Jim Harbaugh’s keys to the Rose Bowl Game

By T Erickson  |   Sunday, December 31, 2006  |  Comments( 1 )

College Football
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Michigan alumni gathered in a ballroom at the Loews Santa Monica Hotel on Saturday afternoon for a special "Rose Bowl Game Chalk Talk" session with former Wolverine All-American quarterback Jim Harbaugh, to learn what the New Year's Day contest might hold in store for the maize and blue. The 15-year NFL veteran and newly crowned head coach of Stanford was joined by his father, Jack, who coached for years at Stanford, Michigan and Western Kentucky, and is now an associate athletic director at Marquette University.

The Harbaughs regaled the audience with a treasure trove of Bo Schembechler stories, even playing a couple audio recordings of Bo's fiery pep talks prior to the 1988 season opener with Notre Dame and his last Rose Bowl Game in 1990. And then Jim got down to business discussing this year's matchup between his alma mater and the USC Trojans.

"This year's Michigan and USC teams are mirror images of each other in many respects. They both have dominating defenses and explosive offenses," said Harbaugh. "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 an average over three yards per carry."

The junior Harbaugh then pointed out 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 four-wide receiver sets--sometimes even lining up with five wideouts. Since the Trojans are very familiar with running empty-backfield sets, he anticipates they will follow Ohio State's cue in trying to spread out the Blue front seven as much as possible.

"I expect both teams to utilize Drop 2 defensive alignments as much as possible because the wide receiver duos on each side of the ball are the biggest playmakers," Harbaugh explained. "Both coaches have great confidence in their front seven to stop the run and put enormous pressure on the opponent's QB. Consequently, both teams' offenses will look to force the opposing defense to put more people in the box by establishing a successful running game."

Once that happens, both offenses will jump at the chance to exploit the opposing cornerbacks who are left facing man-to-man coverage situations. Jack Harbaugh pointed out the seams that might exist just outside the box about 8-10 yards downfield for the tight ends, adding that they could very well play a crucial role in the outcome.

"The team with the most productive tight end in this type of game will usually prevail," said the elder Harbaugh. "It's impossible to blanket every weapon a team has, so you have to pick your poison. The wide receivers and running backs have to be covered, so the opposition will naturally look for mismatches or open seams with their tight ends."

Because Michigan and USC are so similar, Jim emphasized that the following six 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. The team that can rack up three or more big-gainer scores will win.

3. Regarding big plays, the team that uses a trick play first--and is successful with it--will gain an instant advantage. The next trick is to maintain that advantage.

4. Since the squads are so evenly matched, it could very well be that the specials team units will be the deciding factor in this game. The team that placed the most emphasis on this facet during the past month of practice should be rewarded at some key moment of the game.

5. 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 a plus-1 margin, you have a 70 percent chance of winning. Plus-2 in turnovers yields an 80 percent advantage, and plus-3 brings out a 90 percent victory margin.

6. Most of Michigan's yards come from running back Michael Hart and quarterback Chad 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. The same can be said of USC protecting Booty, establishing the pass and opening up its ground attack.

Asked to single out the players most likely to have the greatest impact on this Rose Bowl Game for their respective teams, Jim Harbaugh didn't hesitate for a second to point out USC linebacker extraordinaire Rey Malaluga and Wolverine defensive end LaMarr Woodley on the defensive side of the ball and Michigan wide receiver Mario Manningham and Trojan receiver Dwayne Jarrett for the respective offenses.

Todd Erickson is the author of Road to the Rose Bowl (Silverback, 2005) the definitive book on the last 50 years of matchups and tradition in the Rose Bowl Game. He also writes the weekly RealFootball365 column Fourth and inches...
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