Michigan's defense is predicated on the front seven. While that may seem obvious to some, it really just means the UM secondary is suspect. If the Wolverine line is getting push and pressure with different blitzes, their secondary won't be a factor. If Utah's line can handle the UM rush, Travis Wilson could have a big day picking apart the Wolverine defense.
The Wolverines are particularly stout along the line and up the middle. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's defense has solid tackles, good (though not great) ends, and quick linebackers, and the UM run defense is strong. However, defending the pass is another story. (Mattison was formerly the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens, and was DC under Urban Meyer at Florida for their 2006 BCS national title run.)
Even while the Wolverines are well equipped and schemed to stop the run, Utah can't entirely abandon the running game, especially with a talented back like Devontae Booker. This time, the Utes may have to set up the run with the passing game. But Utah offensive coordinator Dave Christensen may be able to exploit the Michigan aggression with draws, designed quarterback runs, passing to the tailbacks out of the back field, quick slants, and screens.
After Michigan's 0-31 loss to Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., Mattison identified two primary issues with his defense:
- Defense was schematically predictable
- Press coverage needs to be more fundamentally sound.
Michigan runs a press man coverage in the secondary, similar to what the Utes like to play. Utah's offense will have seen a variation of the UM defense in practice every day; however, Mattison preaches aggressiveness in the secondary, which has been problematic. Several Wolverine corners have been flagged for pass interference, a point of emphasis for refereeing this season, and corners like freshman Jabril Peppers take that philosophy and translate it to holding and arm grabbing. (Against Miami (OH), Peppers was flagged for running into the kicker on a field goal, so, while he's aggressive and talented, he's also young, inexperienced at the elite college level, and makes dumb freshman mistakes, something Utah's OC and experienced wideouts can exploit.) Utah's wide receivers are going to need to fight for their position, for jump balls, fade routes, and sideline routes, but there are serious gaps in the Wolverine pass defense.
There are athletes in the secondary to be sure, but there are gaps that Utah OC Dave Christensen can exploit. Corners play physically but are average to poor tacklers, and Utah’s wide receivers can get big plays and yards after the catch. Michigan's corners are particularly vulnerable to quick slants and swing routes. However, the Michigan corners hit hard after the catch, and Utah wide receivers and tight ends will need to be strong with the ball after the reception.
Michigan's front seven get good push along the line and a great deal of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, which can cover vulnerabilities in the secondary. Senior left defensive end Brennan Beyer (6-3, 256 pounds) is a pit bull off the edge. Once he gets a hand on a back, he brings them down. Utah's right tackle JJ Dielman will have his work cut out for him keeping Beyer out of the Utes backfield. Additionally, Mattison likes to bring linebackers from different angles, showing an all out blitz but dropping into coverage, as well as simply bringing the house.
Utah's tempo may present problems for the Michigan front seven, ala Alabama, as the Wolverines look solid, well coached, and fundamentally sound, but not particularly athletic. If the Utes can speed up the game, Michigan might not have the defensive stamina to keep up. Additionally, a team with a solid offensive line that can hold off the UM front seven can generate yards and touchdowns in the passing game. Notre Dame and Miami (OH) both had success around the goal line with shallow speed out routes.
Three points won’t win the game for the Utes. That is not to say Utah shouldn’t take the points when they’re presented, but Christensen’s group will need to score touchdowns to win in Ann Arbor. Michigan’s offense may not be potent enough to create a shootout, but their defense is stout enough to force a low-scoring, touchdown premium game.