We’re just a day away from Georgia and Michigan squaring off in Miami with a berth in the National Championship game on the line. That means it’s time for us to resume our look at Michigan’s key players with a look at the Wolverine defense. If you missed part one of this series where I looked at the Michigan offense you can check that out here.
This unit has been pretty stout all year, but it really made a splash nationally over the last two weeks of the season. First, it wreaked havoc on Ohio State by obliterating them off the edges. Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo combined for 4 sacks against OSU but that doesn’t really tell the full story. They camped out so long in the Buckeye backfield that they now have squatter’s rights. The Wolverine pass rush disrupted the Ohio State offense over and over and over. Sorry CJ Stroud, Ojabo and Hutchinson are now your roommates.
Michigan followed up that performance with a dominant showing against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship. Yes it’s Iowa, but a dominant win where your defense only gives up 7 points in the conference championship game is impressive. Michigan has only given up 5.7 yards per play this year, which is good enough for 6th nationally. Defensive Coordinator Mike MacDonald has a salty unit. Here are the players who make it go.
- Aidan Hutchinson - DE - Hutchinson was a Heisman Finalist in the year 2021 as a Defensive End. That really should tell you all you need to know. His 14 sacks this year were impressive, but his 73 total QB pressures on the season are other worldly. It’s worth nothing that 15 of those came against Ohio State and 8 of them came against Nebraska. Georgia tackles Warren McClendon and Jamaree Salyer are strong in pass protection, and I expect both of them to be able to hold their own no matter what side Hutchinson lines up on. They kept Will Anderson from breaking the game even when UGA was in obvious passing situations for basically the entire 2nd half. I expect UGA to use its trio of tight-ends to help out on the edge with Hutchinson at times, and it’s worth noting that Darnell Washington could switch positions tomorrow and become America’s most athletic tackle. Hutchinson is great, but he won’t do to Georgia what Georgia did to Clemson earlier this year and disrupt everything. He is very good against the run and it will be interesting to see how UGA decides to attack him on the ground. Michigan State had a lot of success using motion and H-Backs to stymie him in the run game. That’s something Todd Monken has done well historically.
- David Ojabo - DE - Ojabo is the thing that makes Hutchinson an even bigger headache. If you put too many resources towards Hutchinson, you could leave someone exposed in a one-on-one situation with the speed rushing Ojabo. What Ojabo does best is get to the quarterback. He’s okay in the run game, but he can be washed out at times. When he comes around the edge and gets a shot at the quarterback, he arrives with bad intentions, and a missed pickup that results in him coming free can turn into a turnover very quickly. Where Hutchinson is an every down player, Ojabo is a guy that the staff prefers more so on passing downs. He’s played 508 snaps this year as opposed to 738 for Hutchinson. If UGA wants to keep Ojabo from blowing up its gameplan, it’s important they stay out of 3rd and longs and keep the Wolverines in run/pass conflict with unpredictable play calling, play-action passes, screens to the edge, and swing passes to the RB’s.
- Joshua Ross - ILB - Of the two ILB’s that UM has on the field on standard downs, Ross is the best. That’s not necessarily good news for the Wolverines though. Ross stays on the field at all times while Junior Colson and Nakai Hill-Green tend to split reps at the other ILB spot. Of the three, Ross is best against the run and he’s a capable blitzer. Where Ross and the rest of the Wolverine inside linebackers tend to struggle is in pass coverage. It’s not often you find an ILB who has given up the 3rd most receiving yards of anyone on the team, but Ross has allowed 29 catches on 39 targets this year for 285 yards. If you’ve grown accustom to watching 2021 UGA play then you’re used to seeing Tindall, Walker and Dean cover TE’s, RB’s and WR’s successfully on a consistent basis. Michigan doesn’t have that luxury. That could be a big problem with Brock Bowers, Darnell Washington and James Cook being the players who the Michigan ILB’s are likely to draw on Friday night.
- Daxton Hill - Safety/Hybrid - Hill is a former five-star recruit that lines up all over the field for the Wolverines. You can find him in the box thumping guys in run support, you can see him lined up deep in Cover 2, and you can catch him in man coverage on slot receivers. He’s the chess piece that MacDonald moves around and he plays all of these roles at a very high level. Most often, you will see him in the slot playing the hybrid DB/LB position. His ability to recognize and react is a big reason why Michigan hasn’t paid more at times this year for its ILB play. As good as he is, he can be had at times in the passing game. Slot receivers with good feet who are agile at the top of their routes can give him problems at times, and Ohio State was able to hit him for 6 receptions off of just 7 targets. Michigan State produced 5 catches on 5 targets against him as well. He’s not likely to give up a huge play, but he’s susceptible to an 8-yard stick route on 3rd and 6. Ladd McConkey is the type of guy he struggles with, and it will be fascinating to see how the Todd Monken and Mike MacDonald move their pieces on the chess board against each other in this game.
- DJ Turner II - CB - Turner is Michigan’s number one corner and he has been great throughout the 2021 season. At 6’0” he’s long enough, and he’s very savvy with his hands and good at keeping receivers from getting free releases at the line of scrimmage. Prior to the Ohio State game, the most production he allowed in a game this year was 28 yards on two catches in Week 1 versus Western Michigan. The Buckeyes were able to produce 8 catches for 132 yards on Turner in the final week of the regular season, but their receiving corps is full of future NFL wide-receivers. The question for Georgia is this- Do you think the athletes you have on the outside are closer to what OSU fielded or the rest of the teams on Michigan’s schedule. If George Pickens is ready to take a significant chunk of the snaps on Friday night then I think he and Jermaine Burton could be capable of making some big plays on the outside. If they do, it will be a significant development in this game.
This post is one of a series previewing the Georgia/Michigan Orange Bowl brought to you by the folks at DraftKings. Odds/lines are subject to change. Terms & conditions apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.