Michigan defensive coordinator discusses the use of Jordan Glasgow in a goal-line defense at Wisconsin. The Detroit News


Ann Arbor — Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown isn’t one to make apologies and avoids excuse-making, but he made no effort to hide behind a sluggish start in Big Ten play and instead tried to explain how challenging the first weeks of the season had been.

Brown, in his fourth season with the Wolverines, has led Michigan’s defense to lofty highs in the national rankings. But after a stinging loss at Wisconsin — the Badgers ran for 359 yards and had 487 total yards  the Wolverines (4-1, 2-1 Big Ten) have settled in.

They’ve gone nine quarters without giving up a touchdown after shutting down Rutgers, 52-0, and Iowa, 10-3, with the defense recording eight sacks and three interceptions against the Hawkeyes.

“We got off to a bad start on the road,” Brown said Wednesday. “Made some uncharacteristic fits in the run game, and it hurt us (at Wisconsin). Everybody in those scenarios, the outside world, everybody kind of questions you. But we felt like, ‘Hey, we’ve got work to do.’”

After the Wisconsin loss, Michigan’s defense was ranked 47th in total defense (343.7 yards) and 114th in rush defense (208.7). Those numbers improved after the rout of Rutgers as Michigan moved to 22nd in total defense (295.8) and 89th against the run (168). After the Iowa victory, the Wolverines are 18th in total defense (288.8) and 50th in run defense (134.6).

“We came out very motivated because of that Wisconsin game,” cornerback Ambry Thomas, who had a fumble recovery and interception against Iowa, said. “I’m pretty sure no one that’s with us wants that feeling again.”

When Brown evaluates those first three games, he keeps in mind the Wolverines had to prepare for three entirely different offenses.

“I’m not making any excuses, trust me, but it was our (third) different offense in four weeks,” Brown said. “To say that hasn’t been challenging  it has been challenging. And I think part of our upswing (now) is we’re dealing with similar-type plays on a week-to-week basis in the last couple weeks.

“One week you’re in run-and-shoot (and Middle Tennessee State is) throwing the ball. The second week, you’re playing Army and they’re running the triple (option). That’s the schedule  you’re going to play it  but it certainly helps us when you have a little familiarity on a week-to-week basis. And to be honest, Rutgers and Iowa last week, a lot of the one-back stuff was the same. The difference with Iowa, but you can relate back to Wisconsin, is the two-back fits.”

The other difference is the Badgers have running back Jonathan Taylor and Iowa doesn’t. Taylor hurt Michigan badly in the first quarter with 143 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

“Obviously when you’re playing Wisconsin, Jonathan Taylor’s a big difference,” Brown said.

Since then, Brown has liked what he’s seen from his defense as the Wolverines have adjusted to offenses that suit their style.

“Familiarity gives you a chance to defend better,” Brown said. “You see the plays. You see the footwork. You see the running back. You see the blocks up front. Our guys can obviously relate to them because they’ve seen those similar blocks.”

Michigan’s defense has had strong play from the line in recent weeks, with ends Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye setting the bar high, and tackle Michael Dwumfour returning to the lineup from injury. It starts up front, after all.

“Mike had a really good game. It’s funny, he texted me the other day, ‘Coach, I jumped some gaps. It won’t happen again,’” Brown said, smiling. “But the thing Mike brings to the table is the ability to come out of his stance 100 miles an hour and he creates the ping-pong effect in the backfield because he can knock off pullers. He’s athletic. For him, he hasn’t played a whole heck of a lot of football lately around here. Now he’s going through another practice week, chance to sink your teeth in the game plan.

“He’s benefiting and we’re benefiting from his solid play.”

Early in the season, Michigan’s defense had to deal with quick change and poor field position because of the abundance of turnovers from the offense. Brown found a silver lining suggesting those early challenges helped the defense in the Iowa game.

“That’s your life as a defensive player,” Brown said. “Your job is to stop ‘em. They give ‘em the ball on the 10, you stop ‘em. You give ‘em the ball on the goal line, you stop ‘em. If you can’t stop ‘em, it’s either success or failure, period. The one thing I think, you want to know how it has impacted us? They had some pretty good field position the other day. Our guys? No issues, let’s go.

“It’s a fun group to coach. Obviously, everybody has to work through their scenarios schematically as coaches, as we do, as well. The one thing I can tell you, this group will do everything in their power to be successful in the situation we put them in. I’ll coach this group any time.”

Michigan at Illinois

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.

TV/radio: ABC/950

Records: No. 16 Michigan 4-1, 2-1 Big Ten; Illinois 2-3, 0-2

Line: Michigan by 20

Twitter: @chengelis