Michigan vs. Notre Dame: Analyzing the Wolverines Defense
Sports hyperbole is fraught with exaggerated language, but Saturday's game certainly evoked the heights of tragedy and lows of despair, a somewhat cruel reminder that the season is still delicate and fragile.
Even during the worst of the Lloyd Carr years, failure merely portended a trip to the Alamo or Outback Bowl and maybe the possibility of some national embarrassment. In that context a 95 yard touchdown is something that can be endured. But for a fleeting moment as the ball settled into Kyle Rudolph's arms, all I could imagine were the worst case scenarios in which Rodriguez would be fired and Michigan sent back to the Dark Ages. It is hard to find anger in that moment; only disillusionment.
Fortunately, Robinson helped engineer Michigan's only long scoring drive of the game, jumpstarting—even if it is ephemeral—the talk of a Heisman campaign. But everything Robinson is the defense definitely is not. It is the reverse of clutch, and sometimes it seems like it can only manage the artifice of competency.
Michigan gave up 381 yards through the air, a painful number in any context. Cameron Gordon must have been directly or indirectly responsible for about 200 of those yards. Michigan played a lot of soft zone out of necessity, but Gordon lacks the elite coverage ability to play that deep. He might be better served up near the line, where he can play the running lanes and patrol the underneath coverage, but he is forced out due to lack of depth, so he is kind of in a bad way. His only choice at the moment is to become more fluent at the position. There are reasons to believe that he can improve, but it is still only a palliative gesture.
Unfortunately, there were also some slow reads and tackling problems in the defense. Some of this was to be expected. Notre Dame has a group of offensive skill players that are some of the best that Michigan will play against all season. The most talented player, Michael Floyd, was actually held to only 66 yards, but Rudolph was a dangerous threat and managed to pull in 164 yards. This wouldn’t have been a huge burden on the defense had he not made the 95 yard catch.
The linebackers were actually more efficacious. They often settled into underneath zones and confused the quarterbacks on reads. Mouton displayed excellent recognition and closing speed on Michigan's first interception. He finished with 13 tackles on the day, six of which were solo.
Roh was forced to play as a linebacker and had an excellent day. It is true that he is not exactly foreign to these duties. Last year he was capable of tracking down tight ends, although he did allow Rudolph to sneak behind him once in coverage.
All this tampering meant that Michigan had to play a pure three man line for most of the game. Sometimes those three men were all they rushed. The rest of the defense instead chose to sit back and cover the array of receivers. When the pressure did come it was on blitzes. Michigan’s only sack of the season was recorded when Thomas Gordon blitzed off the edge on a play action fake.
Except for the long drive to open the game, Notre Dame's offense actually spent much of the day in radio silence punctuated by big plays galvanized by breakdowns in the defense, but those big plays almost conspired to cost Michigan the game. With 10 seconds to go in the first half, James Rogers seemed fixated on Montana in the pocket and allowed Theo Riddick to get behind him for a 37 yard reception. Cam Gordon was also derelict on the play.
To begin the second half, Crist found TJ Jones for a long touchdown. Once again Rogers got sucked in by Rudolph over the middle, while Gordon took a bad route trying to close on Jones.
On the following drive, Armando Allen rumbled for 29 yards on a pitch; he would have had a much larger gain had he not stepped out of bounds early, forced out by a diving Gordon. There were strategic and execution foibles from the beginning—Kovacs was blitzing inside, and Greg Banks ignored Allen in favor of Crist—but this play could have been stopped for a 10 yard gain. Instead, Obi Ezeh and JT Floyd both converged on Allen at same time and missed the tackle. Notre Dame also ran the same play in the 4th quarter. This time Banks was not fooled, but he could not deal with Allen’s athleticism and also missed the tackle.
Michigan seemed to become more aggressive and emboldened after the first drive. From the time that Crist left the game, Notre Dame did not complete another pass for the rest of the first quarter. At this point the offense was clearly in disarray, unable to play its high tempo passing game.
But in the third quarter, Crist returned from the dead; he rolled away the stone and attempted to save the Irish offense. From the start of the second half Michigan's defense seemed to be out of rhythm and flummoxed mentally. The players made a continuous parade of errors that allowed Notre Dame to score 10 subsequent points on two drives.
Once the defense forced the field goal, however, Michigan did not allow a single point for about 20 minutes. During this time Notre Dame only managed 51 total yards with an interception and a sack. It’s obvious that Notre Dame suffered greatly without Crist, but neither were they unstoppable with him.
This reprieve does offer some hope. If the defense can improve on only a few of these mistakes, then it can surely begin to hold its own. The most heartening fact is that Michigan is plus four in turnover margin and tied for seventh nationally in turnover margin per game after playing two quality opponents.
I don't mean to exaggerate the problems. There are genuinely good players on this defense, especially Roh and Martin, and most seem capable of at least making plays. There are obviously going to be times when Michigan is unable to outscore teams, but there are only a few schools left on the schedule that will give the defense huge fits, which will always give Michigan a fighting chance.
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