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Posts Tagged ‘Defense’

Peppers named top defender, entire defense earns All-Big Ten

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016


peppers-vs-osu(Dustin Johnson, Maize ‘n Brew)

While Michigan’s regular season ended with a loss on Saturday it was a big winner when the Big Ten announced its defensive awards on Tuesday night.

Redshirt sophomore linebacker Jabrill Peppers was named the Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year, the Butkis-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year, and the Rodgers-Dwight Return Specialist of the Year. He also joined Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan and Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt as first-team All-Big Ten linebacker.

Peppers is the first Michigan defender to claim the Defensive Player of the Year award since Larry Foote in 2006 and he’s the fourth one to do it. He was also the first Big Ten player to claim all three awards in the same season.

Peppers ranked third on the team with 72 tackles, lead the team with 16 tackles for loss, and fourth with four sacks. He also lead the team with eight quarterback hurries and recorded his first career interception against Ohio State on Saturday. On special team, he lead the Big Ten with 310 punt return yards, averaging 14.8 yards per return with one touchdown. His 310 punt return yards also lead the nation and his 14.8-yard average ranked fifth.

Senior defensive back Jourdan Lewis became the first Wolverine to win the Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year award since it became an award in 2011. Despite missing three games, Lewis ranked second on the team with 10 pass breakups, picked off two passes, and recorded 3.5 tackles for loss.

Lewis joined Peppers, senior defensive end Taco Charlton, and senior defensive tackle Chris Wormley on the All-Big Ten first team, matching Ohio State’s four. Senior tackle Ryan Glasgow, senior safety Delano Hill, and senior defensive back Channing Stribling were named to the second team, while senior linebacker Ben Gedeon earned a third-team selection. Senior kicker Kenny Allen, senior tackle Matt Godin, redshirt junior Mike McCray, and senior Dymonte Thomas were honorable mention. The eight players Michigan got on the first through third teams were more than any other team.

The media had a few slight differences, dropping Wormley to second team and Hill to honorable mention, but elevating Gedeon to second team.

Jim Harbaugh took the opportunity to showcase the fact that every defensive starter was named to the All-Big Ten team, something he and the rest of his staff will most certainly use on the recruiting trail between now and National Signing Day.

The offensive awards and All-Big Ten teams will be announced on Wednesday.

Midseason comparison: Michigan’s 2016 defense vs 2015 defense

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016


michigan-d-vs-wisconsin(Isaiah Hole, 247 Sports)

On Sunday, we showed how this season’s offense has outperformed last season’s offense at the midpoint of the season against a comparable schedule and slightly better defenses. Today, we take a look at how Don Brown’s first Michigan defense compares to D.J. Durkin’s one and only Michigan defense.

As I said on Sunday, the six opponents Michigan has faced to date have essentially the exact same record as the first six a year ago (20-14 compared to 20-13), so strength of schedule is comparable. One difference to keep in mind is that a year ago Michigan opened its season on the road in a hostile environment at Utah and also played Maryland on the road, whereas this year the only road game thus far has been at Rutgers.

Let’s start the comparison by taking a look at Michigan’s scoring defense.

Scoring Defense

scoring-defenseScoring defense average (national ranking in circle) 

This year’s defense started the season strong, holding Hawaii to just three points. Hawaii has averaged 34.4 points in its other five games. But UCF scored 14 and Colorado 28 in the next two games, and all of the sudden some began to be concerned about the Michigan defense. Michigan rebounded with just 17 points allowed over its next three games to hit the midseason point as the nation’s top scoring defense. The Wolverines’ defense held five of six opponents to their lowest point total of the season to date — the only outlier being Colorado, which only scored 17 points against USC two weeks ago.

Last year’s defense struggled in a season opening loss at Utah, allowing 24 points, but settled in and allowed just 14 points total in its next five games, three of which were shutouts. Like this year’s defense, it lead the nation in scoring defense at the midway point. But that’s where the wheels fell off for last year’s defense, which allowed 26 points or more in four of its final seven games. After allowing just 6.3 points per game in its first six games, Michigan’s scoring average during the final seven games was 25.

The scoring offenses Michigan faced in the first six games a year ago were worse than those they  have faced so far this year with an average national ranking of 80.8 compared to 67.3 this year. The best offense of the six Michigan faced last year was BYU (40th), and three of the six ranked in the bottom fourth nationally. This year, Colorado currently ranks 22nd in scoring, UCF is 43rd, and only one — Rutgers — ranks in the bottom fourth (125th).

So while Michigan’s 2015 defense allowed fewer points in the first six games than this year’s (38 compared to 62), it faced less potent offenses.

 

Let’s take a look at the run defense.

Rushing Defense

rush-defenseRush defense average (national ranking in circle) 

There is one major outlier throwing off the current defense’s numbers and that’s Week 2 where you see the big spike. UCF rushed for 275 yards despite losing 51-14, thanks to a couple of big runs including an 87-yarder. But that’s the exception rather than the rule. In Michigan’s other five games, the Wolverines’ run defense has held opponents to just 64 yards per game on the ground for a paltry 1.97 yards per carry.

Last season, Michigan gave up 127 yards to Utah in the opener but then ran off six straight games of allowing 92 yards or fewer on the ground. In the five games between Utah and midseason, the U-M defense allowed just 53.6 rushing yards per game on 1.89 yards per carry. After midseason, however, five of the final seven opponents topped 100 yards with Indiana and Ohio State gashing the Wolverines for 307 and 369, respectively. Nose tackle Ryan Glasgow’s injury played a big part in that drop-off.

Although the current squad has allowed more rushing yards per game at this point, both defenses surrendered just two rushing touchdowns through six games. And if this year’s team is to win the Big Ten title, it will need to avoid the fall-off that last year’s team suffered.

 

How about the pass defense?

Passing Defense

pass-defensePass defense average (national ranking in circle) 

This category is a little bit more even year over year as both units were outstanding in the first half of the season. Last year, Michigan gave up over 200 passing yards to Utah in the opener, but didn’t allow more than 143 in its next five games. However, in the first two games of the second half of the season, Michigan State and Minnesota both topped 300 passing yards.

This year’s pass defense struggled against Colorado, allowing 261 passing yards, but has allowed 88 or fewer in three of six games, including just five to Rutgers the last time out. Opponents are completing just 42.3 percent of their passes against this year’s defense compared to 47.7 percent at the midway point a year ago.

Can this year’s pass defense continue its pace? One disparity between this year’s and last year’s is quarterback pressure. This year’s defense has recorded 24 sacks compared to just 15 at this point last season. The pressure hasn’t translated into an increase in turnovers, though, as this year’s team has six picks compared to seven last season. But this year’s secondary has returned two of those interceptions for touchdowns compared to one at this point last season.

Finally, let’s look at the defense as a whole.

Total Defense

total-defenseTotal defense average (national ranking in circle) 

There was a big disparity in Week 1 as Utah racked up 105 more yards on the Michigan defense than Hawaii did this year, but as we hit the midseason point, the two units find themselves both ranking first nationally. Last year’s defense allowed 31.5 fewer yards per game.

Last year’s defense really was a tale of two halves as it allowed just 181.3 yards per game in the first six but 365.9 per game in its final seven. This year, Michigan is giving up 212.8 yards per game and it’s hard to see many teams having much success against it in the second half. The only offense Michigan faces in the next six games that ranks higher than 50th nationally in total offense is Ohio State, which ranks 12th. That bodes well for Michigan’s defense as it looks to win a championship.

