There’s a lot to admire about this Michigan defense. Just ask Pep Hamilton.
After all, as Michigan’s passing game coordinator, there are few out there who see the unit as much as he does.
“I find myself, at times, just taking a break from trying to sort out what we’re gonna do on the next series,” Hamilton said, “and just watching how intense and how physical Don Brown’s defense is playing.”
Seven times this year, the unit has warranted Hamilton’s admiration. The one exception came 12 days ago, when then-No. 2 Penn State hung 42 points and 506 yards on the Wolverines.
For sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary, it was a bad feeling. Last Tuesday, he voiced that the blowout was something worth going through, something that could ultimately make this defense better. But he admitted it hurt nonetheless, and that a matchup with Rutgers was a chance to get the bad taste out of his mouth.
Michigan seized that opportunity, holding the Scarlet Knights to 195 yards, notching five sacks and recording 11 tackles for loss. It was, as defensive coordinator Don Brown called it, “getting back to business.”
“I’m just gonna say this: The last two weeks in practice have been unbelievably good. Period,” Brown said. “I come off yesterday’s practice, (and) we can’t go much harder. If we go much harder, somebody’s gonna get hurt. And that would be dumb, that’s on me.
“It’s kind of a sense of urgency. I don’t think we were fat-catting it (before Penn State) by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly refocuses your energy and your enthusiasm and your passion to get the thing right.”
Against Rutgers, most things did go right. But there were still mistakes.
With just under 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Scarlet Knights were facing 3rd-and-15 from their own 20-yard line.
Rutgers quarterback Giovanni Rescigno called for the snap, and subsequently whipped a 30-yard completion to tight end Jerome Washington. It was well covered by Noah Furbush, but the senior linebacker couldn’t manage to turn his head around and break up the pass.
Just four plays later, there was another setback.
Rescigno lined up on 1st-and-10 from Michigan’s 38-yard line, floating a pass to Hunter Hayek on the left sideline. Junior safety Tyree Kinnel tracked the Rutgers wide receiver the entire way, but Hayek still made a highlight reel play, pulling off a one-handed catch for a 21-yard gain.
On plays like that, Brown said he can only credit the opposing quarterback. And those plays aren’t cause to dismiss his aggressive, man-coverage scheme.
As Brown put it himself, zone coverage is “just not what we do.”
He did qualify that by saying that Michigan will, at most, line up in combination zone coverage — something the Wolverines did frequently against the Scarlet Knights.
But he has no interest in allowing receivers to run free through a zone. Instead, he stressed that he would rather teach fundamentals, allow defensive backs coach Brian Smith and secondary coach Mike Zordich to train the Wolverines’ secondary and implement other coverage concepts when appropriate.
One play, however, did warrant Brown’s attention. It just so happened to result in one of Rutgers’ two touchdowns.
With just under 11 minutes left in the second quarter, wide receiver Janarion Grant took the direct snap from the Scarlet Knights’ own 35. He faked the handoff and picked up a block on the left side of the line before cutting back to the middle. From there, he beat every Michigan defender in a foot race to the end zone.
“The one play that just irks the hell out of me was the run play,” Brown said. “That’s simple. … Guard pull, wide pull, one of our guys misses the pull. So obviously that’s on me. It’s not on him — didn’t run it enough or something. So you’ve gotta make sure you get on the pull.
“But still, (we) have a middle third defender coming down. We still have a back side that I don’t think was flying to the rock. We’ve got to fix that, and that’s what we talked about, is if you eliminate that run play right there and one other play, I mean come on, come on, that’s pretty good defense.”
Brown isn’t wrong. But the direct snap was a large reason why the Wolverines were thrashed in State College. It came back to bite them only a week later. And they will surely see that play in the coming weeks.
But Michigan’s defensive unit took that loss personally. If that is any indication, they will take Grant’s touchdown personally, too. Just ask Gary.
“If people think that we need to prove things to them,” he said last Tuesday, “they need to watch this game and every game after that.”