On the Defensive: Taking a Look at Michigan's Defense Versus Notre Dame in the Wolverines' 28-24 Win

If Michigan's defense continues to come to play like it has the last two games, Michigan fans are going to be mighty proud of this group come season's end. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

First, the Bad. Dear God did Michigan give up a pile of yards on Saturday. 535 yards in total. That's not going to win a lot of games. What was worse, Michigan lost Brandon Herron to an ankle injury when he finally looked like he was going to be able to contribute. Gah! As a result, Michigan moved roh back to 'backer while Greg Banks and Renaldo Sagesse and Adam Patterson alternated with middling results on the line. And then there were the issues at safety which I'll get into later in the post. Yeah. I'm still processing those and it's five days later. Finally, Michigan really isn't getting a lot of pressure on the quarterback. We knew it would be a proble with the loss of Brandon Graham to the NFL, but man. This is getting to be rediculous. Thomas Gordon got Michigan's first and only sack of the season on a blitz against Notre Dame, but he's playing spur. Not the line.

Now the Good. You can point to the numbers and scream, but I think they're somewhat deceptive. The majority of Notre Dame's second half yards came from two massive screwups in the secondary, not because they were doing anything efficiently. Notre Dame's second half, with massive screwups removed looked like this:

ND       3rd N27  11:02  Punt          M07  08:48 *FIELD GOAL     8-66   2:14
ND       3rd M23  04:49  Missed FG     M23  04:38  Interception   1-0    0:11
ND       3rd N04  03:26  Punt          N30  00:38  Punt           5-26   2:48
ND       4th N24  11:30  Missed FG     N49  09:40  Punt           5-25   1:50
ND       4th N14  06:05  Punt          N14  05:41  Punt           3-0    0:24
ND       4th N26  00:27  Kickoff       M27  00:00  End of half    3-47   0:27

Tallying that up, including Notre Dame's improbable and personal foul fueled final drive, Notre Dame gained only 164 total yards in the second half and ran only 25 plays. That's pretty damn good. Take away Cullen Christians "WHY GOD WHY!?" hit out of bounds and it's 149. One sustained drive. ONE. That's awesome.

Generally speaking I was fairly happy with the play of the defensive line and the secondary. Kovacs and Floyd had great games. Martin and Roh were completely dominating. But if I told you our linebackers would not only be passable, but be good in Saturday's game, I think you probably would've punched me in the mouth and called me a liar. Brian's already pointed this out, but take away 188 yards of inexplicable secondary screwups on 3 plays and the yardage total is a more manageable 347 yards. Not great, mind you, but average. After last season, I'll take it and ask for seconds.

The Defensive Line

From my vantage point in Notre Dame Stadium and after watching the film, it's tough to really evaluate the Defensive Line. When you're playing a lot of three man fronts you're simply not going to get a lot of pressure on quarterbacks. On the other hand, Michigan's Defensive Line was excellent standing up at the point of attack in the running game and allowed the linebackers and safeties to be in position to make plays, which they thankfully did. One thing that was obvious watching the game was that Martin was damn near impossible to contain the entire game. And this was with two, sometimes three, guys on him. Martin controlled his position in all but a few of the plays on the day and was easily Michigan's best lineman.

I was less enthralled with the play of the rest of the line. Of the remaining group, I thought Ryan Van Bergen probably had the best showing, but I'm starting to wonder about the logic of using him as a DT from time to time. He jsut doesn't seem big enough to stand up to double teams and isn't fast enough to shed the double teams before his size becomes an issue. He'll make some plays, give up some plays on the line. I think that's just how it's going to be until Michigan can get Jibreel Black to step in and taek some heat off, or Greg Banks, Renaldo Sagesse or Adam Patterson show they can consistently apply pressure.

Unfortunately, given the afforementioned players performances on Saturday (not Black, he didn't play AFAIK), Van Bergen's in for a long season. The three headed hydra that am Banks, Sagesse, and Patterson, were bascially just there. Nothing panic inducing, nothing stellar. There were some chances to make plays, but not a lot. This group went up against a decent offensive line and didn't come away with much. But in a way, that's okay. I thought Michigan was great at stopping the run for the majority of the day and the Hydra stiffled the Irish offensive line at the point of attack and allowed Mouton/Ezeh/Kovacs/Gordon to make tackles. And right now, that's all you can ask from them.

