Michigan football stock watch: Defensive line, pass rushers rise to the occasion vs. Iowa




Free Press sports writer Michael Cohen breaks down Michigan football's 27-14 win over Iowa and looks at players who helped or hurt their stock Saturday at Kinnick Stadium:

Stock up

OLB Mike Morris: On the heels of a six-pressure performance last week, Morris followed up with a team-high five quarterback pressures in a dominant showing against Iowa - especially in the second half. With the Wolverines protecting a 20-point lead, defensive coordinator Jesse Minter alternated between using Morris as a stand-up edge rusher and a hand-down defensive lineman. Morris showed his versatility by executing a beautiful stunt with nose tackle Mazi Smith to sack quarterback Spencer Petras in the third quarter. Then he flashed an excellent speed rush from a traditional wide position to smash Petras for a loss of 9 in the fourth quarter. Morris leveled Petras again on the next play to force an incompletion. He finished with two sacks and three total tackles while demonstrating his potential as an every-down pass rusher.

"I saw that advantage the entire game and on film," Morris said. "I finally took advantage of (everything) that I saw. It just coordinated so perfectly. It was literally like God set it up so perfect, and I made the plays."

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Michigan running back Blake Corum runs into the end zone for a touchdown against Maryland during the second half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept.
Michigan running back Blake Corum runs into the end zone for a touchdown against Maryland during the second half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept.  

RB Blake Corum: It's hard to play much better than Corum did against Maryland when he set new career highs for carries (30) and rushing yards (243) as his explosiveness tormented the Terrapins from start to finish. But what Corum did in Iowa City by gaining 133 hard-fought yards on 29 bruising carries might have been more impressive given the quality of the opponent and his history of mediocre performances against higher-level defenses. Corum erased those memories by relying on his strength and power to plow forward between the tackles and unnerve the Hawkeyes with steady gains of a few yards here and a few yards there. He accounted for nine of Michigan's 24 first downs and came up clutch with three third-down conversions and one fourth-down conversion. An Iowa defense that yielded only 2.21 yards per carry entering Saturday's game surrendered 4.6 yards per rush to Corum.

"I thought we were just moving them off the ball really well early," head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "They made some adjustments and we had to make some counter adjustments, but that's how it went to me in the running game. Blake Corum had a really big day again."

RAINER SABIN:In Michigan football's new reality, Iowa is no problem for Wolverines

Michigan
Michigan's Eyabi Okie, left, and Mike Morris celebrate after a NCAA Big Ten Conference college football game against Iowa, Saturday, Oct.  

OLB Eyabi Okie: The former five-star recruit who was dismissed from school at Alabama and kicked off the team at Houston transferred to U-M in mid-August after a promising season at UT Martin in 2021. One source within the program described him as a project who would need time to develop four years removed from his last Power Five experience. His playing time remained steady with no fewer than nine snaps and no more than 11 through the first four games. But in the wake of Michigan's poor pass-rushing performance against Maryland, Harbaugh alluded to the idea of more playing time for Okie during his weekly news conference. Proof of Okie's growth was obvious during 26 impressive snaps against the Hawkeyes. He finished second on the team behind Morris with three quarterback pressures and tied for the team lead with two quarterback hits. An explosive get-off confounded Iowa's offensive line in the fourth quarter as Okie pursued Petras. He split a sack with fellow edge rusher Taylor Upshaw and flushed Petras into trouble several times. It's clear Okie and Morris are this year's premier rushers.

"I'm so proud of the man he is and the man he's becoming on this team," Morris said. "I'm just so excited for everything he's doing right now."

MICHAEL COHEN:Michigan football grades vs. Iowa: Wolverines' defense outshines Hawkeyes' heralded group

Michigan defensive line coach Mike Elston watches a play against Maryland during the first half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept.
Michigan defensive line coach Mike Elston watches a play against Maryland during the first half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept.  

