- Patrick Barron/Daily
By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 21, 2013
When Michigan coach Brady Hoke was asked how this bye week differed from the one earlier this year, he addressed it literally. This week, he said during his Monday press conference, the players have Tuesday’s practice off.
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So mark that down as one difference. What he didn’t address was the complete 180-degree turn his team has taken since the bye week a month ago. In these schizophrenic, lurching first seven games of the season, the offense and defense have switched places.
Now, the defense appears vulnerable, while the offense has carried the team. Previously, after two miserable games against Akron and Connecticut, the offense was reeling and the defense had provided the heroics.
The Michigan football team now enters its toughest stretch of the year — with games, in consecutive weeks, against Michigan State on the road; Nebraska; Northwestern and Iowa away; and Ohio State — with a much different set of issues than even one week ago. Most pressing is the defense’s sudden propensity to allow big plays.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has played his secondary loose to prevent passes over the top. Against Indiana on Saturday, though, the defense allowed five plays of 20 yards or more.
Now, Michigan’s once-reliable, bend-but-don’t-break approach has yielded 25 plays of 20 yards or more, good for 89th in the nation. The Wolverines also rank 82nd out of 125 FBS teams with six 40-plus-yard plays and 112th with 75 plays of 10 yards or more.
“I know that from a schematic standpoint, I don’t think there’s anything we would want to do differently. From an execution standpoint, yeah,” Hoke said. “You’ve got to make those plays when you have opportunities there.”
Hoke mentioned that on four different occasions, a Michigan defender put a hand on the ball but failed to make a play. On a 67-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, for instance, freshman cornerback Channing Stribling was in position to defend the pass, but the receiver muscled the ball away.
Meanwhile, safety help over the top has been inconsistent, which has allowed big gains to turn into six points. After Stribling couldn’t defend the pass, fifth-year senior safety Thomas Gordon took a poor angle and missed the tackle. On a 59-yard score, sophomore safety Raymon Taylor appeared to expect safety help from Gordon that never came.
“That’s something that you think you don’t have to coach a whole lot, but you do and you’ve got to put them in situations so they’ll have that confidence,” Hoke said, referring to misplaying the ball and the safety play. “You do it during the week, but we have to emphasize it a little more, and we have to tackle a little more.”
O-LINE OK?: The situation at offensive line remains murky, though Saturday provided some encouraging progress. Against the Hoosiers, redshirt freshman Erik Magnuson and redshirt junior Joey Burzynski got the start at guard, though Burzynski missed much of the game with an injury.
After Burzynski was knocked out, an array of players got a chance at guard. Redshirt sophomore Chris Bryant and redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis, who have each started games, saw time. But mostly, it was true freshman Kyle Bosch seeing action.
“I think the guards that played did a nice job,” Hoke said. “Was it perfect? No. But I think all three of them did a nice job.”
The line has been a constantly shifting unit for much of the year. Against Indiana, the running game looked much improved — the Wolverines picked up 248 yards on the ground. It’s difficult to gauge how much of that was a credit to improved blocking and how much was a shift into the spread for much of the game.
Plus, Indiana’s defensive line has had its own struggles. Still, any production from the running game is an improvement over week’s past.
“Obviously the big test in two weeks, you’re playing one of the top five defenses in the country and in our conference in all the categories,” Hoke said of Michigan State. “We’ve got a lot of work to do before then.”
Hoke indicated the line could remain in flux.