Is the glass half full or half empty?
Although the Wolverines have dropped two of three games since the season opener against the Huskies, Michigan’s defense is playing much stingier, even in Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin.
“I thought we played very hard,” coach Lloyd Carr said. “It was a very physical football game. I thought the effort, the intensity, all those things were good enough to win.”
Even though Badgers running back Brain Calhoun tore up the Wolverines’ defense for 223 total yards and one touchdown, the defensive line showed improved play, especially on the inside.
Sophomore defensive tackle Alan Branch, in his most extensive playing time, showed that he can be a valuable contributor off the bench.
From the start of the game, Branch showed that he was going to be a disruptive force. On Wisconsin’s first drive, Branch and junior LaMarr Woodley pressured Badgers quarterback John Stocco. Branch forced the scrambling quarterback to fumble, setting up a second-and-23 for Wisconsin. Throughout the contest, Branch teamed up with fellow Wolverines to bottle up Calhoun. By the end of the game, the Rio Rancho, New Mexico native had four tackles, including a hand in two sacks, and a forced fumble.
“I thought Alan Branch had his best game,” Carr said at Monday’s press conference.
Branch wasn’t the only defensive lineman playing better last Saturday. Much-maligned senior Gabe Watson also improved his play.
Once again, Watson did not start, but he was put into the game quickly. Just like Branch, Watson showed that he was ready to wreak havoc. He tackled Calhoun on Wisconsin’s second drive and consistently took up two blockers. Carr, one of Watson’s biggest critics, was impressed, saying that he thought Watson “played much better on Saturday.”
But no lineman played better than Woodley. He has been the most consistent player on the defense this season but raised his play to an even higher in Camp Randall. The Saginaw native was flying all over the field, making play after play in the Badgers’ backfield.
“I think LaMarr (Woodley) played the best game since he’s been at Michigan,” Carr said. “I thought he was outstanding. I think he’s having a great year. He’s on his way to being the player that we expected him to be.”
Woodley finished with eight tackles, including two for loss and a sack.
With those three leading the way, the defense looked formidable throughout the game. But as time progressed, Wisconsin controlled the ball for too much of the second half. With the defense on the field for so long, the unit tired.
“I think (fatigue’s) part of it,” Carr said. “We were out there too long (defensively).”
Said defensive line coach Steve Stripling: “I think that we went in with the objective of stopping the run. And it felt good after the first half. We were getting them into some longer downs. We got a couple of sacks, and I really thought we could hold up.”
But even with the good plays, the defense had other problems besides fatigue, particularly containment on the outside. Calhoun gained 111 of his rushing yards in the last 30 minutes of play. He used his shifty feet and quickness to get to the outside and exploit the Wolverines exterior defense.
“We did some things that we wanted to do, but obviously it wasn’t good enough because in the end we didn’t get it done,” Watson said.