It's finally here. Michigan week. The third-biggest game on the Wolverines' schedule every year. Probably the second or third-biggest game on Penn State's schedule every year. THIS IS IMPORTANT.
The Wolverines have been a fun team this year. After suffering through the Brady Hoke era, Michigan managed to make the biggest college football coaching hire since Ohio State brought in Urban Meyer when it locked up ex-San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. So far, that hire has been outstanding – the Wolverines are 8-2 and are a fluky play against Michigan State away from being a legitimate College Football Playoff contender.
What's up with the Wolverines? How did the team go from so bad under Hoke to so good under Harbaugh? What should we expect out of Michigan when it comes to Happy Valley this weekend? We decided to ask Drew Hallett of Maize n Brew these questions and more. Thanks again to Drew for taking the time to give us the most thorough answers we've ever gotten for this. Go State.
So that Jim Harbaugh guy’s a pretty good coach, eh? How has the team been different in terms of on the field performance under Harbaugh?
Eh. Jim Harbaugh is so-so. In his first year as Michigan's coach, the Wolverines' record has improved only from 5-7 to 8-2, and their S&P+ ranking has soared only from 45th to fifth. This is unacceptable, and it's clear that Harbaugh is completely overrated as a coach.
Hey, to where did my sarcasm font disappear?
In all seriousness, what Harbaugh has done in just one season is quite remarkable, and Michigan's improvement on the field can be seen in all three phases. Offensively, Michigan isn't spectacular by any means -- tied for 54th in YPP and 42nd in S&P+ -- but the unit no longer is near the bottom of the pit like it was last season -- 89th in YPP and 82nd in S&P+. Given that there were question marks at each offensive position except tight end in fall camp, this was as about as much improvement as Michigan fans could expect. And it's all that Michigan needed because it was projected that the team would be buoyed by a very good defense and better special teams. But even the improvement in those areas has been greater than expected. Until last week's fiasco, which I'm sure we'll discuss soon, the defense had been the nation's best by many metrics thanks to a five-game stretch in the first half of the season during which the unit demolished each offense that it faced. And Michigan's return units, which had been all but non-existent for years, have sprung to life with Jabrill Peppers, Jehu Chesson, and Jourdan Lewis, supplying Michigan's middling offense with more shorter fields that it desperately has needed to score.
The formula -- mediocre offense + elite defense + great special teams -- has worked. Heck, if punter Blake O'Neill doesn't drop the snap against Michigan State, the Wolverines are 9-1 and in the thick of the College Football Playoff discussion, though they're also two goal-line stands away from being 6-4. But it's only worked because Harbaugh has maximized the talent that Brady Hoke left for him this year.
What about in terms of the mentality around the program – how is it different under Harbaugh than it was last year?
When Brady Hoke arrived in 2011, he spoke about how "This is Michigan, fergodsakes!" and how Michigan will play tough, hard-nosed football under him. This excited the fan base, and everyone felt all warm and fuzzy about how things would revert back to how they were supposed to be. But that's the problem. Saying that you're Michigan isn't enough to win. Being Michigan isn't enough to win. A program can't have that sense of entitlement, especially one that just had been below average. And, under Hoke, there was more talking than doing.
That hasn't been the case at all under Jim Harbaugh. He has eradicated any sense of entitlement that the players may have had. Seniors no longer were ensured their starting spot or playing time. Everything had to be earned. Everything became more difficult and strenuous, like the practices that became longer and more exhausting. Everything became a competition, like the helmet stickers he removed the dusty, old storage locker to hand to players after their positive contributions in the games. And everything became about football. It's no secret that Harbaugh is a bit of an oddball, a bit eccentric, a bit of a jerk. But good luck finding a coach that spends more time devoted to and thinking about football than him. Heck, the man always wears khakis, so he doesn't waste 20 seconds each day thinking about what he'll wear. Who does that? When the players see a coach that thinks and cares about football that much, that mentality seeps into them, and that's what has happened at Michigan. Harbaugh's players are more committed to football than ever, and that competitive fire continues to burn and burn.
When was the last time that a Michigan team has played this style of football? The first year under Brady Hoke? Some time in the Lloyd Carr era? Before that?
The Lloyd Carr era, but even that wouldn't be totally accurate. It's definitely not any time under Brady Hoke or Rich Rodriguez. Hoke's first two seasons were spent trying to discover how to use Denard Robinson before his final two saw his under-center offenses go up in flames. The stylistic differences between Harbaugh and Rodriguez are more than evident. My best guess would be 2006 Michigan. That Wolverines team had an excellent defense and an under-center center offense that prided itself on pounding the ball with Mike Hart behind man-blocking schemes. But it's not a perfect comparison. The 2006 offense was repetitive and predictable. Run left behind Jake Long, run left behind Jake Long, and pass. This offense, which doesn't have nearly the same talent as the 2006 one did, is much more innovative under Harbaugh. His offenses pound the ball, but his mastery of the Xs & Os and tinkering with schemes is something to behold when you watch the game film.
