The Good – Run Defense and Jourdan Lewis
When it comes to run defense the numbers tell the tale. Holding the Irish to 54 yards on 31 attempts was one of the best efforts in recent memory. The defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage and the tandem of Joe Bolden and Jake Ryan improved considerably from week one. Another defender that stepped up was sophomore defensive back Jourdan Lewis. That may be a surprising revelation to some, but the film doesn’t lie. His pass interferences were the most memorable plays from Notre Dame’s first touchdown drive, but there were other plays in the drive that proved more damaging on the day (more on that later). Lewis absolutely interfered on the first play, but the interference on the fade was questionable at best. As a matter of fact it was pretty good coverage. He turned and looked back while contact was being made and both players were going up for the ball. But those calls happen. It was that point that many young defensive backs would’ve folded mentally. Lewis did not. On the very next series he made a pass breakup on a skinny post on a 3rd & 6 to get off the field. He by far Michigan’s most formidable corner in man coverage from that point on and Everett Golson avoided him. Unfortunately for the Maize & Blue he didn’t respect the rest of the secondary nearly as much.
The Bad – Pass Coverage
As the game went on Golson began picking Michigan apart. Many pointed to a lack of consistent pass rush as a major factor, but the bigger issues were in the secondary where there were consistent lapses in coverage.
“Watching the tape we had some guys (on the defensive line) that were doing some pretty darn good things and the ball was coming out really really quick,” Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison explained. “I’m going to say that’s concerning because that’s like last year. I thought we would have a little tighter coverage to be able to stop that when the pressure got close. He threw some in there and we’ve got to keep working on that."
As I said above the pass interference calls on the first TD drive were the most memorable plays, but they weren’t the most damaging. What the Irish found on that series was the vulnerability elsewhere on the back end. The slot receiver came wide open twice on post cuts against coverage from Michigan’s nickel, Delonte Hollowell. The 30 combined yards on those two plays made for an ominous sign of things to come.
On the next TD drive the Irish went back to work on Hollowell, throwing at him three times and completing two. The lone incompletion was the result of an overthrown ball to an open receiver. The two completions came on a blow by for 12 yards and the touchdown on 3rd & 1. The other trouble spot emerged on the outside in press coverage. On a crucial 4th & 3 on Michigan’s 36 yard line Blake Countess jammed the Irish wideout, but was quickly beaten across his face for a big 11-yard reception. On the very next play Channing Stribling took his turn in press, but gave up the inside without even getting a hand on the wideout. The skinny post went for big 22 yard gain.
Imagine a boxer that sustains a cut over his eye and his opponent keeps pounding that cut. Well Michigan was the cut boxer at that point and their corner couldn’t stop the bleeding.
On the next TD drive Golson immediately attacked a seven yard cushion by Countess with a quick pass that gave his receiver an opportunity to put a move on and shake loose for a gain of 12 yards. Fast forward to the last play of the drive… 3rd and 1 at the Michigan 24. Countess was up in press and probably had the prior series during which he gave up the 4th & 3 in back of his mind. This time rather than attempting the jam he cheated to the inside a little bit, but Irish wideout Will Fuller faked inside then blew by Countess to the outside for a free release and was wide open for the fade in the endzone.
“Their wide receivers were doing a great job of getting off our guys,” Mattison said. “And we were up. We were up on them. It wasn’t like last year where you’re playing way off saying, ‘go ahead.’ We were up on them and they beat us. Their wide receivers did a nice job with double moves and the ball was out quick. The QB was getting it right on the money. "
“I think that is maybe one thing we have to do is we have to go back and forth between zone and man so they don’t know what you’re in all of the time.”
The Ugly – Personnel Adjustments
“The biggest thing for us defensively is we haven’t created opportunities for our offense,” said Hoke. “We haven’t created field position. We haven’t created any turnovers. What’s that mean? We’re not hitting the quarterback enough? Some of it’s that. Not forcing bad throws. Not playing tight enough on those bad throws.”
Injuries were clearly a factor in limiting the Wolverines’ plan to be disruptive, but the coaches certainly weren’t citing that as an excuse. Their strategy for offsetting the absence two of their three best press players (Raymon Taylor and Jabrill Peppers) was ineffective, and Mattison accepted the blame for that.
“I think one of the biggest things in this ball game… and I’m going to put that on me… you’ve got to go into a game and get the what-ifs done,” he said. “I think we have to have our bigger people ready to play all of the time. We love to play nickel, (but) when we had a couple of guys get nicked up in that game I would’ve much rather have had some of our more experienced football players who are playing different positions be out there playing (instead of playing) somebody that doesn’t have a lot of experience (just) because he plays that position. And I’m going to put that on me. We have enough talent at places that we gotta get them all out there when they need to be out there... and I will handle that. And that is something I will definitely work on.”
“I’m never going to blame the secondary. Like I said, that starts with me… to be able to get who we feel are the best players at that time in there. That’s what my job is. Then the next thing is to make sure we have some adjustments to be able to do a couple of different things and give those guys some relief if somebody goes down.”
In retrospect it’s clear that the Wolverine brass believes there were aspects of the game-plan that the modified lineup couldn’t execute. That’s an adjustment the coaching staff clearly must make moving forward. At the same time there were a number of occasions where players were put in position and have to do a better job of executing. That’s an adjustment that the players must make moving forward.
“I think you’ve got to know your personnel and number one you want to make sure you ‘re put your personnel in positon so they can be successful,” Brady Hoke said. “In the second half we played more zone. From a defensive standpoint there are some things that we need to be tighter on… some technique issues that we’ve got to clean up. Sometimes that happens when guys get in certain environments. You’re fundamentals and techniques are everything. I thought we lost that, and some of it is the environment you’re in. You either speed up because of that or you just lose your fundamentals and techniques.”
Michigan will be aided greatly when Taylor and or Peppers return. Until then look for the Wolverines to play more base defense.
Said Mattison, “If you’re playing nickel defense and all of sudden one of your best layers… Raymon (Taylor) is on the sidelines and Peppers isn’t playing…is if better to have James Ross out there or Royce (Jenkins Stone) play a SAM linebacker rather than nickel? A SAM linebacker and a nickel are the same thing. One is just better at playing man coverage. So I think if I had known all of that was going to happen then I would have worked a lot more with (Ross) and Royce and said hey we’re going to play with guys that have played a lot of football and change our game-plan and maybe play more zone. I think that’s my job to make sure to make sure you don’t ever put your defense or your team in not the best situation, and that’s what I’ve got to make sure I do.”