Dispatches From Blogfrica: Big Ten Championship Game Edition

By RossWB on December 2, 2021 at 9:40 pm
© Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press / USA TODAY NETWORK

What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of a blogger for an opposing team; he (or she) answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: Ace from The Bucket Problem, an excellent new blog for all things Michigan sports. 

1. Michigan went just 2-4 last year in the abbreviated COVID season in 2020. Before the season began, expectations seemed to be relatively muted for Michigan -- they were, at best, picked to finish third in the league behind Ohio State and Penn State and seemed to be behind Indiana in some places as well. How confident were you in this team heading into the season and what were your expectations? 

ACE: I believe I was one of the more optimistic Michigan partisans heading into the season and I wanted Jim Harbaugh fired after 2020. I thought they'd go either 7-5 or 8-4, maybe 9-3 if they got some breaks. Harbaugh's decision to overhaul the staff felt forced upon him — his offseason contract restructuring gave Michigan an easy/cheap path out — and I assumed that even if he made good hires, it'd be too little, too late with this roster, which appeared to have its fair share of holes and some major depth worries. My attitude entering the season was a desire to see some good development in the players and a more cohesive scheme, hope they pull out a win from the MSU-PSU-IU trio and stay somewhat competitive against OSU, and build some hope for 2022. It's been astonishing to watch this unfold.

2. Aidan Hutchison and David Ojabo have been absolute terrormonsters all season in the pass rush. What has made them so difficult to slow down this season? 

ACE: They're both great players, to start, despite having incredibly divergent paths to get here. Hutchinson is the son of a former All-American defensive end, has been drilling this stuff all his life, and made an immediate impact as a freshman. Ojabo started playing football as a junior in high school after coming to New Jersey from Scotland, didn't see the field as a true freshman, and only had a bit role last season. That they play across from each other puts offenses in a bind; you can't give help to both edges of the line while maintaining a sound blocking scheme. Hutchinson is a remarkable athlete, a technical marvel, and strong as hell — he's one of the best players I can remember watching at Michigan regardless of position. Ojabo isn't too far behind and may be the superior athlete.

Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald's move to more multiple fronts that let these two stand up often, particularly on passing downs, while also threatening pressure that (1) can come from anywhere and (2) doesn't have to actually blitz to create confusion, has been huge. Don Brown's defense only featured one consistent pass-rushing threat, the weakside end, while great players like Rashan Gary were forced to eat double teams and sacrifice stats at strongside end. That worked well against the run but hurt M's ability to create havoc against modern passing offenses. Macdonald has done a much better job of putting his best players in position to make plays.

3. Outside of Hutchison and Ojabo, who are 1-2 guys on Michigan's defense that Iowa fans should be aware of because they're likely to make things miserable for Iowa on Saturday night? 

ACE: Slot corner/safety Dax Hill was a five-star Michigan wrested away from Alabama and he's lived up to the billing. He's probably the defense's best pure cover corner, quick enough to stick with slot receivers who can fire off the snap in either direction, and he's also a sound run stopper and blitzer with some serious hitting power. Macdonald likes to deploy Hill and Hutchinson to the wide (field) side of the formation and force rushing offenses to choose between attacking them or trying to beat Michigan up the gut and to the short side of the field. Hill also has receiver-level ball skills, so any wayward throws in his direction are likely to become turnovers.

While not necessarily the next-best player on the defense, I want to mention true freshman safety Rod Moore, who's carved out a starting role as the season has gone along. Normally, a three-star true freshman safety would be terrifying, but he beat out some more experienced competition, he hasn't made any notable errors in coverage, and he's a really good tackler in space. When Iowa springs someone to the second level, Moore is going to be a key player. Michigan has done a remarkable job of limiting big plays all season and Moore has played an increasingly critical role in that regard.

4. Hassan Haskins had a hugely impressive game against Ohio State last week, which capped off a strong regular season for him. It seems like he and Blake Corum have really been a strong 1-2 punch at the running back position -- what are their biggest strengths? What different skills does each guy bring? 

