The Good – Defense
It’s understandably tough for fans to take away anything positive in defeat, but there were some positives in Michigan’s latest loss.
Greg Mattison’s defense definitely showed improvement from its lackluster showing at Notre Dame. The veteran coordinator vowed to make the necessary adjustments after shouldering the blame for failing to do so versus Notre Dame two weeks prior. Part of the remedy obviously was getting one of his injured starters back from injury (Jabrill Peppers). That allowed him to play Blake Countess at nickel, thus providing an improvement in quickness and experience over Delonte Hollowell at that spot. But the more notable adjustments came in the form of more base defense and varied coverages to keep the opposition off balance. James Ross’ presence at SAM backer was felt early. On the 2nd & 13 after the Utes big 67 yard screen pass, Ross fought through a block on a bubble screen to the field and stopped it for a one yard loss His presence was also felt occasionally as a blitzer. But the biggest improvements defensively came from the two best players wearing Maize & Blue Saturday, Jourdan Lewis and Jake Ryan.
Lewis is Michigan’s best cover man. Period. In the Good, Bad, & Ugly column after the Notre Dame loss we pointed out his standout showing after the two pass interference calls (the second of which was questionable at best). His coverage was glue-like from that point on. He was even better versus Utah.
The aforementioned 67-yard screen play occurred on a 3rd & 5 from the Utah eight-yard line. Without being on the sideline it’s impossible to know whether the defense was left vulnerable because of a missed assignment or if the Utes just caught the Wolverines in the wrong defense… either way the home team was left with only Peppers on the boundary to defend the play in question. The result should have been a 92 yard touchdown. Lewis was the reason it wasn’t. In a display of unmitigated hustle the sophomore corner tracked Utah running back Bubba Poole from the other of the field, evaded the blocker escorting Poole down the field, and stopped the play well short of pay-dirt. When the Utes took a shot at the endzone a few plays later it was Lewis there with tight coverage on the fade to close the door and force the field goal.
Another memorable play was a crucial 3rd and 5 on Utah’s second series of the second half. The Utes had come out of the locker room and scored on their first possession, so this was a crucial series for the defense. Mattison dialed up a blitz, and Lewis (who was playing off) anticipated the quick throw, drove on the receiver, and broke up the pass as the ball got there to force a punt.
The kid is dialed in.
So too is Ryan.
His 13-tackle, one sack, three tackle-for-loss performance likely came as a surprise to those that had prematurely deemed his move to the middle a failure after his subpar showing versus Appalachian State. Three short weeks later and the instances of jumping in the wrong gaps and misreading plays were far less prevalent.
Ryan himself gave ample credit for his standout play to Michigan’s interior defensive linemen, and rightfully so. The kept him clean and in turn he was seemingly always in the right gap to tattoo Utah ball carriers. Then there were the great individual plays reminiscent of those he made during his days on the outside. The play he made to get to the flanks and upend Ute quarterback Travis Wilson should answer any questions NFL scouts might have about his ability to track plays from sideline. That, though, was a preview of what was to come.
Ryan’s best play on the day came during the series after Willie Henry’s interception return for a touchdown. The Utes read option became inherently more dangerous when Kendal Thompson entered the game for the injured Wilson. That didn’t seem to matter much to Ryan. On 1st & 10 at the Utah 49 Ryan knifed into the backfield, played the back on the option, then when Thompson pulled the ball Ryan blew past the back and took out Thompson’s legs. It was one on two and Ryan came out on top in what was as good an individual play against the option as you’ll see.
Ryan did have one bad series on the day, and it just happened to be Utah’s lone touchdown drive. The Utes took advantage of a few big misplays on Ryan’s part. He jumped in the wrong gap on the Utes first play from scrimmage after the intermission. The result was a 24 yard run by Poole. Then on the next play running back motion confused the coverage responsibilities for Ryan and linebacker cohort Joe Bolden. The result was a nine yard pass play. Then a few plays later another mix-up in coverage caused Ryan to vacate his zone, leaving a crossing route to Dres Anderson wide open for a touchdown. It was one bad series in an otherwise stellar game. Based on his rapid improvement at his new position to this point it’s likely that those mistakes will be corrected rather quickly. Ryan’s playmaking ability seems destined to be back in full force in the weeks to come.
It’s conceivable that the defense as a whole will get even better as it gets healthier on the back end. That development is the Wolverines’ a ray of light in the darkness.