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Five Things We Learned: Indiana

Todd Needle/Daily
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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 20, 2013

1. The secondary has significant holes.

For six weeks, Michigan’s defense had bailed it out time and again. It made a goal-line stand against Akron, stifled Connecticut despite turnovers and stopped Minnesota.

The defense was successful largely because the secondary prevented big plays, even if it did so by playing loose and allowing easy underneath routes. But that fell apart against Penn State in the fourth quarter, when the Nittany Lions went 80 yards in less than 30 seconds to tie the game.

That was nothing compared to this week against Indiana. The Hoosiers passed for 410 yards on 43 passes, an average of 9.5 per attempt. The secondary was torched for four touchdowns.

The defense was caught out of position, but other times, the secondary simply got outplayed. On Indiana’s first and second passing touchdowns, the Hoosiers’ quick tempo led to breakdowns in the secondary. And on the final passing touchdown, redshirt sophomore Blake Countess lost his man on the goal line, leading to an easy score.

Indiana’s longest play of the game, though, came when the secondary was in the correct alignment. Freshman cornerback Channing Stribling had positioning on Indiana receiver Kofi Hughes, but Hughes jumped over Stribling to steal the ball away. Poor tackling after the catch allowed the 67-yard touchdown. Earlier, junior cornerback Raymon Taylor dropped an easy pick six.

The game was Michigan’s worst defensive performance of the year — and possibly of defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s tenure. Through seven games, the Wolverines have defended more passes than all but 11 FBS teams. More than halfway through the season, that’s not a fluke — that’s the opponents looking to take advantage of a vulnerability.

2. Tempo can burn the Michigan defense.

During the week, Hoke said he wouldn’t plan anything different in practice to adjust for Indiana’s up-tempo offense. Michigan’s practices, he said, are naturally speedy. That would be preparation enough.

The Hoosiers, though, caused confusion by hurrying to the line. On multiple occasions, they scored touchdowns as the defense struggled to communicate the call.

On Indiana’s second possession, it took just 10 seconds from a first-down play to the next snap. Taylor, Hoke said, was trying to get the call from fifth-year senior safety Thomas Gordon. Meanwhile, wide receiver Cody Latimer streaked past Taylor. The safety help Taylor believed would be there never came. The play went for 59 yards and a touchdown.

Later, after Taylor dropped the interception, Indiana hurried to the line. Again, an Indiana receiver was able to get over the top of the secondary for a touchdown.

Up-tempo offenses also caused issues on the defensive line. Mattison likes to rotate linemen constantly. That’s difficult when the offense runs the hurry-up.

If there is one other team in the Big Ten capable of cycling plays as fast as Indiana, it’s Ohio State. Michigan will have to be more prepared for it in The Game.

3. Borges has shown a willingness to commit to the spread.

In an ideal world for Michigan coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges, the Wolverines’ offense would likely look much different from the one that put up 63 points on Indiana Saturday. Not that anyone is arguing with the results.

Hoke and Borges came to Ann Arbor with the promise of a traditional power running game. Some pictured the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offenses of the Big Ten’s past, but Borges has always shown more nuance than that. Still, big, road-grading linemen would abound. The inside running game would flourish.

Well, the inside running game hasn’t flourished. The road-grading linemen, at least on the interior, haven’t flattened much of anything. So against on Indiana, Borges committed to the spread, and the offense exploded for 751 yards of total offense. Finally, the running game broke out. Fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for 151 yards, his highest total in his last 20 games.

Now, Michigan must decide what kind of team it wants to be. Hoke said the opposing defense dictates how much spread Borges will use. Indiana, they felt, was more vulnerable to the spread.

Michigan has had more success in those formations. But the vision for the program is the downhill, under-center running game.

“That’s what we want to do,” said fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan.