Story By Sam Webb
One of the most consistent themes in the strong start to the season by Michigan’s defense is the improved play of the secondary. That was again the case in the Wolverines’ 28-7 victory over UNLV Saturday. Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark, two players few outside the program were projecting to be major contributors, both stepped up with big interceptions on the day. Stribling got things started by jumping a crossing route on the Rebels’ opening series of the game.
“We felt like last game our first drive was horrible,” Stribling said afterward. “So we said the next game we have the first drive has to be the best… starting off strong. We started off strong and just kept going.”
Clark came through with his pick in the third quarter. The converted safety played terrific defense on a fade route, running stride for stride with the receiver before turning and tipping the ball to himself for the interception. That was just one of a number of fades UNLV tried to connect on Saturday. Michigan’s first two opponents also tried to attack the secondary in the same way with the same frequency. There isn’t any other way to interpret that than as a lack of fear or respect on the part of the opposition.
“You realize they’ve been throwing this ball and they haven’t completed it, and they keep thinking they’re going to complete it,” Stribling said. “You kind of think, ‘okay... you can throw it again, but we’re going to have get it.’ So we got one.”
“All teams are going try us on the perimeter trying to throw fade balls (as if to say), ‘let’s see what they’ve got… let’s see what they can do.’ They test us out a couple of times, they don’t make them, (and then say), ‘alright let’s go back to it.’ Well you keep going back to it and we’re going to make a play.”
That mentality permeates through the entire secondary. That might come as surprise to some observers since heading into the year the only proven commodity at corner was Jourdan Lewis. That hasn’t mattered one bit to Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin.
“He told us we’re going to play man and we’re going to play zone… (and) when I call man it doesn’t matter who’s out there… we’re going to play man,” said Stribling. “That means he has enough confidence in you to play man.”
“He trusts you enough to go out there and play man, no matter what down. It feels good.”
Suddenly secondary play is emerging as one of the team’s strengths, and not a moment too soon. BYU comes to town next week with the most dangerous passing offense the Wolverines have seen to date. Fade routes and jump balls are major components in an attack that features a number of players over 6-4. Showing teams that there is a price to pay for taking those kinds of shots is an important sign of growth according to Michigan headman Jim Harbaugh.
”That’s something we’ve focused on to improve on,” Harbaugh stated. “I think our defensive backs responded. They were anticipating more, they were using their instincts better, they were breaking on the football… (and they were) taking good risks. You can’t just take risks all of the time. You’ve got to be able to calculate in a split second whether you can get your hand on the ball or if it is going to be a mistake to do that. So we’re taking good risks and we’re getting pass breakups and interceptions now. That’s good for us. You’ve got to have that or the offense has no fear when it comes to throwing the ball. The more you can get your hands on the football, the tighter you make the quarterback’s throw, and the execution with timing has got to be really good by an offense. They can’t just feel like they can throw it in your secondary with no consequence.”
Saturday the Wolverines showed there will be some.