At first, it looked as if nothing had changed.
On Western Michigan’s first drive against the Michigan football team on Saturday, it had no trouble picking apart defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s “new-look” defense. On the first play, a receiver found himself open on a crossing route but dropped the open pass. Moments later, senior cornerback Gemon Green — the team’s strongest corner in 2020 — got beat over-the-top for a 28-yard gain. As the Wolverines continued to struggle in coverage, the Broncos easily marched down the field and quickly evened the score at seven.
But somewhere en route to Michigan’s 47-14 thumping of Western Michigan, those problems dissipated. As if spurred by the possibility that significant struggles could derail the entire season, the Wolverines’ defensive backs glued themselves to opposing wideouts and paralyzed the Broncos’ initially lively passing game. Those seven points on the first drive ended up as their only non-garbage-time points of the game.
“I thought (Macdonald) did a great job mixing the coverages,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Right before the second half, (he) started going to more of a two-high shell as we were stopping the run and playing more coverage, which made their quarterback hold the ball a little bit longer, and we were able to apply some pressure.”
Those adjustments made an immediate impact. After forfeiting 89 yards and 8-for-12 passing in the first quarter, Michigan held Western Michigan to just one completion for no gain on six attempts in the second quarter. In total, the Wolverines allowed 11 completions for 102 yards in the final three quarters.
Central to that improvement was junior Daxton Hill, who played mostly as a nickel corner after starting as a deep safety last season. Playing closer to the line of scrimmage, Hill was more regularly involved in the pass defense and used his athleticism not just to disrupt passes that went his way, but also to disguise coverages and confuse Broncos quarterback Kaleb Eleby. Even when he looked beat, Hill managed to make plays, such as late in the third quarter when he dove to break up a pass over the middle near midfield.
“That position makes a big difference for us in the back seven,” senior cornerback Vincent Gray said. “Because his disguises and what he does with his disguise plays a big role in the quarterback’s checks. … Whether he’s blitzing or whether he’s not blitzing, the coverage he’s playing or not playing, they’re pretty much looking at him to see what we’re in, so him moving around and giving him different looks is really good for us in the back seven.”
The defensive front, too, played a major role in Michigan’s improved pass defense. After struggling to get enough push early on, the Wolverines’ blitzers — led by senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and junior defensive lineman Mazi Smith — wore down the offensive line and put more pressure on Eleby as the game wore on. Ultimately, that effort was highlighted by a third quarter strip sack from Hutchinson.
There were, of course, still some shaky moments. On Western Michigan’s last drive of the first half, Gray found himself beat over the top by Broncos receiver Jaylen Hall. Hall ended up dropping the pass, but the play still demonstrated how, even when Michigan drops into zone, opposing offenses will find ways to get the one-on-one matchups they want. Regardless of the scheme, the cornerbacks still need to be able to run with receivers, and if they can’t, the problems of 2020 will persist.
Still, the Wolverines’ staff seems to recognize that. The willingness to adjust after those first quarter struggles marks a departure from the defenses of years past. A win over Western Michigan only says so much about the team’s overall improvement, but any remaining questions will almost certainly be answered next week against Washington.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Gray said. “We can improve a lot. We made a lot of mistakes that probably will go unnoticed.”
Added Hutchinson: “We haven’t done a damn thing.”