Vanquish The Foe: After a tough opening week loss to Utah, the Wolverines have won two consecutive games. Even though those victories came against lesser opponents, in what areas has the team progressed?
Drew Hallett, Maize n Brew: The only area where I can say that Michigan has progressed in three weeks is the running game. With Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno's arrival, Michigan has transitioned from a zone-blocking scheme to a man-blocking one. Throw out the inside and outside zones. Get ready for isos, powers, and toss sweeps. With such a change, there is an adjustment period as the offensive line learns the new scheme.
This was quite evident in the opener when Michigan mustered only 67 yards on 26 called runs (2.58 YPC). Linemen were missing assignments. Linemen had their pads too high and lost leverage. Running backs didn't hit the right holes. Though credit should be given to Utah's defensive line, particularly its two terrific defensive tackles, Michigan was a complete mess up front.
However, the Wolverines have moved in the right direction the last two games. Michigan overpowered Oregon State to the tune of 231 rushing yards on 44 called runs (5.25 YPC) and scampered around UNLV for 242 rushing yards on 37 called runs (6.54 YPC). Michigan should have been more efficient against Oregon State because the Beavers' safeties reacted slowly in their Cover 4, handing Michigan a numbers advantage in the box. But the Wolverines didn't leave those yards out on the field against the Rebels, attacking the edges with a 76-yard toss sweep and 36-yard jet sweep for touchdowns when UNLV loaded the box with eight, nine, and sometimes even 10 defenders. As Michigan continues to get more reps in this man-blocking scheme, I expect that the running game will come together quite nicely.
And I'll explain why this is the only area where I think Michigan has progress in three weeks. The passing offense just had its worst game of the early season as Jake Rudock looked uncomfortable and indecisive. The run defense, which is one of the best in the nation, has been a constant through three weeks. And the pass defense has yet to really be challenged. I'm sure that will change this Saturday.
Vanquish The Foe: The BYU defense will be looking to stop the run after they gave up nearly 300 yards on the ground to UCLA. Who are the featured running backs for Michigan and how will they challenge the defense?
Drew Hallett, Maize n Brew: There are three running backs that will earn carries against BYU.
The first is De'Veon Smith. He has been the featured back through the first three weeks, running the ball 53 times for 206 yards (3.89 YPC) and three touchdowns. Smith is a bulldozer. He doesn't try to evade defenders. He tries to run through them. And punish them. This was best demonstrated against Oregon State when he ran for a career-high 126 yards, 73 of which were earned after contact. He broke tackles, spun off defenders, and dragged defenders downfield, always keeping his legs moving.
However, there is a reason why Smith has only 3.89 YPC. He lacks an initial burst and top-end speed. Further, he doesn't have any wiggle. He's the type of running back that depends on his offensive line to move the line of scrimmage three yards and create the hole, through which he will charge. He's not the type of running back that has the instincts to see a hole before it develops. You can shut him down if you stack the box.
The second is Ty Isaac. The former USC Trojan is in his first eligible season at Michigan. Fans haven't had much of a chance to see Isaac as his time in Ann Arbor has been plagued with small injuries here and there. But, after his performance against UNLV last week, it's safe to assume that fans will be seeing much more of him. Isaac toted the rock eight times for 114 yards (14.25 YPC) -- his first career 100-yard effort -- and a touchdown. The touchdown was exquisite as he took a pitch and broke free down the sidelines 76 yards for the end zone.
What made the touchdown exquisite was not its length but how he turned a poorly-blocked play that should have been a loss into a score by demonstrating patience, hitting the brakes, cutting back against the grain, and stiff-arming a defender before he sped away. Isaac has great speed when he gets into space, but, at 6-foot-4, he sometimes struggles to run between the tackles because he is too upright when he runs. He must learn to lower his center of gravity, which also will help him cut in tight spaces.
The third is Drake Johnson. He was Michigan's best running back at the end of last season. In the final four games, he recorded 55 carries for 320 yards (5.82 YPC) and four touchdowns. He is a one-cut-and-go back, which works for him because he has great vision and track speed. However, in the finale against Ohio State, Johnson tore his ACL for the second time. He had surgery and rehabbed his knee throughout the offseason, but he didn't begin to practice at full speed until the end of fall camp. Jim Harbaugh and the staff want him to shake off the rust before they unleash him. This is why Johnson has received limited time in the past two games, though he received five carries against UNLV after receiving just one against Oregon State. I expect that Johnson will continue to see an increased role in Harbaugh's offense as he gets into playing shape. But will Johnson ever regain the form he had last year? We'll see.
Vanquish The Foe: Michigan's defense hasn't allowed a 100 yard rusher so far this season. What makes them so good against run?