Is Don Brown’s defense high-risk? The numbers say no

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016


Don Brown(Melanie Maxwell, MLive.com)

Recently, I was having a conversation with someone about the impact that Don Brown will have on the defense. He was saying with an extra aggressive scheme Michigan will probably force more turnovers but they’ll also end up giving up more big plays and that could cause them to regress and be even more susceptible to high powered offenses like Ohio State.

I hadn’t thought about it that way before — though I have heard the high risk/high reward narrative before — but it got me really thinking about it and I started looking into the stats from Don Brown’s previous defenses to see what Boston College did with this aggressive scheme and whether it really is a high risk one. Spoiler: it’s not.

““High risk? No. We don’t just throw this stuff against the wall … take it and say throw in this,” Brown said on Monday. “Come on. We’re not doing that. We look at the formations, the personnel groups. We lean to be on the aggressive side. Whether you’re running or passing the ball, we’re going to have the ability when we dictate to come. That’s what it’s all about.”

During my research one unfamiliar term came up several times: toxic differential, which measures big plays for/against, combined with turnover margin. So I dug deeper to compare what Boston College’s defense did the past few years versus what Michigan’s did and how Don Brown will impact Michigan’s defense this year and going forward.

But first a brief primer on toxic differential. We all know if you win the turnover battle you’re more likely to win the game and we all know that you would like your defense to prevent big plays. But until recently, I’ve never seen a metric that combined both turnover margin and big plays for/against ratio.

So what defines a big play? The NFL seems to regard any play gaining 20-plus yards as a big play, but it does not differentiate between rush and pass plays. I didn’t like that as it values runs and passes equally. Then Pete Carroll gave me what I was looking for. He regards big plays as 12 or more yards rushing and 16 or more yards passing. This is probably a much better measure of big plays.

Unfortunately, that data is not readily available for college stats, so for our purposes we will consider big plays to be any rush of 10 or more yards and any pass of 20 or more yards. What toxic differential seems to give us is a very intriguing look into how successful teams are successful.

Before we get to Brown’s defenses, let’s take a quick look at the playoff teams from both the past two seasons to see how those team ranked in this metric. Last year, Oklahoma ranked 12th, Clemson 16th, and Alabama 19th in toxic differential on a per game basis. (Note: I found that using a per-game number better illustrated these stats as some teams played only 12 games while most others play 13-14). So three of the final four ranked in the top 20 in toxic differential. Michigan State was the outlier at 45th, but when looking deeper you find that they were 10th in turnovers forced and fourth in turnover margin, so that explains that. And so does a lucky win at Michigan.

The season before that — 2014 — shows a very similar picture with national champion Ohio State ranking first, runner-up Oregon eighth and perennial top-5 team Alabama 11th. Three of the four playoff teams ranked in the top 11. Florida State was an extreme outlier at 77th — worse than even Michigan, which was 58th. Even stranger, and further proving stats do not tell all, FSU was 104th in turnover margin at minus-6. Let’s chalk it up to the Jameis Winston effect or something.

Now the fun stuff.

Don Brown defensive stats compared to Michigan in 2015
Year Big Run plays (rank) Big Pass plays (rank) Total Big plays (rank) Toxic Differential (rank)
2013 BC 4.6 (38th) 3.6 (87th) 8.2 (59th)
2014 BC 3.3 (5th) 2.8 (34th) 6.1 (6th)
2015 BC 3.5 (8th) 2.4 (13th) 5.9 (6th) 24 (33rd)
2015 UM 4.8 (56th) 2.4 (13th) 7.2 (25th) -3 (77th)

In 2015, the Boston College defense gave up 3.5 big run plays and 2.4 big pass plays per game, which was good for eighth and 13th fewest in the nation, respectively. Of all the plays in 2015, they gave up a big play (either pass or run) 9.47 percent of the time, which was good for 11th-best. BC gave up an average of 5.9 total big plays per game, good for sixth nationally. They came up plus-3 in turnover margin and their big play differential (percentage of big plays for minus percentage of big plays against) came in at 2.78 percent, good for 28th overall. Their total toxic differential was 24. On a per game basis this ranked them 33rd nationally.

Great, so what does that all mean? In a nutshell it means that Don Brown’s super aggressive scheme is not a high risk/high reward defense. In fact, the stats show that if anything this defense actually helps prevent big plays (sixth fewest big plays given up per game in the country). Brown himself calls his defense calculated, bringing different kinds of pressure from different spots depending not only on down and distance but also based on their scouting report of specific opponents.

Nov. 30, 2013 - Syracuse, New York, USA - November 30, 2013: Boston College Eagles defensive coordinator Don Brown calls a play during the first half of an NCAA Football game between the Boston College Eagles and the Syracuse Orange at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. Syracuse defeated Boston College 34-31. Rich Barnes/CSM (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

Don Brown turned BC’s defense into one of the nation’s best despite a 17-21 record in three seasons (Rich Barnes, Cal Sport Media)

Michigan had a top tier defense as well last year, so one might assume their numbers would be as good, if not better than BC’s. It turns out they weren’t. The Wolverines gave up an average of 4.8 big run plays per game (aided by an absent Ryan Glasgow against IU and OSU due to injury) and 2.4 big pass plays per game, good for 56th and 13th nationally. Based on total number of plays Michigan gave up a big play 11.49 percent of the time, 59th nationally. All told, Michigan gave up 7.2 big plays per game, good for 25th nationally, very good but just over one big play more per game than BC surrendered.

Turnover margin left a lot to be desired for Michigan at minus-4 and their big play differential came in at -1.01 percent, 88th nationally. That means that they gave up a higher percentage of big plays than they produced, despite averaging an almost identical 7.3 big plays for and 7.2 plays against. Where they really got hurt was their inability to force turnovers. Michigan ranked near the bottom of the country in forced turnovers. To put in perspective just how few turnovers Michigan actually forced, only six teams in the country forced less turnovers than Michigan did last year.

Michigan’s toxic differential total was minus-3, ranking them 77th on a per game basis. All but one metric — big pass plays against — was worse than BC’s ratings, and in that one they tied with 2.4 big pass plays given up per game.

Michigan’s defensive coordinator last season, D.J. Durkin, was not known as a blitz-crazed maniac and his defense only surrendered 2.4 big pass plays per game, which was very respectable. Don Brown, or Dr. Blitz as he has been called, brings pressure on a self-described 85 percent of his play calls. Yet, his defense gave up the exact same number of big pass plays and less big run plays per game.

Going back two Brown’s first two seasons at Boston College, there was a significant improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 and then 2015 maintained that success. In his first season in Chestnut Hill, Brown’s defense ranked 38th nationally with 4.6 big runs allowed per game — an improvement by one big run per game from the previous season –, 87th with 3.6 big pass plays allowed per game, and 59th with 8.2 total big plays allowed per game. In 2014, those numbers increased dramatically. The Eagles ranked fifth with 3.3 big runs allowed per game, 34th with 2.8 big pass plays allowed per game, and sixth with 6.1 total big plays allowed per game.

It seems reasonable to expect a moderate decrease in big plays allowed per game over Michigan’s totals from last year due to the superior athletes they have at their disposal (and incredible depth at defensive line) compared to the talent Brown had at BC. Keep in mind that BC’s two play decrease from 8.2 total big plays given up per game in 2013 to their 6.1 in 2015 was a percentile jump of 53 spots. So by moderate I think we should look for about one less big play per game.

