Previously: Wisconsin Offense
we've got a Watt situation here
As I discussed yesterday, Wisconsin's offensive output in their blowout of MSU could be a mirage. The defense, on the other hand—well, here's the drive chart up to the point UW took a 30-6 lead:
Even when facing the 77th-ranked offense by S&P+, that is dominance—and while Wisconsin could cede more yardage on State's garbage-time drives, they picked off two more passes and didn't allow any points.
Wisconsin's linebackers will be one of the best position groups Michigan faces all year, and the defense as a whole looks very good. This is a huge test, especially for the offensive line and Wilton Speight.
Personnel: Seth's diagram [click to embiggen]:
[EDIT: This has been updated to reflect the status of Vince Biegel, UW's star OLB who's been ruled out indefinitely with a foot injury. The guess here is UW slides starting ILB Jack Cichy outside and starts ILB Leon Jacobs, who looked the best of the backup linebackers against MSU. ILB Ryan Connelly and OLB Zack Baun are also candidates to step into the starting lineup; UW rotates a fair amount at ILB anyway.]
Yes, those are shields on both outside linebackers; we've changed the criteria slightly since NFL draft stuff isn't really relevant to these posts, which will please Ryan Glasgow fans—and who isn't one?—when we update these next week.
If anything, we were a little conservative handing out stars this week. TJ Edwards was one of the better ILBs in the Big Ten last year, but he looked just a hair behind the other three in on-field impact; there's a strong argument to be made that all four UW LBs deserve stars. I was also impressed with Sojourn Shelton, but had to mostly punt on the secondary since Idiot BTN Director was back in full force:
What's happening downfield? Hell if I know.
Base Set? 3-4. When going to nickel, UW will lift the nose tackle as most 3-4 teams do.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]
Man or zone coverage? As best I could tell, UW played a lot of two-deep zones. They mixed in some one-high, man-free looks as well.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? Having four good linebackers and a stout D-line that's better at holding ground than penetrating the backfield leads to a lot of blitzing. UW rarely sits back on passing downs, and they can often get pressure by disguising looks and dropping DL/blitzers off after they initially look like they're coming after the QB. Tyler O'Connor had no choice but to chuck this ball away when a DT and ILB fell back, leaving MSU with four OL blocking one defender while LJ Scott had four free rushers bearing down on him:
O'Connor's first pick came when TJ Watt disguised his blitz until the last moment, allowing UW to overload one side of MSU's line despite only rushing five. O'Connor panicked and threw it directly to the corner playing the flat.
M's line will have to be on their game in identifying rushers and not tipping the snap, and Speight must continue to show poise when rushers come in free—that's going to happen against this front seven.
Dangerman: The TJ Watt play embedded at the top of the post is as impressive as Matt Millen (I know, I know) makes it out to be; he crushes the fullback lead blocker to the point the pulling guard can't get a proper block on anyone, then spins off and makes the initial contact. While the end zone replay is the best look at it, I included the broadcast view so you could also see DE Conor Sheehy impressively stand up to a double-team. While Sheehy isn't a pass-rush threat, he doesn't have to be given UW's style of play, and he's excellent against the run after playing out of position as a very undersized nose tackle last year.
Back to Watt, though. He's playing at an extremely high level in his first year as a starter, grading out at +8.7 overall on PFF (+5.7 vs. run, +3.1 pass rush). Any issues he might have in coverage—and there was one I'll note later—are mostly hidden by the fact he's usually going after the QB instead of dropping back. He's hard to handle on the edge and great at taking on blocks. The only negative I saw was a habit of spinning inside and allowing the QB to break contain.
And, at least for now, Watt isn't Wisconsin's best outside linebacker. Vince Biegel isn't piling up the traditional stats yet with one sack among two TFLs, but he's getting to the QB more than any other Big Ten edge defender:
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) September 26, 2016
Biegel effectively killed off three MSU drives with third-down pressures. Two of them came off a nifty inside swim move:
He's also a very good run defender, and he'd be grading out better than Watt overall if not for a -1.7 mark due to a couple penalties, neither of which came in this game (or at least the semi-competitive portion).
Finally, Jack Cichy has settled in at ILB after playing both inside and outside in a rotational role last year. He's the best coverage linebacker on the team, an effective blitzer—just ask USC—and a stout run defender. He lines up on the far hash on this play, reads the jet action, swims past a releasing lineman, and makes a nice open-field tackle on RJ Shelton:
If I'd caught a different game, there's a good chance Edwards would have a star, too. These linebackers are legit; backup ILB Leon Jacobs also looked good in limited action, making a nice stop on the interior and also showing off the ability to play the run sideline to sideline.
