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Behind Enemy Lines: Michigan Wolverines

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Drew Hallett of Maize n’ Brew joins us to discuss this weekend’s matchup versus the Wolverines.

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The Illini are coming off their first Big Ten win in nearly a calendar year after dismantling Rutgers on the road last Saturday. This weekend the orange and blue will attempt to pick up a much more impressive road victory, as they visit Ann Arbor and the Fighting Jim Harbaugh’s. Drew Hallett, football and basketball editor of the Michigan SBNation blog Maize n’ Brew, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the Boilers.


1. Lovie Smith, much like Jim Harbaugh did, is transitioning from the NFL to college football. What (if any) transitional issues did Michigan fans see during Harbaugh’s first season at the helm? Was it truly a seamless move?

It was very much a seamless transition for both Michigan and Jim Harbaugh. Michigan had been mired in mediocrity for nearly a decade under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, and, after a horrid 2014 season during which the athletic department struggled to fill the Big House and fans revolted against former athletic director Dave Brandon, Michigan needed to hire a football coach who could unify and reinvigorate the fan base once again. Harbaugh -- an Ann Arbor kid who became a Wolverine great at quarterback and an excellent football coach at both the collegiate and NFL levels -- was the only man who could do it as soon as he stepped to the podium for his introductory presser. So, when Harbaugh was announced as Michigan's coach, the fan base was exhilarated.

And Harbaugh, who had the full support from and trust of the fan base, also had total control of the team, something he had yearned for while coaching the San Francisco 49ers. That friction between Harbaugh and San Francisco management is what led to his divorce from the 49ers and pushed him into the open, loving, and waiting arms of Michigan. So Harbaugh was able to stamp his signature on the program in a heartbeat, and the culture of the program changed. Hoke always talked about how Michigan would be a tough, physical, Big Ten football team, but that talk did not manifest on the field. According to John U. Bacon, the author of New York Times bestseller Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football, Harbaugh "was alarmed by what he termed an 'intensity deficit'" when he evaluated Michigan's returning players. Simply, Michigan was physically and mentally soft. In response, Harbaugh made practices longer, more demanding, and more challenging, forcing the Wolverines to dig deep within themselves to push forward. He made everything a competition, giving players something to fight for and rewarding those that succeeded. He wanted to light that fire under each of his players, his assistants, and everyone within the program. When a coach does that with the raw talent that Harbaugh had at his disposal -- remember, Hoke may have struggled to develop talent, but he had no problem recruiting it -- and the team and program buy into it unconditionally, the results can be seen on the field immediately. That was the case for Year One under Harbaugh as Michigan improved from 5-7 to 10-3.

2. Saturday’s matchup marks the first time ever that two former Super Bowl head coaches will face each other as college head coaches. But their similarities end right about there, as Lovie and Harbaugh’s demeanors are polar opposites. Illini fans are quick to praise Smith’s calm attitude. Do Michigan fans enjoy the “antics” and unique strategies that Harbaugh brings to the table?

They do, and, as long as Michigan continues to win, they will continue to enjoy and support Jim Harbaugh's quirky antics. With Brady Hoke, Michigan had itself a lovable loser. That phrasing may be harsh, but, when Hoke was terminated, the chatter was how Hoke was a good guy that truly cared for his players but was not fit for the job. At that point, Michigan fans no longer placed as much emphasis on having a coach who was a "Michigan Man" so to speak. They wanted a coach that would do anything in his power to win (without breaking NCAA regulations) and get under the skin of others. They wanted the coach that everyone else couldn't stand because of his success.

And, for as quirky as Harbaugh's antics may be, there are strategic components to them that must be acknowledged. First, you likely have seen numerous headlines regarding Harbaugh rapping, pouring Gatorade into his cereal, vigorously defending milk or taking jabs at other coaches on Twitter. It is easy to see this as a coach that has a "unique" personality. However, the more that Harbaugh focuses that attention on himself and hands the media content to cover, the spotlight remains off his of his team, players, and their development. That's not to say that Harbaugh wants all the attention for himself to feed his ego. He is doing it because it allows his team to grow without dealing with as much scrutiny from outsiders. Fans see and appreciate that.

Second, Harbaugh's unique recruiting strategies, such as installing an international satellite camp tour or having sleepovers at prospects' homes, are the result of Harbaugh and his staff pouring through the NCAA rule book to find loopholes of which to take advantage. He is searching for ways to get a step ahead of the competition and, in the case of satellite camps, ways to expand Michigan's reach on the recruiting trail, particularly in the Southeast. Again, it's another example that Harbaugh will do anything in his (legal) power to win, and Michigan fans will back him on that.

