Of course the Michigan Wolverines needed to make changes during their bye week—a 13-6 loss Sept. 22 to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium made sure of that.
Despite allowing 145 passing yards to the Irish, the Wolverines defense—particularly the secondary—was exposed for what it was: Inconsistent, and reeling after losing sophomore cornerback Blake Countess, who went out for the year after suffering an ACL tear in Michigan's Week 1 41-14 loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide.
It could have been worse, though.
The changes, if any, will surely come much more from mentality adjustments, rather than personnel juggling. The defensive line gave Wolverines defensive coordinator Greg Mattison reason to be optimistic heading into Saturday's duel with the Purdue Boilermakers (3-1).
It will come down to brains, not brawn.
"One thing about defensive line, it's not always about brute strength or size," Mattison told reporters via Kyle Meinke of MLive.com. "It's about intelligence and knowing what play is going to come when it's going to come, based on a formation, based on tendencies.
"When you're just trying to learn to play, you can't think of all those things. And then after you start playing a little while, now you can say, 'The back is over here, this is the block I'm going to get.' And then when you know what block that's going to be, you can play it better. And I think that's what you started seeing a little bit more."
Playing with more continuity.
It all sounds great—and it sounds like exactly what the Wolverines need to do from here on out after a disappointing 2-2 start to the 2012 campaign.
Mental mistakes prevented sophomore Raymon Taylor from being as effective as he could have been against Notre Dame. Seeing more snaps since Countess' unfortunate departure, Taylor has the ability to help solidify the secondary.
However, Taylor looked lost at times as Irish quarterback Tommy Rees picked apart Michigan's defense, going side to side, hash to hash. Taylor picked up a pass interference call, sure. But he also prevented a couple big receptions from coming to fruition.
Repetition and a steadfast approach to taking over Countess' spot will serve the sophomore well.
"Raymon has really improved," Mattison said during a recent interview on Inside Michigan Football radio show (via Kyle Meinke of MLive.com). "He has been thrown in the fire. If someone would have said to me at the beginning of the year, 'Will he be starting against Notre Dame?' I don't know if I would have said yes.
"(But) I was really proud of him how he played. He knows he's got a lot of things he has to get better at, but one thing he didn't do was shy away from anything. He competed."
It may not seem like the corners and safeties have played quite up to par through four games. And, honestly, they haven't. There is too much upside to a group captained by senior safety Jordan Kovacs to continue being a weakness.
Michigan has the top-ranked pass defense in the Big Ten (154.5 yards per game). But if technique miscues and mental errors continue, Michigan won't be at the apex for long.
Mattison said Taylor was "thrown in the fire." Well, if that's true, then his counterparts should feel the same way—it's not going to be easy without Countess.
Limit turnovers, fortunes will turn
Turnovers have burdened the Wolverines this year. At minus-seven through the first month, Michigan's turnover margin is minus-1.75 per game—games aren't won that way.
"I think one of the big differences is we forced or got our hands on a lot of balls last year turnover wise and have not seen that," Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke told John Borton of The Wolverine.com. "We had the two interceptions [against Notre Dame], but we haven't been around the ball as much from a coverage aspect, and also the other aspect is we got to do a better job pressuring the quarterback.
"At times with the four man rush we're not bad. This goes all the way back to week one against Alabama. With a four-man rush we put on decent pressure, but we've got to be better in that, forcing some ill advised throws."
Denard Robinson has had to run his way out of trouble this season—that explains some of the "ill advised" throws he's made in 2012. Surprisingly, though, Michigan is the least-sacked team in the Big Ten; Robinson has been sacked just five times.
But he did fumble once against Notre Dame.
Due to his workload and frequency of touches, it's probably best that Michigan's offensive line continue to block somewhat well for Robinson. Of course, better blocking will translate into more time for Robinson to make accurate throws, rather than winging the ball on a prayer like he did four times Sept. 22.
Home cooking could be what the Wolverines needed at this point of the season
Entering camp, going through summer drills and starting the season is taxing on veteran players. So imagine how the youngsters feel.
Hoke says the week off could re-energize the freshmen.
"The guys who are traveling who are freshman have not been home since June 25th," Hoke told Borton of The Wolverine.com. "We have a lot of those guys from the state, a lot of those guys within driving distance in Ohio and Chicago. It was good to give them about 36 hours to be a human beings and go home and maybe watch their high school play, see mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, whoever. I thought that was positive.
"From the academic side, also I think it's always a help. We'll find out obviously Saturday."
Using what they have could push Wolverines over hump
Devin Funchess has proven to be much more than just a "freshman." In fact, the former Harrison High (Michigan) star could become one of the Wolverines' top offensive weapons—weapons not named Denard Robinson.
Sometimes it's not all about talent; it's about how that talent is used. Michigan was successful last season not because it brimmed with stars, but because players in the systems were used intelligently. Obviously, losing Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen was a blow to Michigan, but there are enough able participants in the stable to move forward without much of a hitch.
Linebacker Joe Bolden has shown promise. Just a freshman, Bolden is developing into an adequate pass-rusher, which the Wolverines desperately need. Michigan is last in the Big Ten when it comes to sacking the opposing signal-caller, just three in four games.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.
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