Aria Gerson: Michigan’s defense deserved better

Wednesday, January 1, 2020 - 5:57pm

Sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone said the defense gave up too many explosive plays in its 35-16 loss to Alabama.

Sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone said the defense gave up too many explosive plays in its 35-16 loss to Alabama. Buy this photo
Alexis Rankin/Daily

ORLANDO, Fla. — Cameron McGrone mentioned the big plays first, taking the blame for his unit without explicitly saying it.

Michigan gave up too many, he said, and that was the key. McGrone wasn’t wrong — the defense did give up six plays of 20 or more yards — but Alabama will do that to you. Loaded with a set of skill-position players just as good as Ohio State’s, if not better, Alabama clearly had more speed, more athleticism. The Crimson Tide won, 35-16, in the Citrus Bowl on Wednesday in part because of that.

And yet, the defense did what it could. Any realistic gameplan against Alabama was going to include winning in the 30s or 40s. The Crimson Tide’s 35 points tied a season low, and they might not have even gotten that many if not for a fourth-quarter Shea Patterson interception. They were just 4-for-10 on third down. They were on the field for over nine fewer minutes than the Wolverines.

Despite the chunk plays, Michigan’s defense played as well against Alabama as any team has this season. There are plenty of examples of the Wolverines going up against an opponent like this and getting their pants pulled down — look no further than the Buckeyes for proof.

This wasn’t that. But it still wasn’t enough.

“The defense played lights out, so it’s a tough one,” said senior quarterback Shea Patterson. He knew as well as anyone what had happened: the defense did as well as you could realistically expect, but the offense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain.

After Crimson Tide receiver Jerry Jeudy torched the Wolverines for an opening 85-yard touchdown, one where safety Dax Hill wasn’t even close to keeping up, the Wolverines didn’t allow another score for 10 minutes. In the first half, Michigan was in scoring position four times to Alabama’s twice. But the Wolverines came away with just 16 points, leading by two at the half.

“That was huge as well,” Patterson said. “Any time you get the ball you want to put points on the board but when you get in the red zone, you gotta score touchdowns and that hurt us tonight.”

Asked about Don Brown’s feelings on all this, McGrone noted his defensive coordinator’s disappointment. This wasn’t the way any of them wanted the season to end, and for Brown in particular, it was just the latest in a string of missed opportunities to make a statement on the biggest stage.

Once again, Brown is going to head into an offseason of criticism, and in some ways, that’s justified. Brown’s lost big games in pretty much every way — overtime heartbreakers, being caught off guard early, falling apart in the fourth quarter. This time, his unit seemed prepared. It played well. It didn’t matter, because Michigan couldn’t get the win.

“We understand the challenge that’s in front of us,” Brown said Sunday. “We’re confident in our ability. You’re not going to beat them one way. You’re going to have to play a number of different coverages. And we’re confident in our ability to do that.”

The sad part for Brown is that he was right to be confident. That performance, against one of the best offenses in the country, one that no team could stop, should have been good enough to carry the Wolverines to a signature victory.

Somehow, once again, it wasn’t.

Michigan was shut out in the second half. None of Patterson’s deep shots landed. The receivers had a case of the drops. Patterson had a few costly sacks and an interception when he really needed to drive. And the final scoring margin made it seem like the Wolverines had given up too many points again.

“(Brown) was disappointed, all the time we put it and just as a defense, we know what we can do but we didn’t show it all today,” McGrone said. “So yeah, a little disappointment but that’s just what it is.”

McGrone knew his unit was capable of more, and said as much. That’s what all good competitors do. But the offense’s anemic performance required the defense to be perfect — and how could you expect it to be?

Alabama isn’t like Iowa or Wisconsin. This wasn’t ever going to be a traditional grind-it-out Big Ten-style game. The Crimson Tide were the third-ranked offense in the country, per SP+. Michigan was never going to win this game in the teens or 20s.

This was one of the defense’s best performances of the season against about as good of an opponent as you can get. The defense gave the offense every opportunity to seize a signature win. The offense couldn’t figure out how to take advantage.

But nobody’s going to remember how the defense did Wednesday, and they shouldn’t.

Because McGrone is right. It is what it is now — another bowl loss in a long string of them.

Gerson can be reached at amgerson@umich.edu or on Twitter @aria_gerson.