The Michigan football team owns the nation’s top-ranked pass defense yet again in 2018, allowing fewer than 130 yards per game. That showed last Saturday when Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook did not complete a pass during the second and third quarters of the Wolverines’ eventual blowout win.
It was as close as Michigan’s defense has come to perfection — the perpetual pursuit of defensive coordinator Don Brown. In the same vein as Alabama coach Nick Saban, Brown always has something to critique, even when the Wolverines are dominant. Sometimes, that means going back a few weeks to remind players that they’re not perfect.
Such was the case in Michigan’s season-opening loss to Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish scored three first-half touchdowns behind quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who was aided by a litany of the Wolverines’ penalties and mistakes on third down.
Safeties coach and special teams coordinator Chris Partridge reminds his group about those first-game gaffes frequently.
“Shoot,” Partridge said during Wednesday’s press conference. “I like to show my guys clips from that game every week just to make sure they stay grounded and understand that, if they don’t prepare the right way and they don’t play the right way, anything can happen.”
Much has been made about the improvement in Michigan’s offensive line since that loss in South Bend. But the secondary has also flashed signs of growth. Penalties are down. Interceptions are up. Mistakes have been mitigated.
“We’ve made a huge step after the Notre Dame game because we got bombed on a few times that game,” said sophomore cornerback Ambry Thomas. “And (the coaching staff has) been hard on us ever since. They haven’t let up yet.
“They’re more interactive, more vocal, more everything. They’re on the field really showing us what to do.”
Partridge sees a connection between that increase in intensity and the play of perhaps the Wolverines’ most-improved defensive player, Josh Metellus. The junior safety had a difficult start to the season — he was ejected for targeting during the second drive of the Notre Dame contest. He and fellow safety, senior Tyree Kinnel, were also exposed occasionally against the slant-heavy offenses of SMU and Northwestern.
But while Metellus isn’t flawless, he has become more of a play-maker for Michigan’s defense with a team-high three interceptions.
“He’s playing at a high level,” Partridge said. “He’s practicing at a high level, that’s why he’s playing at a high level. He is seeing the game really well. He’s seeing how we’re going to be attacked really well back there. He’s taken command, become more vocal and is finishing plays.”
Metellus was named the team’s defensive player of the week Monday after collecting an interception and five tackles against the Badgers.
“His best game as a Wolverine,” said Jim Harbaugh on Monday. “And he seems to be a solid tackler, good coverage safety. Great to see him get his hands on the ball with another interception and create the big play. (He’s an) ascending player.”
It was a year ago that Metellus first earned his starting role. During fall camp, he mentioned that confidence was an issue for him at times in 2017, when he was often a target of criticism from Michigan fans. That caused him to play “more passively” than he would have liked to.
According to Partridge, however, Metellus entered spring practices with an “open mind” to potential improvements he could make. Six months later, that has him keying a defense that is playing strong football.
“If I’m confident, I feel like the rest of the defense is confident,” Metellus said Saturday. “So I just feel like, being a leader on the defense, confidence is something you should have.”