Defense learns from first-quarter test

Monday, September 19, 2016 - 2:38pm

Mike McCray, who had five tackles and a half-sack against Colorado, thought Michigan’s defense responded well to early mistakes.

Mike McCray, who had five tackles and a half-sack against Colorado, thought Michigan’s defense responded well to early mistakes. Buy this photo
Grant Hardy/Daily

 

Just after the No. 4 Michigan football team started to gain momentum off a blocked punt-turned-touchdown to draw within a score of Colorado, redshirt junior linebacker Mike McCray jumped offside on the Buffaloes’ ensuing drive.

The penalty gave Colorado the first down it needed, and just under four minutes later, an efficient 67-yard, 10-play drive gave the Buffaloes a 21-7 lead to close out the first quarter.

In the season opener against Hawaii, McCray didn’t have any such miscues. In his first game after missing all of 2015 due to injury, he recorded nine tackles, 3.5 for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble — garnering Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. Though Saturday’s game against Colorado wasn’t perfect, McCray isn’t focused too much on his misstep.

“I don’t think I’m struggling — I just think I’m just out there trying to play hard and have fun,” McCray said Monday. “I don’t think about my mistakes during the game, because mistakes are going to happen, so we gotta keep playing and moving on to help the team.”

The Wolverines ultimately fought back to victory, and so did McCray, who collected five tackles and half a sack. After allowing three touchdowns, Michigan scored 17 unanswered points to take its first lead of the game.

McCray said that coming out of halftime, the message was to be patient. As a linebacker dealing with plenty of play-action passes, he wanted to stop the running game first, which hurt the team. But after halftime, he felt like the linebackers adjusted well.

Going into the season, the linebackers heard a lot about how they would be the most inexperienced unit on Michigan’s defense. McCray and senior Ben Gedeon were the only two experienced linebackers to return in 2016, not counting redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers, who recently made the switch to the position. Though the rawness showed on Saturday, the unit also displayed its ability to bounce back.

“We didn’t get a lot of respect coming into the year, and I feel like we still don’t have the respect that we deserve,” McCray said. “I feel like we’re still in the process of getting that respect, but as a whole, I feel like we’ve gotten a lot better since spring ball.”

After the first-quarter ambush, defensive coordinator Don Brown, who is known for being fiery and spirited, managed to calm down not just the linebackers, but all of his players.

“He was real level-headed — he wasn’t being rowdy or anything,” McCray said. “He was just keeping us upbeat and confident, getting (us) ready to go back out there. I feel like that helped us a lot after the first quarter. It settled us down. ‘We got this.’ I feel like we proved ourselves after facing adversity.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh also likes to watch the defensive fight, and said Monday that he likes to watch the players, even when he should be planning the next series.

The support from the head coach instills necessary confidence in players like McCray.

“I feel like (Harbaugh) trusts the defense a lot and talks about us in practice all the time, and I feel like he knows what we’re capable of,” McCray said. “I think he just wants to see us go out there and compete and have fun.”

The first-quarter test against Colorado proved to be an important learning moment for McCray and the rest of the defense. Now, heading into Michigan’s first conference matchup of the season, it has the experience it needs to deal with more efficient offenses.

“We weren’t thinking as much as we were in the first quarter,” McCray said. “I feel like we were thinking a lot — thinking too much, really — and I feel like we calmed down. We consider ourselves one of the best defenses in the country, and we wanted to go out and prove that.”