The Michigan football team’s defense couldn’t have started much worse last Saturday. Heavily favored in a de facto neutral-site game, the Wolverines allowed touchdowns on two of Northwestern’s opening three drives, as penalties, missed tackles and a locked-in quarterback dismantled defensive coordinator Don Brown’s group early.
It was their second poor start this year. In the season-opener, Michigan spotted Notre Dame three first-half touchdowns.
But in both games, Brown’s group adjusted. His defense had little room for error last Saturday after falling into a 17-0 hole, and it responded accordingly. After the first quarter, the Wolverines allowed just 119 yards of total offense and prevented Northwestern from scoring after the 12:56 mark in the second quarter.
And though Michigan couldn’t complete the comeback in early September, its defense gave it a chance — the Fighting Irish only scored a field goal in the second half.
Despite his perpetual expectation of near perfectionism, those turnarounds have Brown encouraged.
“I’m also going to tell you this: A year ago if the wheels came off, the wheels were off,” Brown said during Wednesday’s press conference. “This group has the ability to have wheels off, (then put the) wheels back on. I think that’s a little bit of a sign of the maturity of this group and the quality of the character our guys have. There’s no doubt about that.”
Michigan’s defense — despite finishing with a top-three ranking nationally — indeed had boom-or-bust tendencies in 2017, unraveling in losses to Penn State and South Carolina.
This season, however, the Wolverines have showed resilience, which has helped them allow the fewest yards in the country, averaging 4.1 yards per play.
But that doesn’t mean it’s all roses for Brown and company.
Michigan has struggled with penalties all season, with an average 9.2 calls accepted per game. The secondary, especially, has been targeted — though that’s partially a byproduct of Brown’s man-to-man scheme.
Junior cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long were caught with holding and pass interference penalties, respectively, during critical moments of both Northwestern touchdown drives. Junior VIPER Khaleke Hudson and junior safety Josh Metellus, meanwhile, have missed parts of games due to suspensions after targeting penalties.
That’s caused Brown to adjust how he teaches tackling.
“I’ve never had to transition due to how things are officiated,” Brown said. “I don’t recall that ever in my coaching career that happening, but now I feel that happening. It’s a tough deal but, you know, (you) get it done.”
Frustration lies in what isn’t being called, too.
Fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich said he was “baffled” by the lack of holding calls against the Wildcats’ offensive line Saturday — something that’s also bothered Brown.
“You know what’s shocking to me? We’ve played two Big Ten games, we have 10 sacks and 24 TFLs, but we don't get held,” Brown said. “Take a look and compare to the other teams around our league. That one is a little tough.”
Brown is also annoyed with the wide-spread criticism his players have received over social media. Sunday morning, Long tweeted, “If you’ve never played man to man please refrain from making comments about secondary play.”
Brown would rather you take up your concerns with him.
“Be critical of the old guy. Don’t be critical of the players, now,” Brown said. “That’s crossing the line, in my opinion. I guess that could be a topic we could stand here and argue. All they do is do what they’re asked.”
Despite the poor start, Michigan’s defense did just that Saturday. In the halftime locker room, Brown told his players that they’d need to pitch a shutout to win. The Wolverines did as they were asked, saving their season in the process.
“I thought that was a good test for us,” Brown said. “Every experience you go through … you’re looking to build on. We (knew) how to handle this situation.”