3. Michigan’s offense ranks second in the nation in points scored. And yet, their passing game isn’t in the top 80 in yards per game. Does this mean that the ground game is the biggest contribution to the Wolverines’ high-powered offense? If not, what unit on this side of the ball has been most impressive thus far?

I wouldn’t say that Michigan's running game is the biggest contribution to the offense. The stats suggest that it is because the Wolverines are 15th in rushing yards per game and tied for 13th in yards per carry (with Illinois no less), while only tied for 62nd in yards per pass attempt and 37th in quarterback rating. However, S&P+ indicates that Michigan is equal on the ground (24th) and through the air (26th) and that it is the little things that make the offense so successful. Those are that Michigan starts with excellent field position (1st via S&P+), converts third downs (3rd via S&P+), finishes drives (6th via S&P+), and rarely turns the ball over (tied for 2nd in giveaways). It's a smart, disciplined strategy -- thanks in part to an elite defense and a tremendous punt returner in Jabrill Peppers -- because Michigan doesn't have an offense that will streamroll an average defense down to down (42nd in S&P+'s efficiency) or explode for long touchdowns (41st in S&P+'s explosiveness). Though I believe Illinois (122nd in Run Defense S&P+) will have a difficult time slowing down Michigan's quartet of running backs (DeVeon Smith, Ty Isaac, Chris Evans, and Karan Higdon), its best chance to do so will be to force Michigan to travel longer fields, where there are more opportunities to force mistakes or fourth downs. If Illinois is unable to do that, the Wolverines will receive a head start on their drives, and, once they smell blood, they pounce.

4. The Wolverines have one of the best defenses in the country. Specifically, they rank first in the nation in points allowed per game. What has been the best unit on this side of the ball for the Wolverines?

Through six games, Michigan has been about as perfect as you can get on defense. The Wolverines' defense is first in scoring, yards allowed per play, Defensive S&P+, Run Defense S&P+, Pass Defense S&P+, Standard Downs S&P+, Passing Downs S&P+, and Third Down S&P+. S&P+ projects that an average offense would score 0.9 points against Michigan. 0.9 points. For context, against the next-best defense (Clemson), that offense would score 11.2 points.

So, when a defense is playing at such an incredible level, all three defensive units can make a case for being the best. However, if I must choose one, I would choose the defensive line. That unit has been a disruptive force at the line of scrimmage. The defensive linemen are excellent against the run, shedding blocks to clog running lanes and standing up to double teams, and in rushing the passer, particularly by crushing the pocket from the interior. The Wolverines are second in tackles for loss per game and tied for first in sacks per game, and the defensive line, which is sixth in S&P+'s defensive-line havoc rate, is a huge reason for it.

Ultimately, the reason why I choose the defensive line is its depth. Michigan has talent spread throughout its defense, but it is thinner in the back seven. Up front, though, Michigan can go eight or nine deep without much, if any, drop off. I mean, Pro Football Focus says it best: "The level of dominance the Michigan defensive line has achieved to date can only be challenged by Alabama, as six players have run defense grades of at least 80.0 (by comparison, Alabama has two) and five have pass-rush grades higher than 75.0 (Alabama has six)."

Michigan's destructive D-line comes in waves, and offenses can do little to stop it.

5. Jabrill Peppers can play pretty much anywhere and is always fun to watch. Besides Peppers, though, who are the two or three other dynamic players that the Illini need to watch out for?

When Michigan is on offense, Illinois should keep an eye on running back Chris Evans. I expect that the Wolverines will keep the ball on the ground and think that Evans is the most likely to post big numbers. The true freshman is Michigan's leading rusher, gaining 400 yards on 48 carries (8.3 YPC), though most of his production has come in two games (112 vs. Hawaii and 153 at Rutgers). Nonetheless, if you're looking for a dynamic back, he is it. He is a very decisive runner in picking his lanes and elusive in the open field. DeVeon Smith, Ty Isaac, and Karan Higdon will get carries, but look out for Evans to reel off some long gains.

When Michigan is on defense, Illinois should keep an eye on cornerback Jourdan Lewis, who is one of the nation's best. Lewis was an All-American last season, and, despite missing the first three games of this season due to injury, has continued to play at an elite level. In three games, he has been targeted just 10 times, allowing only two catches for seven yards and hauling in a one-handed, game-sealing interception against Wisconsin. He is a true lockdown corner, thriving in press man coverage and permitting a receiver to get little separation at best. He will make life difficult for Illinois' quarterback and Malik Turner.

