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A look at the wide receivers and defensive backs facing off at the Rose Bowl

The 2024 Rose Bowl will have a lot of star power on display as Alabama and Michigan face off on New Year’s Day. Both programs will be relying on their lightning-fast wide receivers and their lockdown defensive backs to win the game. With senior standouts like wide receivers Roman Wilson from Michigan and Jermaine Burton from Alabama, this game could come down to who can create big plays in the passing game. 

It is no secret that the Michigan offense wants to center its game plan around running back Blake Corum, who has rushed over a thousand yards this season. If Michigan wants to keep the Crimson Tide defense honest, its offense needs to be two-dimensional. Whenever the Wolverines get into obvious passing situations, quarterback J.J. McCarthy will be looking to get the football to his dynamic playmakers. 

“They’ve got some really good skill guys,” head coach Nick Saban said. “No. 18 [Colston Loveland], the tight end, is kind of a mismatch, a little like Georgia’s guy [Brock Bowers].” 

Some of McCarthy’s favorite targets are the tight ends, Loveland and AJ Barner, who combine for 62 catches and over 700 yards. Another guy McCarthy relies on is the speedy wide receiver Wilson. The McCarthy-Wilson duo has connected 41 times this season for 662 yards and 11 touchdowns. 

Stopping an explosive route runner like Wilson is going to be a tough task, considering that he averages 16.1 yards per reception. The Crimson Tide can give this assignment to sophomore cornerback Terrion Arnold, who has hauled in five interceptions this season as well breaking up 11 passes. 

Another player Wilson could possibly face is first-team All-American Kool-Aid McKinstry. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has McKinstry as the No. 1 CB on his board and said McKinstry “has great length and impressive recovery speed.” 

It is important to point out that the junior defensive back suffered a concussion in the 2023 SEC championship. When asked about McKinstry’s injury status, Saban told the media, “He’ll be fine.”   

Wilson pointed out the physicality and talent of Alabama’s cornerbacks. 

“I think they are physical on the line, they run really well, and I think they are just good overall,” Wilson said. He highlighted the fact that Alabama plays a lot of cover 2-man, something that teams in the Big Ten hardly do. Michigan will have to adjust its scheme because of Saban’s meticulous scheme. 

The corner who is not guarding Wilson will be matched up with 6-foot-3-inch wide receiver Cornelius Johnson, who leads the team in receptions. Arnold and McKinstry will have an opportunity to show NFL draft prospects what they are made of when they match up with Michigan’s top two pass catchers in this game. 

Circling back to Michigan’s tight ends, they will have a height advantage against the Crimson Tide secondary, but they will be getting a healthy dose of standout slot corner Malachi Moore and SEC Freshman of the Year Caleb Downs. Downs leads Alabama in total tackles with 99. 

Shifting gears to the other side of the ball, Michigan’s defense will be tested as it matches up with the speed of Alabama’s receivers. Isaiah Bond is arguably one of the fastest route runners Alabama football has ever had and leads the Crimson Tide in receptions. 

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh had great things to say about the duo of quarterback Jalen Milroe and Bond.  

“The precision in the pass game has been noticeable,” Harbaugh said. “The improvement to where it’s at now is at an elite level.” 

Senior wide receiver and former Georgia Bulldog Jermaine Burton has played his heart out this season, racking up 777 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Bond and Burton always have big play potential, so the Michigan defensive backs will have to keep the action in front of them and prevent these guys from getting behind them. 

Burton will have two possible matchups in this game. Sophomore cornerback Will Johnson is not afraid of covering a team’s No. 1 receiver. He held his own against Ohio State’s potential NFL first-round draft pick Marvin Harrison Jr. He came away with an interception on the first drive of that game.  

Michigan defensive back Mike Sainristil can match up with Burton or Bond, and safety Rod Moore can help over the top. Lott IMPACT Trophy winner Junior Colson will have to help with coverage from the linebacker position, especially on third and fourth downs when Milroe wants to find guys like Bond or tight end Amari Niblack over the middle of the field. 

The Wolverines have a few guys in the secondary who have caused turnovers this season. Sainristil intercepted six passes and forced two fumbles. Rod Moore has also made some clutch plays this season, including the game-ending interception versus the Ohio State Buckeyes. 

If Michigan’s front seven can pressure Milroe, they can force him into throwing interceptions, something that Milroe has done six times this season.  

Michigan’s defensive coordinator, Jesse Minter, was asked if his defensive formula can neutralize the Crimson Tide’s offense. 

“We’ll find out when the ball is kicked off,” Minter said. “Talking about it is really cheap at this point.” 

Both programs have some of the fastest skill players in the country. Minter and Alabama defensive coordinator Kevin Steele will have their hands full preparing their guys for the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.  

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