Though the Michigan football team’s offense was the center of attention after last week’s two-point loss to Utah, some of the most common criticisms from coaches and players concerned the defense.
It couldn’t stop plays up the middle. It allowed sustained drives. And, even with a line full of veterans, it looked overmatched and outplayed in the first half.
But against Miami (Ohio), the defense proved that redshirt sophomore linebacker Obi Ezeh wasn’t its only weapon.
The secondary was particularly impressive. On a critical third down in the third quarter, senior safety Brandon Harrison broke up a potential six-yard touchdown pass that would have tied the game at 10. Harrison said he yanked the ball out of the arms of wide receiver Chris Givens to force a RedHawk field goal attempt.
“It was man coverage,” Harrison said. “I just couldn’t let him catch the ball. It was third down. I did whatever I could to get the ball out.”
Sophomore cornerback Donovan Warren had two near-interceptions in the second half. Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer said both “probably could have gone for touchdowns.”
Linebackers Jonas Mouton and John Thompson both made their first start of the season, helping to take the load off Ezeh. Mouton started on the weak side and Thompson on the strong side, but before the game, it was thought that Thompson would play in the middle and Ezeh on the outside if the two played together.
“That was kind of weird, but I guess they took a chance and it worked out,” Ezeh said about the shift.
Thompson finished the game tied with Harrison with a team-high eight tackles and Mouton was second with seven.
Though Michigan failed to contain Utah’s inside running game, it stifled Miami’s attempts to run between the tackles. And midway through the fourth quarter, Thompson and senior defensive tackle Will Johnson delivered a bruising hit to the head of Miami quarterback Daniel Raudabaugh, forcing him to the sidelines for the remainder of the game.
“I just remember me squinching because it was a nice hit by our linebackers,” Warren said.
“He got a little wheezy,” Miami coach Shane Montgomery added. “He just stands up and gives them free shots at the head. He can’t do that.”
Consistently inconsistent: If only the first and fourth quarters counted, Michigan would easily be 2-0.
Michigan has yet to score a point in the second or third quarter of a game this year but has outscored its opponents 39-6 in the first and final quarters.
“Comparing last week to this week, we started faster,” defensive coordinator Scott Shafer said. “Last week, we gave them a couple plays there in the first half that made it feel a lot worse than it was.”
But the statistics from both games show a similar progression. Michigan was outscored 19-0 in the middle half of the game against Utah and 6-0 in the span against Miami.
Part of the discrepancy can be attributed to the difference in the Wolverines’ average starting field position, which was nearly identical in both games. In the first and fourth quarters, Michigan started drives on its own 44-yard line against Utah and its own 43 against Miami. But in the middle half of both games, the Wolverines got the ball at the Michigan 21.5 (Utah) and 20.5-yard line (Miami).
Hard edge: As the Wolverines run from the Michigan Stadium tunnel onto the turf, they pass two phrases painted in large, block letters on the concrete ceiling beams.
The last phrase they see before facing 110,000 fans is, predictably, “GO BLUE.”
But the two words painted on the previous beam are unexpected — “HARD EDGE.”
It’s a Rich Rod-ism that emphasizes out-hitting every opponent — or, as Shafer said, it’s playing “hard-nosed, Michigan-style football.”
“We want to get this program to where people fear playing at Michigan Stadium again, and it hasn’t been that way for a lot of years,” Shafer said. “We want that opponent to walk into the Big House, look across the field, see the winged helmets and understand that they’re going to get hit for 60 minutes.”
Injury report: It’s almost become common knowledge that with their new strength and conditioning regimen, the Wolverines are in the best shape of their lives.
But doesn’t mean they’re invincible.
The injury list rattled off by Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez during the postgame press conference included more big names than usual.
Junior wide receiver Greg Mathews said he tried to practice Tuesday after injuring his foot against Utah, but it just made the injury worse. Mathews didn’t play Saturday, but said after the game he would “definitely be back next week” against Notre Dame.
Freshman running back Michael Shaw pulled his groin in the first quarter Saturday. Redshirt junior offensive lineman Mark Ortmann, sporting a block ‘M’ sling on his right arm after the game, suffered an elbow injury in the third quarter. Neither returned to the game.
Rodriguez also said junior running back Carlos Brown was still having some trouble with the wrist injury that has been an issue since fall camp.
“You don’t see the coaches and players saying the sky is falling, but when you step back and look, you already got two linemen out and Mathews and Shaw, Carlos Brown is dinged up, Ortmann — what’s going on?” Rodriguez said.