After the first two games of the season it appeared very clear that the achilles heel of the Michigan defense spread option no-huddle offense. The disappointing start not only highlighted the innate difficulty in slowing such an attack, it also exposed the inexperience and lack of depth on a young unit. In the subsequent weeks, however, the Wolverines gained some composure. While it’s no secret that the Wolverines didn’t face offenses with as many weapons in later contests, the improvement defensively was still evident. They played better responsibility football and they were surer tacklers. That growth was really reflected in the unit’s performance against the run.
In the first seven games of the recent eight game winning streak, the Maize & Blue held opponents to 95.1 yards per game and only 2.9 yards per rush. Those numbers made the outlook for the defense during the final three game stretch of the season appear a bit brighter. After all, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State are teams that traditionally run conventional pro-style offenses. They pride themselves on being able to punch opponents in the mouth. Could those team’s consistently move up and down the field against Michigan while playing “Big Ten football?” The answer, unfortunately, has been a resounding yes.
Over the previous two games against Michigan State and Wisconsin, the Wolverines have allowed a staggering 211.5 yards per game on the ground and 4.5 yards per carry.
“They are not doing anything special,” Jamar Adams said. “We’ve just got to go in and make the necessary corrections and guys just got to play the plays that we see. Run defense is every man doing his job, so we just have to make sure that everybody is in their gap and everybody is playing physical. That is how you stop the run.”
Playing physical is what the Michigan defense has not done enough of in recent games according to defensive coordinator Ron English. That was especially true in last week’s defeat in Madison.
“I think if we stop the run game, we win the game,” English said. “We did not stop the run and so we lost the game. That is football. We had a chance to get off the field and we did not get off the field. It didn’t look like we really wanted to hit those people and they are just as beat up as we are. It was just disappointing in that sense.”
“That pisses us off as a defense,” added senior LB Shawn Crable. “Teams shouldn’t be able to run the ball like that. This week in practice we’ve got to tone it up. It is just a mentality. It is a mentality. When you let teams think they can run the ball on you, everybody is going to think they are going to run the ball on you. You have got to come with a mentality. You got to line up and be ready to go.”
Obviously, part of the problem is how often the defense has had to be ready to go. Over the past two games the Michigan ‘D’ has been on the field almost one half longer than their opponents (MSU and Wisconsin possessed the ball for a combined 71:30 while Michigan had it for 48:30).
“I think any time as a defense that you stay on the field a long time, and you don’t get off the field on third-and-longs and third-and-mediums, you are going to wear down, and people are going to run the ball on you. So you’ve got to take advantage of your opportunities to get off the football field.”
Michigan headman Lloyd Carr agreed with English’s sentiments, but also placed some of the blame on his offense.
“I think a big part of it is the fact that they are out there too long,” Carr said. “When you are on the field, eventually you are going to wear down defensively if they are running the football on you. That is what they did (last Saturday). They possessed the ball and then when we got it, we did not possess it. I think the problem is the running game on both sides. We just were not able to do anything ourselves offensively until very late in the first quarter and, that is what happens. When you cannot run the football, you got problems and when you cannot stop it, you got problems.”
It may not be solely the defense’s fault in the eyes of the coach, but for the player’s that make up the unit, it most certainly is. According to Adams, playing the run is about having the proper mindset.
“If you are a man, that is what you want,” Adams said matter-of-factly. “You want it on you. You are on the field. You play for Michigan. It is your job to stop them regardless of how long you are on the field… regardless of what the offense is doing. If the offense is not scoring, we’ve got to find a way to score. Regardless of what is happening that is our job.”
"The running play is not magic,” Adams later continued. “Nobody has a magic running play. It is the same running play. You just have to execute better. You have to say, ‘I'm tougher than you. I'm going to control this gap.’ That is the bottom line about the running game. There are no X's and O's, problems. You've got to say, 'I'm tougher than you, I'm going to control this gap and execute.' That is the bottom line. "
The question is can the Wolverines get that corrected in one weeks time.
“Yeah, we can get that fixed,” said Crable.
We’ll find out Saturday when Michigan squares off with Chris Wells and the Big Ten’s third ranked rushing offense (198.7 yards per game).