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Q&A: What to expect from Michigan’s defense vs. Wisconsin

Part two of a two-part Q&A session with SB Nation’s Michigan site. Here’s part one.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 4 Michigan Wolverines (4-0) have been impressive through the first third of the season. Part one of our Q&A with Maize and Brew’s Drew Hallett showcased the offensive firepower Jim Harbaugh’s team has shown.

The defense has been no slouch either, appearing among the best in the nation.

“Coach [Don] Brown is a really good coach, and it’s a really good scheme,” head coach Paul Chryst said on Monday, when asked about Michigan’s success defending on third downs (best in the country at 12 percent conversions allowed). “I think they’ve done a nice job, similar to ours with the transition.”

Here’s part two of our Q&A:

Turning to defense, here are some impressive stats; Michigan has allowed 13.8 points per game, is 11th in the nation in total defense (allowing 269.8 yards per game), ranks fourth in the FBS in sacks (4.25 per game) and second in the nation in tackles for loss (11.3 per game). Most notably, opponents are only converting 12 percent of their third downs, best in the nation. Aside from Jabrill Peppers, what has made this unit so dominant?

All three units of Michigan’s defense have performed very well to make the defense so dominant. It starts up front on the defensive line where the Wolverines have one of the most talented and deepest groups at that position. Ryan Glasgow, Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton will be NFL draft selections next April, and Maurice Hurst, Jr. could join them if he decides to forego his fifth year. Then there’s Rashan Gary, who was the top overall prospect in the 2016 class and leads Michigan’s defensive linemen with 4.5 tackles for loss. Essentially, Michigan has eight contributing defensive linemen and, because Michigan rotates all of them frequently, they remain fresh and disruptive at the line of scrimmage throughout the game.

With Michigan’s defensive linemen winning their battles and shedding blockers at the line, it frees up the linebackers to make plays. I will wait to discuss Jabrill Peppers, who is a nominal linebacker, but inside linebackers Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray have exceeded expectations. Gedeon leads the team with 36 tackles and owns 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. He is very aggressive and fills running lanes quickly—too quickly, sometimes, which means offenses can exploit him with play action. McCray isn’t a prototypical run-stopping linebacker, but his athleticism makes him an effective blitzer, earning him 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

In the secondary, Michigan’s corners are very difficult to beat. All-American Jourdan Lewis returned to action last week after missing the first three games with injuries. The first two times that Penn State targeted him, he had a near-pick and made a key tackle for loss on a fourth-down screen, so he seems fully back. Lewis is a shut-down corner that thrives in press coverage. He effectively jams routes at the line of scrimmage, doesn’t allow receivers to separate from him and uses his hands effectively to slow them down without drawing pass interference. The plan was to have Lewis as the slot defender, while the bigger bodies, Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark, who were named the Big Ten’s top two corners through the first three weeks by Pro Football Focus, covered the outside wideout. However, Clark tore his ACL last week, meaning Michigan’s third corner will not be as talented or a true freshman.

Add up all three units of the defense, throw in some plain-old aggression from new defensive coordinator Don Brown and you have a fierce Michigan defense without many weaknesses.

Now on to Peppers. Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst had high praise for the versatile player. What does he do for not just the defense, but also special teams and offense?

Jabrill Peppers is the most valuable player on Michigan’s roster and is the closest thing Michigan has had to Charles Woodson since 1997. On defense, Peppers is the SAM/nickel, or what also can be called the hybrid-space player. This means that Don Brown will move him from the line of scrimmage to the slot to deep safety in an effort to change schemes and disguise coverages. And what makes it so effective is that Peppers excels in almost every area. He is ferocious at the line of scrimmage because his speed and agility make him nearly impossible to block in space, which is why he co-leads the nation in tackles for loss (9.5). Don’t even try to throw a screen in his direction, or you’re asking to lose yards. He is a sure tackler and effective blitzer. He also is very good in coverage, but he can be exploited there. Peppers is better when he covers on the outside, knowing he has the sideline as his partner, but when he covers a slot receiver that can release in either direction, he has some trouble.

On offense, Peppers is such a threat as a runner, whether he’ll be lined up as a running back, Wildcat quarterback or in the slot, that defenses pay all of their attention to him. This makes him an excellent decoy that can open space for others with misdirection. And, when Peppers does get the ball, he is explosive and can slice through a defense with his speed. This also can be seen on special teams, where he thrives as a returner. He leads the nation with 227 punt return yards, averaging 22.7 yards per return, and already has taken one to the house.

Peppers is a special player, and the Wolverines are fortunate to have him.

What are your keys to the game for both teams, and what’s your prediction?

I’ll limit my answer to just one key on each side of the ball:

1. Wisconsin Chunk Plays.

Wisconsin’s offense is in real trouble on Saturday because it feeds directly into Michigan’s defensive strengths. The Badgers like to pound the football, handing it to Corey Clement, and methodically work their way down the field. However, Wisconsin’s rushing attack hasn’t been as effective as it has been in recent years (99th in YPC), and Michigan’s defense thrives against that. Wisconsin’s best chance to put up touchdowns will be to generate big chunk plays by testing the edges and challenging Michigan’s safeties down the field. Can Alex Hornibrook do that? I’m not confident that he can because the Badgers are 114th in S&P+’s explosiveness metric and have just five 30-plus-yard plays from scrimmage (106th).

2. Wilton Speight vs. Wisconsin’s Secondary.

Michigan just ran for 300-plus yards against Penn State at over 6.6 yards per carry, but Wisconsin’s front seven, led by an excellent quartet of linebackers, is on a completely different level. (Editor’s note: This Q&A was conducted before Vince Biegel was lost for two to four weeks.) The Wolverines’ ground game has its fair share of flaws, and I think the Badgers will expose that on Saturday.

This leaves Wilton Speight and Michigan’s aerial attack. Since the UCF game, Speight has not been as sharp on his intermediate passes and hasn’t taken many accurate shots over the top. However, that is Michigan’s best chance to move the football against Wisconsin’s defense. He is going to need Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt to get themselves open down the field, and he will have to connect with them. And I predict that Speight will have more success with these plays than Wisconsin getting big plays.

I expect a defensive slugfest with Michigan having just a little more firepower.

Michigan 21, Wisconsin 10