Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown revealed Monday night on the "Inside Michigan Football" radio show that he has not shaken the Wolverines’ 29-point loss at Penn State from a year ago.
Brown’s defense, annually one of the top-rated in the nation — Michigan currently is No. 1 — gave up 506 total yards, including 282 yards passing, to the then-unbeaten Nittany Lions in a 42-13 loss.
“I wake up every morning and think about that,” Brown said on the radio show Monday night. “Honest.”
The No. 6-ranked Wolverines (7-1, 5-0 Big Ten) sit atop the league’s East Division standings. They are coming off a 21-7 win at Michigan State and are off this weekend before returning to Michigan Stadium to play Penn State on Nov. 3.
“They handed it to us last year,” Brown said on the radio show. “I did a poor job against them. Obviously, the players feel the same way, and we’ve got two weeks of preparation to put our best foot forward. I feel good about this one.”
Brown delved into preparing for the challenge of Penn State’s quick-strike, big-play offense during the Big Ten conference call on Tuesday. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh typically is on the call, but Brown filled in.
“The one thing we’ve tried to do, and I think we have, is we’re trying to play up front with our four-man rushes and mix at a higher level,” Brown said on the call. “I actually think we can present a formidable four-man front rush or get into all our pressure stuff. It really depends (on) their strengths and weaknesses of who we’re playing which way we want to go. The nice thing is we can kinda determine how we’re gonna go ahead and attack people based on what we feel their strengths are.
“The thing for us that we have to pay attention to, they still have the ability to run the ball effectively and the major reason for that is (quarterback Trace) McSorley. He gives them an extra dimension in the run game because their quarterback run game can be so effective. Couple that with his ability — he really has a good feel for what Coach (James) Franklin wants to do offensively, especially in the throw game, and he’s got a number of guys to throw the ball to. So it’s a healthy balance between trying to stop their run, pressure them in that respect and try to get after them in the pass game and pressure them and play a decent amount of coverage. Those are the challenges. That’s the cat-and-mouse game and that’s the fun part of coaching.”
Michigan is seeking its first Big Ten title since 2004 with four games left after the bye, with matchups against Penn State and at Ohio State.
Brown said the Wolverines are not looking ahead.
“The approach that Coach Harbaugh has had, the whole staff take and our players is, take care of what’s in front of you,” Brown said. “Obviously, this is a big week for us. This is an improvement week. For example, I challenged one of our linebackers yesterday to become a better interior blitzer, and we’re really just working on our improvement for the week.
“We’ll have a good Penn State coming in here in two weeks ready to play, so really, if you get too far out ahead, bad things happen. We’re going to stay true to form here and try to improve this week and then get ready for a really good Penn State team the following week.”
Brown reiterated something he said earlier in the season after the season-opening loss at Notre Dame, that this defense adjusts faster and doesn’t get rattled.
“If the wheels would have came off at any point last year, getting them back on without some time — for example, halftime or just the end of the game and now you’ve got to get ready to play the next week — we would have a hard time getting the wheels back on,” he said. “The funny thing is this year, for example, we had the bad first quarter at Notre Dame, but we were able to kinda flip the switch and really play well from the eight-minute mark of the second quarter on. Northwestern, we had had the bad first quarter, SMU we had a bad third quarter, so those three quarters have been things we have to move on. I think we’ve done that on both sides.
“Each time there’s a big win, confidence is a funny thing. It just continues to grow.”
Trying to get Gary back
Defensive end Rashan Gary has missed three games with a right shoulder issue, and Brown said they’re in a wait-and-see situation.
“Obviously, we’re trying desperately to get Rashan Gary back,” Browns said. “We’ll see where that takes us with the bye week looking us right down the barrel here. We’ll see if we can get that young man healthy. But the development of Kwity Paye has certainly not gone unnoticed.
“He’s really becoming a stalwart for us. Carlo Kemp continues to grow as an inside defensive tackle. I think Bryan Mone had our best game for us as our nose guard and Chase Winovich is kind of a — I don’t know what you call him — but he’s a crazy man that just plays with his hair on fire all the time. I think he has a tremendous effect on our football team because of his energy level.”
Brown was asked how Gary’s return would impact the defensive line.
“What it does, it makes us faster because Kwity Paye, we’ve done so many different things with him along the front,” Brown said. “We can move him inside and it certainly makes us a faster front. And I think we can kinda adapt if people want to go big, we can get big with them. If people want to get in 11 personnel and split us out, we can get fast with them. It gives us another positive option and another tweak we can present to opposing offenses.”
Rating the defense
Michigan held the Spartans to 94 total yards and did not allow them to convert on third down.
“The 0-for-12, that’s good numbers,” Brown said of third-down attempts. “The good thing about that, we had a specific plan going in and obviously we’re going to ride that plan as long as it was effective. Obviously, we were able to ride that for all four quarters. I thought our guys handled the switch-offs and the coverage really well. Josh Uche, Chase Winovich and company did a nice job of keeping the quarterback in the pocket because Brian Lewerke can really hurt you with his feet, as well.”
It was important, Brown said, for Michigan's defense to get off to a quick start. The defense had slow starts in games at Notre Dame and Northwestern.
“In the opening game we were hampered by penalties, just kind of adjusting the officials are calling the game this year and adjusting our style of play to them has been an important piece,” he said. “It’s funny, you’re on the road at Northwestern, which isn’t an easy place to play, and you have a bad first quarter. We’re on the road at Notre Dame, we have a bad first quarter. Obviously the big push was at Michigan State was getting off on the right foot. I thought we attacked that with a lot of energy coming out of the locker room and the guys carried it through for 60 minutes.”