For weeks, the Michigan football team’s defense picked out the smallest mistakes to fix. After back-to-back victories in which the Wolverines gave up seven points in each, they vowed to prevent their opponent from scoring at all.
After three straight shutouts, they insisted they should not give up even a first down.
The last two games have brought the inevitable fall from that high, as Michigan has allowed 53 points after surrendering just 14 in its previous five wins. Where the Wolverines previously tried to make small tweaks, they now have big plays to avoid. That has been the emphasis in the film room this week.
“We just gotta finish,” said redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers. “We gotta make plays. We had too many almost plays. I almost had a pick-six. Dymonte almost had a pick. I almost took the punt to the house. I’m just tired of almost. We just have to do it. That’s all it comes down to.”
But Michigan had perspective during its dominant weeks, and it has perspective now. In keeping with the adage of never getting too high or too low, the Wolverines know their miscues Saturday were outliers. Correct them Saturday against Rutgers, and they could return to their old form.
In a broader scope, mistakes notwithstanding, Michigan’s performance Saturday was not a disaster. While 26 points was the defense’s highest total allowed this season — excluding 27 against Michigan State, when the Spartans scored on special teams during the final play — they dug in when it counted and gave themselves a chance to win.
“We’re not worried about it,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Desmond Morgan. “We’re still confident in who we have, what we’re capable of.”
To get back to that level, the Wolverines will return to the film to correct issues that seem more obvious now than in a 30-point shutout. Their start Saturday was not ideal, as seven of Minnesota’s first eight drives moved into Michigan territory and five ended with points.
Those numbers won’t be lost on Michigan’s coaches this week.
“I don’t know why we didn’t come out how we were supposed to come out, but I can say it will not happen again,” Peppers said. “We got (criticism) in the film room, a lot of guys in particular.
“One thing about these coaches, they’re going to coach you hard and they’re going to be honest with you. They let everyone else tell you how good you are. They’re going to give you the real.”
Another problem, in senior linebacker James Ross’ eyes, was missed assignments. The Wolverines gave up eight plays of 20 or more yards. On the last series, Minnesota tight end Drew Wolitarsky snuck past the secondary for a 22-yard completion to just inside the one-yard line. Earlier in the second half, Golden Gophers running back Shannon Brooks leaked out on a wheel route and picked up 40 yards.
“It’s been us giving up plays and not teams earning them,” Ross said. “It’s one thing if they earned it, but we gave up a lot of plays.”
Added Morgan: “It’s hard to say exactly what it was. In terms of motivation, I don’t think that was lacking. In terms of energy, I would say we were fresh. I don’t know if the focus wasn’t there. I know we were ready to play. It’s just that we didn’t come out and play the way we all expected us to play.”
For Michigan, that has become a difficult standard to follow. After all, the Wolverines could only get worse after three straight shutouts. Now they have room for improvement again, and they intend to use it. They have the blueprint from earlier in the season, and they know just how to get back there.
“You just gotta make plays, man,” Peppers said. “That’s it. That’s what it comes down to. Make plays.”