; they held the point of attack well against Minnesota but most of the actual plays were made by linebackers or Northwestern's aggressive safeties.
Walker is easily the team's best linebacker. WILL Jaylen Prater had a very quiet game; he had a hard time getting off blocks and looked to be victimized on a couple throws to the flat when he was in zone coverage. (BTN replay angles made deciphering coverages somewhat difficult.) SAM Drew Smith might be the weak spot in this defense. He missed multiple tackles and got out of position a couple times, especially when asked to play in space—he went on the wrong side of a block when shaded over the slot on a bubble screen that would've resulted in a big play if not for a great tackle from safety Godwin Igwebuike.
Igwebuike and Traevon Henry both had great games in run support, helped by the fact they could play 8-10 yards off the ball since Minnesota was no threat to throw the ball downfield. Both are solid wrap-up tacklers and they take good angles to the ball. As for their ability in coverage, I can only go by the numbers, which show they've been great at preventing big plays.
Michigan's offense will have their hands full. They should be able to get movement in the running game, and I think they can attack the edge Smith is playing on. Minnesota also had success throwing to the flat and could've had a couple big gains on receiver screens if they'd blocked better on the perimeter. That hopefully will be enough for Michigan to exploit—and based on the matchup on the other side of the ball, it should be—as the pass defense might be tough for this team to crack unless Rudock plays much better than he has so far this season.