Sunday, October 8, 2023

Michigan 52, Minnesota 10


Cornelius Johnson (image via Star Tribune)

Zone coverage FTW. There was a time when we lamented that Michigan defensive backs were terrible at looking back and finding the ball. There were interceptions to be had, but Michigan didn't, you know, have them. Don Brown had the defensive backs in chase mode all the time, and even though he was really good at his defensive coordinator job - Ohio State be damned - he hated zone defense. In this game a dose of zone coverage was enough to confuse inexperienced Minnesota quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, and he threw more touchdown passes to Michigan's guys (Will Johnson, Keon Sabb) than his own. In fact, he completed just 5/15 passes for 52 yards, 35 of which came on the final offensive play of the first half, a virtual Hail Mary that happened to come down in the hands of a diving Daniel Jackson for the Gophers' only touchdown of the night. That passing total was the fewest amount allowed by Michigan since they allowed 24 against UConn in 2022.

Hit the jump for more.

Mike Sainristil is a starter at corner? I thought it was interesting that Michigan decided to roll with Mike Sainristil playing outside cornerback - along with Will Johnson - against Minnesota's 11- and 12-personnel type of offense. Instead of playing slot corner like normal, Michigan removed Josh Wallace from the starting lineup and went with a 5-2 defense to start. Minnesota doesn't really have the ability to go four-wide much and they've been pretty predictable on offense for years, so the coaches knew going into the game what types of packages they would see most. I can see why Michigan would want Sainristil to be out on the field, but he was the one who got burned for the TD pass to Daniel Jackson at the end of the first half, so I wonder if the staff will revisit that decision when they face a similar offensive team in the future.

Is Kalel Mullings the RB2? Another interesting personnel development was the deployment of Kalel Mullings. When Mullings entered the season, Jim Harbaugh called him "RB3" and fans were like, "Ha! Yeah, I'll believe it when I see it." The 6'2", 239 lb. converted linebacker didn't seem like a natural running back last season when he was needed as a short yardage back, but he had shown glimpses of his talent in the 2022 spring game. In this game Mullings was the second running back to get a carry - not Donovan Edwards - and Mullings ended up with 8 carries for 47 yards, while Edwards had just 4 carries for 20 yards. (Mullings added 1 catch to bring his touches to 9, while Edwards's 4 receptions put his total touches at 8.) Whether it was a situation-specific substitution or a kind of warning shot to Edwards that he might be moving down the depth chart is unclear. Regardless, Edwards is the least productive qualifying running back in the Big Ten on a yards per carry basis:

Welcome back, Mason Graham. Graham was an absolute beast in this game. He had a couple weeks off to deal with a hand injury, and he returned with a club on said hand. He brought the metaphorical club, too, as he led the team with 6 tackles, notched 2 tackles for loss, and had 1 sack. The tackles and TFLs were career highs, and the 1 sack matched his best effort, along with last year against Iowa and Nebraska. His sack in this one was comical as he literally leapt on Kaliakmanis for an 8-yard loss. Effort has never been a question mark for him, but if this is how he looks after a little rest . . . Michigan should just keep him on the bench and bring him out every two or three weeks for big games. Yowzers.

The Little Brown Jug is where it belongs. Michigan is now 77-25-3 in the rivalry and Michigan has retained the jug since 2015. The last time Minnesota won was the send-off season for Brady Hoke when the Wolverines lost by a score of 30-14. The 52 points scored in this one were the most since Hoke's first season when Michigan ran for 363 yards and touchdown passes were thrown by Denard Robinson (2) and running back Vincent Smith (1) on the way to a 58-0 victory.

I could have written this without saying anything about J.J. McCarthy. For better or worse, I feel like I could have written this game column without mentioning McCarthy. He had a ho-hum day (14/20, 219 yards, 1 TD; 4 carries for 17 yards and 2 TD) despite accounting for three scores. His two rushing touchdowns were fun but probably not necessary as he squeezed inside the pylon on both, and his biggest play through the air was a back-shoulder post (huh?) on which Cornelius Johnson made an unnecessarily acrobatic catch. The real stories were Michigan's defense and domination up front, but McCarthy just kept the ball rolling throughout. It's great that we've come to expect these types of performances from McCarthy, and I have a feeling we're going to miss his consistency and playmaking ability when he's gone. Even though he has the #3 completion percentage (77.6%) and the #4 passing efficiency rating (188.53), he ranks #56 in the country with just 97 completions and #88 in attempts.