I got a lot of the important stuff out of the way above, especially regarding the linebackers.
Up front, Sheehy was easily the most impressive lineman. NT Olive Sagapolu is a massive 340 pounds, but I don't think he'll give Mason Cole nearly as much trouble as Colorado's immovable NT Josh Tupou. Sagapolu didn't hold up too well to double-teams; LJ Scott didn't have much opportunity to establish himself because of the score, but when he had success it came right up the gut:
That was also a rare instance of Sheehy getting handled one-on-one. The other starting DE, Chikwe Obasih, is undersized for a 3-4 at 267 pounds and looked it for much of this game. Even for a 3-4 DE, his production is really lacking—no tackles in this game, only three (two solo) on the year—and he was the lineman most easily taken on and moved out of his lane by single blocking.
The linebackers have been covered, I think. The linebackers do a great job of holding down run plays that get to them, and strong safety D'Cota Dixon is sometimes deployed as an additional box defender—while he's graded out negatively on PFF this year, he had a couple impressive run stops against MSU, including a forced fumble when he got his helmet directly on the ball, which bounced directly to free safety Leo Musso for a long touchdown return. PFF has Dixon with six missed tackles so far this year, however, so he's a good candidate to get trucked by De'Veon Smith. At least in this game, though, both safeties played well in run support—Musso covers a lot of ground and takes good angles to the ball.
Wisconsin's pass coverage was generally sound, though O'Connor also missed some opportunities to pick up chunk yardage. In fact, it was difficult to judge UW's secondary because of the combination of BTN pore-o-vision and O'Connor's general ineptitude. Watt gets fooled by play action here and is way out of his zone, leaving the fullback hand-wavingly wide open with O'Connor staring right at him:
This should be a first down at the very least and probably a touchdown if thrown on time. Instead, this happened:
O'Connor waited so long that Musso, playing deep centerfield in the first still, is able to come over and contest the catch, and the throw was so far behind the fullback it was going to be an incompletion regardless. Michigan should be able to do a much better job of testing the intermediate level of Wisconsin's defense and taking advantage of their linebackers's occasional habit of overplaying the run.
On the outside, cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Derrick Tindal both looked good on the few times they were tested, especially Shelton, who forced a couple deep routes so far to the sideline that O'Connor didn't have a window to throw to (he tried anyway and put them out of bounds). Nickel Lubern Figaro gave too much cushion on a couple completions, and while Tindal was solid, he looked beatable—RJ Shelton burned him one-on-one for a first down when UW went man free. Both outside corners, like the safeties, were good tacklers; Sojourn Shelton had a great open-field stop on Scott and a big stick on a quick hitch, while Tindal stopped cold the only WR screen thrown at him.
There's no question this Wisconsin defense will be toughest Michigan has faced. They're stout against the run and create so much havoc with their linebackers that it's tough to get a consistent passing game going. Michigan should have the best passing offense UW has played against so far, and they certainly haven't seen anything like the array of blocky-catchy types the Wolverines will field, but Harbaugh is going to have to get creative to keep the ball moving on a consistent basis. One non-Peppers way he may accomplish that follows.
I'm a little upset MSU ran this so successfully on their first play from scrimmage. The Spartans run a trap here for a 19-yard gain, which ended up being their longest run of the day. MSU comes out in an offset I-form while Wisconsin is in their base 3-4:
Right after the snap, the center moves over a gap to help out the right guard, leaving the nose tackle unblocked in the middle of the play:
This looks odd at first, but the intent quickly becomes clear. The fullback is heading for the NT, and both guards are able to release to the second level:
By the time Scott has taken the handoff, the FB has thwacked the NT, and the guards have engaged with both inside linebackers:
Cichy, the ILB at the far hash, goes to the wrong side of his block—he's either fooled by the center's initial action to the right or expects the NT to take care of the inside, and either way he opens up an even bigger crease created by the FB's block on the NT:
Scott squeezes through to the second level, where it becomes apparent that Dixon, who was crashing to the line at the snap, has taken a far too aggressive angle upfield. Cichy is trying to fight back to the play but he's too late:
Dixon isn't able to recover, and Scott covers 19 yards before Musso makes an impressive open-field tackle:
This is absolutely something Michigan can replicate—seemingly half the Big Ten started running traps last year after practicing them to prepare for Harbaugh's offense. This is one way to take advantage of a nose tackle who's not nearly as impressive as Tupou while simultaneously getting extra blockers out on UW's dangerous linebackers.