Behind Enemy Lines with The Michigan Daily’s Aria Gerson


CW / Joe Will Field

James Ogletree | @jameslogletree, Sports Editor

The Crimson White caught up Aria Gerson, a football writer for The Michigan Daily, prior to Alabama’s matchup with Michigan at the Citrus Bowl. Here’s all you need to know about the Wolverines as the Crimson Tide prepare for its final game of the season.

Q: Michigan averaged 27.2 points in its first six Power Five games this season but has averaged 38.6 in its last five. What changed?

A: There were a few things. First is that the transition to Josh Gattis‘ new offense wasn’t smooth right away and it took some time to truly click. That led to some sloppiness in the early games. The second is that Shea Patterson was injured in the season opener against Middle Tennessee and has said he wasn’t 100 percent until the Penn State game. That was about when Michigan got its offense back on track. Things have really run through him this season so once he was healthy, and subsequently solved his fumble-itis, things got running a lot smoother.

Q: Alabama ranks top five in passing offense. Michigan ranks top five in passing defense. What makes Michigan’s pass defense so good, and can it cover Alabama’s crop of receivers?

A: Michigan is very aggressive on defense. Defensive coordinator Don Brown is known for his blitz packages and the defensive line is good at getting pressure on the quarterback on pass plays. Cornerback Lavert Hill is one of Michigan’s steadiest performers and balances well with speedy Ambry Thomas. Meanwhile, safeties Josh Metellus and Brad Hawkins aren’t flashy, but they do their jobs well. However, I do worry about Alabama’s receivers. If you look at Michigan’s personnel, many are undersized and can’t quite match up with a team like Alabama with their speed — this is what happened against Ohio State, too. Michigan will probably try to switch up coverages to prepare, but in this case I think the better players win out.

Q: Michigan ranks top 20 in several stats, including first downs allowed, sacks, third down conversion percentage. What makes them so well-rounded?

A: Michigan’s defense this year is greater than the sum of its parts, with a lot of guys that aren’t necessarily early-round NFL prospects but they play hard and have good technique. As far as third-down conversion percentage and sacks, those stats have a lot to do with Brown’s aggressive blitz packages, especially on third down. Linebacker Josh Uche is one of the best pass-rushers in the Big Ten, and paired with defensive ends Kwity Paye, Aidan Hutchinson and Michael Danna, it makes for a frightening unit. If those guys can get pressure on the quarterback, watch out.

Q: It seemed like Michigan’s defensive front got pushed around by Ohio State’s. Do you agree with that, and how will Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown try to get pressure against an Alabama O-line that was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award?

A: That was definitely an issue against Ohio State, and the task at hand is even bigger for Brown given that Michigan’s two starting interior defensive tackles — Carlo Kemp and Michael Dwumfour — have recently been injured. Kemp is expected to play, but Dwumfour was unable to travel. That’s a blow for an already thin position. Brown has a special jumbo package for passing downs that involves putting four defensive ends on the field at the same time. He may try more of that, but it’s more of a specialized package than an every-down thing and to be honest, I’m not sure there’s much Brown can do to scheme around that lack of depth at this point.

Q: All three of Michigan’s losses came to top-20 teams. Were there any similarities among those losses that Alabama might try to exploit?

A: Certainly in the Ohio State game, Michigan had trouble keeping up with such a high-powered offense with similarly talented skill players to Alabama. So I think that’s the main thing Alabama will exploit: letting its players’ athleticism speak for itself. Michigan also had a hard time stopping top running backs this year in J.K. Dobbins and Jonathan Taylor. Najee Harris is of a similar ilk, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Alabama go with a run-heavy offensive scheme based on that knowledge.

Q: Does this game have any bearing on Jim Harbaugh’s job security?

A: No. Harbaugh’s not getting fired anytime soon, but if he were, it would have more to do with his Ohio State issues than anything that happened in a bowl game.

Q: What is your score prediction, and why?

A: I’ll say Bama, 44-28. Michigan seems plenty motivated for this game, but motivation only means so much when the other team is more talented, and that’s the case here. Alabama reminds me of Ohio State, and though Mac Jones is not as dynamic as Justin Fields, Alabama has all the pieces to exploit the same things the Buckeyes did.