Only twice this season has a defense held the University of Alabama’s prolific passing attack to fewer than 9 yards per attempt while forced at least one interception. The defenses to do it were Texas A&M and Auburn.
They are both top 20 defenses by yards per attempt allowed, Auburn tied for seventh at 5.9 and Texas A&M tied for 20th at 6.4. Just outside of that top 20 is Michigan, UA’s Citrus Bowl opponent.
When UA meets Michigan on New Year’s Day in Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, it will be a battle of one of the nation’s best passing attacks against one of its best passing defenses. In most instances, that battle has been made or broken by UA’s ability to generate explosive plays through the air, but this matchup may be more about keeping quarterback Mac Jones upright.
“High-powered offense. I think they’re averaging somewhere around 48 points a game,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said earlier this month. “Their two offensive tackles look to be guys that could be top 20 picks in the draft. A lot of good receivers: this could be the best group of receivers I’ve seen in maybe ever. Three top picks, probably three first-round picks in that group. Two really talented running backs. Very impressed with Mac Jones.”
Michigan’s pass defense success has been almost entirely behind the strength of its pass rush — to no surprise for a unit led by notoriously aggressive defensive coordinator Don Brown.
The Wolverines are not a team that gets their hands on passes: their 41 pass breakups (tied for 68th nationally) and nine interceptions (tied for 70th) combine for 50 passes defensed (tied for 73rd).
Still, Michigan keeps opposing passing attacks to a minimum, and does so with its pass rush. Michigan sacks the quarterback on 9.35 percent of its opponents pass attempts, which was 12th in the nation before bowl games. It also has 36 sacks, which is tied for 18th nationally.
Michigan claims two individuals in the top 15 in the Big 10 in sacks: Josh Uche (8 1/2, tied for seventh) and Kwity Paye (6 1/2, tied for 14th).
That being the case, UA’s goal in its effort to pass effectively on Michigan becomes less about beating its secondary and more about getting the pass released in the first place.
UA has been well equipped for that task in the past. As Harbaugh mentioned, tackles Jedrick Wills Jr. and Alex Leatherwood both choosing to play in the Citrus Bowl keeps UA’s offensive line in tact, the same unit that was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award, given to the nation’s best offensive line. UA has also made excellent use of quick passing concepts and screens this season, at times using the elite perimeter athletes Harbaugh mentioned to turn those short passes into long touchdown plays.
UA has been good at preventing sacks all season, having allowed only 12, which is tied for fourth in the nation. If that trend holds, it can expect to passing success in the Citrus Bowl.
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson