Ethan Wolfe: Two units and two perspectives

Sunday, September 16, 2018 - 5:19pm

Fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich and Michigan's defense were not as dominant as expected Saturday.

Fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich and Michigan's defense were not as dominant as expected Saturday. Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

As Donovan Peoples-Jones surveys the media during postgame interviews, he compliments his quarterback for sparking his collegiate breakthrough performance.

Peoples-Jones found the end zone three times in Michigan’s 45-20 victory over SMU, so a little praise was warranted. That very quarterback, junior Shea Patterson, sits beside the wide receiver on stage, squeezing his shoulder after the shoutout.

“I feel like we’ve been doing a heck of a better job,” Peoples-Jones says of the offense. “Today showed improvement, but we’ve gotta keep working hard.”

It is a snapshot of a quarterback-wide receiver duo that has been there, done that in the past. They see the offense is clicking — it has outscored last season’s high of 36 points in consecutive games.

Shortly after, Chase Winovich walks into the room with his chest puffed but an expression of nonchalance. The fifth-year senior defensive end is asked if he thinks the defense is as dominant as advertised.

“I feel like you’re pigeonholing me into a response,” Winovich says through a grin.

The answer to the question, for those with eyes and a television, was a resounding “no.” Allowing 20 points — 15.7 per game on average — wouldn’t qualify as dominant, though it’s a far cry from a concern.

But giving up 166 yards and two touchdowns to the Mustangs’ James Proche is. Seven defensive penalties — 13 in total — are. Especially when you are expected to be a top-five defense in the country.

“I think we played pretty decent and we could do a lot better,” said junior safety Josh Metellus, who recorded a pivotal pick-six on Saturday. “We strive on being the best defense in the nation.

“Today, we didn’t really look like it.”

The dichotomy between the offensive excitement and defensive indifference is uncharacteristic, but unsurprising. The stalwart defense believes it’s trending in the wrong direction, while the identity-seeking offense believes the opposite. Both could be true, but that doesn’t guarantee the same results. Problems with penalties and giving up long plays — those plaguing the Wolverines against SMU — have slowly been injected into their character.

Michigan has committed 27 penalties through three games — 113th in the country. A staggering 21 have come on defense, 12 of which have resulted in first downs. Call it early season rust, but that time is evaporating. Call it a byproduct of Don Brown’s aggressive defense — one that’s ranked in the top five nationally the past three seasons — but you must question if it’s worth it, especially with the toughest games ahead.

“How we see ourselves is how we performed in the most recent game, and I felt like we made a lot of mistakes, especially with penalties,” Winovich said. “… That was not ideal, especially when you can’t be extending drives. I feel like SMU wasn’t able to take advantage of those as other teams down the road will.”

Against Western Michigan on Sept. 8, penalties and mental lapses were excusable — three of six defensive flags came in garbage time after all. You’d be hard-pressed to find a comment more boilerplate than “we need to improve next week.”

Now, the offense and defense combined for another blowout against the Mustangs, but with incongruent evaluations of their respective units. Redshirt junior tight end Zach Gentry thought the offense was “getting better every week” with “a lot more to prove.”

The forthright Winovich was hardly as anticipative.

“It seemed like we were a lot more confident in the way the game went last week, in terms of just positivity,” Winovich said, “And just, I don’t know — I don’t want to say that we were like, ‘Gee, oh my god, this is amazing.’ But we were definitely more optimistic, just the way things had gone.

“... This week, it just felt like we had a lot mistakes and stuff that we need to address. And that was kind of the attitude. Especially in our minds, now shifted to Nebraska, Big Ten play. There’s both of those coming into play. We’re not getting too high on this win.”

The sentiment comes as a reckoning for the Wolverines as the Big Ten slate commences. The rose-colored glasses are off on Michigan’s strongest unit, impermeable to Jim Harbaugh’s coachspeak.

The Wolverines didn’t look like a team that took a uniform step forward yesterday. But it just depends who you believe, the offense or the defense.