While that may not seem like much, according to Pete Carroll, each drive in which a team has at least one big play they are about 75 percent more likely to score. It stands to reason then that eliminating just one big play per game could result in giving up three to seven fewer points. For a defense like Michigan’s, which only gave up 16.4 points per game in 2015, that could mean the difference between very good defense and one of the best ever. Dare I say, Don Brown’s defense this fall could give the 1997 squad a run for their money?

The conclusion I draw here is that Don Brown’s super aggressive defense is actually a low risk/high reward scheme. Michigan was a very good defense last year and they might be even better this year.

Comparing the Big Ten’s returning production from 2015: Defense

Friday, July 29th, 2016


Don Brown Michigan

Yesterday we outlined how each team’s returning offensive production compares throughout the Big Ten. Today, it’s time to take a look at the defensive side of the ball and tie it all together.

A year ago, Ohio State returned the most defensive production with 74 percent of its 2014 tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, and takeaways back. It paid off as the Buckeyes finished third in the Big Ten in total defense and second in scoring defense. However, the team right behind them with 71 percent returning — Illinois– finished just ninth in total defense and eighth in scoring defense. The top two defenses in the conference, Wisconsin and Michigan, began the year with just 61 percent (seventh-most) and 63 percent (fifth-most) of their 2014 production returning.

Aside from Illinois, the teams with the most returning defensive production fared better than those with the least. The seven worst defenses in the conference were the same seven that returned the least from 2014.

Interestingly, the opposite was true the previous season. Maryland, Indiana, and Rutgers returned the most production from 2013, but produced three of the four worst defenses in the conference. Conversely, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State returned the lease production and turned out four of the top six defenses. So what does that tell us? (Shrug).

Let’s take a look at what this season looks like.

Defense

Returning defense
Team Percent Returning 2015 Total Defense Rating
Purdue 79% 110
Indiana 77% 120
Nebraska 69% 64
Michigan State 65% 26
Wisconsin 64% 2
Northwestern 63% 13
Iowa 63% 22
Minnesota 60% 24
Penn State 59% 14
Rutgers 59% 111
Michigan 54% 4
Maryland 52% 90
Ohio State 46% 9
Illinois 40% 30

Entering this season, two of the three worst defenses in the Big Ten a year ago return the most production by far. Purdue, which ranked 110th nationally in total defense and 111th in scoring defense, returns 79 percent including a whopping 88 percent of its tackles for loss and 83 percent of its sacks. Indiana, which ranked 120th in total defense and 116th in scoring defense, returns 77 percent including 80 percent of its total tackles and 19 of 22 takeaways. However, the Hoosiers do have to replace defensive end Nick Mangieri, who led the team in tackles for loss and sacks.

Nobody expects Purdue or Indiana to factor into the Big Ten race for obvious reasons, but the next few teams with the most returning defensive production certainly will. Nebraska returns 69 percent of its defense which ranked 64th nationally last season. Five of the top six tacklers return as do all but three takeaways. But the Cornhuskers ranked ahead of only Michigan in takeaways.

Michigan State (65 percent), Wisconsin (64 percent), Iowa (63 percent), and Northwestern (63 percent) were all ranked among the top 26 defenses in the country and return two-thirds of that production. Wisconsin has to replace linebacker Joe Schobert, who ranked second in the Big Ten with 19.5 tackles for loss and fourth with 9.5 sacks, and safety Tanner McEvoy, who ranked second in the conference with five interceptions and also added two fumble recoveries. Michigan State has to replace defensive end Shilique Calhoun’s 10.5 sacks and 15 TFLs but returns four of its top five tacklers. Iowa lost tackles for loss leader, defensive end Nate Meier, and three of its top four tacklers but returns all but three of its 27 takeaways — a number that ranked second only to MSU’s 28 a year ago. Northwestern returns leading tackler, linebacker Anthony Walker, who led the Big Ten in tackles for loss, but will have to make up for the loss of defensive end Deonte Gibson, its sack leader, and the next three leaders in TFLs.

Minnesota, Penn State, and Rutgers all return the same amount of production at 60, 59, and 59 percent, respectively, but one of these is not like the others. While Penn State’s defense ranked 14th nationally and Minnesota’s 24th, Rutgers’ was near the bottom at 111th. Minnesota brings back 70 percent of its tackles for loss, but lost two of the top three tacklers. Penn State has work cut out in replacing end Carl Nassib and tackle Austin Johnson, who combined for 34.5 tackles for loss and 22 sacks. Rutgers, meanwhile, returns all but three of its sacks, though the Scarlet Knights ranked dead last in that category last season.

Michigan brings back 54 percent of its fourth-ranked defense but has to replace its top three tacklers, linebackers Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan and safety Jarrod Wilson. But replacing tackles is much easier than replacing impact plays, and the Wolverines bring back three of their top four tackles for loss leaders and two of their top three sack leaders from 2015.

Maryland returns just over half of its 90th-ranked defense but lost linebacker Yannick Ngakoue and tackle Quinton Jefferson who were the Terps’ top two leaders in tackles for loss and sacks.

Ohio State, which returns the least offensive production, returns the second least on the defensive side thanks to six NFL Draft picks from that side alone. But like on offense, the cupboard is far from bare. Defensive end Tyquan Lewis led the team with eight sacks and was second only to Joey Bosa in tackles for loss. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan is a tackling machine who ranked fourth in the Big Ten last season. And while end Sam Hubbard only recorded 28 total tackles, 8 of them were behind the line of scrimmage, including 6.5 sacks.

Finally, Illinois returns just 40 percent of its 2015 defensive production, the least of any team in the Big Ten since at least 2014 when we started tracking. The Illini were a very respectable 30th a year ago, but lost the conference’s leading tackler, safety Clayton Fejedelem, as well as their next two leading tacklers. If there’s a silver lining it’s that 71 percent of their sacks are back, most notably linebacker Dawuane Smoot.

So what does it all mean? The following chart plots each team by both offensive and defensive production.

2015to2016 Returning Production Chart

If the trend of the past two seasons continues there are two teams in ideal position to win the Big Ten, plotting very similarly to Ohio State in 2014 and Michigan State in 2015. One is Penn State and the other is Michigan. And while both have room for optimism heading into the season Michigan is better positioned for two reasons: the two biggest weaknesses — quarterback and linebacker — have been addressed.

First, Jim Harbaugh did wonders for Jake Rudock in a short time a year ago and now he gets the luxury of having a quarterback — whether it be John O’Korn or Wilton Speight — who already has more than a year of his tutelage to build on. Looking at Harbaugh’s track record coaching quarterbacks, from Rich Gannon to Josh Johnson to Andrew Luck to Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick and most recently Rudock, it’s clear that he could essentially take a tackling dummy and turn it into a serviceable quarterback.

The second issue has been addressed by bringing in Don Brown, a.k.a. Dr. Blitz, to run the defense. He promptly moved the dynamic Jabrill Peppers to a hybrid linebacker position that perfectly complements Brown’s scheme and Michigan’s defensive strengths — the line and the secondary.

The biggest roadblock to Michigan’s title hopes is its schedule that takes the Wolverines to East Lansing, Iowa City, and Columbus in a span of five weeks. The good news is that those all fall in the latter half of the season, after Michigan works out any kinks it may have at the start of the season.

