Those Who Play Defense Will Be Champions

Ernest_shazor_2003_medium

Ernest Shazor 2003

The last Michigan Big Ten conference championship in football was the 2004 season when they finished 7-1 in conference and 9-3 overall. This was a shared conference title with the Iowa Hawkeyes.  Searching for Michigan's last outright Big Ten championship in football would take us all the way back to 2003 (7-1, 10-3 overall).  The last time Michigan won a Big Ten title AND won their bowl game was a full 10 years ago, back in 2000 (6-2, 9-3 overall) following a Citrus Bowl win over Auburn 31-28.

The five year championship drought is one of the longest in Michigan football history. There was a 14 year gap between Michigan's 1950 and 1964 conference championships in football. Kind of hard to imagine waiting around that long for a piece of hardware to make its way into the university's athletic display case.

I take that back.

It's not so hard to imagine anymore.

It's now 2010 and the wait continues. We're at year three under head coach Rich Rodriguez and his famous no huddle, spread option offense, which was supposed to shred Big Ten defenses into ribbons and torch the Fieldturf surface of Michigan Stadium with one big play after another. While these banners of excitement have been up for quite a while, the offensive fireworks haven't ignited just yet. Michigan did make some significant steps forward in 2009 over 2008, and there are signs for more improvement on offense in 2010.  But following a 1-7 finish in league play, Big Ten championships for Michigan football seem farther away than ever before.

 

What About Defense?

When it comes to conversations about Big Ten football championships, the boxing gloves really need to be set aside for a moment about which offensive system is most effective (pro set, pass-centric shotgun or read spread option), which quarterbacks and linemen are the best fit for the offensive system, which running back will likely hit the 1,000 yard mark, or which Wolverine wide receiver really deserves to don the No. 1 jersey this fall. 

The conversation now needs to focus on Michigan's defensive performance.  Unfortunately, Michigan football today is not irrelevant in the context of potential Big Ten championships precisely because it is not competitive on the defensive side of the ball, and has not been competitive for many years.  

There are good reasons why Ohio State and Penn State have either won outright or shared every Big Ten title since 2006.  It has very little to do with the play-calling brilliance of Jim Bollman or Galen Hall.  It has nothing to do with pro set vs. read spread option philosophy.  It has nothing to do with the league's best running back, best offensive line or the search of the next Charles Woodson.

The key to winning the Big Ten championships in college football is quite simple. And Michigan's strategic team objectives every year should be very straight forward as well.  Recent history clearly indicates that the Big Ten champion in football almost always fields the best scoring defense and best rushing defense in the conference.

 So here's the formula. Are you ready?

Top Run Defense + Top Scoring Defense (red zone D, stop big plays) = Big Ten Bling

You don't have to have the top run and scoring defenses nationally, just in the context of the Big Ten.  You don't have score the most points, or rush for the most yards. You don't have to be good in every offensive or defensive category either.  It wasn't always the case, but for six out of the last seven college football seasons, the team that has both led the Big Ten in scoring defense and rushing defense (least yards allowed rushing) has either won outright, or shared the Big Ten championship.

Big Ten Champions & Defensive Performance

Year

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

Conference Champ

UM

Iowa, UM

OSU, PSU

OSU

OSU

OSU, PSU

OSU

Best Scoring Defense

UM

UW

OSU

OSU

OSU

PSU

PSU

Best Rushing Defense

OSU

Iowa

OSU

UM

OSU

PSU

OSU

Best Passing Defense

PSU

UW

OSU

UW

OSU

OSU 

Iowa

 

This is precisely the space Michigan used to occupy years ago, but no longer does.  This is the space Michigan needs to re-occupy, or at least come reasonably close to occupying, in order to place itself in the mere position to compete on a semi-serious level again.