ACE: Haskins is one of the hardest players to tackle in the country. He builds momentum in a hurry, finds the right gap, and hits it with bad intentions. While he's not a breakaway runner, he's going to drag tacklers for an extra few yards on a frustrating number of carries, and he has enough wiggle (and hurdling ability) to make defenders look silly if they go in with their heads down. He wears down defenses. While not a receiving threat, he's excellent on blitz pickups, so he's still useful on passing plays.

Corum is compact, incredibly shifty, and pretty dang powerful in his own right. He's a superior athlete to Haskins; he's still clearly recovering from an ankle injury and he ripped off a 55-yard run against Ohio State. When healthy, he's a movable chess piece for Josh Gattis — he can motion into the slot and be a threat in the passing game. Freshman Donovan Edwards, who was one of the top backs in the 2021 class, has also come on really strong over the last couple weeks as a receiver out of the backfield. If Corum is still limited, Edwards could get a healthy number of snaps, and he'll be a tough cover for any linebacker and even a lot of defensive backs.

5. Cade McNamara had some modest numbers at the start of the season but more recently he's had some better games, posting impressive numbers in terms of accuracy, efficiency, and big play creation -- how has he performed this season overall and what has he been doing better lately? 

ACE: McNamara has been steady and remarkably good at avoiding negative plays, which is what this offense needs given its ability to move the ball on the ground. He's only thrown three interceptions this season and never more than one in a game. He gets the ball out in an average of 2.50 seconds per dropback, according to PFF, which is a top-20 mark nationally and a significant factor in Michigan allowing only nine sacks so far this year. That's not simply him flinging the ball to his first read, either. He's able to get through his progression quickly and knows the safe checkdown is a better play than trying to force a big one.

McNamara was a tough quarterback to get a read on early in the season because Michigan barely needed to throw the ball. I'm not sure he's improved dramatically as much as he'd had more opportunity to show his stuff. He's a high-end game manager, which I know Iowa fans can appreciate. He's also one of the slowest Big Ten quarterbacks in recent memory, so expect some JJ McCarthy cameos, particularly when the offense reaches the red zone.

6. There have been a few games (Rutgers, Nebraska, Michigan State) this year when Michigan has seemed to score with relative ease in the early going, before struggling to match that output in the second half. What went wrong (such as it was) in those games to make things tighter than expected (or a loss, in the case of the MSU game)? 

ACE: While it looks straightforward at a surface level, the running game is complex — there's still a lot of Harbaugh's influence in how Michigan runs a lot of minor variations on power, counter, trap, bash, and every other gap blocking concept under the sun while also throwing in some split zone and stretch. When it's all working, you get the Ohio State game. When there are some errors up front on early downs, this offense isn't the best at catching up when they're behind the chains. Those errors have been less frequent as the season has gone along and the gameplans have become more cohesive and focused on M's strengths.

This next bit isn't good news for Iowa: the other strain on Michigan in their tighter games has been the threat of a mobile quarterback. In the absence of a dual-threat QB, opponents have had a little bit of success with misdirection trickery catching the Wolverines playing too aggressively, but it's difficult to keep that up. The defense also occasionally gets caught out of position when offenses change speeds and go up-tempo; again, I'm not sure this applies well to the Hawkeyes.

I don't mean to sound like the stereotypical arrogant Michigan fan. Iowa has a good team. I just think this particular stylistic matchup favors a playoff-caliber Michigan squad, especially when the Wolverines are on defense.

Thanks for being a good sport, Ace, but I still hope your team gets mollywhopped on Saturday (lol). You can check out Ace at his very good site, The Bucket Problem. You can also follow The Bucket Problem on Twitter at @BucketProblem and Ace on Twitter at @AceAnbender. The Iowa-Michigan game is the Big Ten Championship Game (duh) in Indianapolis, IN on Saturday, December 4, and is scheduled to start at approximately 7:00 pm CT, with TV coverage from FOX.

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