Fee Fi Foe Film: Wisconsin Defense

Submitted by Ace on September 29th, 2016 at 5:01 PM

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:

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.



September 29th, 2016 at 5:17 PM ^

If we top 30 offensive points here I'm ecstatic, anything over 20 probably wins it and leaves some improving to do if we want to be truly elite.


September 30th, 2016 at 11:32 AM ^

I put that in there because his teammate ratted him out:

"Teammates insist there is some question as to the validity of Musso's claim. Safety D'Cota Dixon, for example, is convinced he's 5-foot-6.

"If he's 5-9 1/3, I'm 6-3 1/3," said Dixon, who is listed at 5-10. "Because he's always talking about he's 5-9. He's not 5-9. I'm looking down on him with some to spare.""

Musso is also shorter in photos than his position coach, former Wisconsin safety Jim Leonhard, who is 5'8.

However that article is all about how Musso is an excellent football player. So was Leonhard. So was Bob Sanders. And that Florida State safety from when they last won a national championship whose name escapes me right now. We were close to putting a star on Musso for this chart. He may be a little guy, but "lol they have a 5'6 safety" does not come close to an accurate description of his contributions.


September 29th, 2016 at 5:26 PM ^

Their LBs are really good, but I wasn't really that impressed with the rest of the D. They're solid, well coached, but no one on the DL or secondary really jumped out as a playmaker to me. They were aided a lot by O'Connor's issues, IMO. Not only was his accuracy non-existant, also held the ball way, way too long. A lot of the QB pressures were the result of this not anyone on the defense straight up beating the OL. The problems were exacerbated by going down a lot early-ish which put even more pressure on O'Connor and the passing game.

I haven't really watched the LSU game in detail yet, but I have a feeling LSU's issues also played into their low output as well.

I kind of think this will play out a bit like last year against Northwestern where they came in highly touted because of their super aggressive LB play, but Michigan blows that up a bit with FB dives, Jake Butt and Grant Perry underneath stuff, and generally Harbaughness. I don't think we'll have quite that much success since, as I said, Wisconsin seems to be very well coached and disciplined. I do think it won't be quite the slug fest some are expecting though.


September 29th, 2016 at 5:31 PM ^

It's going to be hard for our blockers to handle their LBs. And pass protection on obvious passing downs is going to be... exciting. I suspect Deveon Smith may be the key man in a couple of blocks that make the difference between a sack/throwaway and a big gain. 

It's man-up time for the OL. And it's coach-up time for the staff. Early points could be critical here (JT4104's point would be interesting to test) and converting an early redzone opportunity that is produced by a good scripted series might be a key moment in the game. 


September 29th, 2016 at 6:01 PM ^

I think getting up 10-14 pts would put a lot of pressure on the Wiscy D. I dont think they have been down in a game yet this season and knowing one mistake might not cost you allows the LB's to be as aggressive as they are. Down a score or two are they gonna take those same risks and put their secondary in harms way?


September 29th, 2016 at 10:21 PM ^

The safety is listed at 5'10" on the roster but an article online pointedly says he's listed "generously" so I assume he's at most 5'8" maybe shorter. The corner is listed at 5'9" on the roster. Although if it's common to fib about roster heights you've gotta think we do it just much as the other teams. Even so, it seems like our receivers and TEs should be able to get at least a few 5-6 inch height advantages lined up.

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September 29th, 2016 at 5:56 PM ^

It's kinda scary seeing stars and shields on the other side of Seth's diagrams. 4 stars up and 2 shields, all being able to attack the QB and our Tackles, will definitely be the toughest test we face until OSU. Not looking forward to seeing Seth's diagrams for the OSU game...

Let's hope Speight is feeling 100%, because we're going to need his arm in full force to beat Wisconsin. I'd LOVE to see him connect with Chesson on more than one deep ball in this game. Please!



September 30th, 2016 at 7:58 AM ^

I wouldn't say we played with one hand tied behind our back -- Colorado gave us a fright -- but we're very much in that "I have not yet used my Ultimate Technique" part of a Dragonball Z episode.

