Michigan 'D' rises to occasion on critical fourth downs

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan’s defense did bend against Michigan State last Saturday.

Michigan linebacker Mike McCray sacks Michigan State quarterback Tyler O'Connor in the second quarter.

But the second-ranked Wolverines (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) ultimately snapped a three-game losing streak to Michigan State, winning 32-23, last Saturday.

For the Wolverines’ top-ranked defense, it wasn’t the dominant performance most were expecting, but there was one line in the statistics they all pointed to — Michigan did not allow Michigan State to convert fourth-down attempts on three of four occasions.

“There’s no panic,” Michigan’s three-way player Jabrill Peppers said after the game. “We’re a poised bunch, a veteran bunch. The positive is the ‘W.’ We know what kind of defense we have when people are knocking on the door.”

And Michigan State knocked on that door several times.

Early in the second quarter, Michigan State reached the Michigan 38-yard line and was held for no gain on fourth-and-1.

After Wilton Speight was intercepted by Darian Hicks in the third quarter, Michigan stopped Michigan State at the Michigan 2-yard line. The Spartans ran LJ Scott four times, and he took a two-yard loss on fourth down.

In the final minutes of the game, Peppers sacked Brian Lewerke for an eight-yard loss to turn the ball over on downs.

“Their record doesn’t show how good those guys are,” Peppers said of Michigan State, which has lost six straight for the first time since 1982. “We knew we were going to get their best game. We get everyone’s best game. We bend but we don’t break. We know what kind of defense we have, we’ve just got to clean up the mistakes. We can’t continue to play like that down the stretch.”

Michigan: Five things we learned

The Wolverines have to clean up on penalties, as well. An early unsportsmanlike penalty by Delano Hill on a third-and-15 play that wound up seven yards short gave the Spartans life.

“It’s one thing for the coach to tell us and then it’s one thing for it to actually happen and you not respond in the heat of the moment, because they don’t like us and we don’t like them,” Peppers said. “Just got to be more savvy and smarter than that.”

Michigan entered the game ranked fourth nationally in rushing defense allowing an average of 96 yards a game, but the Spartans had 114 rushing yards in the first half and just 34 passing.

The 401 yards Michigan State gained in the game were the most the Michigan defense has allowed all season.

Michigan State’s 217 rushing yards were the second-most Michigan has allowed this season behind Central Florida’s 275 in the second week of the season. In the five previous games, Michigan opponents averaged 63.2 yards rushing.

In the aftermath, Peppers said it was a wake-up call the defense needed. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis, miffed by the performance of the defense, said having a game like that was not what he anticipated.

“We don’t want to have those type of lessons,” Lewis said. “If you can’t stay focused in the game, then that’s a big red flag in any game. We can’t do that. We got lucky, we definitely got lucky. We were definitely the more talented team and that’s how we won.”

The Wolverines held a 20-point lead early in the fourth quarter.

Michigan still No. 2 in AP college football poll

In their last two games against Rutgers and Illinois, the starters weren’t even playing in the fourth quarter.

“We just stopped being focused,” Lewis said. “I have no idea what it was. We stopped concentrating like we did. The third quarter was probably our best quarter.”

Michigan remains No. 1 in total defense, allowing an average of 231.3 yards, and first in passing yards allowed (120.1) and scoring (11.6), but the Wolverines fell from fourth nationally to 15th in rushing defense (111.1).

While Lewis didn’t want that kind of test, he said the defense learned something.

“Don’t take anyone lightly,” Lewis said. “Don’t expect anybody to lay down, because Michigan State didn’t. That’s exactly what we did. We took our foot off the pedal and we let them get the momentum. That shouldn’t happen.”

Peppers said it’s all about keeping that foot down.

“I feel like we got a little bit lax once we put a lot of points on the board and once they started chipping away slowly but surely, but you can’t get like that,” Peppers said. “You’ve got to keep the pressure on them always and that’s something with us, though. The coaches had a great game plan for us and putting us in spots we could excel but we can’t take our foot off the gas pedal.”

The Wolverines have four regular-season games remaining with trips to Iowa at night and Ohio State these final weeks. They play Maryland, coached by D.J. Durkin, the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator last year, on Saturday at Michigan Stadium.

Peppers said he is just glad the defense learned it must re-focus a bit.

“We definitely needed that as a defense,” Peppers said. “We definitely can’t go into Iowa playing like that. We can’t go into Maryland (next week) playing like that. We have some tough teams coming down the road.

“We needed this as a little wake-up call.”

Maryland at Michigan

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: ESPN/WWJ

Line: Michigan by 29.5

Records: Maryland 5-3 (2-3 Big Ten); No. 2 Michigan 8-0 (5-0)

Series: Michigan leads 4-1 (Last: 2015 — Michigan 28, (at) Maryland 0)