Lloyd Carr announced yesterday that he plans to make some changes on defense this week.
I don’t think anyone who watched Saturday’s game can blame him — especially with Notre Dame on the way.
Michigan’s defense infamously cost the team victories against Ohio State and Texas last season. There were no mobile quarterbacks to trip up the Wolverines this week, but the defense was exposed in Michigan’s 33-17 win over Northern Illinois. The Wolverines missed tackles, over-pursued plays and let Huskies tailback Garrett Wolfe run all over them — or around them, as was the case on his 76-yard touchdown at the start of the second quarter.
Carr singled out the front seven as the worst offenders and made it clear that at least one of last week’s starters will begin the day on the bench this Saturday.
“We’re going to make some changes in the lineup because we’re not going to sit and watch that type of effort,” Carr said. “We need to play harder; we need to play tougher.”
Linebacker Chris Graham and rush linebacker LaMarr Woodley are safe, and rightfully so. Graham led the Wolverines with a career-best 10 tackles in his first start, and Woodley made the defensive play of the game on Michigan’s lone sack, stripping the ball from Northern Illinois quarterback Phil Horvath and recovering the fumble in Huskies territory.
That leaves five players on the hot seat.
Carr was characteristically vague when asked to identify which player (or players) had lost his job. But it’s likely not Prescott Burgess, who notched five tackles and forced one fumble in his first career start. While linebacker Scott McClintock is now listed beneath Dave Harris in the depth chart, that move is probably the result of Harris — who missed the first game due to injury — being healthy, rather than McClintock playing poorly.
So it comes down to defensive linemen Jeremy Van Alstyne, Pat Massey and Gabe Watson.
Ironically, the line has been widely considered the strength of the defense. Massey is a co-captain, Watson was an All-Big Ten first-team selection in 2004, and Van Alstyne impressed last season despite missing five games due to a nagging knee injury.
But Carr has a history of being hardest on the players he believes have the most talent. In 2003, Carr sat Braylon Edwards for extended periods of time at the beginning of the season. After that, Edwards straightened up his act and became the most dominant wide receiver in the nation last year.
For that reason, I think Watson’s job is in the most danger. Carr believes the senior has as much potential as anyone he’s coached at Michigan — presumably, that includes Edwards. In Carr’s eyes, Watson has failed to live up to that potential, and his late-season slide last year didn’t earn him any points.
Even more damning, Watson was listed in an “either/or” situation with sophomore Will Johnson on the depth chart.
So I wouldn’t be shocked if Watson didn’t start this week.
Part of me was a little surprised that Carr choose to take such a hard-nosed stance this early in the season.
Then again, two words seem to explain it all — Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish lit up the scoreboard against then-No. 23 Pittsburgh Saturday night, scoring five touchdowns on their first six possessions. That the Notre Dame offense was that explosive against a Dave Wannstedt-coached defense makes their already impressive 42-21 win damn near astonishing.
First-year Irish head coach Charlie Weis has been quoted as doubting whether a college defense can prepare for his NFL-style offense in one week.
I’m certain the Michigan defense I saw give up 411 yards to Northern Illinois isn’t up to the challenge.
At least not yet.
Carr seems to have realized that it doesn’t matter what kind of offense his defense faces if his players aren’t up to the challenge. Shaking up the lineup may be what it takes to knock the unit out of the slump it’s been in since late last season.
Carr can’t control what Weis or any other offensive coach throws his way, but he can control how he responds.
We’ll have to wait for Saturday to see what that response is.
Stephanie Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.