UM defensive coordinator Don Brown met the media this week in Ann Arbor. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown knows what it’s like to be at or near the top of the national defensive rankings and that’s nice and all, but really, that’s not entirely the Wolverines’ goal.
Michigan is ranked No. 15 and is 4-1, 2-0 Big Ten as it prepares to face Maryland at home on Saturday. The Wolverines are now ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense, fourth against the pass, seventh in rush defense and 11th in scoring.
“I’ve been around that four years in a row, around that at some point in time,” said Brown, in his third season at Michigan — the previous year he guided the No. 1 defense at Boston College. “You know what matters? It doesn’t matter at the end of the day. It matters at the end when you sit down and go, ‘All right, what do you got to fix?’”
It’s all about fixing things in game and during the pregame week of preparation. Sure, the rankings are nice, but there are always flaws.
Michigan is one of the most penalized teams in the country, including several costly defensive calls that have destroyed third-down situations and kept alive drives for their opponents.
“We’re not perfect. We’re not,” Brown said. “Obviously, the penalty issue — I stand up there every week and we talk about it and we address it and we’re going through it, and sometimes you’ve just got to shut up and play. So that’s my new tack. I’m not even going to talk about it.
“That’s got to go away. That right there, if you want to be critical, that’s the piece to be critical on and that’s the piece to be critical of me, OK? We’ve got to do a better job with technique and fundamentals. We were called for three, defensive holding, a PI (pass interference) in the end zone and the one on Rashan (Gary) where he hits the guy (upper left chest), those are the three. Unfortunately for us, two of them are in the scoring-drive deal. That’s got to go away.”
If fans think coaches and players don’t hear or read criticisms, they’re wrong. Cornerback David Long felt the need to take to Twitter last Sunday morning to defend the man coverage of the defensive backs, and Brown admitted Wednesday he’s a “little touchy” about criticism of how Michigan gave up yards early to the slant at Northwestern.
UM defensive coordinator Don Brown on the first quarter at Notre Dame Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Michigan got down quickly, 17-0, to the Wildcats. But Michigan’s defense shut them down from the second quarter on and was particularly dominant in the second half, shutting them out in a 20-17 victory.
“Let’s talk about that for a second, OK?” Brown said, answering a question about defending the slant. “They were 3-for-5 in the first half for 23 yards. They were 2-for-4 in the second half for 22. I’m not going to say a whole lot about it.”
But Brown had plenty to say. And along the way he praised Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson for zeroing in on his throws into tight windows.
“Schematically, one thing, I think Thorson is really good,” Brown said. “I will bet he’s one of the top-25 throwers probably in the history of the Big Ten. I’m not going to stand here and say, ‘Geez, we did a great job,’ but … in the second half we kind of tweaked it a little bit and delivered a couple shots there to the slant. So it is what it is.
“But now let’s understand something. We’re not giving up verticals to the No. 2 guy. That’s priority No. 1. It’s like some quarters teams that will play off and give you this, well, we’re not going to do that. Everything has a strength, and everything has a weakness. You’ve just got to try to do the best you can to play to kind of play the cat-and-mouse game to cover them up the best you can. They were 5-for-9 for 44 yards in the slant game and, let’s see, they had 202 (yards) for the day. I’ll call that an ‘A’ any time.”
Brown understands that with the lofty rankings the defense achieves and the consistency he has produced coaching the group the last few years, that expectations become higher. He understands why there are criticisms and negativity, but he chooses the half-full approach.
“One thing that kind of gets lost with the expectations and some of the things that are kind of important is, you end up in a dogfight and you wake up and you’re down 17-0 on the road,” he said. “You can look at that and say, ‘All right, that’s not a good thing,’ and it’s not. To watch our guys fight their way out of that and record the second biggest turnaround in Michigan history on the road, we’re missing the boat here, that’s all I’m saying. Everything is always tilted that way — what about, second biggest turnaround on the road? It’s pretty good, right? Am I right or am I delusional?”
What Brown appreciates is his defense's no-quit approach. Even after spotting Notre Dame a 14-0 lead, the Michigan defense came back in the second half and gave the offense a chance to win at the end.
“A year ago, if the wheels came off, the wheels were off,” he said. “This group has the ability, wheels off, wheels back on. That’s a sign of the maturity of this group and the quality and character our guys have. There’s no doubt about that.
“I never apologize for my guys’ effort. There’s a lot to feel good about where we’re sitting. Obviously would love the Notre Dame first half back, but it is what it is. When you look back over a college football season, you talk about games, sometimes it’s about, what about the first quarter? If you look at the first quarter of Notre Dame and the first quarter of Northwestern and maybe the third quarter of SMU, it’s not about games, it’s about quarters. That’s how precious playing at a high level is. That’s where I’m stuck right now. It’s little phases of the game.”
Brown said it has been difficult to erase the early portion of the Notre Dame game from his mind.
“Unfortunately, like two mornings ago, you wake up and go, ‘Ah, jeez, why did we play so poorly in that first quarter? Why?’” Brown said. “You’re trying to put a finger on it, and I really don’t have an answer. You try to move on. What changes can we make? We’re talking about it all the time, like, ‘(How) can our pregame approach be different that could help us come out of the tunnel ready to go?’ We’re working on it.
“That’s really all we’re searching for is to try to find a way to win the football game at the end of the day and move on to the next week. Sometimes it’s a relief and sometimes it’s a joy.”
Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary’s availability for the Maryland game is undetermined.
Gary appeared to suffer an injury to his right shoulder in the Northwestern game last Saturday. He also seemed to have an issue with it the previous game against Nebraska.
“Day to day, so we’ll see,” Brown said Wednesday. “Not really sure right now. We’ll see if (the medical trainers) can put him back together for the weekend.”
Maryland at Michigan
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
TV/radio: ABC/950 AM
Records: Maryland 4-1, 1-1 Big Ten; Michigan 4-1, 2-0
Line: Michigan by 17