Brown: Michigan's swarming defense has 'got a lot left'
Ann Arbor — The season is young, and the defensive playbook has been opened just a small amount.
Doesn't that seem startling?
But there’s still plenty to come from Michigan’s defense, which ranks fifth in the nation in total defense, holding teams to 208 yards a game. The Wolverines are ninth against the run (82.3 yards) and 12th in pass defense (125.7).
Eighth-ranked Michigan (3-0) is opening its Big Ten season on Saturday at Purdue.
“We’ve got a lot left,” defensive coordinator Don Brown said Wednesday before practice. “We played a lot of three-down in the first week (against Florida) and, you know, when you break something out of the box and it’s working well, well, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist, right? ‘Hey, that’s working pretty good, let’s keep doing it.’
“We were a little more diversified in Week 2 (against Cincinnati) and Week 3 (against Air Force). The whole element was, put three big guys up there to stop the fullback, which is a piece that goes completely unnoticed in that game. They always hand the ball to the fullback and the guy ends up gashing you for, like, 40. Never happened. Those three guys up front did an outstanding job and the backers, then you’re dealing with the quarterback. And the one thing we did do is force him to run the ball a bunch. If you look at his carries as opposed to the pitch-back’s carries, we said, ‘Hey, come on. Try to beat us.’ Some of the interesting elements inside that game plan.”
Sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary has 2.5 tackles for loss, including a sack. He also has a forced fumble. Gary assured this week that Brown’s defense has much more to show.
Michigan’s defense is ranked second nationally with three touchdowns — two interception returns and a fumble recovery — and also a safety. The Wolverines have allowed only 30 points on three touchdowns and three field goals.
“We (haven’t) really started to open it up yet,” Gary said this week. “That’s the scary but the most fun part. We haven’t started opening up our defense yet. You’re going to see. A lot of our defense y’all haven’t seen, a lot of guys y’all haven’t seen. It’s going to be great once everything starts clicking how it’s supposed to click.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the season opener against Florida this was the fastest defense he has seen since he’s been coaching at Michigan.
Brown, after facing what he called three “different unique challenges” to start the season, agrees the speed is there on defense.
“The piece that’s really stuck out to me through the first three games is we can run, now,” Brown said. “We’re pretty fast, and we get off blocks and run to the football as well as any group I’ve been around. That’s kind of a good thing. Forget all the scheme and all that nonsense.
“It’s when guys can get off blocks and run to the football and one of the things that doesn’t go unnoticed from my perspective, I think we’ve tackled really, really well. Sometimes early in the year that hasn’t been the case, but it has been the case for us the first three weeks.”
Purdue is 2-1 under first-year coach Jeff Brohm. They’re coming off a dismantling of Missouri and host Michigan for Homecoming. It is close to being a sellout.
“Kind of back to what we’re used to,” Brown said of the Boilermakers’ offense. “They’re a spread offense, (but) they look fairly balanced to me. They’re running the ball pretty good. They’re doing running backs by committee. They know what they’re doing up front in terms of the blocks and the concepts that they’re trying to run.
“Couple that with, they’re gimmick crazy. Obviously, that’s gotten our attention and our discipline, and they throw the ball very well, which is his history. They’ve played extremely well here early in the season.”
While preparing for Air Force’s triple-option consumed Brown, he’s very much focused on what kind of tricks Brohm might have for Michigan.
“Reverse, double-reverse pass, flea flicker, you know, give the ball to the back, flip it back see if you’re being disciplined down the field. They got it all,” Brown said. “If there’s a trick play out there, I don’t think coach has seen a trick play he doesn’t like. They’ve actually rolled out and thrown the ball back to the offensive tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Keeps your attention, that’s for sure. And really good for us, because we have to stay disciplined in our keys and our reads.
“Now we’re back to, rush ‘em on third down, play balanced defense on first and second down. Be ready for the screen game, be ready for gimmicks. It’s kind of back to normal football. Those service academies can wear you out. And now it doesn’t wear you out just for that game, it wears you out for the next one. It was nice to see us, we were all on our feet and practicing yesterday.”
And certainly turning to some new pages in the defensive playbook.