MADISON — Ten days ago, Don Brown stood in front of reporters, flashing his trademark energy and easily consumable sound bites to appease an apprehensive fanbase.
Amid his playful acts and positive reinforcement, the criticism came. Michigan had given up 21 points to a pair of unranked teams at home so the question naturally followed: How are you going to stop Wisconsin?
Brown’s response was not to worry. Sure, Michigan struggled for stretches against a pair of teams that finished 79th and 62nd in yards per game a year ago. But Wisconsin — 31st in that category — ran a familiar offense, so the Wolverines shouldn’t have any trouble stopping them.
“I’ve been writing Wisconsin cards and I’ve kinda been ‘Woohoowoo!’ because I can whip them out like that!” Brown said at the time. “Because it’s all the stuff our guys know and are comfortable with. And we’ll jump in at a high level, without question.”
So, about that.
For two and a half quarters Saturday afternoon, before the Badgers elected in favor of empathy, Michigan had to count any play that didn’t end in a first down as a revelatory success.
At that media availability last week, Brown was asked to address the concern that the Wolverines couldn’t handle Wisconsin’s vaunted run game, led by All-American back Jonathan Taylor.
Brown’s response: “Bunch of crap.”
Wisconsin finished with 57 carries for 359 yards and five touchdowns.
Where, then, was the preparation that Brown talked about before the game?
Ask those on the field and the answer’s clear — not on Michigan’s sideline. When senior safety Josh Metellus was asked how the Wolverines let Taylor romp for 203 yards, his response, before a pause, was one word: “Scheme.”
“They came in with a different type of scheme than they did last year,” Metellus continued. “… They ran more of a double-counter (guard-tackle) type of scheme, trying to get the cutback lanes. Say they’d try to run to the left, we’d overflow it, try to get their cutback through the A-gap or something like that.”
Metellus wouldn’t outright say that Michigan failed to adjust, but when you give up five rushing touchdowns in the first seven drives, the implication is clear.
In the Wisconsin locker room, candor was in greater supply.
“We knew the pressures that were coming,” said Badgers left tackle Cole Van Lanen. “We watched a lot of film and we got to shut those things down early so they stopped running them and then they're getting a lot of base defense.”
All of this, about the defense that’s regarded as the hallmark of the Jim Harbaugh-Don Brown era. The defense that’s ranked top three nationally in yards allowed per game since Harbaugh arrived in 2015, sure. But also the defense that has played 10 games at top-20 teams or home vs. top-10 teams under Don Brown and given up an average of 31.9 points.
So when the Wolverines describe this as an uncharacteristic performance, they’re not wrong, they’re just off by 3.1 points.
Still, there’s optimism in the Michigan locker room.
“You look at the defense, we have a lot of good guys,” said sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson.
Hutchinson isn’t wrong. He’s one of those good guys, a disruptive force whether he lines up at tackle or end. Josh Uche and Kwity Paye are dynamic threats off the end. Lavert Hill and Josh Metellus are NFL players in the secondary.
Running down the roster, though, misses the point. No one on this defense is a likely first round pick. You know who was? Jabrill Peppers, Taco Charlton, Devin Bush and Rashan Gary. Jourdan Lewis, Delano Hill, Chase Winovich and David Long were all selected in the first three rounds.
And yet, all of those players have walked out the doors of Schembechler Hall without a win against Ohio State or in a New Years’ Six bowl. They walked out without even notching a top-20 road win, members of a defense that failed to hold up its end of the bargain when it mattered most.
So, with Michigan down 28-0 after two quarters and yet another big-game loss looming, what was Don Brown’s message?
“We treated the game 0-0 at halftime,” Hutchinson said.
Not with this defense.
Mackie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @theo_mackie.