  1. Fun win! I loved the pick6s, bc they were so rare around here ... what was it cade said about defense scoring?

    Mullings may be RB2 next year, but even then he's too slow for a lot of carries ... I recognize your logic though, bc it was used recently regarding ZC in 2020

    LOVE, LOVE Mason Graham ... I missed big, powerful DTs

    Your take on JJ is ironic. His numbers are better than the last time we traveled to Minnesota, without the ugly backspin sack or living off screens ... I said that then, and see it now in Knoxville. But for the MICHIGAN standard, nothing too spectacular

    Onward. GO BLUE

  2. Shout out to Thunder for getting the game column out on Sunday morning after a late game. It was a nice win.

    I share Thunder's praise for the zone defense. However, I have some questions about it's efficacy against OSU/PSU and, hypothetically, Georgia if we are too reliant on it. Don Brown was similarly dominant with a man coverage scheme in the first half of seasons and rarely (until his last season here) even attempted zone at all. I wonder if we aren't becoming a similarly zone-dependent team now - that a dangerous pass attack can scheme around. In other words, zone isn't necessarily better than man, so are we multiple enough? Can we still dip into the man coverage bag when we need to? Are we repping it enough to be ready to use man coverage as a changeup?

    Zone clearly seems like a better fit with this team because the man to man talent is far from elite. Will Johnson is a great individual talent, and Wallace obviously knows how to play man, but it's not clear that Wallace and Sainristil are able to hang with OSU-caliber receivers one on one.

    Unlike Thunder, I was glad to see them try Sainristil outside. The stakes are low here to experiment and it should help us if we have to put Sainristil outside at any point, due to injury for Wallace or Johnson, or against a team using 12 personnel. It's also good if someone, anyone, can play nickel if Sainristil is dinged. Swapping Sainristil and Wallace doesn't fully answer our secondary questions, but it expands our lineup resilience and helps us put our best 4 out there more often.

    What it tells us in terms of personnel, IMO, is that the coaching staff doesn't trust Harris, Walker, or the freshman CB to play CB right now. So Sainristil is CB3 while also being NB1.

    It seems like we are juggling assignments still to figure out who the best 6 DBs are going to be against OSU and the best couple guys to rotate in to keep them fresh. We love our top 4, Sabb and Wallace are next up, and after that it's...Q Johnson it seems. My hopes for a freshman to emerge are dimming.

    Otherwise it was a dominant performance. I don't think we learned anything new in this one but each week reinforces the opinions we've developed about this team. Strengths are QB and OL, and oh the skill position guys are pretty dang good too. On D it's the DTs who are the stars and the only weakness to be seen is at the bottom of the DB rotation.

    We can (and oh we certainly will) parse details beyond that but without having faced any real competition we are in wait-for-PSU mode. The team can only beat who they play though. It's very encouraging that they are beating teams like Minnesota, Rutgers, and Nebraska so convincingly. It's just worth remembering the Don Brown defenses (and Rich Rod offenses) that so thoroughly destroyed weaker competition and then got shredded when they had to square up with someone their own size.

    1. Let's not forget that "weaker" competition during RR was limited to 7 opponents ... even then, Indiana went down to the wire & Illinois took 3OTs. Purdont, ND & even UMass were hardly 'destroyed' either. So basically it was UConn & Bowling Green

      Thank God those days are long gone!

    2. JE I will clarify that I mean on one side of the ball. RR only destroyed the weaker opponents on offense -- defense was very much NOT destroying anybody, no matter how bad they sucked.

      Comparing offenses; UMASS in 2010 Michigan had 525 yards and scored 6 TDs. Yesterday they had 432 and scored 4 TDs. Both offenses were dominant and moved the ball at will (against bad defenses). The difference is a defense that gave up 2 scores and 169 yards in 2023 and one that gave up 7 scores and 439 yards in 2010.