Does this mean Michigan will win the Big Ten? Absolutely not. Since we just started tracking returning production in 2014, it’s a very small sample size to draw any definitive conclusions from. And just because Michigan falls right within the returning production sweet spot that produced Big Ten champions each of the last two seasons it doesn’t guarantee anything. After all, Rutgers and Minnesota were within that sweet spot last season as well. But it should at least provide a little extra dose of optimism for a Michigan team that already enters the season with plenty of it.

How good is this Michigan defense?

Thursday, October 29th, 2015


eMichigan's cornerback Charles Woodson (2) leaps to make an interception in the end zone in the first half on a pass from Washington State's Ryan Leaf during the 84th Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 1, 1998. Watching the play are Michigan's William Peterson (23) and Washington States Kevin McKenzie (9). Player at right unidentified.(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)(Mark J. Terrill, AP)

The 1997 Michigan football team is considered the best Michigan team in the modern era. With Heisman trophy winner Charles Woodson leading a defense full of future NFL players, the Wolverines captured a national championship.

Seven games into the 2015 season, Michigan once again features one of the nation’s best defenses. But how does it compare to that legendary 1997 squad? You might be surprised.

The 1997 squad yielded 57 points through seven games compared to 65 allowed by the current team. But 13 of those 65 points allowed weren’t allowed by the defense. Utah’s Justin Thomas returned an interception 55 yards for a touchdown in the season opener and Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson returned a blocked punt for a touchdown. Remove those two scores that weren’t allowed by the defense and the Michigan defense has actually allowed just 52 points — five fewer than the 1997 defense through seven games.

1997 vs 2015 Michigan defense comparison (through 7 games)
1997 2015
Points Allowed 57 (8.1) 65 (9.3)
Total Yards Allowed 1,518 (216.9) 1,474 (210.6)
Rush Yards Allowed 537 (76.7) 453 (64.7)
Pass Yards Allowed 981 (140.1) 1,021 (145.9)
First Downs Allowed 80 (11.4) 89 (12.7)
3rd Down % 29/105 (27.6%) 19/97 (19.6%)
Sacks 16 (2.3) 18 (2.6)
Turnovers Forced 21 (3.0) 8 (1.1)

The 1997 Michigan defense allowed 216.9 total yards per game, 76.7 on the ground and 140.1 through the air. This year’s defense has given up 210.6 total yards per game, 64.7 on the ground and 145.9 through the air. Similar to the 386 total yards Michigan allowed to Michigan State two weeks ago, the 1997 squad allowed 354 yards to Notre Dame in Week 3. However, that still yielded a win.

The 1997 Michigan defense allowed its first seven opponents to convert 27.6 percent (29 of 105) of their third downs, while the current squad has allowed just 19.6 percent (19 of 97). The 1997 defense recorded 16 sacks (2.3 per game) through its first seven games, while this year’s team has notched 18 (2.6 per game).

Now, the big difference is the 1997 squad won all seven games, while the current team stands at 5-2. Why is that? Could it be because the 1997 offense was better? Actually, no. While the 1997 Michigan offense averaged 30.7 more total yards in its first seven games than this year’s squad, it averaged 28.1 points per game compared to 28.6 this year. So this year’s team has scored a field goal more than Lloyd Carr’s championship team at this point. Maybe this year’s offense turns the ball over more? Nope. This year’s offense has committed 10 turnovers through seven games, while the 1997 offense turned it over 13 times in that same span.

So what’s the biggest difference between the two teams? I think it comes down to turnovers forced. The biggest — and only — real disparity between the 1997 Michigan defense and the current one is the amount of turnovers forced. Led by Woodson, that defense forced 21 turnovers through seven games, an average of three per game. This year’s defense has forced just eight, 1.1 per game. Give this year’s offense 13 more possessions — and take away 13 potential opponent scoring opportunities — and we very well could be rooting for a top-10 or top-5 team in Minneapolis this Saturday.

In the first year of the Jim Harbaugh era, we are looking at one of the best Michigan defenses in recent memory, one that rivals what most Michigan fans consider THE best Michigan defense in recent memory. It likely won’t yield as many NFL draft picks, but with the exception of turnovers forced, it’s performing at an equal, if not higher, level.

Five Spot Challenge: Northwestern

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015


FiveSpotChallenge-Banner2015

Congratulations to brad6923 for winning Week 5 of the Five Spot Challenge. His deviation of 109.6 beat gvanneste by 20 points. He was third closest to Michigan’s third down percentage (29.4 percent), 15.6 away; second closest to Maryland’s second half yards (37), 13 away; and tied for third closest to Michigan’s total rushing yards (198), two away.

Myrick55 correctly predicted Michigan’s rushing yards, while Sustersueblue was just one away and bigboyblue, JustJeepGear.com, dtenpin22, and brad6923 were each two away. Gdub18‘s prediction of 25 yards was just one away from the yardage gained on Michigan’s first possession. Week 3 winner, Freezer566, was the closest to Michigan’s third down percentage, just 10.8 away, while ericcarbs was just one away from Maryland’s second half yards. DBenney09 was the closest — 12 away — to Will Likely’s total return yardage.

For the second time this season a contestant correctly predicted the final score, and for the second time it was the winner, so it didn’t even help. Brad6923 picked Michigan to win 28-0. Seven contestants predicted Michigan to score 28 points, and gvanneste was close with his 28-3 prediction. The 30 contestants picked Michigan to win by an average score of Michigan 33 – Northwestern 8.

The weekly results have been updated.

This week, Michigan hosts Northwestern for what is sure to be a defensive battle. Michigan and Northwestern are the top two defenses in the nation through five weeks and both feature below average offenses. Here are this week’s picks.

Predicting Michigan 2015: The linebackers

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015


PredictingMichigan-Linebackers

Joe Bolden(Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)

Michigan’s linebacker corps was rock solid last season, but with its fearless leader Jake Ryan graduating to the NFL, it’ll be critical for a largely unproven group to fill the void.

As a unit, the Michigan linebackers were great in the run-stopping game last season, flocking to the ball, and for the most part, keeping running backs from getting to the outside. For the defense to take a step forward in 2015, the three starters will have to lock down the middle of the field and support the defensive line in the run game.

Here’s how the linebackers stack up.

Probable starters

More so than with other positions on the roster, there’s a clear separation in the chain of command within the linebacker core. The starters will be three seniors with a ton of experience over the past three seasons.

Joe Bolden figures to be the physical and vocal leader of the group after starting all 12 games in 2014. Bolden was a beast in the middle of the field, making 102 tackles, and at times, defending the pass. With the departure of Ryan, Bolden is the most likely candidate to wreak havoc in opposing backfields. He has five career sacks and 12 tackles for loss as a linebacker and continues to improve each season.

In the middle will be redshirt senior Desmond Morgan, whose 2014 season was lost to injury after the opener against Appalachian State. Morgan was Michigan’s best linebacker in 2013, with Ryan sidelined by injury, recording 79 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and three passes defended. Morgan is valuable in the middle of the field because he can dominate all aspects of the position, swallowing up ball carriers and dropping back into coverage. Morgan’s return will help soften the blow of losing Ryan, who was the undisputed leader last year.

The final starting spot will go to James Ross, who recorded 32 tackles in 12 games last season. Ross was quiet in 2014 after picking up 85 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore and beginning the season with huge expectations. He can drop into coverage with tight ends and make plays on the ball in the backfield, though he disappeared at times last season. He’ll need to be closer to the player he was in 2013 to be a threat from the outside.

Projected Stats – Bolden
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss Sacks
80 5.0 3.0
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
38 99 88 187 5.0 12.0 0 1 0
Projected Stats – Morgan
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss Sacks
100 7.0 1.5
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
37 111 118 229 2.5 14.0 1 2 1
Projected Stats – Ross
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss Sacks
50 5.0 1.0
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
37 86 67 153 2.0 11.0 2 1 0

Returning contributors

This is where the linebacker core gets a bit thin for Michigan. Royce Jenkins-Stone has the best chance after the starters to make an impact at linebacker this season after playing in 11 games last year. His value comes from his speed and athleticism, as he can drop into coverage better than most linebackers and can get around blockers to make a play on the ball. Jenkins-Stone has just eight career tackles, but he’s a candidate to break out in 2015 if he earns more snaps.

Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray also saw some time on the field last year, playing in 11 games apiece. Gedeon made 17 tackles and picked up a sack against Miami (Ohio). His specialty is getting into the backfield, where he can be disruptive off the edge. McCray, however, is more of a form tackler and can make plays if he’s in position. He’s the slowest of this group of linebackers, but he won’t miss a tackle and he can shed would-be blockers.

Michigan will need at least one of these three players to step up and give the linebackers some depth heading into the season.

Career Stats – Jenkins-Stone
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
12 2 6 8 0.0 0.0 0 0 0
Career Stats – Gedeon
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
25 21 15 36 2.0 2.5 0 0 0
Career Stats – McCray
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
11 2 0 2 0.0 1.0 0 0 0

New face

Michigan didn’t bring in any high-profile linebackers to fortify the position this offseason, but they did move defensive end Jack Dunaway, from Bloomfield, to linebacker as a freshman. Dunaway likely won’t play much of a role on the field in 2015, but he’s a good tackler and can make plays in the backfield. The coaching staff hopes his move to linebacker will add depth to the position, which looks so thin after the starters.

Meet the rest

Allen Gant – senior, 6’2″, 225 from Sylvania, Ohio (Southview), 12 games played, 5 total tackles
Jared Wangler – sophomore, 6’2″, 230 from Royal Oak, Mich. (De La Salle), no career stats
Chris Terech – freshman, 6’2″, 215 from Saline, Mich. (Saline), no career stats
Nick Benda – senior, 6’0″, 223 from Champion, Mich. (Westwood), no career stats
John Andrysiak – freshman, 6’1″, 215 from Flint, Mich. (Powers Catholic), no career stats
Michael Wroblewski – junior, 6’2″, 241 from Saint Clair Shores, Mich. (Detroit Jesuit), no career stats
Tommy Whitted – freshman, 6’1″, 225 from Winter Park, Fla. (Winter Park), no career stats
Dan Liesman – senior, 6’2″, 233 from Lansing, Mich. (Lansing Catholic), no career stats
James Offerdahl – freshman, 6’2″, 220 from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Cardinal Gibbons), no career stats
Noah Furbush – sophomore, 6’4″, 217 from Kenton, Ohio (Kenton)
Cheyenn Robertson – freshman, 6’3″, 220 from Union City, N.J. (St. Peter’s Prep), no career stats

Inside the Numbers: When will it stop raining threes?

Monday, February 10th, 2014


Roy Devyn Marble vs Michigan 2-8-14(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

Two minutes into the Michigan-Iowa contest on Saturday, Roy Devyn Marble found himself open on the left wing behind arc. Marble rose, and with the flick of his wrist, buried a three-pointer jumper for Iowa’s first points of the game. Fifty-seven seconds later, Marble drained another three-pointer. Then he did it again. And again. And again. And, unbelievably, again.

Flames emanated from Marble’s right hand as he shredded the Wolverines at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. In the first half, Marble scored 22 points and converted eight of his 13 shots — six of which were three-pointers. It was an extraordinary shooting display from Marble, who had made a slightly-above-average 35.5 percent of his three-pointers prior to Saturday’s game, and it helped Iowa cruise to an 85-67 win against the Maize and Blue.

But this is not the first time Michigan has seen its opponent explode offensively while on the road. If anything, it has become somewhat of a concerning trend. In its last three road games, Michigan has allowed Michigan State, Indiana, and Iowa to score a total of 223 points in 182 possessions for an average of 1.225 points per possession. This is in stark contrast to the 1.082 points per possession U-M allowed in its first five road contests.

So what has changed? Why, in the past three weeks, did Michigan have its two worst defensive performances of the season against Iowa and Michigan State on the road and also allow Indiana to score a hefty 1.310 points per possession in the second half? A comparison between Michigan’s defensive “Four Factors” from its previous three road games with its first five road games indicates that it has been a little bit of everything.

Defensive Four Factors 2-10-14

In his book “Basketball on Paper,” Dean Oliver identified what he called the “Four Factors of Basketball Success” for how teams win basketball games. Those factors are effective field goal percentage (eFG%), offensive rebounding percentage (OReb%), turnover percentage (TO%), and free throw rate (FTR). To have the best chance of winning, a defense wants its opponent to have a low eFG%, OReb%, and FTR, and a high TO%.

Unfortunately, for the Wolverines, they were unequivocally worse in all of the “Four Factors” defensively in their past three road games than in their first five. Michigan State, Indiana, and Iowa shot better, rebounded better, committed less turnovers, and made their way to the free-throw line more often. Therefore, at first glance, it appears that Michigan needs to completely retool its defensive approach in road contests.

Yet that is not the case. While Michigan has allowed its opponents to snatch too many offensive rebounds and shoot too many free throws, those are not what is haunting U-M’s defense in hostile environments. The Wolverines’ main issue defensively was that they were the victim of an incredible shooting spree by Michigan State, Indiana, and Iowa — one that was out of the Wolverines’ control.

According to Oliver, eFG% is by far the most valuable of the “Four Factors.” Teams that make a higher percentage of their shots than their opponents are more likely to win than teams that have a higher percentage of offensive rebounds than their opponent. Surprise! In Michigan’s first five road games, its opponents recorded a 52.5 eFG%. But that percentage has spiked in U-M’s previous three road games, with the Spartans, Hoosiers, and Hawkeyes notching a 56.9 eFG%.

Michigan’s Shooting Defense on the Road

Games

Defensive eFG%

Defensive 2FG%

Defensive 3FG%

3PA / FGA

First 5 Road Games

52.5%

54.2% (97-of-179)

33.0% (33-of-100)

35.8%

Last 3 Road Games

56.9%

47.3% (53-of-112)

53.2% (25-of-47)

29.6%

Do not blame Michigan’s interior defense for this spike. Michigan State, Indiana, and Iowa failed to convert half of their two-point tries at home against the Wolverines after U-M allowed opponents to make 54.2 percent of their two-point attempts in its first five road games. The Wolverines have protected the rim much better and will need to continue to do so if they want their field-goal defense to improve.

Michigan did not see this improvement in its past three road games because the Spartans, Hoosiers, and Hawkeyes did not miss from downtown on their home courts. In U-M’s first five road contests, its opponents made a tad-below-average 33 percent of their three-pointers. Michigan State, Indiana, and Iowa blew that figure out of the water, knocking down an absurd 53.2 percent of their shots from three-point territory against the Maize and Blue. For context, on average, an NCAA D-1 basketball team makes 34.3 percent of its three-pointers.

