The Michigan football team’s defense had trouble in the first quarter of Saturday’s win over Northwestern.
It started right away, as the Wildcats (1-3 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) drove down the field and scored on their first three drives, leaping out to a 17-0 lead.
That result was a bit surprising, considering the Wolverines’ defense is as strong as it is — the No. 1 total defense through five games this season.
But Northwestern still accumulated 145 yards on its first three touchdowns, cutting its way through Michigan’s vaunted defense, all until the Wolverines (4-1 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) locked down for the rest of the game, aiding in a 20-17 comeback victory.
“I can’t really put my finger on it,” said junior cornerback David Long. “Credit to them, they came out hungry. We just made adjustments and got back in there and competed and fought our tails off to get back into the game and ultimately win it.”
It was the second time Michigan’s defense has struggled in the first quarter of a road game this season. In its season-opening loss to Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish got nearly all their production in the beginning of the game.
The difference is that Notre Dame got its production with deep bombs and a running quarterback.
The Wildcats, on the other hand, used short, quick passing plays to pick their way through the Wolverines’ defense.
On Northwestern’s first drive, it was a 36-yard screen pass that set it up for a touchdown. For the rest of the game, the Wildcats used slant patterns effectively to move the ball.
It continued a trend for Michigan. Against Western Michigan and SMU, though the final defensive stats were still good, the Wolverines had trouble covering the slant route. Specifically, Michigan’s safeties didn’t cover slot receivers very well.
“I mean, you know, it’s a quick route,” said sophomore safety Brad Hawkins. “Having a quick route and playing a little off, it’s kind of difficult, I guess. But we fixed it, you know, so we’ve got a lot of things — schemes and stuff coming in. So it’s gonna be all right.”
In the second half, though, the Wolverines made an adjustment and stopped the slant route better. That was part of the reason for Northwestern’s worse offensive performance, as it had just 56 yards in the final 30 minutes.
“Same as anything else, just lock in,” Long said. “Lock in and just get our feet under ourselves and just focus. Take the coaching, make the adjustments and go in there and do what we know how to do.”
Added Hawkins: “We kind of, like, tightened down a little bit. Try to hug them a little more. You know, that’s a quick route, so you’ve gotta be there fast on it.”
Michigan has heard the critics. Whether it is about giving up 17 points to the Wildcats in their first three drives or the penalties that have plagued the Wolverines, they have heard frustrations.
This week, Long responded to the haters, tweeting, “If you’ve never played man to man, please refrain from making comments about secondary play. Second, if you can’t check me, please refrain from giving your hot take as well.”
In the end, Michigan still has the No. 1 total defense in the nation. Surely that fact makes the adjustments to slants or penalties or whatever else much more palatable. But the Wolverines still recognize there are plenty of facets in which they can improve.
“Haters are gonna be out there,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich. “It just is what it is. It’s the nature of the game. We’re playing crème de la crème football, in terms of this is big boy football. And with that, you’re gonna have a lot of expectations, and the expectations for the season are high. So, people are gonna say what they want, but at the end of the day, yeah, we’re gonna go out there and play.”