Michigan's failure to adjust defensively exposed in gut-wrenching defeat

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

It was no secret coming into this season that Michigan’s defensive weakness would be at cornerback with two new starters.

Michigan State zeroed in and took advantage in its 27-24 victory over Michigan on Saturday at Michigan Stadium, with an innovative plan to have quarterback Rocky Lombardi expose that lack of experience by tossing bombs, mostly to freshman Ricky White, whose lack of game experience didn’t seem to hurt him one bit. That’s a bit tongue in cheek, but you get the picture.

Michigan State wide receiver Ricky White makes a reception in front of Michigan defensive back Jalen Perry.

Lombardi threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns and was never sacked, and White caught eight passes for 196 yards and had a touchdown. That’s 24.5 yards a catch, and that should tell you something. Lombardi’s 30-yard pass to White for the game’s first score should have also been a big indicator that the game plan was simple — attack the corners, new starters Gemon Green and Vincent Gray.

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Now, Michigan is 1-1 and heading to Indiana (2-0), which upset Penn State in the opener.

Gray made a start last season and had some game experience, while Green, who played one game on defense last season, made his first start in the opener at Minnesota. Green was moved into a starting role when returning starter Ambry Thomas decided to opt out after the Big Ten initially postponed the season.

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The corners are being criticized, but let’s be clear, there’s a chain reaction at work. When the defensive line is not applying enough pressure to rattle the quarterback — Michigan had two tackles for loss and no sacks — and offer some protection for the back end of the defense, suddenly, these new starters are on an island in man coverage. And all this goes back to coordinator Don Brown.

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Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has to know this, which is why his reply was all-encompassing when asked after the game about the struggles at corner.

“Each person, we’ve got to look at that,” Harbaugh said. “Every single guy, what they can do better, and every coach, too. Got to look at all facets of it.”

They looked for some options during the game, and not much helped. Look at the third quarter when, incidentally, White had four catches for 114 yards, including 50- and 40-yard receptions. Jalen Perry was inserted late in the third quarter for Gray after he was burned on the 40-yard catch by White. Perry shortly after was called for defensive holding. In the fourth quarter, Perry couldn’t match White on a 31-yard reception.

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Interestingly, after the loss, safety Dax Hill was asked what the Spartans were able to do to hit those deep passes, and he said they had focused more on MSU’s rushing attack as the Wolverines game planned last week.

“Michigan State is a run team so we wanted to stop the run game,” Hill said. “They had their shots early in the game, some bad calls in my opinion, but we’ve got to keep playing.”

Hill said they didn’t know much about White, the freshman.

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“We didn’t really expect those (deep shots), because the game plan was to hone in on the run," he said. "They took some shots in there. Something like that happens, we’ve just got to keep playing our defense.”

That was the real issue — not adjusting the defense, and that's on the coaches again. This was a deflating loss for Michigan for several reasons. The Wolverines came off the win at Minnesota feeling great about themselves, and then they fell hard against a team with a new coach, who didn’t have a spring practice to get to really know his players and what he had to work with and missed out in important recruiting.

Now the Wolverines must figure out a way to regroup.

“Just keeping our heads up and stay positive,” Hill said on how the team will respond.


Twitter: @chengelis