Heat Checks and Hail Marys – Don’t Tell Bret Bielema that Complementary Football Doesn’t Win Championships

Mike Cagley, Co-Host Sports Spectacular & Big Sports Radio

January 14, 2023

Monday night, Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines flipped the college football world on its collective head by winning the national championship and restoring the paradigm of what a championship team looks like. It might be that Monday night is best described as a “Back to the Future” moment for college football.

In recent years, we’ve seen an era of star-studded, high octane offensive teams winning several national titles. Michigan is a team full of older, experienced, and gritty overachievers who won the battle of fundamentals each week to grab their national title. Will this model regain the hearts of coaches and fans across the country? Time will tell.

We suspect this style of football has reinforced the beliefs of the Illini head coach, who has talked complementary football for his entire career. With Monday’s Michigan victory, the staff's belief in “Bielema Ball” is burning hotter than ever with the emergence of Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan team.

Hail Mary #1 – Defense Wins Championships

Harbaugh’s defense has set the tone for Michigan’s return to prominence.

The Michigan defense led the country in scoring defense, allowing only 10.4 points per game. The centerpiece of the defense is excellent line play, hard hitting tackling and solid fundamentals across the unit.

The whole defense is excellent as demonstrated by the squad's statistics. They aren’t a bend-but-don’t-break defense. Michigan only allowed 90.0 rushing yards per game to rank #5 in the country. Not to be outdone, the passing defense only allowed 157 yards per game to rank #2 in the country. In total yards, the Michigan defense led the country with 247 yards per game allowed. That number is even more impressive when you consider that ranking includes College Football Playoff games against Alabama and Washinton.

The defensive statistic that may be the most impressive is that the Wolverines were #4 in red zone defense. The Wolverines only allowed 18 scores in the red zone – 7 rushing touchdowns, 4 passing touchdowns, and 7 field goals. What was striking was that opponents only made it into the red zone 25 times all season. That’s not even twice a game. Only Penn State allowed less red zone incursions (24) than the Wolverines, but teams scored 22 times on the Nittany Lions.

Line play on both sides of the ball was the lifeblood of Michigan’s national championship season. Make no mistake, defense ruled the day for Wolverines.

The Illini need to return to the tough defense that they displayed in 2022 if they want to have on field success in 2024. This return will require talented players and improved coaching on that side of the ball.

Hail Mary #2 – Don’t Make Mistakes on Offense or Special Teams

The Michigan offense was capable of scoring points. The Wolverines were #14 in the country with 35.9 points per game. One could argue that until Michigan played Penn State, Ohio State, Alabama, and Washington, no one could be certain just how good the Wolverine offense really was. They averaged 28.75 points against four Top 10 opponents. When you look at their offensive performance against those four teams, the Michigan offense was no powerhouse, but they did more than enough to support the country’s best defense.

Michigan protected the ball, and conversely turned over opponents. This made things easier on both their offense (more opportunities and short fields) and on their defense (contributing to only 25 red zone attempts for opponents).

Michigan only fumbled 3 times all season while recovering 9 opponent fumbles. In the air, Michigan performed even better. The Wolverines threw 5 interceptions while intercepting opponents 18 times. Their turnover margin led the country with 19 more turnovers generated than given up.

There were other areas where the Wolverine excelled. Michigan didn’t have a single kick blocked – whether field goal, extra point, or punt. Playing mistake free football made sure that the Wolverines didn’t have to waste valuable energy making up for their own errors. They were able to spend their energy constantly attacking other teams.

Even when evaluating penalties, the Wolverines excelled. The Wolverines were tied for #1 in penalties per game at 3.00. Michigan was #3 in penalty yards per game. The Wolverines displayed excellent discipline on the football field.

This focus on minimizing mistakes meant teams had to go out and beat Michigan, because Michigan wouldn’t help opponents by going out and beating themselves. Since they made so few mistakes, this greatly contributed to the Wolverines producing a 15-0 record.

Illinois needs to drastically improve in this area if they want to increase the number of wins that the Fighting Illini rack up in the 2024 season. Mistakes were too common and too often repeated. Particularly when it came to penalties.

Hail Mary #3 – Who Needs 5-Stars When Talent Evaluations are Spot On?

There is a template that Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio State have used to build their annual double digit winning teams – recruit, pursue, and sign a boatload of 5-star and 4-star recruits. It’s a proven template but teams wanting to compete with these three recruiting machines have an incredible race to run with those schools. Their recruiting results are so good, it’s almost impossible to match such impressive recruiting results year-in and year-out, let alone finding a way to pass these teams up in the recruiting rankings.

Instead, Jim Harbaugh knows what type of player his systems need for success from a physical standpoint. Harbaugh and his staff also are locked in one what type of personality they need for a player to fit into their team. By all appearances, Harbaugh and his staff have evaluated players accurately and they have put together a team that is talented (though not as highly ranked as other elite teams) and tough-minded.

Many feel as though the aggressive attitude of the offensive and defensive linemen has been the differentiator between Michigan and Ohio State the last three years. That analysis is probably too simple, but the fact of the matter is that Harbaugh knows what he needs to win, and he and his staff seek out players who match those specific needs – regardless of the national ranking of a player.

Make no mistake, Michigan is a talented team, yet according to 247, the Wolverines had 2 5-star players, 45 4-star players and 38 3-star players. That made them the 14th most talented team in the country, which amongst the lowest of national championship teams, but it’s much lower than Alabama, the team Michigan beat to go to the title game.

The Crimson Tide featured a roster composed of 18 5-star players, 56 4-star players, and 10 3-star players. That is a loaded roster. A roster that played toe-to-toe with Michigan but came up short in overtime to the Wolverines.

Harbaugh has proven that a team doesn’t have to be supremely talented to win a national title. It appears that finding the right fit from a mental attitude/aggression level is critical to Michigan's success as well. One cannot make the mistake of assuming that Michigan isn’t talented, but they do know how to find big, strong, fast, and aggressive players that aren’t as highly ranked by companies that evaluate collegiate recruits - and these players live up to their coaching staff's expectations on the football field.

Michigan isn’t forced to chase 5-stars and that’s means they can focus on the guys the staff identifies as “their type of players”. This allows the Michigan staff to avoid the day-to-day chase against teams like Georgia and Alabama. From a resource management standpoint, this is an additional benefit to Michigan football.

The Illinois staff has used their own evaluations to identify quality players who aren’t necessarily highly ranked by recruiting services. There is no doubt that Illinois recruiting must elevate to keep up in a conference that now features Top 12 teams like Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Washington, Oregon, and USC.

Bielema and his staff have been good at identifying “their type of players” but the margin for error is much thinner at Illinois than it is at Michigan. The Illini can’t come closing to selling approximately 50 years of recent success. Despite this drawback in football tradition, the staff must win battles for the players they need to compete in an incredibly competitive Big Ten. The staff can be certain that Michigan has clearly demonstrated focusing on recruiting and landing 5-stars can be countered by effective talent evaluation and excellent coaching.



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