Tomorrow's opponent, Ohio State, has made 45.5 percent of its threes the past three games (Mike Munden, AP)

Tomorrow’s opponent, Ohio State, has made 45.5 percent of its threes the past three games (Mike Munden, AP)

But, for the most part, this incredible display of three-point shooting by Michigan’s opponents was the result of bad luck, not poor perimeter defense. Ken Pomeroy, one of leading proponents of advanced statistics in college basketball, has theorized that defenses have little control over the percentage of three-pointers that an opponent makes. His data suggests that the best indicator of three-point defense is a team’s ability to prevent opponents from attempting three-pointers, not making them.

If Pomeroy’s theory is correct, Michigan actually has improved its three-point defense away from the Crisler Center. In U-M’s first five road games, 35.8 percent of its opponents’ field-goal attempts were three-pointers. That ratio was only 29.6 percent in U-M’s prior three road games. Therefore, Michigan’s perimeter defense limited the number of looks that Michigan State, Indiana, and Iowa had from beyond the arc, but this improvement was disguised by some extremely unlucky hot shooting from deep.

To be fair, the Wolverines’ perimeter defense is not without blame. In each of these three past road games, there have been multiple instances where Michigan failed to contest three-pointers by not placing a hand in a shooter’s face, not switching a pick and roll properly, or not finding shooters in transition. The Maize and Blue cannot afford to continue to make these mistakes because open three-pointers are more likely to hit the bottom of the net than contested three-pointers.

Nonetheless, opponents will not continue to make more than half of their three-pointers within the confines of their home arena against the Wolverines, even if they are wide open. This type of shooting luck from the outside cannot last forever. Opponents will begin to cool down from three-point land. Guaranteed. Regression to the mean is undefeated. But Michigan needs to continue to limit opponents’ three-point attempts if it does not want to be burned from downtown.

Michigan will not have to wait very long to see if its opponents’ shooting luck from three-point range will regress. The Wolverines travel to Columbus tomorrow to face their bitter rivals, the Ohio State Buckeyes. Ohio State has been feeling it from long range recently, too. In its past three games, OSU drained 20-of-44 three-pointers — 45.5 percent.

If the Buckeyes continue that trend tomorrow, and start making it rain from the perimeter, Michigan likely will lose back-to-back games for just the third time since January, 2011. But if the Buckeyes do not experience the same shooting luck that the Spartans, Hoosiers, and Hawkeyes each had while hosting U-M in the past three weeks, the Wolverines likely will earn their first win in Columbus since 2003.

Inside the Numbers: Developing the defense – the key to a Big Ten championship

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014


(MGoBlue.com)

Michigan can win the Big Ten regular-season championship. Even with no Trey Burke. Even with no Tim Hardaway, Jr. Even after Michigan opened with a lackluster 6-4 record. And even after Michigan announced that preseason All-American Mitch McGary opted to have back surgery and likely would miss the rest of the season. Michigan may be unranked, but many fail to realize that advanced metrics still view Michigan as a Top 25 team and Big Ten contender. But, if U-M wants to prove to the rest of the world that it is those things, it must improve its play on one side of the court.

To the surprise of some U-M fans, that side of the court is not the offense. In the preseason, there were questions about whether the Wolverines would be able to replace the offensive production of Burke and Hardaway, Jr. They were fair questions, too. Not only were Burke and Hardaway, Jr. first-round selections in the 2013 NBA Draft, they had the two highest usage rates for Michigan last season. More possessions went through Burke and Hardaway, Jr. than any other Wolverine for an offense that was considered by advanced statistics to be the most efficient in the nation. Overcoming two losses that significant is no simple task.

Yet, Michigan has done so. U-M currently does not have the most efficient offense in the nation like last year, but there has been only a slight regression. Last season, Michigan would have been expected to score 120.3 points against an average NCAA D-1 team in a 100-possession game. This season, the Wolverines would be expected to score 115.9 points against an average NCAA D-1 team in a 100-possession game. Accordingly, Michigan’s offense has been the 16th-most efficient offense out of 351 NCAA D-1 teams this season. This is still an elite offense.

How? Because five of U-M’s six non-freshmen that play significant minutes have increased their offensive efficiency while either maintaining or increasing their usage rage from last season:

Michigan Players’ Usage Rates & Offensive Ratings
Usage Rate Offensive Rating
2012-13 2013-14 Margin 2012-13 2013-14 Margin
LeVert 15.2 19.3 4.1 93.4 112.0 18.6
Morgan 17.5 17.4 -0.1 109.4 117.1 7.7
Stauskas 16.2 23.3 7.1 122.8 130.4 7.6
Albrecht 13.8 14.0 0.2 120.7 126.5 5.8
Horford 17.1 18.5 1.4 115.7 120.3 4.6
Robinson III 15.2 21.0 5.8 128.4 119.8 -8.6

Nik Stauskas has been the key to Michigan’s sustained success offensively. Last season, Stauskas’ offensive rating was 122.8, which meant he was the 36th-most efficient offensive player in the nation. So what did Stauskas do this season? He improved his offensive rating by 7.6 points, while becoming U-M’s “go-to guy.” As a result, Stauskas is the fourth-most efficient offensive player in the nation among those who use at least 23 percent of their team’s possessions. Very few players have been better offensively than Stauskas this season.

Stauskas is not the only reason why Michigan’s offense still is elite. Look no further than Caris LeVert. LeVert has had a rollercoaster season, but he is one of the most improved offensive players in the nation. His offensive rating has increased by a whopping 18.6 points, and his usage rate has jumped 4.1 percentage points. That is a remarkable leap. And it is why LeVert has become one of U-M’s best scorers. Plus, Jordan Morgan, Spike Albrecht, and Jon Horford each have been more efficient offensively despite using more possessions this season than last.

The only non-freshman that has become less efficient offensively is Glenn Robinson III. But that does not mean he is an inefficient offensive player. Robinson III’s 119.8 offensive rating is in the Top 300 among all players. The regression is because his offensive rating was so high last season—the tenth-best in the nation. With an increase in his usage rate from 15.2 to 21 percent, it is no surprise that Robinson III’s efficiency has dipped. It is extremely difficult for a player to be more efficient when he uses that many more offensive possessions. Yes, Stauskas has done it, but Stauskas is a rare case. It should not be expected of Robinson III. Michigan fans should be pleased with Robinson III’s efficiency this season, especially the past few weeks.

Nik Stauskas is currently the fourth-most efficient player in the nation (Marilyn Indahl, USA Today Sports)

Throw in Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton, Jr.—who are beginning to settle into their offensive roles—and the Wolverines’ offense will continue to be a terror for Big Ten opponents. But, if the Maize and Blue want to raise a Big Ten championship banner for the second time in three years, Michigan must solidify its play on the defensive side of the court.

John Beilein’s teams never have been known for playing superb defense, going back to his days at West Virginia. In Beilein’s five seasons as the head man in Morgantown, the Mountaineers never finished better than #70 in adjusted defensive efficiency—a metric that projects the number of points a team would allow against an average NCAA D-1 team in a 100-possession game. His defenses at Michigan have been better, but U-M has yet to finish in the Top 30 in adjusted defensive efficiency in six seasons under Beilein.

