One hundred fifteen points allowed, 1,514 total yards allowed. Three heart-wrenching losses.
Those are statistics from the past three games Michigan has played against the spread offense. Both Oregon and Appalachian State operated out of the spread as Ohio State did last year. And those three squads combined to average 38.3 points and 505 yards against the Wolverine defense.
“The problem is on a week-to-week basis and your preparation,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “For example, when we get ready for a spread team, it’s very difficult for us to simulate that offense. So your defense is never as prepared as, for example, if Oregon played another spread team, they’d be in great shape.”
But while Carr blamed an inability to prepare adequately for the spread offense, defensive coordinator Ron English said it just comes down to simple execution.
“The main thing I want to do is get us to a point where we can be solid,” English said. “I don’t think it matters who we’re playing right now, to be honest, I don’t think the style of offense is the real big issue. I think the issue is tackling, leveraging the ball, keeping the ball in front of you, so that you’re not giving up big plays.”
The Ducks tallied 624 total yards against the Wolverines yesterday – the second-most ever rung up by a Michigan opponent. Oregon averaged more than eight yards per offensive play and had three players gain more than 90 yards rushing.
Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown, but those statistics don’t appropriately explain the damage he was able to do with his legs. Numerous times it appeared Michigan defenders had Dixon and were ready to drop him for a loss of yardage. Dixon eluded them each time, usually gaining an improbable first down in the process.
For Michigan fans, it brought back terrible memories of Ohio State’s Troy Smith last year and Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards last week. Both those quarterbacks are mobile leaders who can escape sacks and make things happen on the run.
And when Oregon coach Mike Bellotti watched the game tape of Appalachian State, he was excited by what he saw.
“It was encouraging, certainly, because we have a mobile quarterback and we run the spread,” Bellotti said. “Obviously the fact that (Michigan) saw (the spread) and had a week to prepare and knew about it, I wasn’t sure what that was going to do. We are a different team (than ASU).”
But Bellotti didn’t see the Wolverines’ defense make any adjustments, and the Ducks’ offense took full advantage.
They scored on five of their six first-half drives, with touchdowns finishing the job four times. And just one week after attempting only 15 passes against Houston, Dixon took to the air early, often and effectively against the Wolverines. He completed 16 of 25 passes for 292 yards, including three long touchdowns of 85, 61 and 46 yards.
On each of those touchdowns, an Oregon receiver simply raced past a Michigan defender, raising the oft-asked question of whether there is a significant speed difference between the Pac-10 and Big Ten Conferences.
“I don’t know if (the difference in speed) is the biggest difference (between the conferences), but it’s definitely one of the differences that I noticed very well,” Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart said. “Just running the ball, their linebackers don’t change direction as fast as other defenses in our league.”
Speed is an integral factor in the spread offense, and Michigan has recently had trouble with both. They lost the three aforementioned games, and also struggled against a faster USC team in last season’s Rose Bowl.
The quick pace of the spread offense makes it difficult to substitute defensive players, and fatigue definitely became a factor for the Michigan defense late in the first half Saturday.
“It’s kind of funny,” Stewart said. “I was looking at one of the d-linemen, and I was like ‘Aw, they about to quit.’ So I mean, I’m thankful for our offensive coordinator . and we caught them off guard a lot (with the fast pace).”
On several plays, it appeared that the Wolverine defense wasn’t set when the play was called, and had to scramble to get into position.
“Oregon just hustled guys in and out, in different formations, and so we were getting the call late,” defensive tackle Terrance Taylor said. “I’m not making excuses, but we were getting the call late, and we couldn’t get where we needed to be, and that’s how they got a couple of big runs.”
Fortunately for Michigan, Oregon is the last “spread” team it will face until a possible bowl game. None of the teams in the Big Ten run the spread (Ohio State abandoned it after Smith left), and the Wolverines should be relieved to face some familiar competition.
“It’s a more simple offense,” Taylor said. “It’s not the spread. For the spread, you got to roll different guys in for different plays, so (Notre Dame) is more of a Big Ten kind of offense, just the same guys all the time, like we do.
“We’re just ready to move on. We’re not going to hold our heads down. We’re Michigan, so we’re not going to do that. We’re going to next Saturday with the intent to win. Go blue.”