Michigan safety Tyree Kinnel discusses the team's effort in containing Florida's quarterbacks. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh understandably could not stop praising the Wolverines’ opening-season defensive performance.
Michigan held Florida to 11 rushing yards in a 33-17 victory last Saturday and had three fumbles — half the team’s total last season.
“The defense, the way they played, it was the best since I’ve been here coaching, that I’ve seen our defense run to the football,” Harbaugh said Monday at his weekly news conference. “Holes opened up and they closed. Pursuit. Nobody on the ground. Everybody getting up running making the tackle. What we need to do when there’s an interception. We need to watch that tape.
“And get the three fumbles. Three fumbles? We had six last year, we had three in this game. Diving on their mistakes and pursuing. Because you’re running to the ball at all times, it makes that possible. You’re there in a position to dive on some of these mistakes when they occur.
“Just running to the ball and getting those fumbles is key. We’re in so much man-to-man coverage, you’re not always seeing the ball come out of the quarterback’s hand, and it’s harder to get the interceptions. But jumping on those mistakes and those fumbles was really critical, I thought. The way our defense ran to the ball was the best I’ve seen. How fast the holes closed up. It looked fast. Fast, faster. It sounds like a comparison. Looked fast.”
Ambry Thomas, Lawrence Marshall and Noah Furbush, who pounced on a forced fumble by Chase Winovich in the end zone for the Wolverines’ final score, each recovered fumbles.
Defensive coordinator Don Brown changed the defense schematically for the Gators.
“Don Brown had an excellent game plan,” Harbaugh said. “Worked one style of offense with the first quarterback that was in there. When they went to Malik Zaire, it changed. More read option and adapted the scheme. Our players knew it. They knew what they had with the one, and they knew what they had with the next. They were on it. Very happy. We were a confident unit, really well-coached defensive unit.
“We thought we were going to be good, and we were good. We’ll continue to build. I was really pleased with the way they ran to the ball.”
Furbush said Brown dictates the aggressiveness of the defense, and as Brown — known to the players as Dr. Blitz — established last season, this always will be an attacking group
“Like Coach Brown says, pressure sucks at half speed, so we want to get out there and fly around,” Furbush said.
Michigan had 11 tackles for loss, including three from linebacker Devin Bush, who had two sacks and graded out as the defensive player of the week, Harbaugh said.
The defensive players after the game took exception to comments from a Florida player that while good, Michigan’s defense didn’t have players who can run sideline to sideline. That was bulletin-board material, Maurice Hurst said. And that was on top of the constant reminder the players heard that Michigan’s defense was only returning one starter, and how would it recover without Jabrill Peppers and survive with all this youth and inexperience.
So they went out and pounded down the notion against a Southeastern Conference team that there’s only SEC speed.
“It definitely sets the tone,” safety Tyree Kinnel, who had six tackles. “We’ve got that out on film that everyone can see that we play fast and play hard. We’ve just got to keep getting after it.”
Winovich after the game excitedly spoke of Brown’s defensive scheme shift heading into the game that he believes caught the Gators off-guard.
“When we unveiled it, I think they were just like, ‘Oh, crap, how do we adjust to this?’ ” Winovich said. “We had so many plays early on first half, Coach Brown said we have so many plays we haven’t even done yet and we’re having a lot of success, and he said let’s keep pushing.
“We had our SAM play our tackle or nose. It changed, and it put a linebacker in the box. That allowed us to put a viper on the field, as well and basically they were kinda guessing sometimes. It allows us to blitz, but at the same time we’re giving off the same look and the responsibilities as our 4-3. They’re off-balance.”
Kinnel said the Wolverines prepared for the three Florida quarterbacks who were competing for the starting job. Feleipe Franks started, and Notre Dame graduate transfer Zaire also played. Zaire was sacked five times.
“We knew about each one of them,” Kinnel said. “When Malik came in, we knew what to expect. We knew he was a running quarterback, we knew he could throw on the run and that’s pretty much what we got from him. Our defensive line chased him around back there. He got loose a little bit and tried to throw on the run. We tried to stay on our guys as close as we could, and we were also prepared for his zone read. I thought we did pretty good with both quarterbacks.”
Brown told the defense heading into the game it did not yet have an identity. Kinnel said the Wolverines made pretty clear what it is.
“We just wanted to show everyone we can fly around and play football, and I think we did a pretty good job of doing that,” he said.
Michigan vs. Cincinnati
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
TV/radio: ABC/WWJ 950-AM
Records: Michigan 1-0, Cincinnati 1-0