Alex Hickey: Someone can beat Michigan before Ohio State does -- but it'll take guts
If you don’t have cable TV, you might currently be under the impression that Michigan is the most unstoppable force in college football.
This week, FOX is tethering its Big Noon Kickoff tentpole to the Wolverines for the third straight week when Michigan visits Indiana.
Indiana. The poor Hoosiers, being shoved in front of a national audience like a ritualistic sacrifice. When FOX has the broadcast rights to what is likely to be a highly entertaining game between No. 17 TCU and No. 19 Kansas.
But we get it. Michigan draws eyeballs. Though it’s hard to know if anyone else draws eyeballs when all you broadcast is Michigan games. Which will happen for a fourth straight week when the Wolverines host Penn State on Oct. 15. (The streak will finally be broken when Michigan is on a bye Oct. 22.)
Presumably, FOX also broadcasts these games with the hopes of someone giving Michigan a game. Or even upsetting the Wolverines.
But are any of Michigan’s opponents actually capable of doing that before the Wolverines close the regular season with another Big Noon Kickoff showdown at Ohio State?
There is a path. It is very much a high-risk, high-reward type of path. But the stats show that the risk is one worth taking, because the only other available option is getting grinded to death by Blake Corum and Michigan’s offensive line.
Bait JJ McCarthy into beating you
Jim Harbaugh is exercising extreme caution with new starting quarterback JJ McCarthy, which is the smart thing to do. That was especially true of Michigan’s game plan at Iowa, which minimized the threat of a game-changing Hawkeyes takeaway.
McCarthy had 24 pass attempts at Iowa, but 14 of them were within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. McCarthy finished the game with 6.5 yards per attempt.
Though he’s fitting him with kid gloves, Harbaugh sings McCarthy’s praises.
“He’s better than me, but he reminds me of a young Jimmy Harbaugh,” old Jimmy Harbaugh said after the Iowa win. “He drops back, and then he runs over to his left, circles back to his right, back to his left, runs it or throws it to an open guy. Man, I love it. I just love it.”
Now an opposing defensive coordinator needs to have the guts to force McCarthy to make big-time throws.
Digging through stats compiled by ESPN’s Bill Connelly, McCarthy rarely puts the ball into the air against man coverage. In his past 3 starts, only 10 of McCarthy’s 68 pass attempts were against man-to-man coverage.
- UConn: Pass attempts: 18. … Attempts vs. man coverage: 4.
- Maryland: Attempts: 26. … Vs. man coverage: 3.
- Iowa: Attempts: 24. … Vs. man coverage: 3.
It’s likely defenses are reticent to play much man-to-man against McCarthy due to the danger he poses as a runner if a safety does not have his eyes in the backfield.
McCarthy gained 66 yards on 4 carries against Colorado State and Hawaii. Since then, he’s been bottled up for minus-2 yards on 13 attempts. But keeping McCarthy grounded isn’t exactly helping those teams win games.
The key to beating Michigan may be challenging McCarthy to beat you through the air, even if it opens up more chances for him to gash you on the ground.
So who is likely to successfully employ such a strategy?
Tom Allen isn’t afraid of doing the unconventional and unpredictable on defense. As the past 3 seasons have shown us, the Hoosiers need takeaways to win games. Nothing good can come of Indiana sitting back in coverage against the Wolverines.
Indiana has good enough corners in Jaylin Williams and Tiawan Mullen to take some risks. But the trouble will likely come from Indiana’s offense.
If the Hoosiers can’t pick up first downs, their tempo offense will pile up sub-2 minute possessions that leave the defense vulnerable against Michigan’s mighty offensive line. Allen will likely have a good formula for challenging McCarthy, but he probably doesn’t have the horses for challenging Michigan.
The Nittany Lions just might have the ideal formula for defending McCarthy based on their performance at Auburn.
Tigers quarterbacks TJ Finley and Robby Ashford were able to burn Penn State a bit on the ground. Finley picked up 47 yards on 5 carries, and Ashford gained 44 yards on 9 carries. But the Nittany Lions sacked Finley 4 times and Ashford twice. Penn State limited Finley to 11-of-19 passing for 152 yards and Ashford to 10-of-19 for 144 yards.
However, Penn State’s pass defense was helped by its complete domination of the trenches. Auburn has allowed 34 tackles for loss this season compared to Michigan’s 17. So while the game plan seems right, the results could turn out quite differently.
We’ll see if the Nittany Lions can create that kind of pressure against a far more capable foe.
As lost as the Spartans appear to be at the moment, Mel Tucker is still 2-0 against Harbaugh. So dismiss Michigan State at your own peril.
If the Spartans can get some semblance of a healthy defense on the field following the bye week, maybe they can take away Michigan’s running game and force McCarthy to be a thrower. But this defense allowed 557 yards to the Wolverines in last year’s Kenneth Walker-induced win, so it’ll be a surprise of major proportions if this turns out Michigan State’s way.
The Scarlet Knights are fourth in the Big Ten with 6 interceptions. They’ve also played Michigan tough the past 2 years. The Wolverines needed triple overtime to win in 2020, and fought off a Rutgers comeback attempt for a 20-13 win last year.
But this is also a game Michigan can win with the same approach as the Iowa game. Even if Rutgers is begging Michigan to pass it, the Wolverines can likely still overpower the Knights on the ground.
The Huskers are allowing 200 rushing yards per game, so it would be a shock if Michigan throws more than a dozen passes in this game.
Coming a week before The Game, this is Michigan’s greatest danger outside of Penn State.
The Fighting Illini are an opportunistic defensive bunch with 8 interceptions against just 2 passing touchdowns allowed. Opponents have a 79.99 passer rating against Illinois, which is the lowest in the country by 11 points.
The Illini are also getting it done against the running game, fresh off a performance in which Wisconsin gained only 2 rushing yards.
Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters can draw up a game plan capable of shutting Michigan down. But this outcome may be determined by whether Illinois’ offense can do much against the Wolverines.
The Illini are 13th in the B1G with 31 TFL allowed. Mazi Smith and Michigan’s defensive line could feast on that to deny an upset bid.
Another factor? It’s late enough in the season that McCarthy may simply be better and more confident against man coverage. The Illini might have the right scheme, but the wrong timing.