ORLANDO, Fla. — For eight weeks — from its September shutout of Rutgers to its November win over Indiana — Michigan’s defense gave up 12.6 points per game. For those eight weeks, it was one of the most dominating units in the country, spurring the Wolverines’ midseason rebirth.
Then, as it so often does, that same defense imploded against Ohio State, reduced to a lifeless imitation of itself as the Buckeyes scored 56 points on 577 total yards of offense.
The Wolverines are now a month removed from that afternoon. In the lead up to Wednesday’s Citrus Bowl against Alabama, their trademark confidence is back, with a proclaimed certainty that the Ohio State game is behind them.
“Yeah, we’ve moved on from that,” defensive coordinator Don Brown said Sunday. “I mean, obviously, you can’t let a significant loss like that linger. If you let it linger, then one loss leads to two losses. And I think our guys have done a good job of just putting that behind us and focusing on what’s in front of us.”
From the other side, the Crimson Tide, too, know what they’re up against. When Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was asked about Brown’s defense, the Ohio State game didn’t even rise to his lips.
Instead, his focus lay on the metrics, complimenting the challenge Michigan provides.
“I think our preparation has gone well leading up to a very tough challenge,” Sarkisian said in his opening statement, before the first question had even been asked. “Michigan is a very good defense, I think seventh-ranked defense in the country. So we know we’ve got a tall task ahead of us.”
Sarkisian’s offense isn’t an easy one to stop. Even amid their first two-loss regular season in nine years, the Crimson Tide were held below 40 points just twice. Never did they score less than 35.
But ask Sarkisian himself and he’ll tell you Michigan has the requisite tools.
“They do a really good job in their scheme of mixing it up, mixing up different zone coverages, zone covers that match up in the man coverages. So I think the challenge for the wideouts is their releases and how they’re running specific routes. And then also for the quarterback, because of the variations of coverages, the quarterback’s got to be on point of where his progression and his where his reads need to go.”
Among the rest of the Crimson Tide, that message resonates.
Sitting beside Sarkisian, wide receiver DeVonta Smith echoed his offensive coordinator’s impressions of Brown’s defense.
“Just how crafty they are,” Smith said. “They can switch it up. They can be physical. They can be patient and adjust in the things that they do. They switch it up, keep you guessing, and have you just wondering, like, ‘OK, what is he going to do this time?’ ”
None of this will necessarily mean anything come Wednesday. Complimenting your opponent is a rite of passage for any bowl lead up, even if you do have Alabama’s pedigree.
But compared to where their defense stood a month ago — bruised and tattered with its reputation tarnished — the Wolverines will take it.