      You are right though - we were not eating as many cupcakes as we are eating this year. It's unprecedented schedule softness combined with an especially strong team on our side.

      Some of that is our fault (the non-conference trio is whack) and some of it is just random fate combined with pretty down year for the lower half of the big ten (with a mix of Year 0 situations combined with Year Last situations).

      Regardless - it would be nice to play someone who might be able to put up a fight. I haven't looked up the stats but my feels are that the Minnesota rush O and Rutgers D are the only legitimate units we've seen. And Minnesota's rush O is paired with one of the worst passing offenses in the country, so that one hardly counts. At least in 2021 we got to see Washington and Rutgers Defenses and Nebraska's O before facing a ranked opponent.

  3. I don't think it would change things too much if Mullings was RB2 but FWIW I took it as a situational thing - Mullings was brought in for a short yardage carry - which the offense didn't execute - on 3rd down and then the 4th down conversion that they did. The play action pass there would have been less of a surprise with Corum or Edwards since Mullings hasn't been used as a pass catcher much yet.

    I think Mullings has won the short yardage job. I don't know if that means they prefer Corum or Mullings in short yardage but if Corum's workload is to be managed getting him off short-yardage duties is a great opportunity.

    I agree with JE about 2024 - Mullings is very likely to RB2. I'd expect RB1 to be either Edwards coming back (I would still be surprised by this, but with NIL you never know) or a Portal addition. I have to believe there are a whole lot of nationally significant RBs who would love to be in Corum's shoes.

    1. Yep. Save Corum's body from unnecessary blows. No more 30-carry games with a game decided early. Mullings is a good fit for that role. Find more creative ways to get Edwards the ball, and watch for the fireworks

    2. Here we agree. Load management FTW. I love using anybody other than your primary back for short yardage.

      I personally would LOVE to see Edwards given the short yardage carries for the sake of debate here. But frankly, it's not worth the wear on him either. Anyone who doesn't fumble can do that job - it's all about the OL getting push and the offense being smart enough to introduce some doubt about what's coming.

    3. You guys are greatly underestimating the role of a short-yard back. It's not just fall forward, it's find the weak spot in the D when possible and push forward. And usually these are critical downs because it's either extend the drive or not. Mullings is way better on these this year than last year (and better than Edwards in this situation). They would still be using Corum if Mullings was not getting the job done.

    4. Kurt - agree these are critical downs. I'm not sure how much differentiation in success there is between different players or how much correlation there is with our primary backs' variety of skills.

      Regardless, my best case scenario for this type of thing is having a dedicated guy -- like Khalid Hill or Ben Mason -- but Michigan doesn't do that much anymore. The short yardage guy should know the number one thing is ball security, then the stuff you said, and then finally some ability to catch the ball so you can call a changeup. The playbook is limited down there and it's a great part-time opportunity for a role player to thrive in.

      I'm not sure how good Mullings is at it. His success rate seems modest so far in games (but the coaches see much more in practice, so I trust them on their choice.) As a fan, the TCU fumble memory will take a long time to wash away. That's probably unfair - every RB fumbles sometimes. We have enough time to forget most of them but Mullings' was especially painful.

    5. FWIW the NFL data says QB sneaks are way more effective than handoffs. and I can't remember a QB ever getting hurt on these plays.

  4. Had the opportunity to watch the last two games in bars away from home.

    Saw the Nebraska game at the famed Mint Bar in Sheridan Wyoming being served by a Michigan kid, which was filled with Nebraska fans there for a college rodeo. Halfway through the second quarter, they were back to talking about horses and cattle. Pretty fun.

    With the exception of two really tall kids at tackle, neither of whom looked to move real well, Minnesota felt both young and small on both lines for a PJ Fleck team. But maybe that's just us making them look that way. The push across the entire defensive line was impressive all day long. Even when there wasn't pressure in the sense of free runners coming through or around, there were interior linemen getting backed into ... whatever their greek kid's name is ... feet on about every snap.

