November 2, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan's defense could be Rich Rodriguez's undoing

Rich Rodriguez: “Everybody’s frustrated on defense, our staff is frustrated.” (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Ann Arbor -- Rich Rodriguez didn't fire or demote his defensive coordinator Monday, and to some, that's a sad surprise. Frankly, I'm not sure it makes a big difference.

Greg Robinson has done a poor job, and his position certainly should be in jeopardy. But full accountability sits where it always sits, where it now shifts uncomfortably — on the coach.

Michigan's defense has been awful, and removing Robinson and promoting defensive line coach Bruce Tall — a rumor Rodriguez laughed off — wouldn't instantly fix it. More personnel changes wouldn't instantly fix it. But with three straight losses and another free-fall seemingly beckoning, Rodriguez can't simply say time will heal.

Even all the youth and talent holes on that defense — nine freshmen and redshirt freshmen are in the 22-man two-deep — don't explain everything, or absolve everyone. The Wolverines rank 106th in total defense and have surrendered at least 34 points in all four Big Ten games.

Still too many questions and not enough answers come out of Schembechler Hall. And that's why, as Michigan gets ready for yet another Biggest Game of the Year against Illinois, Rodriguez is backed into another corner. If he fired Robinson, he'd appear to be passing the buck. But if this doesn't turn around quickly, the buck stops at Rodriguez's desk, nowhere else.

Let's be clear here.

If Michigan loses its final four games and finishes a bowl-less 5-7 again, Rodriguez would have to go. Who knows if there's a safe victory total, but he's already precarious with a 4-16 Big Ten record, 13-19 overall in three seasons.

Athletic director Dave Brandon understandably is holding off on evaluations until after the season, and presumably after the final NCAA verdict. But he has consistently said he wants to see progress in all areas of the program, and I assume he considers defense a relevant area.

The Wolverines have to show improvement in the final month, and it can't just be from their dynamic quarterback. It's as if Rodriguez is desperately trying to buy time with Denard Robinson and his explosive offense, desperately trying to win another 42-35 game or two.

"Everybody's frustrated on defense, our staff is frustrated," Rodriguez said Monday. "But to everyone's credit, nobody's pointing fingers. I've probably spent a little more time on defense now, and I probably should because we've got more inexperienced players over there. But I'm not going to be able to wave a magic wand myself and fix some of the issues."

Remaining positive

Fair enough. Rodriguez is a spread-offense guru, and he abdicates control of his defense. But he doesn't get to abdicate responsibility. Especially not when he already fired one defensive coordinator, Scott Shafer, and insists upon a base 3-3-5 alignment for the secondary-depleted Wolverines.

Greg Robinson, who hasn't spoken with the media recently, is a veteran coach with two Super Bowl rings coordinating the Broncos defense. By any measure, statistically or developmentally, his defense has been a disaster here. If it's not his preferred system, this might be another case of a forced bad fit.

Rodriguez doesn't buy that, and doesn't think he needs to alter his recruiting strategy. In his mind, he has to rebuild depth, speed and experience, and he's determined to stay upbeat, regardless of comparisons to last season's collapse.

"Are we in the same spot, wins and losses-wise?" he said. "Yeah, that's what everybody goes by, I understand that. But are we better offensively? Are our kids closer as a group? Are we making strides academically and in the weight room? Are we making strides defensively? No, not like we want. But these guys are not gonna be young and inexperienced a year or two from now. They're gonna be a lot better, so I'm optimistic."

What about the 3-3-5 he brought from West Virginia?

"The schemes are way, way overrated," he said. "I know fans say you can't win in the Big Ten with a three-man front. Half the teams in the league run a three-man front. The scheme has had success against a lot of good football teams. We've got to coach it the right way and we've got to execute it the right way."

Sense of urgency

It isn't happening right now, and it sure wasn't happening in Happy Valley last Saturday. Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin, a former walk-on making his first start, picked apart Michigan in a 41-31 victory. The Nittany Lions converted 10 of 16 third downs, a recurring nightmare for the Wolverines, who play passively and blitz rarely, ostensibly to protect their young secondary.

TV cameras at one point showed Rodriguez angrily admonishing his defensive players, and there needs to be heightened urgency now. Maybe it'll help that fine nose tackle Mike Martin could be healthy to play Saturday. After starting 4-0 and 5-0 the past two seasons, Michigan has had eight attempts to gain a sixth victory and bowl eligibility, and lost all eight.

That's incomprehensible, and the rest of the schedule isn't light, with home games against resurgent Illinois and Wisconsin, and trips to Purdue and Ohio State. Rodriguez has shown his offense can work with the right quarterback, and it's the type of high-tempo attack that has propelled unbeaten Oregon and Auburn.

But right now, the Wolverines have half a team, and Greg Robinson hasn't proven capable of fixing the other half. That's partly his fault and partly circumstance and injuries and defections.

Ultimately, as always, it's on the guy who makes the big decisions. It's on Rodriguez, who could use a magic wand now.

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