November 20, 2010 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

If Rich Rodriguez can't fix U-M defense, he can't fix this team

Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez was relatively calm after Saturday's game, in which his defense could not find an answer for Wisconsin's ground game. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Ann Arbor -- Wisconsin lined up and did what it does, again and again and again. And Michigan was utterly powerless to stop it, which is only surprising if you haven't been paying attention.

We know what this Michigan football team is right now, unequivocally and for sure. The Wolverines have been manhandled and mishandled by every good team they've faced, by any team with big linemen and hard-running backs, in every embarrassing way. Young and injured and simply not good enough, the Michigan defense isn't a mystery to anyone.

The mystery is whether Rich Rodriguez can fix it, because if he can't, he can't fix this team. That has to be part of athletic director David Brandon's evaluation, as he decides what to do with a program that's 7-4 in its third season under Rodriguez, dynamic offensively but physically punished by tough opponents.

We can spend all day debating who, exactly, is to blame for Michigan's defensive collapses, punctuated by a 48-28 loss to Wisconsin on Saturday, when the Badgers mashed for 357 rushing yards. Injuries and youth are issues, no doubt. But at this stage, it doesn't really matter how the Wolverines got in such a position, where Denard Robinson can set a national single-season quarterback rushing record and they still struggle to keep up.

It ultimately falls on the head coach, and the questions aren't going away, with the Ohio State finale looming. The players aren't bailing on Rodriguez, not at all. The effort is there, but that battered defense still can't tackle anyone, and that's troubling.

Of course, the jobs of coordinator Greg Robinson and the entire defensive staff are under scrutiny. And so, still, is Rodriguez's job, even with a bowl bid secured.

He explains the issues just fine, and he has legitimate points. The question remains, can he fix them? And how much time does he get?

"People say I'm always making excuses, but it's not, it's reality," Rodriguez said. "I've never coached and had five true freshmen playing at one time in Division I. Are you kidding me? Those guys are playing their tails off, and they're gonna be better hopefully because of it. But you guys are all pretty smart, go find another school that has five or six true freshmen playing significant time on defense. It's a perfect storm."

In some ways, maybe it is. But again, it's almost irrelevant how they got here. How do they get out of it?

A "troubling" problem

On Senior Day, Michigan had three seniors among its 22 listed starters -- only linebacker Jonas Mouton and cornerback James Rogers on defense. Nineteen starters are slated to return to next season, when dramatic improvement should be demanded. Attrition and transfers also have been issues, and Rodriguez's staff must be smarter in recruiting. And honestly, they have to reassess their 3-3-5 base defense, which doesn't come close to slowing a power running game.

Rodriguez was relatively calm afterward, as if he knew what was coming. In fact, he did, because Wisconsin sure didn't disguise it.

After stomping to a 24-0 halftime lead, the Badgers were ahead 24-14 when they simply put the hammer down. This is unbelievable: They closed the game with 31 consecutive runs, counting one scramble by quarterback Scott Tolzien and two kneel-downs. They had two backs, James White (181) and Montee Ball (173), nearly hit 200 yards, and Tolzien completed 14 of 15 passes.

Brandon reflected the same tone as Rodriguez, and wouldn't budge on where he stands in his evaluation of the program.

"It's troubling to every Michigan fan when you have 600-plus yards against you," Brandon said. "But you heard the coach. We've got a lot of young guys, a lot of hurt guys, and it's been a struggle the last couple years. It's an area of emphasis in recruiting for sure. I know the coaches fully understand where our vulnerabilities are, and we just gotta keep working on it."

I asked Brandon if he'd wait until after the season, after the Ohio State game and the bowl game, to assess the future.

"Sure, same for every one of our 27 sports," he said.

Wisconsin: What U-M used to be

Brandon has more patience and understanding of the situation than the average fan. But he also sees what everyone else sees, including a Wisconsin team that's pretty much what Michigan used to be -- big and unflinching and hard-hitting.

Michigan's offense looks great at times, and sometimes looks like fool's gold (fool's maize?). It was manhandled in double-digit home losses to Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin. Rodriguez is 6-17 in the Big Ten, 3-9 at home.

In this one, the Wolverines had 124 total yards and zero points at halftime before Denard Robinson sparked a revival. Rodriguez had to resort -- rightly so, by the way -- to a pair of onside kicks to try to keep the ball after scores.

The Badgers are 10-1 and legitimately very good. Obviously, they were far more physical than the Wolverines.

"They're an older, bigger, physical team going against a younger, not yet full grown, undersized team," Rodriguez said. "Physically, they moved us around a little bit, and we were afraid of that coming in. Even though you should be able to make some improvement with freshmen, the truth is, they're not gonna get exponentially better until a few bowl practices, a few spring practices and another August camp."

Rodriguez is hunting for answers, still. I'd be shocked if he found many in time for the trip to Columbus, where the Wolverines will try not to miss tackles against Terrelle Pryor. Everyone understands ugly things can happen with a young team. At some point, there has to be evidence the ugliness can be stopped.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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