With the game on the line, Mike Macdonald knew what to do.
Michigan’s first-year defensive coordinator had seen Penn State’s receivers torch the Wolverines en route to a touchdown two drives earlier. Facing 4th-and-2, it seemed likely that Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford would look for his speedy receivers over the middle on quick slant routes. Defending that short of a pass when the receiver doesn’t need yards after the catch is a tall task for a college cornerback.
But Macdonald didn’t ask his corners to defend the middle. Instead, he dropped two defensive linemen to clog the passing lane and blitzed a safety to pressure Clifford. With his first read stuffed and no time to respond, Clifford heaved the ball toward the sideline, overthrowing his receiver and effectively squashing any hopes of a comeback.
Throughout No. 6 Michigan’s 21-17 victory over Penn State last Saturday, the Wolverines did well defending the Nittany Lions’ passing attack, which features one of the nation’s top receivers in Jahan Dotson. In the few moments where Clifford could sit comfortably in the pocket, the Wolverines’ corners — specifically, junior D.J. Turner and senior Vincent Gray — managed to hold Dotson to 6.8 yards per catch, well below his season average of 12.4.
“I thought D.J. had a heck of a game,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I thought Vince did as well. Press coverage and throwing deep balls, they weren’t able to get (to Dotson). You’re not gonna totally shut a guy like that down.”
At every opportunity, Macdonald has worked to throw different looks at this season’s opponents. That starts with personnel; senior linebacker Michael Barrett, for example, has seen significantly more playing time in the last two games because of his speed.
But those changes are also the result of broader growth from the linebackers in pass defense. In previous years, offenses exploited the Wolverines’ defenders in coverage — think 2017 Mike McCray on Saquon Barkley. Penn State’s RPO-heavy offense is also designed to put linebackers in conflict and force mistakes.
“Linebackers are tied into the fronts, and they’re tied into the coverage, along with the safeties,” Michigan linebackers coach George Helow said. “… (It’s important to) understand how they’re trying to attack and put your eyes in the right spot and execute.”
This season, though, that hasn’t been much of an issue. In one instance on Saturday, fifth-year linebacker Josh Ross closed out on a screen pass to Dotson to force a loss. In several others, freshman Junior Colson was forced to guard a back split out wide and held his own with few problems. Whenever the Nittany Lions tested Michigan’s linebackers, the unit anticipated the play and was in the right place to stop it.
That’s new for the Wolverines this year, and it reflects both Helow’s impact and the ability of Macdonald to help his defense adapt.
“(It) starts with knowing what to do, putting your eyes in the right spot,” Helow said. “A lot of people, whether you’re playing man-to-man or zone, if you don’t look at the right stuff, it’s hard to play. Starts with that and then understanding how they’re trying to attack in the passing game.”
The Wolverines continue to insist they’re a championship team this year, and the next two weeks will provide the truest test of whether the pass defense can live up to that standard. Maryland doesn’t boast much in terms of overall caliber, but it does feature a formidable passer in Taulia Tagovailoa, who has averaged 310.5 passing yards per game this season. If the Terrapins can post any sort of threat on Saturday, it’ll likely come from a few big plays in the passing game.
Ohio State, of course, presents a far greater challenge. Against Penn State, Michigan successfully defended one elite receiver in Jahan Dotson. It’ll have to defend three — namely, Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba — against the Buckeyes. If Dotson was a tall task, those three are downright skyscraping.
Soon enough, we’ll see if Macdonald’s defense is up to it.