The front seven of the Wolverine defense might be the best in the country. Statistically, no team has been better. They are allowing a national-low, and completely ridiculous, 43 rushing yards per game. Included in that is a 187-yard aberration against Ohio State. On the season, they have given up just 516 yards on 278 carries.
Of their 12 opponents this season, just two have rushed for more than 60 yards against the Wolverines. They are limiting their opponents to 1.8 yards per carry and have allowed just five rushing touchdowns on the season.
The Wolverine front is led by defensive end LaMarr Woodley. Woodley won the Lombardi Award as well as the Ted Hendricks Award this season. As a defensive lineman, Woodley doesn't pile up a huge number of tackles. But if there's a big play by the Michigan defense, there's a good chance that he's in the middle of it.
Woodley has 33 tackles this season, but 11 of them are quarterback sacks, which is just one shy of the school record. He also has four forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and a touchdown off a fumble return to his credit this season.
A big reason that Woodley has been able to have such a strong presence this season is the play of the rest of the defensive line.
Defensive tackle Alan Branch is a huge factor in Michigan's ability to shut down opponents' running games. His 23 tackles on the season won't make you look twice, but his ability to occupy two or three defenders at a time makes things that much easier for his linebackers to come up and make plays.
As was the case with UCLA, Michigan will present two quality defensive ends who will challenge the Trojan tackles. Rondell Biggs will line up at the other end spot and will look to force USC to send help to his side as well, instead of simply looking to negate Woodley. On the season, Biggs has six sacks and eight tackles for loss.
Terrance Taylor lines up at nose tackle, next to Branch, and while he might be the most inviting spot along the line, the Trojans won't get anywhere by running straight at him over and over.
The Wolverine line is very good, and winning the battle up front will be the biggest key for the Trojan offense. Initially, the USC fullbacks will be the most important factor in the ground game. If they aren't finding the right linebacker in the correct hole, the Trojan runners will have absolutely no room to work. The next key will be recognizing, quickly, whether this is happening or not. The Trojans can't afford to pound the ball into the line at 1.8 yards per carry for 60 minutes. If Michigan is stuffing the running game early, chances are it's not a fluke. They've been doing it all season. Ohio State was really the only team to have success on the ground against the Wolverines, and much of their offense came on broken tackles and busted plays.
The Trojans have the talent in their personnel to run against this Wolverine defense. The trick will be staying one step ahead of them in terms of playcalling, something that did not happen against UCLA.
Running Into Trouble
The Wolverine linebackers do a fantastic job of playing off the defensive line. Middle linebacker David Harris has used that ability to rack up 95 tackles this season, nearly twice as many as weakside linebacker Prescott Burgess, who is second on the team with 48.
Harris has the ability to knife through running lanes and bring ball carries down in the backfield, something he has done 15 times this season, including four sacks. Either a Trojan fullback or lineman will need to get to the second level and put a hat on him during every running play or his name will be called over and over.
Burgess' 48 tackles include three sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. He also has two interceptions this season.
There is really no safe place to attack this linebacking corps, as Shawn Crable, at outside linebacker, is just as good as the other two. Crable's 10.5 tackles for loss rank third on the team, while his 4.5 sacks rank fourth.
While this trio is extremely talented against the run, it will be interesting to see what happens if the Trojans can get a running back or fullback matched one-on-one against them in the passing game. USC fullback Allen Bradford could be especially fun to watch, considering he's now had some extra time to learn, and feel comfortable with, the position.
The Wolverine secondary is made up of some talented players, but it's all about Leon Hall.
He is fourth on the team with 41 tackles this season, including one sack. But where Hall truly shines is in coverage. His 18 pass breakups this season are good for a first place tie in Michigan history. He has also intercepted three passes this season, pushing his career total to 12. The Trojan wide receivers, however, are talented enough to win battles against Hall and they must be given the opportunity to do so. USC hasn't shown that they are ones to shy away from a challenge, so Hall should be ready to see plenty of action during the contest.
Morgan Trent is the other cornerback and will probably be an inviting target for John David Booty after staring at Hall for much of the game. Trent has 37 tackles, two pass breakups and an interception on the year.
At strong safety, Jamar Adams has played very well this season. He leads the secondary with 44 tackles this season and ranks second on the team with seven pass breakups. Adams was selected by the coaches to the All-Big Ten second team this season.
At free safety, Willis Barringer will get the start. He has just 11 tackles and one interception this season as an injury kept him from starting all but the Wolverines' final two games. He is a fifth-year senior and has plenty of starting experience, so the Trojans probably won't find much to exploit in that regard. But the Wolverine secondary has been beaten deep on several occasions this season, as was showcased against Ohio State on a long touchdown pass. As long as the Trojan offensive line can keep John David Booty protected, the USC receivers should be able to work themselves open against these safeties.
With Michigan's front line so dominating against the run, the Wolverines have been able to force numerous third-and-long situations this season. As a result, they lead the nation in third down defense, allowing just 27 percent of third downs to be converted.
Against the Wolverines, the Trojans must get it done on first and second down. Converting regularly on third-and-ten situations just isn't going to happen.
The Michigan defense has been regarded as one of the best in the country all season long. The Trojan offense certainly has the talent to put points on the board, but it will take a solid effort from all 11 guys on the field during every play. Mental penalties, dropped passes and missed blocks must be avoided, which is always easier said than done.
The USC offense should be excited to get back on the field and show that they can score more than nine points against a good defense. On Monday, they'll take their shot.
Erik McKinney is a columnist for WeAreSC.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org