This is a really good question. I'd need to spend more time that I unfortunately don't have to give a better, more informed answer.
Like last year, Michigan’s calling card is its defense. What is it that makes this unit so good, and which players are the standouts?
There were two units that made Michigan's defense elite, but things have changed.
Until recently, the defensive line was the best position unit on the team. Not only did Michigan have top-end talent at all the interior positions, Michigan had it throughout the two-deep. The Wolverines had Ryan Glasgow, Willie Henry, Maurice Hurst, and Matt Godin at defensive tackle, Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton at strong-side defensive end, and Mario Ojemudia at BUCK -- a hybrid defensive end-linebacker. And Michigan would rotate these players throughout the game, which kept them fresh and allowed the Wolverines to send wave after wave at offensive lines without tiring. Accordingly, Michigan's defense was near the top in adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate.
However, injuries have struck, and depth has become thin. Michigan lost its biggest nose tackle, Bryan Mone, to a broken leg in fall camp and had overcome that with no issues. Then, in the fourth quarter against Maryland in Week 5, Ojemudia tore his Achilles and was sidelined for the season. However, Royce Jenkins-Stone filled in for him admirably, and there was noticeable drop-off. That's pretty impressive. But, then, in the first half against Rutgers, Michigan's most invaluable defensive lineman, Glasgow, injured his pectoral muscle and likely will miss the remainder of the season. Glasgow didn't have the flashiest statistics, but he was Michigan's most consistent, disruptive interior lineman. His ability to hold up against double teams and rip into the backfield created plays for his teammates. And, with him gone, Michigan ran into the worst possible offense it could face: Indiana, an uptempo team with an excellent offensive line and running back that could churn out yards after yards after yards without allowing Michigan to substitute. Using zone stretch, which turned Michigan's natural upfield aggression against them and exposed Michigan's linebackers to an extent, Indiana sliced through Michigan's defensive front until it was totally gassed.
The results were hideous, but I don't expect that to repeat tomorrow because Penn State's offense is a completely different organism.
The other unit that has been excellent is Michigan's secondary. The improvement in Michigan's pass defense -- 45th to 13th in S&P+ -- is why the defense made the leap from very good last season to one of the best this season. The difference is Michigan has become very proficient in press man coverage, and it starts with corner Jourdan Lewis, who has had an All-American season. Not only is he second in the country with 20 passes defended, quarterbacks have completed only 26-of-74 passes thrown in Lewis' direction for 274 yards and only one touchdown this season according to Pro Football Focus. His trail technique is superb, and he's become a master at using his hands to grab at receivers and disrupt their timing without drawing interference flags. However, Lewis isn't perfect all the time. He's a bit undersized, so he does allow a small window for quarterbacks to connect with their receivers. It usually just takes a perfect pass. The other Wolverine for which Penn State should watch is Jabrill Peppers, who is Michigan's hybrid-space player. He'll play at corner, nickel, strong safety, and even linebacker at times. He's at his best when providing support on the edge or destroying screens, but his coverage technique has progressed each week. If Penn State wants to attack Michigan through the air, it should go after Jeremy Clark or over the linebackers in the middle.
Until a few weeks ago, Jake Rudock wasn’t anything special at QB, but over the last two weeks, he’s been playing out of his mind. What’s behind that? Is he actually that good, or is it because Rutgers and Indiana’s passing defenses are subpar? And is the real Jake Rudock a game manager, a big time threat in the passing game, or somewhere in between?
It's a combination of Jake Rudock improving and the caliber of Rutgers and Indiana's pass defenses. Early in the season, Rudock faced poor pass defenses but wasn't able to pick them apart. After he threw five interceptions in his first three games, I think Rudock lost some of his confidence and became afraid to make mistakes. This led to hesitant decisions in the pocket, mistimed throws, and missed opportunities to give his receivers chances to make plays on 50-50 balls. Add in that Rudock couldn't complete a pass that traveled more than 30 yards down the field, even if the receiver was streaking down the sideline wide open, and Michigan's pass offense had grounded. It was a problem.
However, Michigan fans saw a new Rudock against Rutgers and Indiana. Yes, there were times when those defenses busted on coverages, leaving receivers open for Rudock to hit easily. But he also made throws against tight coverage that he hadn't completed all year. He finally connected on a bomb more than 30 yards downfield. He started tossing balls high enough to where only Jake Butt could leap and reach them. Last week, under pressure, he threw a 64-yard touchdown on a deep dig during which he had to fire the pass in front of Jehu Chesson before he broke on the dig and under the safety. It was a perfect throw. So what does this mean? I think that Rudock finally has a full grasp on Harbaugh's playbook and knows how to read and react to the coverages in front of him. And I think this is a big reason why Rudock looks like an Unstoppable Throw God out there. But can he do that against great pass defense rather than a terrible one? I guess we'll see.