I mean, we basically beat our last four opponents with 1) anything, 2) play-action, 3) sweeps and 4) inside zone, in that order.  Little Mac has yet to unleash a Star Uppercut.


September 29th, 2016 at 7:05 PM ^

I like our odds with our WR corps and TEs against that secondary. I think we're going to force them to back off the run stoppage and it'll open up the ground game. Couple that with the Biegel injury rumor and I think Harbaugh's men get it done in a big way Saturday.


September 29th, 2016 at 9:32 PM ^

I think we do match up well with their secondary, but the question is will Speight have enough time to throw if we don't pick up the blitzes? If we can and we have some easy dump off passes to Butt or Perry (or McDoom or Evans?) then I could see us making this not a slug-fest. But so much depends on the blitz pick ups and Speight finding the open man under pressure.

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September 29th, 2016 at 8:05 PM ^

That play at the bottom of the screen is basically an influence block. The LB is trying to stay in his gap, and the pull takes him along for the ride. That's what you have to do with linebackers who are good at reading guards/linemen. You have to trick them with line play. Meanwhile, linebackers who read the backs can be tricked with misdirection in the backfield.

Michigan ran a version of that play last year. I don't think we've seen it yet this season.


September 29th, 2016 at 8:55 PM ^

I feel like the offense is going to depend on Speight. I can easily see the run game getting bottled up unless Speight can make them pay. I hope he's up for it.


September 29th, 2016 at 8:55 PM ^

I love these personnel diagrams, but I feel like we are getting a little carried away with the amount of distinctions available to players.

The Shield just looks a little clunky and forces me to go look at what everything means too often. I would suggest making the upwards star mean the guy is an All-American/1sr Round/Dangerman type. That way we know upward star means GOOD without getting too complicated.

Still love the chart though, so please dont take offense. I love referencing these during the games. Really awesome.


September 29th, 2016 at 9:35 PM ^

Michigan will not be able to run the football against the Badgers with consistent success, as they'll just load the box once more. Michigan's OL has not been tested all year long. Hawai'i, UCF, Colorado and Penn State all featured horrible defensive football teams that still managed to pressure Speight and sack him. Wisconsin's defense is way better than any of them.

This game is going to rest solely on Michigan pass protection ability (blitz pickups), Speight's arm, calm and good judgement, and whatever the UM defense can manage to force, or receive as gifts. 

I predict both QBs (Hornibrook & Speight) are going to make a a lot of drive-killing, fatal mistakes (INTs,  pick sixes, fumbles, sacks for losses). Expect both QBs to "freaking out" a lot, try to escape and pay the price - ingesting lots ground up tire bits after sacks, etc. all day long.

Wisconsin's OL is not very good, so any running game they try will be a slobber-knocker failure on both sides.

Also, it's supposed to rain.

So that leaves special teams, which I guess kind of favors Michigan. I think.

Michigan 27

Wisconsin 23






September 29th, 2016 at 9:57 PM ^

O'connor also missed two WRs that broke wide open for easy TDs. That happens at times in CFB, but add those to the miss on the FB, and it's clear Sparty's QB is having a hard time seeing the field right now. I'm going to predict at least one busted coverge where Speight finds a guy wide open for 6. Maybe two. They played very aggressively and that led to mistakes, Sparty couldn't capitalize. I think Speight and Harbaugh/Fisch/Drevno will. Unfortunately I'm nearly certain Speight will also throw a pick.

ND Sux

September 30th, 2016 at 11:24 AM ^

I'm having turkey roll-ups for lunch.  I've got turkey, tomatoes, lettuce, and yellow peppers.  I sit down to make one today, but my tomatoes are turning.  I had to toss them out, and make up for the loss by DOUBLING THE PEPPERS.  Oh man, is this an omen.  Also, I forgot to bring any cheese, and given the peppers thing, I'm certain this is not a coincidence.  We win with a heavy dose of peppers, and no f#cking cheese.