Defense Improved, But Still Two Games to Go
When the much maligned Michigan defense entered the offseason, their primary objective was finding a solution to their problems with mobile quarterbacks and spread offenses. Talk of improvements in maintaining gap integrity and leveraging the football was prevalent heading into the 2005 season, and on Saturday those words were backed up. The Northwestern Wildcats went into the contest ranked 4th nationally in offense, averaging 529 yards (249 on the ground) and 37 points per game. Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr mentioned in his press conferensce the Monday prior the game that, "you start with a premise nobody is going to shut Northwestern down." So when his defense, (without Lamarr Woodley and with a number of young players in the lineup), limited Gary Walker's club to only 89 yards on the ground and held them scoreless in the second half, even the grizzled Wolverine Coach had to be a little surprised. He also was encouraged by the progress that many of his youngsters have made
"I think our defense, when you look at the entire season, they have played improved," Carr said. "I think they’ve played with passion. I think they have gained confidence in the last few weeks because a lot of these young players…we’re a very very young team in a lot of ways…so I think when you look ahead there are some bright things. We’ve gained confidence as we’ve won some tight ball games."
Part of the unit's confidence stems from the belief that regardless of who is in the lineup, that player will get the job done. "It doesn't change anything," sophomore Alan Branch said regarding players being out with injury. "Lamarr is a great player, but we're so deep at the d-line position that someone else is going to step up, like Pierre. I feel like we're coming together as a team real well. I have no clue why. Maybe it's because of the time we're spending off of the field together...or the bonding, I don't know. Right now it seems like things are clicking a lot more early."
As important as togetherness and camaraderie are, all the time spent on technique during the summer has obviously been the bigger key. "We worked big time on rush lanes," said senior defensive tackle Gabe Watson. "Last year we got out of our rush lanes a lot. The quarterbacks that could run the ball found the little seams, and they hit them for big yardage. A good example of that was the Rose Bowl. Coming into this year we knew right away that we had to fix that problem or teams would just keep attacking that weakness, and we did that."
"We started way back in the spring saying that we wanted to be a more physical defense," said defensive backs coach Ron English. "We thought we got away from that last year. We turned into a man to man team last year and we thought we wanted to be a more solid defense in terms of playing zone, leveraging the football, and tackling. That really has been our focus."
So now that the unit has experienced a little success, are those that have worked so hard ready to talk about how good the defense is? "We'll see," English said. "After eight games last year we were the best defense in America. We were in the top five in every category. We led the country in turnovers through eight and then we finished up poorly, so I'd rather not comment on that right now."
Backup RBs Put in Work
For many interested observers, Mike Hart's absence from the lineup last weekend signaled the demise of the Michigan offense. Fortunately for the Wolverines the young men responsible for backing Hart up did not share those sentiments. All week long they were well aware of the possibility that that their superstar teammate might not be able to go, so when game time rolled around, they were prepared. According to running backs Coach Fred Jackson, preparation and success in practice translates to success and preparation during games. "We were trying to see if Mike was going to be ready," running backs Coach Fred Jackson said. "He warmed up and couldn't quite go. But those other guys filled in and did a good job. They worked hard and they know if they work that way, they're going to play. A couple of guys didn't play…Max Martin didn't play today, but it's one of those situations where you feel if they're good in practice they're going to play good."
Crable Gets the Message
Whenever anyone has a discussion about who the best athletes on the Michigan football team are, Shawn Crable's name is always amongst those mentioned. At 6-5 and nearly 250-pounds, the former Massillon, Ohio star is capable of running the forty yard dash in the 4.6s. Until recently, though, all of that potential hadn't amounted to much production.
"He didn’t get to play much early because he didn’t have a very good fall, and I was disappointed in him," said Michigan headman Lloyd Carr. "I was disappointed in the fall because I didn't think Shawn came back playing as well as he had late in the spring. But these last two weeks he, both in practice and in the games, has made a difference at a time when we needed him to give us some substantial effort…and he has done that."
When asked what caused him to raise the level of his play at this point in the season, Crable answered very matter-of-factly. "Sitting on the sidelines," he exclaimed! "That makes you raise your game! And it's getting cold too! (Laughing) Awww…you can't be sitting on the sidelines when it's cold!"
As satisisfying as registering his first career sack this past weekend was, Crable indicated that individual goals are taking a backseat for him as Michigan heads down the stretch. His only focus is helping the team in whatever way possible. "Whatever my coaches put in, if I can run it, it's going down," he said. "I'm just happy to be able to be out there. My coaches believed in me. I just hope it continues."
Michigan Bowl Scenario
Michigan may be off this week, but both players and coaches alike will be monitoring the other conference games this Saturday. How those contests shake out will add more clarity to what is a very congested race at this point.
Six teams have two losses or less heading into this weekend's games. One of those teams will fall from the two-loss ranks when Iowa travels to Northwestern.
The conference game Michigan will be paying the most attention to, though, is the first place battle between Wisconsin and Penn State. Assuming the Wolveirnes win out, if they are to be the conference's BCS representative they need the Nittany Lions to defeat the Badgers. In addition, they would also need Michigan State to beat Penn State and Iowa to beat Wisconsin on the final weekend of Big Ten conference play. If Wisconsin defeats Penn State, the BCS bid is out of reach for the home team. If that's the case and Michigan has won its last two games, they will either be headed to the Outback Bowl in Tampa Florida or the Capital One Bowl in Orlando. If the Wolverines lose one of their remaining games, they would likely go to either the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Texas or Sun Bowl in El Paso.