D-line coach Mike Elston: If the secondary blitzes from the first few games were a showcase for Minter, the terrific use of twists and stunts against the Hawkeyes were a shining moment for Elston. Earlier this week, Harbaugh told reporters that improving the four-man rush was "an area of focus" after U-M had difficulties creating pressure without blitzing against Maryland. Elston's solution was to spend extra practice time working on the kind of looping defensive maneuvers that function as simulated blitzes without dedicating extra players to the pass rush. The constant shuffling from Michigan's defensive front forced the Hawkeyes to pass off assignments in real time, a difficult task for most offensive lines. That the Wolverines became so effective with their twists in the span of week reflects glowingly on Elston, who played at U-M and joined Harbaugh's staff earlier this year from Notre Dame. It was a prime example of high-level coaching.

"We worked them every day," Morris said. "We worked them on our O-line and they hate it. So we had to make it a priority to do that to somebody else. ... Coach Elston has made it a big priority to help us in the pass rush game so we stunt, we rush straight, secondary blitzes. We just do it all."

Stock down

Iowa wide receiver Brody Brecht is tackled by Michigan linebacker Junior Colson, left, and defensive back DJ Turner after catching a pass during the first half on Saturday, Oct.
Iowa wide receiver Brody Brecht is tackled by Michigan linebacker Junior Colson, left, and defensive back DJ Turner after catching a pass during the first half on Saturday, Oct.  

ILB Junior Colson: Entering the 2022 season, there weren't many inside linebackers on the roster worthy of trust from Michigan's coaching staff in pass coverage. Colson, Nikhai Hill-Green and Kalel Mullings were all exposed to varying degrees last year against tight ends and running backs who ran vertical routes downfield. Colson, who earned Freshman All-America honors, was viewed as the best of the bunch given his unique combination of size, close-quarter quickness and straight-line speed. But Petras exploited Colson within the confines of Iowa's limited passing game. Six of his 21 completions came at Colson's expense, according to Pro Football Focus, including Petras' longest connection of the game to No. 2 tight end Luke Lachey for 34 yards. Colson was also charged with the 17-yard completion to fullback Monte Pottebaum out of the backfield. All told, Colson allowed six catches for 84 yards on seven targets to finish with the worst coverage grade (27.4 out of 100) in his collegiate career.

His previous low was 29.6 in the loss to Georgia, during which he gave up three catches for 104 yards and a touchdown. The uneven coverage skills of U-M's inside linebackers are a legitimate worry.

MICHAEL COHEN:Teaching J.J. McCarthy to pick his battles is key to Michigan football's success

Michigan wide receiver Cornelius Johnson (6) runs against Maryland defensive back Dante Trader Jr.
Michigan wide receiver Cornelius Johnson (6) runs against Maryland defensive back Dante Trader Jr.  

WR Cornelius Johnson: Aside from a 71-yard showing in Week 2, Johnson has been very underwhelming after leading the team in receptions and yards last season. Consider his numbers: two catches for 19 yards against Colorado State; zero catches against UConn; three catches for 27 yards against Maryland. It was more of the same for Johnson in Iowa City, where the Hawkeyes limited him to one reception for seven yards even though he played more snaps than any other U-M receiver. The concern is that Johnson continues to underperform despite the presence of Ronnie Bell, whom wide receivers coach Ron Bellamy said would attract enough attention to create favorable matchups for the rest of Michigan's receivers.

There's also the matter of Johnson's disappearing act in the biggest games of the 2021 season. He recorded just 18 catches for 205 yards and zero touchdowns against Georgia, Iowa, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Nebraska combined. His first chance to halt that trend in 2022 came Saturday against the vaunted Hawkeyes' defense and high-level cornerbacks Riley Moss and Cooper DeJean. But quarterback J.J. McCarthy only threw in Johnson's direction twice, one of which fell incomplete. He's been replaced by tight end Luke Schoonmaker (11 catches for 117 yards and a touchdown in the last two games) as the offense's preferred target.

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football stock watch: Blake Corum takes game to new heights

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