Markus Curry doesn’t know what to call it. I called it a “swagger,” but he wasn’t too sure about that.
No one can really put their finger on what has the Michigan defense playing like Wolverines again.
Maybe it’s the claw.
The Wolverines gave the student body 11 chances to showcase the claw for a national TV audience, shutting down Purdue’s patented spread offense for four quarters Saturday.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Michigan’s defense has given up just 34 points in six home games and 82 points in three road games. At home, the Wolverines – like the students – have grown claws. They never stop attacking their prey, playing with a confidence that is devastating to their opponent. But it seems that as soon as they hit the road and become the hunted instead of the hunter, the Wolverines immediately look like they’ve been de-clawed.
With the potent Michigan State offensive attack looming next week in East Lansing – that sounds really weird, I know – the Michigan defense can’t afford another, “Where did our claws go?” episode.
So, Sparty’s gimmicky spread offense awaits. What did the Wolverines learn this week about defending the spread?
Never stop attacking. Michigan defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann really outdid himself this week. It would have been very easy for the Wolverines to sit back in a zone defense and play with the “Let’s just avoid giving up big plays” philosophy. Instead, Herrmann loosened the reins on the Wolverines, allowing them to claw their way to three turnovers and four forced fumbles.
Herrmann knew that Purdue could eat Michigan alive with its short passing attack. The Wolverines’ only option was to put together a defensive package sprinkled with safety and corner blitzes, forcing quarterback Kyle Orton to make quick decisions with the ball. Herrmann’s plan – which emphasized linebackers disguising their coverages by showing blitz but instead backing up into coverage – had Orton looking like a scared, confused little child, lost in the grocery store looking for his Mommy.
In this grocery store, Larry Stevens was the can of Jolt, constantly running his motor – and his mouth – to keep the Wolverines focused. On Purdue’s first second-half possession, the Boilermakers drove all the way to the Michigan 4-yard line. But Stevens, who teammates say is the loudest Wolverine, chased down Orton for a six-yard sack. Purdue ended up kicking a field goal, as the Wolverines stopped Purdue for a second time in the red zone.
Michigan’s defense has excelled in the red zone this season. Curry says it’s because the Wolverines are constantly preparing for different scenarios that put their back against the wall to unfold. For instance, the defense loved it at the end of the first half when John Navarre fumbled the ball to Purdue deep in Michigan territory. Sharpen those claws, boys.
Just like in Michigan’s loss at Iowa, when the Wolverines held the Hawkeyes to back-to-back field goals after being faced with bad field position, the defense found a way to keep its prey out of the endzone. True freshman cornerback Leon Hall intercepted a horrendous Orton pass to keep the Boilermakers off the scoreboard.
Not in our house.
What sets this Michigan defense apart is its senior leadership. Cornerback Jeremy LeSueur, linebacker Carl Diggs, defensive tackle Grant Bowman and Stevens have been in every imaginable situation during their careers and know how to motivate their teammates. They’re also playing the best football of their careers.
LeSueur, who Curry says is the toughest guy on the defense, is playing through a shoulder injury. But don’t think that’s holding him back – LeSueur is issuing the blows. LeSueur had six tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and two pass deflections Saturday.
Grant Bowman is tough as nails. In fact, he’s got screws holding his massive body together after five years of destruction. Curry sees Bowman as the leader of the defense, keeping everyone together when times are good and bad.
And then there’s Diggs. The fifth-year senior stops the run better than anybody, as he showed by forcing the fumble that put the Boilermakers away. Diggs was on the brink of picking off Orton several times, brilliantly executing Michigan’s disguised coverages.
The seniors have presented a firm foundation for Michigan’s unbelievably talented youth to flourish within. Lawrence Reid is becoming a more-than-dependable linebacker. Curry and Hall are making it tough for opponents to strictly throw away from LeSueur. Pierre Woods and Ernest Shazor are playing like the freaks of nature we always thought they’d become. In other words, this defense is shaping up to be a dominant force for years to come.
As bowling ball/defensive tackle Gabe Watson said after Saturday’s game, the defense only has a swagger “if we can do it two games in a row.”
Without the students showing the defense the way the next two games, it will be up to Herrmann and the Wolverines to make sure they’re not de-clawed.
J. Brady McCollough can be reached at email@example.com.