When we look at Michigan's scoring and rushing defensive performances of 2007, 2008 and 2009, our perspective changes to consider:

1. Just how far away from a conference championship in football Michigan may really be today,

2. How much more Michigan's past championship football teams should be revered.

To lead the league in scoring defense and rushing defense is not an easy achievement. However, two conference teams and two notable defensive coordinators have succeeded in making it look remarkably easy.  Those teams are Ohio State and Penn State. And the two defensive coordinators are Jim Heacock and Tom Bradley, respectively.

Ohio State and Penn State apparently figured out quite a while ago that you don't necessarily need a lock down secondary.  Scoring defense and rushing defense is "where the rubber meets the road" in Big Ten football these days.  Apply 20% of your coaching effort and focus in this area and earn 80% of your desire results (victories).

Scoring Defense (Points per Game)

Year

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009


Michigan

15.9

21.9

19.3

14.6

20.3

28.9

27.5

 

Ohio State

16.8

19.3

14.8

10.4

10.7

13.1

12.2

 

Penn State

21.3

15.3

16.5

14.8

17.6

12.4

11.8

 

Michigan State

23

27.2

28.7

28.4

26.8

21.9

25.1

 

Iowa

16.1

16.9

19

20.3

18.8

13.3

15.5

 

Wisconsin

23.2

14.6

24.9

11.9

23.3

25.3

22.4

 

 

It's worth noting that the Michigan Wolverines have not led the league in scoring defense since 2003, though they came very close in 2006.

 

Jim_heacock_medium

Ohio State Defensive Coordinator Jim Heacock:

"28 points per game scoring defense? I'm holding back an uncontrollable fit of laughter with every fiber of my being, Michigan fans...but failing....bwaha....miserably...bwhahahaahaha!"

Rushing Defense (Yards Allowed)

Year

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

Michigan

1448

1336

1497

516

1809

1643

2063

Ohio State

726

1416

819

1122

925

1379

1001

Penn State

2509

1422

1090

1054

1055

1151

1127

Michigan State

1393

2069

1811

1594

1609

1771

1353

Iowa

1148

992

1343

1667

1464

1179

1464

Wisconsin

1649

1292

2079

1260

1677

1599

1086

 

Not surprisingly Michigan's 2006 squad had one of the best rushing defenses in Big Ten football history (516 yards allowed).

While good scoring defense and rushing defense appear to be directly correlated with winning Big Ten championships, there's an interesting and more recent (last 3 years) trend going on with passing defense as well.  While Ohio State fielded the best passing defenses in 2007 and 2008, the Iowa Hawkeyes beat out OSU in that regard in 2009, and came damn close to winning the Big Ten title.  See below:

Passing Defense (Yards Allowed)

Year

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

Michigan

2005

2255

2327

2533

2156

2760

2657

Ohio State

2755

2282

2209

2154

1778

1972

2149

Penn State

1840

1785

2282

2294

2624

2016

2198

Michigan State

3157

2508

2694

2771

2607

2524

3019

Iowa

2616

2188

2802

2424

2750

2295

1976

Wisconsin

2617

1743

3111

1662

2525

2269

2639

 

What Michigan Needs Defensively

Consistency at Defensive Coordinator

Gee, you think that might help a little? The Wolverines are on their 4th defensive coordinator over the last 6 years.  This is a personnel issue over which teams like Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa have lost little if any sleep the last several years.  Coaching changes creates uncertainty. It affect recruiting yields, player development and the amount of player attrition.  The results between 2004 and 2009 in these categories no doubt degraded the Wolverines' consistency and power on defense not only by Big Ten standards, but nationally as well. Another 5-7 football season and more coaching changes, while perhaps justified, is unlikely to improve matters here.

