Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Michigan Defense Makes Tough Stand against Illinois, Will Face Stiff Test against Nebraska

Michigan defeated Illinois last Saturday, 31-14, largely because of what looked like an overpowering defense. Last week, the Wolverines had dropped 9 ranks in the polls after their loss to Iowa, going from No. 15 to No. 24 for the Illinois game. Michigan apparently fixed a lot of its mistakes—though there are still many—as it was able to score a touchdown on its first drive and shut out Illinois for the entire first half. We have really seen the difference between last year's coaches and the one led by Greg Mattison and Brady Hoke.

Despite giving up two touchdowns and a couple of big plays, the defense overall had an outstanding game. It is perhaps more outstanding because, with mostly the same players, the team gave up 65 points in a triple overtime win only a year earlier. 2010's defense couldn't stop anybody. In this game the defense racked up four sacks, limiting Illinois to 37 net rushing yards. The defense was hardly flawless, however. At least three times the defenders bit on the zone-read option play when Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse kept the ball himself, and one of those resulted in one of Illinois's two touchdowns.

Aside from Michigan's sacks, the defense was impressive in its third down stance. Illinois only converted 5 of 17 third downs, many of which were on third and one. Michigan cornerback J.T. Floyd also played well: he not only did a good job containing Illinois primary receiver A.J. Jenkins, but Floyd also picked off one of Scheelhasse's passes and returned it for 43 yards. Again, this might not sound like much, but it is impressive given how much Scheelhasse and the Illinois offense was able to completely pick apart the Michigan defense last year. This squad has really improved.

Most of Michigan's struggles, however, came on offense. Denard Robinson scored Michigan's first two touchdowns rushing, but his total rushing yards were limited. He was also injured in the second half, which prompted Devin Gardner to play from under center. Gardner himself has been questionable all year, despite our encouraging profile piece on him a while back. Gardner did show a bit of improvement as quarterback, most notably with a pass to Martavious Odoms that went for a touchdown. Our estimation is that Gardner will improve with more experience. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint also had a really good game, racking up a career-high 192 yards rushing. Illinois never even sniffed that.

As is often the case following a win, there's a lot of optimism around the Michigan blogs and a lot of praise surrounding the defense. In both their posts and weekly podcast, MGoBlog gives rightful props to the defense and is quite impressed with J.T. Floyd:
A.J. Jenkins may have gotten his requisite eight catches for 100 yards but Scheelhaase had to work for it. At one point they showed some Jenkins stats and noted that he had five catches… and fourteen targets. According to Adam Jacobi he ended with eight on 20. That's 5 [yards per attempt] throwing to a guy who may be the best [wide receiver] in the Big Ten.

Even that undersells Floyd's day. The deep ball that took Jenkins's stats from mediocre to decent was zone coverage in the middle of the field Floyd was not directly responsible for (and it came after Scheelhaase was given all day). When involved Floyd was all over double moves and jumped a third and short pass for the interception that sealed the game with a little help from Gardner and Odoms.
Dave at Maize n Brew has let out a much-needed sigh of relief that Michigan was finally able to get to eight wins, something it hasn't achieved since 2007. "The transformation of this defense has been astounding," he wrote. "Through 10 games Michigan has 21 sacks. This compared to a paltry 18 sacks through 13 games last season. Over the past three years Michigan's defense has allowed Juice Williams, Justin Siller, and Matt McGloin to torch it. Read that again and try not to cry. But today... man... it's just amazing. This is now a defense that corralled a mobile, talented quarterback to the tune of four sacks and a pick. Even more impressive, they held Illinois to just 37 yards rushing. 37 yards. That's almost a 10th of the 315 rushing yards they gave up a year ago. The difference is night and day. And the difference is shown in the win column. Eight."

This was a good win. Michigan still isn't a world-beater on both sides of the ball, but it was nice to see the Wolverines get down in the grit and stuff Illinois when they absolutely had to. That's why defense is so important: when the other team isn't scoring, even if your own offense isn't as productive as you'd like them to be, it still takes a lot of the pressure off.

"We are really proud of our kids," defensive-minded Brady Hoke said in a recent press conference, "and how they played on Saturday, how they went out there as a team. I think we really complemented each other as a football team, in a lot of ways. Offensively, taking the ball down in the first possession and scoring always helps you, from a mindset and your enthusiasm when you play the game. Defensively, I thought our defense played awfully well, and played together."

Michigan last two games of the regular season will be played at home, the first of which is against Nebraska. This will arguably be the toughest test Michigan, and certainly their defense, will face before a bowl game. (Ohio State, having lost to Purdue but having beaten Wisconsin, is difficult to analyze.) Nebraska has played well all year, with its only two losses of the season so far coming to Wisconsin, which was expected, and Northwestern, in an upset. MGoBlog isn't too worried about Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, however: "…if you've ever watched Martinez throw…eesh. Imagine Denard passing, but instead of an arm he has a chicken wing. Expect to see Jordan Kovacs nuzzling the line of scrimmage frequently."

Meanwhile, Nebraska's defense may prove to be the difference. It is a lot better than Michigan State's. Recently Michigan's offensive coordinator Al Borges has said that the Nebraska defense is "good. Well coached. I had an opportunity to coach against coach Pelini when I was at Auburn. They do a great job with their four match zone, where they take your guys away. They cover you. They're one of those defenses like a couple we're played this year that really want to take it all away. They don't want the ball checked down. They don't want the ball thrown down field. They want to take away the run. There's no bend but don't break in their style. They know what they're doing, and they know how to coach."

Before the season started, Nebraska was the game I was most worried about, giving Michigan's chance to win a measly 17%. The season has evolved and changed a lot since then: I also expected Michigan to lose to what I thought was going to be a very prepared Notre Dame.

Can Michigan afford to lose to Nebraska? Well, yes and no. As a true fanatic, I can't say that Michigan is ever allowed to lose any game, but like Iowa, a loss to Nebraska won't be soul-crushing. They are a good team who have come into the Big Ten and have made a statement. 

Like most of the Big Ten teams, however, they've also been upset in surprising defeats. I almost want to say that Michigan should use this game as preparation for Ohio State, because that's essentially all it is. Michigan will not be going to the inaugural Big Ten Championship game, which we never really expected since all we wanted was an 8-4 season with OSU and MSU being among those eight.

Illinois had a good rushing defense, but Michigan dominated it. Nebraska, of course, is better, but since Michigan wasn't completely routed or stalled by the Illini, there is the thought that they can muster the same performance. Hopefully it would carry over, because Ohio State has a good defense, too.

It will be an adequate test, before the ultimate one.

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