Looking at the line as individuals, Martin was an A+ and the rest of the line was a C+. The running numbers aren't great at 154 yards, but there are other things to consider. Like the fact that 32 of those yards came from gumpy white quarterbacks running for what they could find because the secondary had blanketed Notre Dame's receivers. Also worth noting is that no Irish rusher cracked 90 yards. I think this averages out to a B, but Michigan is going to have to get more porduction out of the Hydra and Van Bergen going forward if Michigan is going to stand a chance against power running teams like Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State.

The Linebackers

Frankly, this was one of the best days I've seen from Michigan's linebackers in three years. And it's not just because of Jonas Mouton's incredible day. The entire group played well, flying to tackles, not missing assignements, flowing to the football while maintaining gap responsibility. It was awesome. This group also gets a little extra credit because I'm lumping in Craig Roh and Thomas Gordon with them as well because they spent most of their day in the linebacker's area of influence. Seriously. This was a great day for a group that's received more than its fair share of criticism.

The unquestioned star of this group was Jonas Mouton. I know Craig roh had a great day and bugged the hell out of Notre Dame's quarterbacks and linemen, but he wasn't the force that Mouton was. Mouton was plugging holes, intercepting passes, batting them up into the air so other people could intercept things, making TFLs, and generally stuffing Notre Dame every opportunity that presented itself. He was disciplined and he was effective to the tune of 13 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU, and 1 TFL. Give the man some props, his transformation from last season to this has been amazing to watch.

Likewise, I was impressed with the play of Thomas Gordon in his first full game action. Gordon registered a sack, 2 TLFs and five tackles. Not bad at all for a freshman. I thought he was great in coverage and really seemed to understand where he was supposed to be in the scheme of the defense, and he was powerful in support of the run defense. He's got to play a couple more games like this before I'm officially on the bandwagon, but I thought he looked really, really good.

Watching the film I was impressed with Roh's play, but I'm not quite as in love with him yet as MGo is. Roh was definitely a headache for Notre Dame all game long, but I would've liked to have seen him produce a little more given that he was usually on a single blocker. He's going to be a very effective DE as the season goes on. The toughest thing about judging his production in this game is that he wasn't at his usual position. But overall, I think he was good, not great.

Finally, another good day out of Obi Ezeh. The thought of him transforming into a competent middle linebacker remains at best a dream. But a dream that may be closer to reality after another strong day. Ezeh pursued well and didn't over run plays, shed blocks very well and was overall very effective.

When you consider how well this unit played, you have to give them an A. This group was outstanding.

The Secondary

I'm kind of at a loss how to really grade these guys. J.T. Floyd had a great game and basically shut down Michael Floyd. Across the field, James Rogers was solid all game and when he had to go up against Floyd, he batted away a potential touchdown. Then there was Jordan Kovacs, notching 10 tackles and a pick! Even Cameron Gordon, who was directly responsible for 14 second half points by the Irish, had a decent game if you take away three really bad plays.

Michigan's secondary was great in run support, but more importantly, they forced a lot of scrambles by the ND quarterbacks because no one was open. The three big busts by Gordon were all things that can be coached away. At least I hope so.

But when you subtract the 188 passing yards on big screwups, Notre Dame only managed 193 yards in the air and that's right on par with the UConn game. I realize that I'm making some really big caveats here, but I don't see the point in harping on what we already know was a mistake. Minus thre screwups, this unit gets a B+. With the three screwups, the unit gets a C-. They get a passing grade, but just barely.

Overall

I think Michigan fans got a much better idea of what to expect out of their defense this past Saturday than against UConn. The major problem area we expected coming into the season, the secondary, was the major reason Michigan almost lost a game they controlled the entire day. But on the other hand, this defense looks much, much better than the defense looked at any point last season. Michigan's linebackers are light years ahead of where they were last year, and the Wolverines are getting competent play out of the defensive line and outstanding play out of Mike Martin. There will be plenty to fix over the next two weeks as Michigan prepares for the conference season, but things are no where near as dire as they were the year before. Additionally, despite injuries, this defense has come to play every game and Michigan has been able to plug in new parts with each injury with little drop off. While there are things to work on, this may actually turn out to be a decent defense as the season rolls on.

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