There’s not much the Michigan football team doesn’t do well on defense.
By now, the statistics have been well covered. The Wolverines are the best in the country in scoring defense, passing defense and total defense. They rarely allow teams to extend drives, much less score touchdowns.
So it was a bit of a surprise Saturday when Maryland was able to repeatedly exploit the same apparent weakness in the Wolverines’ defense.
“(Maryland coach DJ) Durkin, he was our (defensive coordinator) last year, and when he was here he felt as though we struggled with tempo and on the edges,” said redshirt sophomore linebacker Jabrill Peppers. “So we kind of thought that we were going to get a game plan similar to that. We didn’t know how much spread it was going to be and how open they were going to have us.”
Throughout the game, Maryland continuously attacked the edges when it needed a play. Sometimes it was on an outside rush. Other times it was a tunnel screen. Usually, it was effective — at least as effective as an offense can be while scoring just three points. But the low point total wasn’t necessarily indicative of how effective they were when using the screen game.
On the final play before halftime, wide receiver D.J. Moore took a screen 47 yards and looked bound for the end zone. But at the 1-yard line, redshirt junior linebacker Mike McCray was able to stop him short and preserve the shutout.
“Great effort can cancel out a lot of those things,” said fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow. “Clock ran out. That was a really big play for our defense, big stop by Mike and (senior safety) Dymonte (Thomas).”
The screen was the main factor that led the Wolverines to allow more passing yards (289) against the Terrapins than they had all season. Michigan’s vaunted pass defense was still highly effective in coverage, as evidenced by its six pass breakups and three sacks, but on screens, the dynamic was different.
The quarterback gets the ball out fast to avoid some of the pressure from the defensive line, and the cornerbacks are rarely close enough to break up the pass. That leaves the play’s outcome up to pursuit from defenders and blocking by the offense. And when it came to screens on Saturday, Maryland’s offense appeared to have the edge.
Peppers said the effectiveness of the screen was more about good play-calling from Maryland than it was any specific challenge inherent to the play. (“It’s not really tough to tackle,” he said.)
Glasgow even offered an antidote to the problem, simple as it may be.
“It’s just smelling a rat,” Glasgow said. “Someone getting in the way, causing a cutback and people hustling to the ball. That’s basically all. It comes down to effort.”
It’s a concept Michigan may be tested on soon. Even while the Wolverines run up blowout wins over Maryland, Rutgers and other Big Ten non-contenders, there are real threats still out there. Ohio State is plenty capable of running the same types of plays, and the Buckeyes would do so with significantly better talent.
There’s no reason to believe Michigan can’t correct the issue — earlier in the year, it had trouble in contain, but it worked out those kinks rather quickly. But still, the members of the Wolverines’ defense are cognizant of the urgency.
“We didn’t make the adjustment we needed to, and I feel like (we will) learn from that right now,” McCray said. “We’re going to improve on this game because we know they’re probably going to try to do the same thing. So we’re ready for it.”