Five months after The Game happened, Don Brown was still getting asked about it. His vaunted defense, one that dominated 10 straight teams and seemed like a train rolling into Columbus last year, couldn’t stand up to Ohio State.
The Buckeyes whipped Michigan, scoring 62 points on the back of crossing route after crossing route, with the basic man-coverage beaters doing their jobs. And when spring ball came around last April, Brown was still answering for it.
It was clear at the time that Brown, the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator, wasn’t about to back away from his philosophies. Not now, not at age 64, not when he’s piloted one of the best defenses in the country since first stepping into Schembechler Hall in 2016. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to address the issue at hand.
That brings us to last Saturday, as Notre Dame dialed up play after play designed to beat man coverage. When he saw zone, quarterback Ian Book reeled.
“We have been playing a lot more zone,” said cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich on Wednesday. “I think it’s helped in a lot of aspects, especially in the passing game, cause they're not expecting it.”
Michigan doesn’t need to be a zone team to be effective running zone. Football is a chess match — if you can throw something different at your opponent than what they’re expecting, you’re probably going to come out on top.
That was what happened Saturday, as Book stared into the zone coverages like a test he hadn’t studied for. It didn’t help that there was a monsoon during the first half, or that Brian Kelly’s playcalling didn’t seem to account for the weather. But Book finished 8-for-25 with just 73 passing yards. “I definitely think he was a little confused,” said junior safety Brad Hawkins on Monday.
Brown’s base zone coverage is called “Eagle.” It’s not new — he’s had it in his playbook for a long time — but he’s now deploying it more liberally.
As far as self-scouting goes, any evaluation of Michigan under Brown would have shown a team married to single-high coverage with a tendency to blitz liberally. That, to be clear, is not a bad thing. Anything that gets you to the sustained success Brown has had is the opposite.
But a lack of ability to do much else well put the Wolverines on the back foot in Columbus last year. And ultimately, beating teams of that caliber is still the hump Michigan still needs to get over.
Against Notre Dame, a rival and a top-10 team, the Wolverines managed to shut things down with a healthy mix. They still know who they are, and they certainly aren’t about to stray from Brown’s aggressive philosophy. “Within all that zone coverage, there’s still pressure,” Zordich said. “So that is a big plus for us.”
Still, adapting to each opponent has been an emphasis.
“Every week, Don does add a little different flavoring into it,” Zordich said. “Little change in the pattern, here or there. You have to make changes weekly, but the core of it pretty much stays the same, and that’s how you get better.”
As Michigan tries to bridge the gap that has defined the program, going from a team that makes its living against lackluster competition to one that can beat anyone, adjustments like that are a necessity.
Ohio State exposed that hole last year, and Brown seemed to slam it shut against Notre Dame.
“It definitely has teams guessing,” Hawkins said. “Has quarterbacks guessing.”
It doesn’t solve every problem for the defense, and the Fighting Irish should not be mistaken for the Buckeyes. But it is clear that while everyone was still dwelling on Michigan’s problems last spring, Brown was working on a solution.
“Don Brown called a great game,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on Saturday. “He really had it wired. Can’t say enough about that.”