Michigan's defense looks to clean up big-play lapses
Ann Arbor — So much of the focus this season has been on Michigan's slowly emerging offense, but the defense has had its share of issues, particularly on the road dating back to last season.
As the 19th-ranked Wolverines prepare to face No. 8 Notre Dame Saturday night at Michigan Stadium, they have had to refocus their season goals. The Big Ten East Division title and a shot at the championship game are essentially out of reach with the loss at Penn State last weekend. But with games against rivals Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State remaining, there’s still plenty to motivate them.
“We have another opportunity on the national stage to go out there and play in front of our home fans and go out there and represent Michigan and build off all the positives we did offensively and defensively that we did in that Penn State game,” defensive tackle and co-captain Carlo Kemp said this week.
The Wolverines have endured two losses this season. They lost 35-14 at Wisconsin after spotting the Badgers a 35-0 lead in the Big Ten opener. Then last Saturday, Penn State eventually prevailed, 28-21, after taking a 21-0 lead. Last season, Notre Dame built a 14-0 lead on its way to a win and Northwestern led 17-0 at home before the Wolverines scored a comeback victory.
There has been a common thread in those games, aside from being on the road, which is daunting for any team — giving up the big play.
At Wisconsin, Michigan gave up six plays of 20 yards or more, including a 72-yard touchdown run by Jonathan Taylor and three runs of 25 (also a touchdown), 23 and 42 yards. The Badgers had pass completions of 25, 20 and 26 yards, with the last two part of a touchdown drive that led to a 21-0 advantage.
Michigan won on the road at Illinois but a third-quarter lapse allowed the Illini to score 25 unanswered points. Illinois’ biggest play was a 35-yard pass in a 15-play drive that included two third-down conversions and one on fourth down.
In the loss at Penn State, receiver KJ Hamler had two of the Nittany Lions' four big plays that gashed the Wolverines each time for touchdowns. He scored on a 25-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter and on a 53-yard pass in the fourth quarter when Michigan had momentum. Penn State also had a 37-yard pass in the first quarter, along with a 44-yard run.
“One of the biggest things we’ve done this season is how we respond,” Kemp said. “How do we respond to big plays? How do we respond to explosive plays?”
Michigan's defense has made a steady climb up the national rankings since the loss at Wisconsin and is now ranked 14th in total defense, yielding an average 283.3 yards, and is 30th against the run (119.7 yards). It certainly was a boost for Michigan’s defense when it held Iowa to one yard rushing thanks in large part to eight sacks. The Wolverines won, 10-3, on the strength of that defensive performance.
So why doesn’t that translate to the road?
“When you play good teams who have players who can make plays, it’s just going to happen,” Kemp said, alluding in this case to Hamler. “The biggest thing we’ve worked on is how do you respond to those moments? Are you going to back down? Are you going to let them get 40 yards? Are you going to let them get another 20 yards and are you going to let them score? Or are you gonna say, ‘OK, they got their play. Let’s go out there and make our play.'”
Kemp said when diagnosing how Hamler was able to speed past the safety for 53 yards, it really goes back to the defensive line.
“Hamler’s a good player. He had the opportunity to get open and he did that,” Kemp said. “Everyone is going to see the matchup because it was man coverage and it’s him versus one of our guys and that’s not how this works. There’s four D-lineman who have to get to the quarterback. If you get pressure on the quarterback, the play doesn’t happen.
"If I get to the quarterback — you’ve got to help those guys out. They’re on an island out there. You’ve got to look at everybody. I hold myself very responsible for not being able to do something on that play and help one of my brothers out on that play.”
Defensive end Kwity Paye thought the Wolverines were a bit “jittery” at the start of the Penn State game because of the "White Out."
“The crowd kinda took a toll on us,” Paye said. “After we started playing, we said, ‘All right, let’s take it easy.’ They had a couple impact plays that resulted in touchdowns, so after halftime we came out and started playing our defense.”
Playing at home eases some of that tension, but tense moments on the road are where tough teams are built. The Wolverines showed themselves something even in the loss and hope that carries over into these important rivalry games at home. They showed resolve in the near-comeback last weekend, which was a departure from the Wisconsin game when they were completely outplayed.
“This game wasn’t — I wouldn’t say a bigger game, but I feel like we wanted to come out and make a statement this game,” Paye said.
Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan’s sophomore starting defensive end, said it’s all about cleaning up some mental errors. The Wolverines can’t afford those in any game, even at home in these three upcoming rivalry games.
But that second half at Penn State did show the defense something, the big Hamler play notwithstanding. Even down 21-0, they made a push to come back and had a chance to tie the game on a fourth-down pass that was dropped in the end zone. They want that resolve to carry over into these final five regular-season games.
“I could see it in the second half — we went out there, we balled out,” Hutchinson said. “I think they had 80 yards in the second half, something crazy. That just shows what happens when we cut out the mental errors. You've got Penn State, a top-10 team in the country, and they could only get 80 yards on us in two quarters. That just shows our potential when we play good.”
Notre Dame at Michigan
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Records: No. 8 Notre Dame 5-1; No. 19 Michigan 5-2, 3-2
Line: Notre Dame by 1