Don Brown would like to make one thing clear.
When Penn State and its spread offense visit Michigan Stadium on Saturday, the Nittany Lions shouldn’t expect to have their way. Not in terms of formations, not in terms of pace, not if Brown has anything to say about it.
“You’ve got to understand, these spread teams, what they want you to do is they want you to line up in one of two looks,” Brown said. “That’s what they want, and that’s exactly what I’m not going to do, OK? So let’s get that straight. We’re going to be extremely multiple, we’re going to stay on the aggressive side and that’s how we’re going to go.
“… These guys want you to line up in quarters and a static front and kick your you-know-what! We’re not doing that! And if it is, it’ll be over my dead body!”
Those are strong words, but right now, Brown is speaking from a position of strength. He heads the nation’s No. 19 scoring defense and No. 24 total defense, and if you take out the big plays that have so far burned the Wolverines, those numbers are even more impressive.
Brown’s reputation as a tinkering blitz master has proven apt so far. His unit is tied for third in the country in tackles for loss and tied for 10th in sacks. This week, he is expected to get an All-American back in senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis, and if Lewis does indeed return from a nagging injury that has kept him out all season, he could be a key boost to the man coverage Brown’s corners play.
Pro Football Focus’ college football tweeted Wednesday that the Wolverines’ current corners, senior Channing Stribling and fifth-year senior Jeremy Clark are their top two at the position in the Big Ten, but Lewis’ return can help in an important way.
For all the success Michigan has had on defense, its opponents have found ways to beat it on key big plays. Central Florida did it on the ground. Colorado did it through the air. Lewis is one of the country’s best cover corners and, at his best, can virtually take away one side of the field.
Brown says, ideally, the big plays wouldn’t happen at all. He is confident that the unit will be better three weeks from now and even better three weeks after that.
“The arrow is pointing up,” Brown said. “Even on the couple run mistakes we talked about, right? It’s not like somebody was punching us in the mouth, now, and knocking us off the ball. It’s hit your gap, but when you’re moving, we’re subtly moving and grooving up front and learning how to deal with this block and that block and this guy is going from D gap to B gap to C gap. We’re doing a lot of that, and it takes a little bit of time to be right.”
Saturday, he’ll face a Nittany Lions team that plays with the same up-tempo style his last two opponents have used to occasional explosive success. But in both cases, the Wolverines have been able to regroup and, save for a handful of plays, shut down the spread.
Against Colorado, Brown said, he observed the Buffaloes’ tempo slow down based on the looks they saw from Michigan’s defense.
“When you’re coming enough they don’t want to get — it’s like hitting your head against the wall,” he said. “You don’t want to run a bad play into a tough look. And it’s not like we’re going to sit there.”
Normally, matchups involving a spread offense revolve around the question of how to defend its tempo.
But if Brown’s philosophies hold, the game breaks down to a whole other question, one the defensive coordinator posed rhetorically on Wednesday.
“Who’s controlling the tempo now?”