Michigan had a promising start defensively this season. Six of U-M’s first seven opponents have had one of their four least-efficient offensive performances of the season against the Wolverines. Five of those opponents were not even able to muster more than one point per possession. The sixth opponent—Iowa State—did not necessarily struggle offensively against Michigan, but the 1.04 points per possession the Cyclones averaged against U-M was ISU’s lowest of the season. Consequently, U-M ranked in the Top 30 in adjusted defensive efficiency.

However, in four of their next five games, the Wolverines began to show cracks defensively. And the one game they did not was against Houston Baptist—one of the worst teams in NCAA D-1 basketball. In those four games, Michigan allowed Duke, Arizona, Stanford, and Holy Cross each to average more than one point per possession. Further, the Wolverines allowed Duke, Arizona, and Holy Cross each to have one of their best offensive performances of the season against U-M. Hence, it was no shock that Michigan’s rank in adjusted defensive efficiency slipped out of the Top 30 all the way down to #51 once U-M’s non-conference schedule ended.

With an efficient offense, Michigan can afford those defensive lapses against lesser teams because the offense will carry U-M to victories by double digits. But Michigan cannot afford such lapses against quality opponents. And Michigan will face an abundance of quality teams in the Big Ten—the best conference in the nation according to most metrics. Seven Big Ten teams are ranked in Ken Pomeroy’s Top 50, and 11 of the 12 Big Ten schools are ranked in his Top 100. Simply: there are no easy games in the Big Ten, and Michigan will find itself in multiple down-to-the-wire contests that will be decided in the final few possessions.

The bad news for Michigan is that it had major problems defensively in the final minutes of close non-conference games. U-M played in five non-conference games decided by less than ten points. In its first two games decided by single digits, against Iowa State and Florida State, Michigan’s defense actually performed well in the final seven minutes of the game and in overtime relative to the first 33 minutes. But, as the table below provides, in its next three non-conference games decided by single digits, Michigan was a sieve defensively in the last seven minutes:

Michigan’s Defense in Single-Digit Games – Non-Conference Games
First 33 Minutes Last Seven Minutes & Overtime
Possessions Pts Allowed Pts Alwd/Pos. Possessions Pts Allowed Pts Alwd/Pos.
Iowa State 61 62 1.02 13 15 1.15
Florida State 48 59 1.23 23 21 0.91
Charlotte 59 46 0.78 12 17 1.42
Arizona 49 50 1.02 12 22 1.83
Stanford 52 46 0.88 12 19 1.58

Michigan allowed 0.64 more points per possession to Charlotte, 0.81 more points per possession to Arizona, and 0.70 more points per possession to Stanford in the final seven minutes than it did in the first 33 minutes. Further, in the final seven minutes of those three games, Charlotte, Arizona, and Stanford had 36 offensive possessions total. Yet, the Wolverines forced only six stops during those possessions. Thus, U-M’s defensive stop rate during the final seven minutes against those three opponents was a paltry 16.7 percent. And each of those games was decided by three points or less.

That is a recipe for disaster. One caveat is that defenses may make fewer stops at the end of games because teams are in the bonus and fouls send offenses to the free-throw line more often. But that alone is not enough to explain why Michigan struggled mightily to get critical stops at the end of tight games against Charlotte, Arizona, and Stanford. Basically, Michigan just played very poor defense in the final minutes against those opponents. And U-M did so differently each time.

Michigan's defense has struggled late in big games and will need to improve to give the Wolverines a shot at the Big Ten title (GopherSports.com)

Against Charlotte, Michigan’s perimeter defense struggled as the 49ers knocked down 5-of-6 jumpers, including two three-pointers, in the final seven minutes. This prolonged the time U-M—which trailed by 12 points early in the second half—needed to tie the game. The Wolverines finally were able to notch the game-tying bucket with eight seconds left. However, Charlotte tipped in its own miss with two seconds remaining, and Michigan’s comeback bid was over.

Against Arizona, Michigan led by eight points with seven minutes on the clock. Then, U-M did not grab another defensive rebound until the Wildcats missed a free throw with two seconds left. This allowed Arizona to score on all of its final 12 possessions and come back to beat the Wolverines by two points. Just like that, two potential Michigan wins went down the drain.

Against Stanford, Michigan almost coughed up another victory. The Wolverines led the Cardinal by ten points with seven minutes left. But U-M then committed seven fouls. As a result, Stanford shot 13 free throws in the final seven minutes and made 11 of them. Michigan could muster only two stops in Stanford’s final 12 possessions. Thankfully, for the Wolverines, one of two occurred on the Stanford’s last possession of the game when the Cardinal tried to send the game to overtime with a three-pointer, but missed.

If Michigan wants to win the Big Ten championship, it must improve its defense, especially in the final minutes of competitive games. Over the next two months, U-M will find itself in many tight games and cannot afford to give easy points to its opponents at critical junctures of the contest. Michigan needs to get those stops. Otherwise, U-M can kiss its championship hopes goodbye.

The good news for the Wolverines is that they have made noticeable improvement to start the Big Ten schedule. In its conference opener against Minnesota, Michigan became the first team to hold the Gophers to less below one point per possession. Further, no one led by more than eight points the entire game, and, in the final seven minutes, U-M’s defensive stop rate was 50 percent. The Wolverines made just enough stops to eke out a 63-60 win on the road against a quality Minnesota club. In the following game, Michigan did not need to worry about its late-game defense because it held Northwestern to only 0.84 points per possession in a 23-point rout.

As a result of Michigan’s defensive improvement to open the Big Ten slate, its ranking for adjusted defensive efficiency has leapt from #51 to #38. Although their ranking still is outside the Top 30, the Wolverines are getting back on track. U-M should be able to work out the rest of its defensive kinks in its next two games against Nebraska and Penn State—the 121st- and 66th-most efficient offenses in the nation, respectively. If so, Michigan likely will improve its Big Ten record to 4-0 and just may see its adjusted defensive efficiency ranked in the Top 30.

And just in time, too. After facing the Cornhuskers and the Nittany Lions, the Wolverines will travel to the Kohl Center to clash with the Wisconsin Badgers—one of only five remaining undefeated teams as of this morning—and the 12th-most efficient offense in the nation. It is there and then when the public will learn if Michigan’s defense truly is prepared to contend for a Big Ten championship.

2012 preview: the defense

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012


When Brady Hoke took over in January 2011, he stressed that his team would be tougher and would get back to playing Michigan football. He inherited a very talented offense, but it was the defensive side of the ball that would make or break the season. Hoke hired Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to lead the charge and it was the first indication that Hoke was the right man for the job.

Mattison had a tall task at hand, trying to turn one of the worst defenses in Michigan history into something resembling a Michigan defense of the past. But he had years of experience at the highest levels to draw from, including a stint as Michigan’s defensive coordinator in 1995-96, erecting what would become a year later one of the greatest defenses college football has ever seen.

All he did was transform a team that allowed 35.2 points and 450.8 total yards per game the previous year into the nation’s 17th-best total defense and sixth-best scoring defense, giving up just 17.4 points and 322.2 yards per game. Even the most die-hard of Michigan fans didn’t see that coming.

With the majority of starters returning this season, and an offense expected to take a leap forward, is there any room for the defense to improve on last year? Let’s examine the players who will man the Michigan defense.

