WEST LAFAYETTE — At first glance, the Wolverines’ defensive play Saturday looked almost the same as every Saturday before.
With the score tied at 28 in the third quarter, on a critical Purdue third-and-9 at the Michigan 30-yard line, Purdue running back Kory Sheets broke multiple Wolverine tackles before being stopped — but not before getting a first down. The Boilermakers tied the game four plays later.
Missed tackles. Failed third-and-long stops. Blown coverage.
The only difference between Saturday and the eight games before it was that the Wolverines ran a new defensive scheme.
But revamped or not, the unit gave up 522 total yards and continued to regress in Michigan’s 48-42 loss to Purdue.
It was the third Big Ten game this year in which the defense has allowed 45 or more points, and this is the first season in Michigan history where the Wolverines have given up more than 40 points in multiple games.
“Tackle better,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said crisply after the game, listing the issues with the defense. “Get off the blocks, break to the ball better, tackle better. That will solve a lot of problems.”
Michigan implemented a stack 3-3-5 defense for Saturday’s game, a change from the 4-3 defense it has run in recent games. The Wolverines started practicing the defense Tuesday, a decision linebacker John Thompson said was made when it was announced Purdue sophomore Justin Siller would likely start in place of injured fifth-year senior Curtis Painter.
Before Saturday, Michigan used the scheme exclusively on third downs against spread offenses.
In theory, the 3-3-5 defense puts more emphasis on pass defense because there are more players in the secondary to eliminate passing lanes.
Against Michigan State on Oct. 25, the Wolverine secondary was torn apart as it missed tackles and failed to get off the field on third-and-long. The Spartans threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns with a 50-percent third-down conversion rate.
On Saturday, with the new defense, the statistics were almost identical. The Michigan secondary allowed 266 passing yards and three touchdowns, and the Boilermakers were 8-of-17 on third-down conversions.
The Wolverine starting linebackers — John Thompson, Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton — weren’t shuffled, but usual cornerback Donovan Warren started at free safety.
A possible reason for Warren’s switch was his lack of physicality while locking down receivers.
“We know (Warren) is fast and he doesn’t get off blocks well, at least as far as what we’ve seen on film,” said Purdue fifth-year senior wide receiver Desmond Tardy, who scored the winning touchdown for the Boilermakers with 26 seconds remaining. “So it’s easier to block him for me, being a slot receiver, because he’s not really wanting all this contact.”
The defensive line personnel rotated throughout the game, with Tim Jamison, Terrance Taylor and Brandon Graham as the starters. Freshman nose tackle Mike Martin, who rotated with Taylor at defensive tackle Saturday, said constantly shifting the line kept them fresh and was a “good decision by the coaches.”
At the beginning of the season, the veteran-laden Wolverine defense was expected to carry the young offense.
But it was the poor play of the defense that ended any hope of a bowl trip for many of those veterans Saturday.
“I thought the strength of the Michigan team was defensively,” Purdue coach Joe Tiller said, looking at the box score during Saturday’s postgame press conference. “Never in my wildest imagination did I think we’d score 48 points.”