Drew Hallett, Maize n Brew: Michigan's defensive line is one of the best run-stuffing units in the nation. Looking at just the raw numbers, the Wolverines held Utah's Devontae Booker -- a 1,500-plus-yard rusher in 2014 -- to just 69 yards on 22 carries (3.14 YPC), Oregon State to 59 yards on 33 carries (1.79 YPC), and UNLV to 92 yards on 36 carries (2.56 YPC). And, before you argue that the Beavers and Rebels are not much of a threat on the ground, here is how the advanced numbers stack up: Michigan's run defense is 16th in the nation in S&P+, and Michigan's defense is third in the nation in adjusted line yards, which is an indicator of a defensive line's ability to defend the run.
What makes Michigan's defensive line excellent is its depth. The Wolverines have four defensive tackles -- Ryan Glasgow, Willie Henry, Matt Godin, and Maurice Hurst, Jr. -- each of whom are disruptive and capable of starting. Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will rotate all four of them in there throughout the contest, which will keep them fresh as the opponent's offensive line wears down.
And then there is strongside defensive end Chris Wormley, whose emergence has elevated the defensive line to another level this season. Through three games, Wormley has seven tackles for loss -- tied for fourth-most in the nation -- a sack, and a forced fumble. He is dangerous because he is 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds yet looks like he should be a tight end. It is this combination of size, speed, athleticism, and quickness that has given offensive tackles issues. One move by Wormley for which BYU's offensive line should prepare is when he lowers his pads, pushes the offensive lineman back, and slants inside with force. This is when he's at his best.
Vanquish The Foe: Much has been made of the arrival of head coach Jim Harbaugh. Beyond X's and O's, what changes have you seen in the program?
Drew Hallett, Maize n Brew: There is a different attitude in Schembechler Hall. When Brady Hoke was Michigan's head coach, he spoke often about instilling toughness in his players and returning Michigan to its former, power-football ways. But there were reports that Hoke was doing more talking than instilling.
That hasn't been a problem with Jim Harbaugh. Everything inside the program has become more intense and more focused on football. Practices have been longer and more demanding. Everything is a competition. For example, Harbaugh has brought helmet stickers back out from the dusty storage unit to reward players for their performance week to week. There is no entitlement. Everything must be earned. Plus, football consumes every waking -- and probably some sleeping -- thought of Harbaugh's mind, and the team has taken on that personality. The result is a more focused, disciplined, and intense team that seeks victory.
Outside of the program, well, excitement among Michigan fans is at an unbelievable level. After watching Michigan be mired in mediocrity for the past decade, the Maize and Blue faithful are jubilant knowing where Harbaugh will lead the program in three years.
Vanquish The Foe: BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum has shown a lot of poise in the face of adversity. How much of a challenge will the Michigan secondary provide Mangum and the BYU passing attack?
Drew Hallett, Maize n Brew: As I alluded to above, this will be the first time that Michigan's secondary will be tested this season. From what I have seen of and read about Tanner Mangum, he has a cannon, and, with him at the helm, BYU's offense relies on big gains through the air. This may play well into Michigan's hands. Last season, the Wolverines' defense was ninth in the nation according to S&P+'s explosiveness metric and tied for sixth in the nation in fewest 30-plus-yard passes allowed. Through the first three weeks this season, Michigan's defense is sixth and tied for fourth in the nation in those respective categories. Michigan's excellent at keeping plays in front of them.
Michigan likes to play press coverage, and the defensive back for whom BYU should prepare the most is corner Jourdan Lewis. He had a breakthrough sophomore season in 2014, and he has developed into one of the Big Ten's best corners in 2015. He thrives in press coverage, demonstrates splendid technique jamming receivers at the line, and disrupts the timing of routes often. So far this season, he has six pass break-ups -- already matching his total for all of 2014. These include raking the ball out of a 6-foot-5 Oregon State receiver's hands at the highest point and smothering UNLV receiver and future pro Devonte Boyd. I expect that Lewis will cover 6-foot-6 Mitch Mathews and try to make him a non-factor. This isn't to say that Lewis can't be beaten. But it'll take a perfect throw.
Where I think BYU and Mangum will be able to exploit Michigan's pass defense will be with Mitchell Juergens in the slot. The Cougars are a spread-to-pass team, so Michigan will counter with nickel packages most of the contest. This means that Jabrill Peppers will be lined up over Juergens often. Yes, Peppers is a former five-star recruit, is an unbelievable talent, and has world-class athleticism. This has made him a fantastic asset in run support and blowing up screens. However, Peppers has yet to master the proper technique to jam a slot receiver that can release inside or out, which has led to him being beat over the middle. This can be a problem for Michigan against the shifty Juergens, who leads the Cougars with 244 receiving yards and 18.8 YPC. Add in that Michigan's linebackers, Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan, don't have the best cover drops, I think that the Mangum-Juergens joint venture may be profitable.