6. As cited above, Michigan has a high-powered offense and a shutdown defense. What, if any, weaknesses can Illinois attempt to exploit this weekend?

It is nearly impossible to find a weakness on Michigan's defense right now. There were a few that made cameos in Weeks 2 and 3 against UCF and Colorado (who is much better than anticipated), but those disappeared once Taco Charlton and Jourdan Lewis returned from injuries. One of those, though, that I think could reappear is a vulnerability to uptempo, spread offenses. When offenses move slowly between snaps, it gives Michigan's defense time to set up in the proper alignment and prepare, which leads to demolition. However, when offenses go no huddle and pick up the pace, Michigan's defense is more hurried and more prone to making mistakes. One of those mistakes is overreacting to an offense's package of play-action passes and run-pass options. Michigan's linebackers, particularly Ben Gedeon, tend to be aggressive and will crash to the line of scrimmage. Offenses can exploit that by having receivers run quick slants and routes across the middle. It's not a certainty, but it is possible. However, given that Illinois is 124th in adjusted pace, that is not promising for them.

There are more weaknesses on Michigan's offense, and Illinois is more likely to exploit them. The two glaring weaknesses right now are quarterback and left tackle. Wilton Speight does not have a concerning stat line (61.6 cmp%, 7.5 YPA, 11:2 TD:INT), but the film does not lie. After a strong performance against UCF, Speight has had slow starts and been shaky in many games. His accuracy has wavered on intermediate throws, and he has missed often when he goes for the bomb. If Illinois' very good defensive line (18th in adj. sack rate and fifth in S&P+'s defensive-line havoc rate), led by Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips, can bully Michigan's second-string left tackle, Juwan Bushell-Beatty, who struggled in his first start against Rutgers, the Illini can get pressure on Speight and force some momentous mistakes. This is another reason why I expect Michigan to pound the ball, to limit those possibilities.

7. The one unit that seems to be struggling for Michigan is special teams. They don’t rank in the top 100 in punting yards per game or field goal percentage. Who is Michigan’s most reliable FG kicker and is this an actual area of concern for any Wolverine fans?

It depends on what component of Michigan's special teams you are describing. Yes, Michigan's field-goal kicking and punting have been less than desirable. Kenny Allen has handled all three kicking duties (field goals, punts, and kickoffs), and the workload likely is affecting him. Last season, he was 18-of-22 (81.4%) on field goals and automatic inside 40 yards. This season, though, he is slumping, having missed four of his last five from all distances. This has become a big concern for Michigan with bigger games on the horizon.

However, if you are describing Michigan's return game, "struggling" is the opposite word you would want to use. There are not many players who impose more of a threat when waiting to receive a punt or kick than Jabrill Peppers. He leads the nation in punt return yards (249) and has returned one punt for a touchdown. In fact, he probably should have three because he tripped himself up 10 yards short of the goal line on one and had a sensational punt return for a touchdown against Rutgers negated by a questionable block in the back. He also averages 31.7 yards per kickoff return, but he's returned only three all season because teams began to pooch their kickoffs. Peppers is a dangerous, dangerous man with the ball in his hands.

8. Finally, who wins on Saturday?

This will not go well for the Illini.

Despite a 17-point win, Illinois just played Rutgers fairly evenly. The Illini needed Rutgers to bobble snaps on two fourth downs past the 50-yard line, fumble the ball in the red zone, and throw a pick-six deep in Illinois territory in order to beat Rutgers in a comfortable manner. The same Rutgers team that lost to Michigan, 78-0, and almost didn't garner a first down.

This won't be 78-0 because Illinois is better than Rutgers and has more pieces with which to work. Illinois' defensive line will give Juwan Bushell-Beatty trouble, and Illinois' trio of running backs in Kendrick Foster, Ke'Shawn Vaughn, and Reggie Corbin have the big-play ability to crack Michigan's defense for a few long runs. But, ultimately, Michigan will just be too much and will overwhelm Illinois. The Wolverines will feed the ball to their running backs and carve up Illinois' poor run defense, while the defense will smother most of Illinois' offensive plays.

Michigan 56, Illinois 7

Thanks again to Drew for answering our questions and be sure to head over to Maize n’ Brew for some excellent Michigan sports coverage.