Defensive Line

#73 – William Campbell
Games/Starts Tackles TFL Sacks FF FR
38/0 19 3.5 2 0 1
#55 – Jibreel Black
Games/Starts Tackles TFL Sacks FF FR
26/0 25 1.5 1.5 1 0
#88 – Craig Roh
Games/Starts Tackles TFL Sacks FF FR
38/38 112 21 6.5 3 0
#97 – Brennen Beyer
Games/Starts Tackles TFL Sacks FF FR
11/0 11 0 0 0 0

Projected Starters: DT William Campbell, DT Jibreel Black, DE Craig Roh, DE Brennen Beyer

By far, the biggest question on defense is the line. The graduation of the big three – Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen, and Will Heininger – leave the Wolverines with just one player who has started a game on the line. That player is senior Craig Roh who has started every single game since he arrived in Ann Arbor four years ago.

This season, Roh is switching from weak-side to strong-side to fill the spot vacated by Van Bergen. Roh has put on about 20 pounds to get his weight up to 281, slightly less than what Van Bergen played at. He says it’s a more natural fit and he’ll need to have the same impact that RVB did for Michigan’s defense to be successful.

On the other side will be sophomore Brennen Beyer who is also new at the position. He played in 11 games at linebacker last season and is now taking over the weak-side end position. He was in a battle with Frank Clark for the spot, but Clark’s legal woes opened the door for Beyer.

In the middle, senior William Campbell’s time has finally come. He arrived at Michigan as a hyped-up five-star, but has disappointed so far. This offseason, he has trimmed down to a slim 308 pounds and has drawn praise from the coaches for his improvement and leadership. It’s probably too much to expect him to perform to Martin’s level, but if he can clog the middle well enough, it will go a long way towards forging a tough defensive line.

Joining Campbell is Jibreel Black, a junior who hasn’t yet started a game but has played in 26 career games. The last two seasons, he was a reserve defensive end, but Hoke asked him to add weight and move to the 3-tech position to replace Heininger. It has been a bit of an adjustment, moving from outside to inside, but after bulking up to 279, he still hasn’t lost his quickness.

“He’ll be the most quick 3-tech you’ll see in the Big Ten this year,” said left tackle Taylor Lewan.

If that’s the case, he’s in for a big year, but we’ll find out from the start when he goes up against what will likely be the best offensive line in the nation in week one.

Backups: The aforementioned Frank Clark is in line for major playing time at defensive end, but it largely depends on the outcome of his legal troubles. His pretrial date is Sept. 11 and it’s hard to imagine he’ll see the field before then. If and when he does, he’ll be a valuable asset. He played in 12 games as a freshman last season, recorded 10 tackles, and picked off a pass in the Sugar Bowl to set up Michigan’s second touchdown.

Richard Ash is a is a big bodied sophomore waiting to fill in in the middle. Freshman Ondre Pipkins is another. Pipkins was the subject of a scare last week when he had an apparent neck injury in practice and was taken to the hospital. It turned out to be nothing more than a stinger and he was back at practice a few days later. Both he and Ash have drawn praise throughout camp. Quinton Washington is another guy who will rotate in. He has about a dozen games worth of experience in his career.

Linebackers

#90 – Jake Ryan
Games/Starts Tackles TFL Sacks FF FR
13/11 37 11 3 1 2
#25 – Kenny Demens
Games/Starts Tackles TFL Sacks FF FR
38/20 13 80 0 80 0
#44 – Desmond Morgan
Games/Starts Tackles TFL Sacks FF FR
12/7 63 4 1 0 1

Projected Starters: SAM (strong-side) Jake Ryan, MIKE (middle) Kenny Demens, WILL (weak-side) Desmond Morgan

For the first time in years heading into the season linebacker will be a position of strength for the Michigan defense. It helps that the guys playing the position were recruited as linebackers rather than as defensive backs and converted to linebacker.

The leader is senior middle linebacker Kenny Demens. An All-Big Ten honorable mention performer last season, Demens became a stalwart in the middle. He had his share of struggles in his first year in Greg Mattison’s defense, but became more consistent as the year went on. This year, with a full understanding of the defense and a lighter frame, he should thrive.

Jake Ryan had a good season as a redshirt freshman last year and is poised to break out in 2012. He made 11 tackles for loss last season and added 12 pounds since then to help him shed more blocks.

Desmond Morgan will get the nod at the weak-side spot. He impressed as a true freshman in 2011 and despite being slightly undersized has a great football mind. Better consistency should be expected this season with a year under his belt.

Backups: Most of the backups that will play key roles are freshmen, but before we get to them, let’s talk about a couple of upperclassmen who have experience. Redshirt junior Cameron Gordon and senior Brandin Hawthorne both have plenty of experience. Gordon is a journeyman who went from receiver to safety to linebacker. He has played in 20 career games, starting 13. He has enough athleticism to give Michigan a solid backup to Ryan. Hawthorne is also a converted safety with good playmaking ability.

A host of freshmen will push for time. Joe Bolden, who enrolled early and participated in spring practice, will see snaps at middle linebacker. He has great football instincts and great potential. Kaleb Ringer and James Ross will likely push for action at weak-side linebacker to spell Morgan. Ringer also enrolled early and has a ton of potential. Ross will likely redshirt but you never know.

Secondary

Projected Starters: CB Blake Countess, CB J.T. Floyd, FS Thomas Gordon, SS Jordan Kovacs

#18 – Blake Countess
Games/Starts Tackles TFL Sacks PBU INT FF FR
12/6 44 1.5 0 6 0 1 0
#8 – J.T. Floyd
Games/Starts Tackles TFL Sacks PBU INT FF FR
31/22 131 2 0 13 3 2 0
#32 – Jordan Kovacs
Games/Starts Tackles TFL Sacks PBU INT FF FR
37/33 266 21 5 2 4 5 2
#30 – Thomas Gordon
Games/Starts Tackles TFL Sacks PBU INT FF FR
22/14 90 5.5 2 2 1 2 4

Michigan was known for putting out great defensive backs throughout the 90s and early 2000s, but the past few years have been a letdown due to a combination of injuries, poor recruiting, and attrition. This year, Michigan enters the season with the secondary full of veterans.

The leader is obviously Jordan Kovacs. You know his story – from walk-on to four-year starter. He’s on several preseason awards watch lists and has defied logic his entire career. He’s sure to be a team captain when Hoke announces them. He’s a great tackler, he’s smart, and he loves to blitz and disrupt the quarterback.

Thomas Gordon has started 14 games and is a hard-hitting safety who recovered a Big Ten-best four fumbles last season. He was the team’s third-leading tackler a year ago.

At the cornerback spot, Blake Countess is a rising star. He grabbed the starting job as a true freshman last year and had a great season all things considered. He struggled down the stretch against Ohio State and Virginia Tech, but the experience should help him grow this season.

J.T. Floyd has started 22 games and is the most veteran cornerback on the team. He had a surprisingly good season last year and will look to cap off a pretty good career this season.

Backups: Marvin Robinson and Jarrod Wilson are the main backups at safety. Robinson came in with a lot of hype but has yet to make his mark. Wilson is a freshman who, like Bolden and Ringer, enrolled early. He has a lot of upside even if he doesn’t see the field much this season. Josh Furman is also an option, though like Robinson, hasn’t lived up to his recruiting hype to date.

At cornerback, Courtney Avery, Raymon Taylor, and Delonte Hollowell are the main players. Avery started some games two years ago before the new coaching staff came in, so he’s a pretty good third option. Taylor and Hollowell don’t have much experience – just spot duty last year – but could develop into decent corners in the next couple of years.

For continued coverage of our season preview series, make sure to come back each day this week.

TomorrowRecord Watch
FridaySchedule Predictions