Last season, on a team full of weaknesses, Michigan’s secondary stood out as one of its most flawed units. It gave up 255.5 passing yards per game and was torched by every opponent it faced.
This season tells a different story. Though still not a strength in a unit that has game-changing athletes on the line, the secondary has composed itself and become an integral part of the defense — giving up just 196.3 yards per game through the air.
But despite the success, Ohio State presented the secondary with its biggest test yet, to answer the question of whether this change can compete with the best of the best. After the final whistle blew, the whole world knew the answer: yes.
The Buckeyes threw for 394 yards against Michigan’s secondary — the most it has surrendered all season — but never looked in danger of letting the game surpass them.
“That level of consistency, focus and intensity down after down to finish the play and stay in an on-top position and make plays, battling,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Even when Ohio State connected for a big play in the passing game, it often came despite excellent coverage. Take its first touchdown of the game: Garrett Wilson streaked down the sideline, Vincent Gray on his side. The senior corner ran in stride with the opposing receiver, surrendering just a yard of space for him. When Wilson reached up to grab C.J. Stroud’s pass, he had to do so through the arms of Gray and have the strength to hold on as Gray pressured him.
Near-perfect coverage was beaten by immense talent and skill. Then, of course, there was Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s catch around the body of junior defensive back D.J. Turner.
Yet even after what usually is a momentum-swinging play, the secondary held firm. After rushing to the line of scrimmage following that circus catch on third-and-19, Ohio State’s drive would slow down and milk more time off the clock. The Wolverines didn’t let the Buckeyes’ big plays discourage them.
“Also knowing what took place, whether good or bad, the previous play, to get back to that level of focus and intensity, I thought that was a tremendous job done by DJ Turner, Vince Gray, Brad Hawkins, Dax and the young guys,” Harbaugh said.
In 2020, a lack of experience plagued the secondary and led to serious errors. This year, those same corners have gained experience throughout the season. Even more impressive, the secondary has been able to rotate in its younger players, like sophomore R.J. Moten and freshman Rod Moore, without suffering any serious drop-offs in performance.
Moore tied the team lead in tackles on Saturday with nine, most of which came in open space. Those crucial tackles often also prevented players like Smith-Njigba, Wilson and Chris Olave from breaking out big plays after the catch.
“Rod Moore played really, really well and that reflected on the tape,” Harbaugh said.
Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale have overhauled the system put in place, creating a more dynamic and sophisticated defense. Melding that together with the talent that Michigan boasts has turned a weakness into a strength.
The secondary that walked off the field Saturday is far different from the one that began the season. It’s no longer dominated by one bright star in Dax Hill and instead has become a cohesive unit with few, if any, weak links.
The fact that its depth players can line up against Ohio State’s elite talent and hold their own is a testament to that.