Covering the Buckeyes
The Harbaugh-less Michigan Wolverines used a variety of coverages in the secondary to keep Ohio State's offense off-balance, resulting in their third consecutive victory over the Buckeyes.
Michigan was humming along all season, leaving opponent after opponent in its wake. Only Minnesota and Purdue could muster 10 or more points on offense. Then, before the Penn State game, the Big 10 announced Head Coach Jim Harbaugh would be suspended for the remainder of the regular season. Following an investigation into in-person scouting of opponents, the conference removed Harbaugh from the sidelines of games, and two staffers subsequently resigned or were fired.
Though the Wolverines did not keep up their previous pace, they handled the Nittany Lions and Terps, then earned a win in ‘The Game’ against their hated rival, the Buckeyes. The season was capped off with a Big 10 Championship over Iowa and the #1 seed in this year’s College Football Playoffs (They will play Alabama in the Rose Bowl).
The 2023 team is the most dominant in Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan. The offense and defense are ranked in the top five in FEI (BCFToys/DVOA for college). No other team this year can say that.
Defensively, the Wolverines base in a four-down multiple defense. Outside of Georgia, Alabama, and maybe a few other select teams, no one boasts a coverage diversity like Michigan. Defensive Coordinator Jesse Minter has done an excellent job stepping in where former DC Mike Macdonald (now Ravens DC) left off. Analytically, the defense has been arguably better than the ‘21 unit.
The Wolverines’ defense is an analytical giant. At the conclusion of this season, the unit was 6th overall in total EPA, 5th against dropback passes (no RPOs/play-action), 4th in EPA/Att, and #2 in pressure rate. Needless to say, pass against the Michigan at your own risk. Concerning FEI, the unit is 4th overall in opponent-adjusted DFEI. In unadjusted measures, Minter's defense is no lower than third in most metrics. The Michigan defense is first in Drive Efficiency1, Points Per Drive (PPD)2, and 1st Down Rate3.
Against the Buckeyes, Minter & Co. would have their hands full. Though not a top unit in OFEI (#13), Ohio State has the best WR in the nation in Marvin Harrison Jr. (MHJ) and the 9th best QB in total EPA (two spots behind Michigan’s JJ McCarthy). Overall, the Buckeyes have one of the best passing games in the country paired with a top-10 early down offense (CFBGraphs).
For three years, the Wolverines have come home victorious against the Buckeyes following eight years of dominance by their hated nemesis. QB Kyle McCord finished the day 18/30 for 271 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, and a QBR of 89.4 (ESPN). Though the Jr. QB had a statistically solid outing, his two interceptions were nails in the Buckeyes’ coffin. Talented WR Harrison Jr. also faired well (5-118, 1 TD) but was limited to a long reception of 44 yards and one TD, which we will cover later.
When facing a talent like Harrison Jr., defenses must understand that the offense will feed their best players. Unless the defense has a generational talent of their own at CB, it is hard to stop a dominant WR in a top-tier offense. Ohio State’s Head Coach Ryan Day got the ball to MHJ, but for the most part, the Wolverines kept tabs on him by manipulating their coverages.
The Wolverines countered the Buckeyes’ passing game using ‘targeted coverage’ and several other concepts. The bend-yet-don’t-break mentality is one that many top defenses at the college and NFL levels are adopting when facing a talented WR. Minter and his staff understood Harrison Jr. would get targeted, but limiting his quality targets was a premium. The multiple coverage usage also kept the Ohio State staff and QB on their heels all game.
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