Vanquish The Foe: Earlier this week Coach Harbaugh said that Jake Ruddock is the team's best quarterback and not by a small margin. Is this a vote of confidence or does it speak to the lack of talent at QB?
Drew Hallett, Maize n Brew: It speaks to the lack of talent at quarterback. Michigan fans breathed a sigh of relief when Jake Rudock transferred from Iowa to the Wolverines. It wasn't because Rudock was some all-star quarterback. It was because Rudock was a safety net. For years, Michigan has sabotaged itself with too many turnovers, particularly interceptions, from the quarterback position. And fans knew that, with a strong defense and revamped special teams, Michigan could rebound nicely in 2015 as long as the offense didn't shoot itself in the foot again.
The problem was that Michigan's returning quarterbacks were Shane Morris -- a former four-star recruit with a high ceiling that he has not yet reached -- and redshirt freshman Wilton Speight. And Jim Harbaugh didn't want to put his offense in the hands of true freshmen Alex Malzone and Zach Gentry. So Michigan was in a precarious position, needing a quarterback to be a stopgap in 2015.
Enter Rudock. He fit the bill as a low-turnover, low-variance game manager given that he threw just five interceptions and had a YPA of 7.1 last season. It was simple: Michigan didn't need Rudock to win the Wolverines games. They just needed him not to lose them.
However, Rudock has not lived up to his billing through three games. He has completed 59-of-91 passes (64.8 pct.) for 582 yards (6.4 YPA), three touchdowns, and five interceptions -- matching his total from 2014. He's also fumbled the ball once. The turnovers are an issue, but I still was not too concerned about Rudock's play because he was decisive with his reads and leading Michigan's offense down the field.
But that was not the case against UNLV. And, given the caliber of UNLV's defense, that is alarming. Not only was he missing open receivers deep, he was inaccurate on short passes, including a five-yard swing pass that would have picked up at least 30 yards after the catch. He was indecisive and didn't trust his reads. And, when he did trust them, he often was too late with his throw.
Given his career at Iowa, this is uncharacteristic of Rudock. I do expect him to rebound against BYU -- honestly, I'm not sure he could perform worse than he did against the Rebels -- but it's clear that Rudock still is adjusting to Harbaugh's new offense. He's played only three games at Michigan, where he transferred to this summer. I believe that Rudock will improve as he becomes more comfortable.
Vanquish The Foe: BYU was hurt last week by UCLA's return specialists. Does Michigan have any game breakers on special teams?
Drew Hallett, Maize n Brew: Michigan hasn't returned an unblocked punt for a touchdown since 2008 or a kickoff for a touchdown since 2009. So, if recent history has a say, BYU shouldn't worry. However, the Wolverines have put Jabrill Peppers back there as Michigan's kickoff and punt returner. He hasn't broken one yet, but he has the moves and the speed to do so. Michigan fans saw a small taste of what Peppers is capable against UNLV last week, when he juked about three Rebels out of their cleats and spun around another for a 24-yard punt return.
Vanquish The Foe: How do you see the game playing out?
Drew Hallett, Maize n Brew: If Taysom Hill was dressing, I likely would have predicted BYU to win. For as stout as Michigan's defense is up front, dual-threat quarterbacks have torn it to shreds for as long as I can remember. While the Wolverines bottled up dual-threats in Oregon State's Seth Collins and UNLV's Blake Decker, none are in the same stratosphere as Hill in terms of talent.
But, with Hill unfortunately out with another season-ending injury, BYU is a bit more one-dimensional, and that favors Michigan in what I think will be a low-scoring game. The Cougars will throw the ball often with Tanner Mangum, but Michigan's secondary should keep the long completions to a minimum while the defensive line generates pressure. Usually, BYU uses the pass to set up Adam Hine on the ground, but Hine should have trouble finding clean gaps against Michigan's stingy run defense.
On the other side of the ball, BYU's disguised schemes and confusing blitzes could rattle an indecisive Jake Rudock and force him into some bad mistakes. Michigan's best hope to produce yards and points will be with the run, and, if Travis Tuiloma doesn't return, I like the Wolverines' chances to do so. Plus, Michigan will be at home after playing two relative cupcakes, while BYU will be playing in a game that kicks off at 10:00 a.m. MT after participating in three straight emotional roller-coasters. Those intangibles -- and BYU's injury report -- will be the difference between two even teams.
Michigan 21, BYU 17.
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Thanks again to Drew Hallett and the good people of Maize N Brew for helping with this preview!