MADISON — Just before the end of the third quarter in the Michigan football team’s 45-24 loss to Wisconsin, ESPN columnist Pat Forde Tweeted, “Greg Robinson working on being fired for the second time in two years.”
Many Michigan fans may be thinking the same thing about the Wolverines’ first-year defensive coordinator, whose squad gave up 469 yards and 45 points Saturday, more than the Badgers posted in a game against 3-6 Football Championship Subdivision team Wofford.
When asked for comment about the defensive performance after the game, Michigan linebackers coach Jay Hopson said, “Greg will handle that.”
Five minutes later, Robinson declined comment to the media for the second week in a row. In those two losses, the Wolverines gave up 963 yards and 83 points.
“We were playing hard, the effort was good, but some of those third and long situations and the obvious pass — those ones, you hope you can make a few stops,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “That was the most disappointing part about the first half. The second half situation, we knew — everybody in the stadium knew what was coming, and we knew what was coming, we still couldn’t stop them. And that’s really frustrating.”
Throughout the game, the defensive coaches made several adjustments to try and slow down the Badger attack.
Redshirt freshman safety Brandon Smith played en lieu of regular starter Mike Williams. Smith played almost the entire game at the line of scrimmage, reading the run. That left walk-on Jordan Kovacs as the last line of defense.
Cornerback Donovan Warren rotated out to safety for several drives as well. Middle linebacker Obi Ezeh, who started for the first time in three weeks, said he didn’t know the reasoning behind Warren’s switch, but that it was something the Wolverines had been practicing since Monday.
“Yeah, reaching,” Rodriguez said when asked about the switches. “We were really, defensively, really reaching to find an answer and to try to stop people.”
Even so, the Wolverines stayed in the game for the first 30 minutes.
In the first half, the Wolverines (1-6 Big Ten, 5-6 overall) had a tough time getting their potent rushing attack off the ground. Helped by several sacks, the Badgers held Michigan to just 20 rushing yards.
But freshman quarterback Tate Forcier was at his best, completing 15 of 18 passes for 139 yards and keeping the Wolverines close. He finished the game 20-of-26 for 188 yards.
He saw the field better than in previous games and found freshman running back Vincent Smith on a 21-yard swing pass on the Wolverines’ second drive to knot the score at seven.
“You know, I thought I played decent,” Forcier said. “There’s always room for improvement. And you know, that’s my job … And we have the biggest game of the year next week, and we’ll come out hungry next week.”
Forcier wasn’t perfect. He still had a tendency to abandon his reads too early and scramble too much, which led to a few untimely sacks.
But he did enough to keep Michigan in the game — and coupled with defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen’s touchdown on a fumble by Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien, the Wolverines headed into halftime with a slim four-point deficit.
After halftime, though, Wisconsin flexed its muscles. The Badgers, the nation’s fifth-best team in time of possession, bled the clock after halftime and controlled the ball for more than 22 minutes. The Wolverines only had 21 offensive plays after the break — seven of which were during a garbage-time drive with a minute left in the blowout game.
“In the second half, it just seems like, defensively, we’re not able to get off the field,” Rodriguez said. “Our offense, we need to be in some rhythm, and when we’re not on the field much offensively and the other team is controlling the ball, it’s hard to get into a rhythm offensively. … We need to evaluate everything: the players, scheme, and try to come up with answers. That’s my job to do as a coach.”
Now, with five wins and one more regular-season game — against Michigan’s fiercest rival, no less — the Wolverines are down to their last chance to earn that elusive bowl-clinching sixth victory.
In order to become eligible to receive a bowl bid, Rodriguez has to earn his first victory against the Jim Tressel-led Buckeyes. Michigan has not won against Ohio State since 2003.
“I’ve asked the team to be the most focused they’ve been all year, and they’ve been pretty focused, but this is the biggest game of the year, every year,” Rodriguez said. “Our guys know that. It’s not a game that’s gonna be hard for either team to get fired up for. It’s Michigan and Ohio State.
“We got a lot at stake. It’s at our place and it’s our seniors’ last home game. … The focus this week should be great. I just hope the play next Saturday is.”