    On offense, we just moved people around on far more downs than not.

    I don't know that I've ever seen a combination of two better lines than Michigan runs out there every week in my entire life.


    1. RE - best lines on both sides. Agree Roanman and that's probably the biggest reason we look like a top 2 team IMO.

      It's not just the starters but the dudes coming in waves.

      The (best in my lifetime) 2016 DL had guys like Hurst and Gary rotating in as backups and now we've got Grant and Moore.

      OL doesn't rotate of course but you've still got a second unit filled with guys that are good enough to start for most of the teams in the top 25 let alone the big ten.

  5. I think Michigan's defense is good but not great. It is definitely not the #1 defense as implied by the S&P+ rating. The pass defense remains a big question mark. We have not faced a single good offensive team. None of them are a good passing team.

    If I were Maryland/PSU/OSU, I would game plan on attacking Michigan's CB. Then use the passing game to set up the run. Empty back field and use Taulia as the sole RB and go with 4 WR formation each play. If Michigan can limit Maryland to below 21 points, I might buy into the "great Michigan defense"

    1. The key there would be whether Michigan defensive line could penetrate and get pressure on the QB before he can get the pass out. If the answer is "No," then the 4-wide strategy might work. If the answer is "Yes, Michigan's DL is having a field day," then it's a W for the good guys.

    2. I agree FT. It feels a lot like 2015 when we had a 5 game stretch of allowing no more than one score. The overmatched teams were completely strangled. But better offenses put up a lot of points on us in the weeks afterwards.

      November will be jumping straight in the water to find out we can swim. We aren't even putting our hand in the water first.

    3. This is why I keep saying I wish we were playing Maryland already. They can probably throw a punch - put us to the test. At least for a little bit, like they did with OSU, before getting figured out.

      As a test this would be great to have now. Sandwiched between PSU and OSU is suboptimal.

  6. JJ had a ho-hum day? I hope that is sarcasm.
    Most of my wish list hit:
    Johnson a pick
    JJ for a 70 yarder- I get a 50 yarder to Johnson
    Corum for a 50 yarder, I get a 42 yarder
    Shutout- even better, defense plus 4.
    LT and RT to lock it down. Got it


    If anyone is on twitter the above is a good follow for football data.

    Interesting data here that might surprise some folks -- the 2nd best redzone touchdown rate (per play) in the NFL is owned by Christian McCaffrey. I believe not many here would call him a pile pusher.

    The guys with the highest success weigh 209, 209, 229, 220, 195 pounds.

    This is by no means scientific but I think it's interesting that redzone success seems to have zero relationship to if a guy is over or under 210 pounds.

    1. This was discussed under the Cabana countdown thread. It's not about weight, but the strength to drive the legs - or speed to get into hole or bounce outside. Vincent Smith was an example used. Not a big guy, but dude had thighs & @ss that generated power

    2. Would you say that is something Christian McCaffrey excels at relative to his NFL peers?

      If leg strength was a primary factor I wonder why power backs like perhaps Derrick Henry aren't on this list. Would those bigger/heavier backs generally have bigger/stronger thigs and legs to power them through more effectively?

    3. Many people of a certain age will tell you that Marcus Allen was the NFL's greatest short yardage back of all time.

      Allen was not a real big back, although you couldn't call him small either. He was also credited by Howie Long with being the toughest Raider of them all.

      Probably my all time favorite back, so feel my bias here, what I thought Allen had beyond the rest was the vision to find that 10 inch crease, along with the lean and the quickness to hit it very low, level and hard.

      Still, being big and strong doesn't hurt inside either.


    4. IMO there are different ways to get the job done. You can be big and strong and try to power through, or you can be quick and small and try to find a crease. I'm not sure if one's better than the other.

      The main thing is the OL getting a push on the LOS and creating JUST enough uncertainty that the second level of the D can't sellout cheating to plug those creases or timing on the RB's surge.

      The great thing about Hill and Mason was that they were doing some of their work from the FB spot -- but that's gotten us into trouble with McKeon and Mullings fumbling.