The Wolverines have trotted out a number of running backs, with De’Veon Smith getting the most carries. Is Smith the best back, or is he just the best fit for the offense’s running game?
De'Veon Smith has the most carries because he was running well and hard early in the season. However, he suffered an ankle injury, and his effectiveness has been limited ever since. What made Smith a favorite of Harbaugh's was his punishing style. He wasn't a running back. He was bulldozer that shed tacklers and dragged defenders for extra yards. But, with a bum ankle, Smith hasn't been nearly as decisive and has become hesitant with his cuts, which weren't explosive to begin with. So Michigan has tried to go to other running backs that can take some of the load off Smith, but there has been little success. And, though some of the reason why Michigan didn't run well against Indiana was because the Hoosiers would load eight and nine players in the box and bite on play-action even though Rudock was breaking school records, the running game still was a mess. Offensive linemen missing assignments and getting chucked. Running backs failing to see cutback lanes through which a semi-truck can drive. Michigan has lots of problems to fix. Doing it vs. Penn State isn't ideal.
There are really three standouts in Michigan’s receiving game – wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, and tight end Jake Butt. How do all three complement one another, and who would you say is the standout guy in this group?
Jehu Chesson is the burner and vertical threat, Amara Darboh is the big-bodied possession receiver, and Jake Butt is the tight end that leads all Mackey Award semifinalists in receptions (38) and receiving yards (500). Despite his speed, Chesson was not targeted often earlier in the season. He was used more as a weapon with the jet sweep than through the air. I think this was because Chesson has some issue running precise routes and tracking balls in the sky. However, at some point a few weeks ago, there was a drastic shift in Michigan's gameplan, and Chesson began earning more targets than Darboh or Butt. And, in the last three weeks, it's paid off as Chesson has hauled in 16 passes for 276 yards and seven touchdowns. So, in that sense, Chesson has become the standout guy. However, Butt is one of the best tight ends because he has soft hands and high-points balls very well when Jake Rudock lobs them to him on post routes over the middle. As for Darboh, he doesn't have the top-end speed to beat defenses deep. He's used on slants and hitches where he shield defenders with his body.
What would be wiser on kickoffs: kicking the ball out of bounds on kickoffs or kicking it to one of the Wolverines’ 6,000 good kick returners? What makes the returners so good?
Kicking it through the end zone for a touchback would be Penn State's wisest choice.
All three of Jabrill Peppers, Jourdan Lewis, and Jehu Chesson have tremendous speed. However, Chesson's is more straight-line, but it worked when Michigan scouted a weakness in Northwestern's kickoff coverage and designed a return for Chesson that exploited it. He ran 96 yards to the end zone on the opening kickoff and never was touched. But Chesson isn't Michigan's primary returner. That role usually has belonged to Peppers, whose athleticism, speed, agility, and instincts are incredible. There is a reason he is the former No. 3 overall prospect in the 2014 class. However, because Peppers has been used on offense, defense, and punt returns in recent weeks, the coaches have tried to conserve his energy and stamina by replacing him with Lewis. And Lewis has picked up right where Peppers left off. It's kind of ridiculous.
Let’s get a score prediction. Which team wins?
This will be a low-scoring affair. Both defenses should get the better of the offenses, and it'll come down to which offensive line can fend off the other's defensive line the best. Indiana may have shredded Michigan's defensive line, but that won't happen again tomorrow. Indiana did it because it used zone stretch to stay on schedule, has a talented offensive line, and went uptempo to keep Michigan's personnel tired and on the field. Penn State doesn't call many zone stretches, has one of the worst offensive lines, and is the nation's slowest team according to adjusted pace. Saquon Barkley is very good and should be able to slip through from time to time, but this should be a game in which Michigan's defensive front rebounds, forces Penn State into obvious passing downs, and then stunts to pressure Christian Hackenberg.
On the other side, I don't expect Michigan's ground game to do much unless some powers that run away from Penn State's defensive tackles find space. Nonetheless, I think the most important matchup of the game will be Michigan's pass protection versus Penn State's pass rush. The Wolverines have improved greatly in this area, having given Jake Rudock many clean pockets, and are 23rd in adjusted sack rate. Of course, Penn State will provide the biggest challenge they have faced because the Nittany Lions have the best adjusted sack rate. Bob Shoop will do what he does and bring an array of blitzes in attempt to sack and rattle Rudock. There's no doubt that these will get through on occasion. But, if Michigan's offensive line can keep the pocket clean just enough, I think Rudock can do some damage against a Penn State secondary that will miss Jordan Lucas. Also, I expect that Jake Butt will be a weapon in the seam against Penn State's Cover 2.
I think Michigan will do just a bit more on offense than Penn State to win, but this likely is a game in which turnovers are the difference.
Michigan 17, Penn State 13
Thanks again for the answers, Drew. If you want a Michigan perspective on this week's game, make sure you head over to Maize n Brew, give them a follow on Twitter, and while you're on the Twitter machine, give Drew a follow.