- Todd Needle/Daily
By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 20, 2013
1. The secondary has significant holes.
For six weeks, Michigan’s defense had bailed it out time and again. It made a goal-line stand against Akron, stifled Connecticut despite turnovers and stopped Minnesota.
The defense was successful largely because the secondary prevented big plays, even if it did so by playing loose and allowing easy underneath routes. But that fell apart against Penn State in the fourth quarter, when the Nittany Lions went 80 yards in less than 30 seconds to tie the game.
That was nothing compared to this week against Indiana. The Hoosiers passed for 410 yards on 43 passes, an average of 9.5 per attempt. The secondary was torched for four touchdowns.
The defense was caught out of position, but other times, the secondary simply got outplayed. On Indiana’s first and second passing touchdowns, the Hoosiers’ quick tempo led to breakdowns in the secondary. And on the final passing touchdown, redshirt sophomore Blake Countess lost his man on the goal line, leading to an easy score.
Indiana’s longest play of the game, though, came when the secondary was in the correct alignment. Freshman cornerback Channing Stribling had positioning on Indiana receiver Kofi Hughes, but Hughes jumped over Stribling to steal the ball away. Poor tackling after the catch allowed the 67-yard touchdown. Earlier, junior cornerback Raymon Taylor dropped an easy pick six.
The game was Michigan’s worst defensive performance of the year — and possibly of defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s tenure. Through seven games, the Wolverines have defended more passes than all but 11 FBS teams. More than halfway through the season, that’s not a fluke — that’s the opponents looking to take advantage of a vulnerability.
2. Tempo can burn the Michigan defense.
During the week, Hoke said he wouldn’t plan anything different in practice to adjust for Indiana’s up-tempo offense. Michigan’s practices, he said, are naturally speedy. That would be preparation enough.
The Hoosiers, though, caused confusion by hurrying to the line. On multiple occasions, they scored touchdowns as the defense struggled to communicate the call.
On Indiana’s second possession, it took just 10 seconds from a first-down play to the next snap. Taylor, Hoke said, was trying to get the call from fifth-year senior safety Thomas Gordon. Meanwhile, wide receiver Cody Latimer streaked past Taylor. The safety help Taylor believed would be there never came. The play went for 59 yards and a touchdown.
Later, after Taylor dropped the interception, Indiana hurried to the line. Again, an Indiana receiver was able to get over the top of the secondary for a touchdown.
Up-tempo offenses also caused issues on the defensive line. Mattison likes to rotate linemen constantly. That’s difficult when the offense runs the hurry-up.
If there is one other team in the Big Ten capable of cycling plays as fast as Indiana, it’s Ohio State. Michigan will have to be more prepared for it in The Game.
3. Borges has shown a willingness to commit to the spread.
In an ideal world for Michigan coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges, the Wolverines’ offense would likely look much different from the one that put up 63 points on Indiana Saturday. Not that anyone is arguing with the results.
Hoke and Borges came to Ann Arbor with the promise of a traditional power running game. Some pictured the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offenses of the Big Ten’s past, but Borges has always shown more nuance than that. Still, big, road-grading linemen would abound. The inside running game would flourish.
Well, the inside running game hasn’t flourished. The road-grading linemen, at least on the interior, haven’t flattened much of anything. So against on Indiana, Borges committed to the spread, and the offense exploded for 751 yards of total offense. Finally, the running game broke out. Fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for 151 yards, his highest total in his last 20 games.
Now, Michigan must decide what kind of team it wants to be. Hoke said the opposing defense dictates how much spread Borges will use. Indiana, they felt, was more vulnerable to the spread.
Michigan has had more success in those formations. But the vision for the program is the downhill, under-center running game.
“That’s what we want to do,” said fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan. “That’s the kind of team we want to be.”
But in year three under Hoke, Michigan is still in limbo, a downhill running team without all the parts necessary to run downhill. As it becomes increasingly clear that’s not the best option, will they fully commit? And then what, exactly, is the identity of Team 134?
“That’s a great question,” Hoke said. “And so good that I don’t know if I can answer that.”
4. Defenses can contain Jeremy Gallon or Devin Funchess. But not both.
By the second half, when fifth-year senior receiver Jeremy Gallon already had 170 yards, it was inconceivable that he had not drawn a double team. He exploded for 50 more yards, to move his total to 220. Then another 70 yards made it 290. Then 53 yards on the next drive for 343.
Still, Gallon remained in single coverage.
His 369 total yards was an unprecedented individual accomplishment in Big Ten play. But Gallon also has sophomore tight end Devin Funchess to thank.
By now, Funchess is a tight end in name only. Most of the game, he was split out wide on the same side as Gallon. The formation creates a dilemma for defenses.
Leave Funchess in single coverage, and he can beat smaller cornerbacks with his size. Yet leaving Gallon one-on-one proved worse for Indiana.
In Funchess’s first two games split out wide, defenses still keyed on Gallon, and they mostly kept him in check. In two games against Minnesota and Penn State, Gallon totaled nine receptions for 134 yards and one touchdown. Comparatively, that’s pedestrian. Funchess, meanwhile, had 11 receptions for 263 yards and 3 scores.
Indiana decided to give more attention to Funchess. It did limit his production, and he finished with four receptions for 84 yards. But Gallon made the Hoosiers pay over and over again.
Remember, also, that redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner’s rebound after a bad string of turnovers coincided with Funchess’s move to receiver. Gardner has taken better care of the ball. But having another weapon didn’t hurt.
“It’s hard to combination two of them,” Hoke said. “And if you do, then the other guy on the other side is by himself. I think there’s no doubt that having Devin Funchess out there in the open space helps.”
5. Bold Prediction: The Legends Division winner will have two losses, but there will be no outright division champion.
Northwestern looked most promising to start conference play, but the Wildcats lost their first three Big Ten games. Write them off, but don’t be surprised if they play spoiler in the Legends Division.
Michigan also has a conference loss, and winning out is a tall task. Nebraska is unblemished in the conference but still must play Northwestern, Michigan State and Iowa and at Michigan and Penn State. Winning three of those five games isn’t too shabby.
Michigan State looks to be in the driver’s seat, with the best shot to finish with less than two losses. But the Spartans still have issues on offense, plus games against Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern. Can they win two of those three? Maybe. But in the weak Big Ten this year, don’t bank on it.