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Wolverines come to grips with their tackling problems

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

That Michigan has looked like a poor tackling team was not exclusive to the most recent loss to Penn State, although it was glaring.

Tackling issues have been the norm for the defense now ranked 90th nationally.

But statistics only tell part of the story. Think back a week earlier in the final seconds of regulation at Rutgers when 6-foot-1, 195-pound quarterback Noah Vedral, after completing an 11-yard touchdown pass, then dragged the Michigan defense with him as he ran for the two-point conversion that tied the game to send it to overtime.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford pushes away Michigan defensive lineman Kwity Paye while running the ball in the third quarter.

There were times in the 27-17 loss to Penn State last Saturday, Michigan grabbed weakly to make stops and often appeared to be tackling air. The Nittany Lions, who were 0-5 entering the game at Michigan Stadium, where the Wolverines are winless at home, rushed for 254 yards and three touchdowns. Penn State was 8-of-16 on third down.

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“We have to get better,” Michigan defensive lineman Taylor Upshaw said after the game. “There’s no excuse for missed tackles. We play football, we’ve been playing football. When that’s happening, you’ve got to look in the mirror and say, ‘Why are we missing tackles?’ That’s what I’ve got to say about that.”

Tackling is one of the pillars of football.

“When it comes to tackling, it’s pretty simple,” Upshaw said. “You run into the person, tackle him to the ground. We’ve been doing this. It’s something you’ve gotta do. We’ve been taught our whole lives to tackle as long as we’ve been playing football, so it’s something you’ve gotta do.”

But the Wolverines haven’t done it well this season. They are 75th against the run, allowing an average 178.8 yards and 90th against the pass (255.5), but other stats are even more telling. Michigan is ranked 101st in third-down percentage defense and 113th in red-zone defense.

“Times we didn’t have the edge set and we folded back in and let the play bounce, no question about that,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said of the run defense. “We’ve got to tackle better. There were too many missed tackles. We’ve got to take away what an offense is trying to do to you with the right call at the right time. A lot of things that came together that we weren’t as effective as we wanted to be.”

What are the issues? Is it the players? Are the fundamentals lacking or not being taught correctly? Where does this team begin to find answers?

“Fundamentally, I feel like sometimes we’re tackling a little too high and leaving our feet a little too early,” Harbaugh said. “Timing of the tackle, wrap it, and get the man on the ground.”

But that was missing against Penn State. Keyvone Lee rushed for 134 yards on 22 carries and had a score, but quarterback Sean Clifford did serious damage and made the missed tackles even more glaring. Clifford’s 28-yard touchdown run with 3:32 left in the first half that gave Penn State a 14-7 lead looked too easy. In the third quarter on third-and-6, Clifford ran for a 29-yard gain.

Upshaw said they “prioritize” run defense over pass, which is another reason why he was so puzzled after the game.

“It’s going to have to be something we get better at,” he said.

Harbaugh said the team’s weaknesses on both sides were the issues, not just the defense.

“We weren’t getting the stop at the critical time and not getting the first down to sustain the drive offensively. That was a big part of the game,” Harbaugh said. “Getting the tackles on the short yardage and be able to get a yard when you need it offensively.”

Harbaugh assured that he and his staff are addressing both fronts and “pressing on.” He said the players continue to work because improving means something to them and they, he said, try to get this figured out.

Upshaw said defensive coordinator Don Brown’s message has been simple.

“Going into the beginning of the game, regardless of the outcome, Michigan’s gonna keep fighting,” Upshaw said. “Not that he didn’t have faith in us. I’m saying, we’re just gonna keep fighting regardless, win or lose. I think he’s proud of us. We’ve been put in some situations this year it’s not easy as a defense. The message is keep fighting.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis