Michigan football's simulated blitzes, inside run game make it tough to beat

Looking back at what happened during Michigan football’s Week 5 win over Iowa, plus a look ahead to Saturday’s game vs. Indiana:

3 things we learned

Simulated pressures: The four-man rush struggled to generate pressure in the Big Ten opener against Maryland, at which point U-M defensive coordinator Minter began mixing more blitzes into the equation on early downs instead of waiting for obvious passing situations. It worked well enough in the second half to push U-M across the line but wasn’t an approach the coaching staff wanted to replicate against Iowa. Instead, Minter and defensive line coach Mike Elston dedicated significant practice time to working on the kinds of twists and stunts that frustrated Michigan’s offensive line most of last season. By looping one defensive lineman around another, which forced Iowa’s offense to react on the fly, the Wolverines were able to simulate blitzes without dedicating extra men to the pass rush. The idea paid dividends in the second half when edge rusher Jaylen Harrell looped from inside to outside and flattened quarterback Spencer Petras to force an incompletion. Then Mike Morris looped around nose tackle Mazi Smith and leveled Petras again for a drive-killing sack later in the quarter. It’s something Michigan can, and should, rely on moving forward without one-on-one specialists like Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo.

“As you all saw today, we brought a lot more twists and games and caused a disruptive afternoon for the quarterback,” Harrell said.

MICHAEL COHEN:Michigan football grades vs. Iowa: Wolverines' defense outshines Hawkeyes' heralded group

Michigan linebacker Mike Morris (90) tackles Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (3) during the second half at the Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022.
Michigan linebacker Mike Morris (90) tackles Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (3) during the second half at the Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022.

MICHAEL COHEN:Teaching J.J. McCarthy to pick his battles is key to Michigan football's success

McCarthy shined against the blitz: Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz used a portion of his postgame news conference to explain the bind his defense faced when trying to defend the Wolverines. Walking his safeties down into the box to stop running back Blake Corum meant the Hawkeyes were exposing their cornerbacks to one-on-one situations against wide receivers with great speed. Keeping his safeties deep allowed U-M’s offensive line to surge forward as Corum racked up 133 yards and a touchdown. And when Iowa decided to blitz, quarterback J.J. McCarthy exuded the kind of calm decision making that surely made head coach Jim Harbaugh proud. The Hawkeyes blitzed 10 times on 27 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, and McCarthy completed 10 passes for 79 yards, picked up five first downs and tossed a touchdown to tailback Donovan Edwards while releasing the football in 2.35 seconds per throw. By the time Ferentz and defensive coordinator Phil Parker slowed the Wolverines in the second half — McCarthy oversaw three consecutive three-and-outs at one point — Iowa trailed by 20.

“They’re good up front,” Ferentz said. “Those guys last year and this year are really blocking well. They have good tight ends that block well. The other part of the equation is they threaten you outside. They have really good receivers and a quarterback that can get it to them. You have to choose your poison a little bit defensively, and if you load up too much in one area, you’re going to be vulnerable in another spot.”

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy scrambles on a keeper in front of Iowa linebacker Jay Higgins during the first half on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa.
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy scrambles on a keeper in front of Iowa linebacker Jay Higgins during the first half on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa.

Interior O-line paved the way: After last week’s game against Maryland, Corum deflected credit for his career-high 243 rushing yards to the offensive line. He wanted reporters in the postgame news conference to know his success was due in large part to the players in front of him. That message might be even more applicable in the wake of Saturday’s win over Iowa, whose rushing defense allowed just 2.21 yards per carry entering Week 5. The interior trio of right guard Zak Zinter, center Olu Oluwatimi and left guard Trevor Keegan — back from an undisclosed injury — exploded off the ball to consistently knock the Hawkeyes’ defensive front at least a yard or two downfield. Seventeen of Corum’s 29 carries were between the tackles compared to just 12 out of 30 between the tackles against Maryland. The interior runs accounted for 74 of Corum’s 133 rushing yards and six first downs. Oluwatimi had the best game of his U-M career and finished with the team’s second-highest run blocking grade behind Zinter.

“They’ve been building that callus from last year and it’s rolled into this year,” tight end Luke Schoonmaker said of the offensive line. “Just blowing people off the ball, and that’s been their standard. They practice like that and then they go out and play like that. Maybe we didn’t get the big ones (like we did against Maryland), but we added up the little ones and it turned into something great.”

Michigan Wolverines running back Blake Corum (2) celebrates his touchdown against the Colorado State Rams with offensive lineman Trevor Keegan (77) during first half action Saturday, September 3, 2022.
Michigan Wolverines running back Blake Corum (2) celebrates his touchdown against the Colorado State Rams with offensive lineman Trevor Keegan (77) during first half action Saturday, September 3, 2022.

Next up

Matchup: No. 4 Michigan (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) vs. Indiana (3-2, 1-1).

Kickoff: Noon Saturday; Memorial Stadium, Bloomington, Indiana.

TV/radio: Fox; WXYT-FM (97.1), WTKA-AM (1050).

Line: Wolverines by 21½.

Know the foe

Indiana quarterback Connor Bazelak throws a touchdown to running back Shaun Shivers during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Cincinnati, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Cincinnati. Cincinnati won 45-24. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
Indiana quarterback Connor Bazelak throws a touchdown to running back Shaun Shivers during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Cincinnati, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Cincinnati. Cincinnati won 45-24. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

Much has changed for Indiana since last year’s matchup between these teams at Michigan Stadium, a comfortable 29-7 win for the Wolverines. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who missed the game against U-M with an injury, transferred to Washington and the player who started against Michigan, Donaven McCulley, converted to wide receiver (six catches, 85 yards in 2022). Now the job belongs to junior Connor Bazelak, a transfer from Missouri who threw for 2,366 yards and 2,548 yards in his final two seasons with the Tigers. Bazelak has given hope to a group that ranked 124th in total offense last year at 289.7 yards per game. This year, Bazelak is averaging 278.8 passing yards by himself and the offense has jumped to 83rd nationally. Wide receiver Cam Camper, who missed Saturday’s loss to Nebraska for an undisclosed reason, had 418 yards and a touchdown in his first four games after joining the Hoosiers from Trinity Valley Community College. Another key addition is tailback Shaun Shivers, the transfer from Auburn who has 345 yards and four touchdowns. It’s the defense that is causing problems for Indiana head coach Tom Allen. The Hoosiers have slipped from 43rd nationally in 2020, to 69th nationally in 2021 and now 107th in 2022 by surrendering 420.4 yards per game. They’ve given up at least 30 points in each of their last three games against Western Kentucky (33-30 OT win), Cincinnati (45-24 loss) and Nebraska (35-21 loss).

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football propelled by interior run game, pass rush scheme