Jim Harbaugh knows Michigan has to beat Ohio State. Don Brown is falling right behind him in line.
“I think coach (Harbaugh) addressed the Ohio State issue yesterday, am I right?” Brown said on a Zoom call with reporters. “So he’s the boss, that’s what he said, that’s what I’m gonna try to do.”
Speaking on Mike Tirico’s show Wednesday, Harbaugh said, “Nothing makes us angrier,” than losing to Ohio State. Over the last decade, though, that’s become almost a yearly occurrence, as the Wolverines have lost eight in a row against the Buckeyes.
Lately, much of the issues have come as a result of the defense Brown coordinates. In 2018, Ohio State put up 62 points on Michigan in Columbus, and last November, it was 56, both leading to blowout victories for a program that has become accustomed to beating the Wolverines.
“I don’t blame players for anything, OK?” Brown said. “You blame the old guy, right here. OK? I gotta do a better job of getting our players ready and I promise you I’m going to.”
Last spring, Brown struck a similar tone when asked about the Ohio State game, and it didn’t lead to much improvement. His defense, in other games, has been one of the best in the country. Michigan ranked 11th in defensive SP+ last season and has consistently been in or around the top 10 since Brown’s arrival in Ann Arbor.
But against bigger, better teams — the kind Michigan needs to beat to vault itself into the higher tier of programs in the country — the defense has fallen short.
Last year, prior to Ohio State, those shortcomings came against Wisconsin and Penn State, two road games in which the Wolverines fell short.
“We had four to five bad run fits, two bad plays in the pass game (against Wisconsin),” Brown said. “And we’re out of the football game.”
A few bad plays is all it takes against a high-caliber team. At Wisconsin, that meant a 72-yard touchdown run for Jonathan Taylor, part of a 203-yard performance on the day. At Penn State, it was a coverage miscommunication resulting in a 53-yard K.J. Hamler score. In the Citrus Bowl against Alabama, it was an 85-yard score by Jerry Jeudy on the first play of the game.
That’s the gap Brown now needs to bridge, between good and great.
“We took all the pieces of that (Alabama) game that are negative, and I promise you, we’re gonna practice those plays against assorted looks,” Brown said. “And we took the same thing from the Ohio State game and we’ll be practicing against those plays, too, because in that scenario, again — it’s college football. When you’re not successful, it’s eight or nine plays, or it’s a group of plays that you just want back.”
There are positives from which to build, and Brown will talk about them passionately, even from the spare bedroom of his house in Cape Cod over a video call. The Wolverines came off that shellacking at Wisconsin and held Iowa to just three points, with eight sacks and 14 tackles for loss. They held Penn State to 72 yards in the second half and came within a goal-line stand of forcing overtime in a white out. They hung with Alabama for three quarters.
That’s not nothing. Neither is winning nine games and finishing just outside the top 10 as a defense. But it’s not where Brown, or Harbaugh, want to be. Especially if it means another embarrassing loss to Ohio State in 2020.
“Once again, the Ohio State game was a huge negative for us,” Brown said. “So I’m not gonna live in that world. And I don’t want the players to live in that world. We acknowledge it, we move on from it, and hopefully I do a better job.”