Recruiting versus Player Attrition

It has been suggested by me repeatedly that college football teams simply can't experience years like Michigan's 2005 and 2007 seasons with 48% and 60% recruiting class yields, and then hope to have a snowball's chance in hell of winning Big Ten conference championship in football.  Part of the problem has been either a lack of common sense or poor judgment by the football coaches when recruiting. This is not uncommon and happens to other teams too. Another part of the problem is extremely bad kharma, or the inexplicable intervention of some non-worshipped, angry deities that dislike Michigan football for some reason. Either way, Michigan appears to have been affected by these problems more than their conference rivals.  High recruiting class yields fill out the roster faster, ensure sufficient-to-strong competition at every starting position, as well as more coaching options at each position.  Lower recruiting yields means fewer players, fewer options, and football coaches making higher risk decisions that can lead to more undesirable outcomes (losses). Rodriguez has proven to be a pretty good recruiter so far. He's also managed so far to hang on to the majority of his own recruits, which is a positive, but also sort of expected.

Better Player Development

I think Michigan could have done a lot better in this department in recent years, particularly on defense.  But coaching changes and new defensive philosophies can place the advancement of some players on pause, while accelerating the development of others.

In 2010 Michigan will field a comparatively young, but more experienced, defensive football team at most positions.  Players will nail down the defensive packages and how to execute them faster with more practice, playing time and self-confidence.

More Focus on Scoring and Rushing Defense

The most recent nationally-relevant Michigan defensive teams were the 2006 and 2003 football squad.  In other words, it's been a while. 

UM Def. Coord.

Hermann

English

Shafer

Robinson

SCORING DEFENSE

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

Points Per Game

15.9

21.9

19.3

14.6

20.3

28.9

27.5

National Rank

7

38

22

8

23

81

80

 

Ron_english_medium

Michigan Defensive Coordinator Ron English 2006-2007:

"By pressing this switch, your offense will be automatically relegated to 43 yards rushing per game.

It's kind of like magic or something. "

So Rodriguez is placing a lot more emphasis on defense, and for good reason. Michigan has finished 9th in the Big Ten in total defense for two straight years, and has been hovering dangerously at 80th in the nation in scoring prevention.  In rushing defense, Michigan finished 10th in the 11 team league. 

 

So any focus that Rich Rodriguez and Greg Robinson might be contemplating for 2010 can't be just on "defense as a whole". That would be biting off more than they can chew.   Juggernaut status occurs overnight only in EA sports video games.  If Michigan's 2010 defense could simply perform a few things really well (shutting down rushing attacks and tougher redzone defense), even at the expense of other things like stopping 3rd down conversions and poor pass defense, the probability of victory could be much higher for the Maize and Blue.

The worst passing defensive team in the Big Ten was Michigan State (3,019 yards surrendered). They still qualified for a bowl game and gave the most pass centric offense in the nation, Texas Tech, a run for their money.  The four worst rushing defenses in the Big Ten did not qualify for a bowl game (Illinois, Purdue, Michigan and Indiana).

The Wolverines lose 3 of their best defensive players to graduation from 2009: DE Brandon Graham,  LB Stevie Brown and CB Donovan Warren.  Rodriguez will be hauling in a record high 15 defensive position players in the 2010 recruiting class compared to just 10 in 2009 and 8 in 2008.  While the Wolverine offense is still not yet running at full throttle, the UM coaching staff appears to be placing greater emphasis on fortifying the defensive roster and improving performance there going into the 2010 season.  Michigan allowed 135 yards rushing per game in 2008 and 154 rushing yards per game in 2009. 

And what of the eventual Big Ten champion in 2009 (Ohio State)? They were Scrooges.  Giving up a measly 83 yards on the ground per game.  

UM Def. Coord.

Hermann

English

Shafer

Robinson

RUSHING DEFENSE

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

Surrendered Rush Yds

1448

1336

1497

516

1809

1643

2063

National Rank

24

27

44

1

57

46

93

 

Defensive Coord.

Hermann

English

Shafer

Robinson

TOTAL DEFENSE

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

Total Surrendered Yards

3453

3591

3824

3049

3965

4403

4720

 

More competition at each position, better talent and player development, plus improved speed and conditioning will all help Michigan. But the on-field results are already speaking volumes: Michigan is not a defense-oriented football team right now, and until it becomes one again - at the very least in the category of rushing defense - the best Wolverine football fans can hope for is bowl eligibility.

 

 

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