Last season, Michigan football fans cringed at the mention of it. It was the worst in the Big Ten and No. 112 in the nation, giving up an average of 262 passing yards per game.
This season, it’s been a different story.
Under new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, the secondary improved to sixth in the conference, giving up an average of 188.5 yards in the air per game — a 143-yard improvement from last year.
But in No. 11 Michigan’s 40-34 victory over Ohio State on Nov. 26, the secondary seemed to jump in a time capsule back to 2010.
The Wolverines gave up 235 yards in the air to the Big Ten’s worst passing offense. Ohio State freshman quarterback Braxton Miller, known more for his legs than his arm, carved up the Michigan secondary with ease.
“We weren’t necessarily expecting them to come out throwing like they did,” said redshirt junior safety Jordan Kovacs. “Obviously they saw something that they liked, stuck with it, and I think they had a good game plan. You gotta give them a lot of credit.”
The game plan played a key role in the Buckeyes’ 34 points, the second highest point total recorded all season. The only other game in which they scored more was in a 37-17 blowout win over lowly Colorado.
Another big part of Ohio State’s success came from its ability to make big plays — something the Wolverines have stressed all season that they need to stop.
“I don’t think you can play any opponent like we did Ohio State,” Kovacs said. “We didn’t do a good enough job keeping the ball in front of us. We gotta do that, and we just can’t give up big plays.”
The first big play of the game came on Ohio State’s opening drive, when Miller found a wide-open Corey Brown 54 yards down the field for the score.
Brown was so open that he could’ve caught the ball, done 15 back flips and given a lecture on the importance of The Game before any Michigan players even touched him.
And on Ohio State’s final drive of the game, the Wolverines just barely escaped giving up a dagger.
With less than two minutes to play and Michigan up by six, Miller saw receiver DeVier Posey streaking down the left sideline. Posey had beaten redshirt junior cornerback J.T. Floyd by at least a step, but Miller just barely overthrew him and the ball fell harmlessly to the turf.
The Wolverines dodged a bullet, but to Kovacs, the remedy for stopping the big play is simple.
“A big play starts with communication,” Kovacs said. “If you aren’t communicating and one guy thinks you’re in a cover four and another guy cover two, it’s gonna be a big play. If you communicate and everybody’s on the same page and you play proper technique, you can’t get beat.”
According to Michigan coach Brady Hoke, it’s not just up to the secondary to stop big plays.
“We didn’t get enough pressure (up front),” he said. “We’ve got to play better throughout a whole play. You have to hold your coverage a little longer, you have to be a little more disciplined with your eyes, and we didn’t do that as well as we needed.”
Regardless of who’s to blame, the Wolverines have just over three weeks to fix their problems in the secondary before they take on No. 11 Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
The Hokies feature a solid pass game led by 6-foot-6 quarterback Logan Thomas, who threw for 19 touchdowns and just nine interceptions this year.
“They’ve got a big quarterback who can throw the ball around,” Kovacs said. “They have big receivers. They’re fast, they’re athletic, everything that you want in a receiver.
“We’ve got our hands full, and we’ve got a lot of adjustments to make.”