Jim Harbaugh’s assessment was brief, yet accurate. 

“He throws very well, runs very well,” Harbaugh said of Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke on Monday. “He has a penchant for making the big play.”

Against Western Michigan, Lewerke flashed an example of his playmaking ability, taking a read option 61 yards to the house — a play on which he beat the safety and linebacker in a foot race.

Through four games, Lewerke has completed 84 of his 133 attempts for 963 yards. He boasts eight passing touchdowns and has thrown just two interceptions.

As for Lewerke’s ability on the ground, Harbaugh might have been making an understatement. He leads the Spartans in rushing yards and touchdowns, with 248 and two, respectively.

And therein lies the latest challenge for a Michigan secondary that ranks as the fourth-best passing defense in the nation. Lewerke and the Spartans present a threat that this young Wolverine defense has yet to face.

To this point, that unit may still be getting overlooked on the grand scale. Sophomore cornerback Lavert Hill admitted as much. That’s what happens when your team boasts a defensive line leading the country in sacks and a linebacker like Devin Bush Jr. who has made the case that he is the best player on the roster.

But it’s those same reasons that perhaps escalate the threat that Lewerke could pose to the Wolverines’ secondary. Michigan may have the ability to collapse the pocket, but Lewerke has a knack for escaping it. And while the secondary has been exceptional at times, it has also been susceptible to big plays — a busted-coverage play against Air Force that turned into a 64-yard touchdown reception being the most startling example.

On top of Lewerke’s individual ability, he has a useful crop of receivers as his weapons. Felton Davis leads that group, fresh off a performance against Iowa in which he caught nine passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns.

“Just from watching the film, they keep their routes on when he’s on his feet and he’s constantly looking downfield,” said junior safety Tyree Kinnel. “So I feel like we’re gonna have a great chance to get back there and push him out the pocket a lot during this game, so the secondary has to stay on the receivers as much as we can.”

Added defensive backs coach Brian Smith: “(The secondary will) face a good challenge. They have good solid receivers. They’re young. Felton’s coming off a good game against Iowa and he’s a threat down the field. He’s a tall guy that they can go out and throw him the ball and then he can come down and get it. He poses a problem, and they’ll spread it around a good bit. We’ve got our hands full.”

Still, the trio of Kinnel, Hill and sophomore cornerback David Long have plenty going well for them.

The Wolverines are allowing just 134 yards per game in the air, rank second nationally in team passing efficiency defense and have shown an affinity for forcing turnovers — recording three interceptions for 52 yards and two touchdowns.

The unexpected production, in large part, is a product of improved communication — an aspect that Hill pointed out Monday afternoon.

And when asked about it Wednesday afternoon, Smith acknowledged the same thing. He said he couldn’t point to a specific play or series, but that the Purdue game stood out.

The Boilermakers, of course, implemented plenty of trickery and Michigan was capable of handling it. In the first half, Purdue posted 139 yards in the air. In the second half, the Wolverines conceded just 25.

But the one phase that stood out to Smith was Michigan’s ability to stop the jet sweep package, a collection of plays that he said have given the Wolverines some problems in the past.

“The communication has improved with the group as a whole,” Smith said. “Again, just seeing things over and over again — the first time, guys learn differently. Some guys learn in the classroom, and other guys learn by actually going out on the field and doing it, getting reps.

“You can see it, when teams give us different looks — maybe a look that we haven’t seen before — and we can adjust to it. That’s the result of guys communicating and getting on the same page.”

Michigan has faced an up-tempo offense. It has faced the triple-option. And it has faced a two-quarterback system brimming with deception.

Now, another look is coming to Ann Arbor. And if the Wolverines’ defensive backfield can adjust to this one, its place among nationally-ranked secondaries is going to look a lot more legitimate. 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *