Michigan coach Brady Hoke is downplaying the fact that he’s facing his old team, San Diego State, on Saturday. But he broke up via mass text. The Aztecs have every incentive to rub their rebound season in his face. And they’re trying to do it with a better looking form of Brady Hoke’s ideal offense.
Matchup: San Diego State 3-0; Michigan 3-0
When: Saturday at noon
Where: Michigan Stadium
TV/Radio: Big Ten Network
It starts with running back Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State’s 1,500-yard rusher from a year ago. In three games this season, he’s rushed for just under 500 yards and eight touchdowns.
“They say he’s a Heisman candidate,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “When I watch the film I see it. I’m not voting. This is a guy that can be physical, can be really quick and make you miss tackles, and has and will run away from you if he gets in the open field. He’s got all of those things. This will be the toughest back we’ve played, without a doubt.”
For No. 22 Michigan’s defense, one aspect of Hillman’s game sticks out above all the others: his speed, which makes him especially dangerous when he gets to the outside. The Wolverines’ chances of success will likely rely on the defensive line’s ability to keep contain and funnel Hillman towards the linebackers.
Luckily for Michigan, the defense practices against a similar type of talent daily. He may not be a running back, but junior quarterback Denard Robinson has been known to break a long run or two.
“Denard’s such a fast running back, and if you blink your eye he’ll get outside,” fifth-year senior Troy Woolfolk said. “So I think going against Denard every day allows us to help our defense contain and put a cap on long runs.”
But the practice hasn’t helped the rush defense recently. Despite the defensive line ostensibly being one of the strengths of the team entering the season, Notre Dame and Eastern Michigan ran over the Wolverines for an average of 202.5 yards per game.
Since the NCAA doesn’t count the Wolverines’ lightning-shortened game in its official statistics, Western Michigan’s 96-yard performance doesn’t count when ranking the rush defense. The other two games have Michigan 103rd in the country. Hillman is second nationally in rushing yards, 37 yards behind South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore.
If Michigan can stop Hillman, it’ll move on to the passing game, led by San Diego State quarterback and NFL prospect Ryan Lindley. Contain him as well, and all the offense has to do is figure out Aztecs coach Rocky Long’s complicated 3-3-5 defense.
“He’s taken a 3-3 concept and created a lot of looks from the 3-3 that makes it hardly recognizable as a 3-3,” said offensive coordinator Al Borges, who coached with Long at San Diego State. “What seems to be very helter-skelter is not at all. It’s a very disciplined style. Every guy’s in a gap. Everyone has a responsibility. Coverage is sound.
“But it’s not what you see every week, and that requires a little more preparation. It’s almost like facing a wishbone team when you’ve never seen a wishbone team.”
Robinson will be faced with cracking it as he tries to find a rhythm in the passing game. He’s completing just 49.1 percent of his passes, attributing most of his failure to happy feet. But he continues to beat teams with his feet.
Hoke said this week that opponents run different defenses than Michigan studies on tape because they vastly change their gameplan for Robinson. And if there’s anybody who can cook up a unique defense, it’s Long.
“Oh man,” Robinson said. “They’re defensive coordinator is probably a genius at the defense they’re running, they throw a lot of stuff at you. … It’s kind of crazy defense.”
While Hoke’s never coached against a Long defense, he’s seen nearly everybody on San Diego State before.