On paper, the Michigan football team’s defensive backs put on a formidable show against Notre Dame’s receiving corps on Saturday night.
But for defensive backs coach Mike Zordich, it all comes with an asterisk.
“I’d say for the first quarter, pretty bad,” he said of his group’s performance. “But after that, they settled in and played well.”
Fighting Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush completed just 12 of 22 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown. But 148 of those yards came in the first half, and even some of Zordich’s highly-touted corners surrendered atypical yardage.
After Chase Claypool caught a 16-yard first-down pass on the third play of the game, Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin corralled an impressive 28-yard grab through a pass interference call by junior defensive back Lavert Hill. Hill had his back turned and tried to save face by pushing Boykin, but the referee saw it.
For the fiery Zordich, even the best aren’t immune to criticism.
“The simplest things, the first third down — things we do 15, 20 times in practice — we didn’t do it. Why? I have no idea,” Zordich said. “The next play (Hill) looks like he’s never covered a guy man-to-man. He had a pass interference and the guy made a great catch anyway. You just never know, just gotta learn from it.
“And we’re moving on, but that was a tough one to swallow.”
Zordich demands excellence from his defensive backs and will be blunt about it if they aren’t, but he will allow breathing room for some of the nuances of the position. He acknowledged the size of the Fighting Irish’s top two receivers — both 6-foot-4 — and how that caused a physical grudge match for his shorter corners.
After two consecutive miscues that set up Notre Dame’s first touchdown, he didn’t say anything to his group on the sidelines, emphasizing the short memory he preaches for his players.
Amnesia was certainly necessary after the most notable play of the evening, with the Wolverines already down, 7-0. Backup safety Brad Hawkins, who had replaced the ejected Josh Metellus, found himself in the endzone on a 50-50 ball with Fighting Irish receiver Chris Finke. Despite Hawkins’ hand on the ball, Finke outmuscled Hawkins to bring Notre Dame’s lead to two scores.
“Hats off to the Notre Dame guy,” Zordich said. “He made the play. Ball is in the air you gotta go get it. You gotta make plays, there’s no excuse. Certainly that was a big (mistake) because that resulted in seven points.”
After the first two drives, though, Zordich was pleased. Michigan allowed just 22 yards the entire second half, and recorded an interception by Brandon Watson. But even Watson received measured feedback, as Zordich cited “a couple technique issues” before admitting the fifth-year senior had a solid showing on Saturday.
The Wolverines’ defensive backs were some of the best in the country a year ago, and displayed that same aggressiveness despite anomalic mental lapses. It seemed like enough to hush any lingering concerns about the unit, but also enough to leave Zordich questioning himself after trotting out what he thought was an “unbelievably prepared” group.
“As a coach you have to focus on what you saw to correct,” he said. “Yes, you have to look at how they came back and they played well, they really did. I compliment them on that.
“It’s just — I’m trying to figure out why that happened in the first quarter with all the prep.”