I had the opportunity yesterday to sit down with Stanford’s new head coach and former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh to get his insights on the USC-Michigan Rose Bowl Game match-up tomorrow. Here’s what he had to say …

This year’s Michigan and USC teams are mirror images of each other in many respects.  They both have dominating defenses and explosive offenses. Both team’s defensive units are among the best in college football, but hands down, there is nobody better than the Wolverines’ front seven. They only give up 1.9 yards per carry, while the Trojans yield over 3 yards per carry.

The only team that was successful this year against Michigan’s defense was Ohio State, and that’s because the Buckeyes were able to spread out UM’s front seven by running 4-receiver sets and sometimes even lined up with 5 wide receivers. The Trojans are very familiar with running empty backfield sets and will follow Ohio State’s cue in trying to spread out the Blue front seven.

Look for both teams to utilize 2-deep (aka Drop 2) defensive alignments as much as possible.  They both have great confidence in their front seven to stop the run and put enormous pressure on the opponent’s QB. Consequently, both team’s offenses will look to force the opposing defense to put more people in the box by establishing a successful running game.  Once that happens, they’ll jump at the chance of exploiting the opposing cornerbacks left on their island with man-to-man coverage situations. The tight ends can play a crucial role in the outcome and the team with the most productive tight end in this type of game will usually prevail.

Since Michigan and USC are so similar, the keys to winning the 2007 Rose Bowl Game are virtually the same for each team:

  1. The team that can run the ball the most effectively and control the clock while eating up yardage should have the upper hand in this contest. Third down conversions are a must to win the game.
  2. Big plays will be important in this game, in terms of capturing momentum and establishing a psychological advantage. Since the teams are so evenly matched, it could very well be that the special team units will be the deciding factor in this game.  The team that places the most emphasis on this facet of the game should be rewarded at some key moment of the game.
  3. Regarding big plays, the team that uses a trick play first—and is successful with it—will gain an instant advantage.
  4. As always, winning the turnover battle is a must. It can’t be emphasized enough that turnover advantages win games. Statistics bear out that if you win turnovers by +1 you have a 70% chance of winning. +2 in turnovers yields an 80% advantage, and +3 equals a 90% victory margin.
  5. Most of Michigan’s yards come from Hart and Henne. Protecting Henne is a major key for UM because a solid passing game opens up the field for Hart to start chewing up clock time [see key #1].  The same can be said of USC protecting Booty, establishing the pass, and opening up their ground attack.