Three Big Questions: Michigan's Defense vs. Georgia's Offense
UGA's offense isn't as dominant as their defense. Can Mike Macdonald and the Wolverines bury the Bulldogs with pressure?
Much of the conversation heading into Friday’s Orange Bowl semifinal centers on Michigan ability to score points against Georgia’s vaunted defense. While that may be the biggest story heading into the game, it’s worth examining the other side.
The Wolverines may not boast the nation’s #1 defense but they’re not too far off, ranking seventh in SP+. While the Bulldogs rank third in offense, they’re significantly off the pace of Ohio State, which Michigan managed to hold well below their standard. This game’s Heisman finalist wears a winged helmet.
So, can Georgia score points against Michigan’s vaunted defense? Here are three questions that’ll go a long way towards determining the answer.
Will Hutchinson and Ojabo Wreak Havoc?
The most important matchup on this side of the ball is also one of the toughest to predict. Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo have been spectacular edge-rushers, combining for 25 of Michigan’s 34 sacks. Georgia’s offense, meanwhile, has allowed 11 sacks all season, and they rank first in passing downs sack rate allowed.
Of course, Ohio State had (and still has) gaudy blocking stats that became irrelevant when facing Hutchinson and Ojabo.
While Georgia’s tackles have been excellent at preventing pressure, they aren’t top-flight NFL tackle prospects. Left tackle Jamaree Salyer is projected as a third-round interior offensive line prospect, right tackle Warren McClendon as a 2023 first-rounder… on the interior, too. Both are listed at 6’4, shorter than ideal at OT.
Hutchinson and Ojabo should get their fair share of wins against UGA’s tackles. There are few things more integral to Michigan’s chances of victory, as evidenced by Stetson Bennett IV’s stats when kept clean versus being pressured:
Bennett has nearly as many throwaways (12) as completions (13) against pressure this season; he’s only converted 29% of those dropbacks into first downs, and he’s almost as likely to get Georgia to the sticks using his legs as his arm. When he doesn’t face pressure, on the other hand, he creates a first down 48% of the time. His interception rate is 7.0% against pressure and 2.1% when kept clean; his touchdown rate falls from 11.7% to 4.7% when defenses get heat on him.
Michigan’s pass rush is capable of forcing a turnover or two that change the course of the game. Even making Bennett uncomfortable in the pocket would be a major win. It’d also help a great deal with the next task…
How Does Michigan Defend Georgia’s Tight Ends?
While Colorado State’s Trey McBride took home the Mackey Award, Georgia true freshman Brock Bowers made a strong case for himself as the best tight end in the country. He dominated the leaderboard among Bulldogs pass-catchers, pacing the team in catches (47), yards (791), and receiving touchdowns (11). Wideout Ladd McConkey finished second in all three categories with a 28-430-5 stat line.
Bowers is an athletic marvel. As a 6’3, 215-pound high school junior, he ran a 4.55-second 40-yard dash and posted a 40.2-inch vertical leap. He’s now listed at 6’4, 230, and doesn’t seem to have lost any of that explosiveness. He has four 100-yard receiving performances this season, including a ten-catch, 139-yard outing to keep Georgia within arm’s reach of Alabama in the SEC title game.
It’d be one matter if Michigan only had to focus on Bowers. Georgia’s backup tight end, however, is 6’7, 265-pound former five-star Darnell Washington. He’s fresh off making Henry To’oto’o (6’2, 228) look like a small, helpless child:
Washington looked very promising as a freshman in 2020, then missed the first four games of this season due to injury, which opened the door for Bowers. While that’s limited Washington’s role, the two complement each other well. Bowers lines up all over the field, moving from in-line to the slot and even out wide on occasion; Washington is a more traditional in-line tight end.