On the brink of disastrous loss, Michigan rescued by defensive adjustments
Late Saturday night in Piscataway, Jim Harbaugh stood in an all-too-familiar pose. Hands on his hips, eyes glued forward. It’s the expression he’s worn for the past four weeks, through a trio of seat-heating losses. But as the clock crept toward midnight, Saturday teetered on the unimaginable.
This was Piscataway, this was Rutgers and this was Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan. It’s a matchup that, four long years ago, produced a 78-0 demolition. On Saturday, there was none of that domination.
With 27 seconds left, Rutgers lined up for a two-point conversion, three yards from forcing overtime. Harbaugh summoned a timeout, conversing with defensive coordinator Don Brown in an attempt to scheme up a game-winning stop.
Despite getting three tacklers to the Scarlet Knights’ Noah Vedral on a quarterback draw, Brown’s defense couldn’t do its part. On the Wolverines’ sideline, Harbaugh raised his hands in frustration. A step behind him, Brown dropped his shoulders, wearing the look of a coordinator whose defense had just allowed a four-minute, 40-second, 75-yard touchdown drive.
For the fourth consecutive week, Michigan was without answers. Then, suddenly, it found just enough to squeak out a 48-42, triple-overtime win.
“We were really locked in especially in overtime,” senior linebacker Josh Ross said. “And we got the job done.”
To do that, Michigan had to reflect on how it got to overtime in the first place.
Three times on Rutgers’ final drive, the Wolverines forced third-and-longs. Once — with 34 seconds left — the game hung on the balance of a fourth-and-9.
Yet every time, the Scarlet Knights converted. First, on the two third downs, there were a pair of slant routes.
“The slant route,” Harbaugh said, when asked what enabled the drive. “They went to the slant route (two) times to get a first down.”
On third-and-8 from the Michigan 31-yard line, it was Shameen Jones beating sophomore safety Daxton Hill. Moments later, it was Bo Melton beating junior cornerback Gemon Green on third-and-11 from the 23.
The personnel didn’t matter because Brown’s defense was overmatched. Unless you have elite talent at defensive back, his trademarks — exotic, heavy blitz packages in man-to-man defense — are easily undone by slant routes. This year, Brown doesn’t have that luxury.
So on fourth down from the 11-yard line, he dropped eight players into coverage, preventing a quick completion. “We did (adjust),” Harbaugh said. “Made a couple drop eight calls.”
But after evading a bull rush from sophomore defensive tackle Chris Hinton, Vedral sensed his time in the pocket and waited for receiver Aron Cruickshank to find an opening over the middle.
“It was a blown play on the last couple plays before regulation ended,” Ross said.
With overtime looming, Harbaugh and Brown went back to the drawing board. Sticking with heavy blitzing and zone defense didn’t work. Michigan simply doesn’t have the personnel for that. Exclusively rushing three didn’t work, because Vedral could see it coming.
So throughout overtime, the Wolverines mixed in heavy blitzes with three-man rushes, adding just enough personnel rotation to stay fresh. They overloaded the sidelines, preventing the bubble screens that Rutgers had used so effectively throughout the night.
And when the Scarlet Knights picked up their one big play of overtime on a rollout throwback, Michigan adjusted to that, too. In the end, its defense held Rutgers to seven points on three overtime possessions.
“We got good at it,” Ross said. “When they did the double pass later in overtime, we were on it. We did what we were supposed to do.”
Two snaps later, the Wolverines faced the type of play that had doomed them deep in the fourth quarter: Fourth-and-9 from the 24-yard line, up six, with the game on the line.
This time, Brown sold a blitz, lining five defenders up on the line of scrimmage, before dropping linebackers Ben VanSumeren and Josh Ross into coverage to clog the middle of the field. Vedral, despite a lack of pressure, was left with no choice but to toss up a prayer.
Thirty yards away, the game-sealing interception fell into Hill’s arms.
“Came up with the big stop when we needed it,” Harbaugh said. “No question about it.”
Most of all, when he and Brown needed it.