On the Defensive: Michigan's Defense Passes Its First Test of the 2010 Football Season

Whilst everyone was drooling over Michigan's offensive performance on Saturday, the Defense was quietly holding UConn's 31.5 points per game offense to 10 points. Not bad for a unit that many considered to be Michigan's Achilles heel heading into the season. But selective statistics are known for telling whatever story you wish for them to tell, and in order for Michigan supporters to have a clearer glimpse of what the Wolverine's defense accomplished on Saturday, we're going to have to delve quite a bit deeper than the final score. We'll take a look at all the numbers, last year and this year, in order to get a better judge of how the defense stacked up on Saturday.

UConn Last Season

As everyone knows, UConn was picked to be one of the top teams in the Big East this year due to the fact they returned 8 starters on Offense including their QB, RB and four of five offensive linemen. UConn was returning almost the exact same team that dismantled 2010 SEC darkhorse South Carolina in the Papa Johns Bowl in January. In that game the Huskies held the ball for almost 11 minutes longer than the Gamecocks and ran for 147 yards against a stout USC defense.

On the season, despite alternating between Zach Frazer and now suspended Cody Endres, UConn averaged 387 yards a game, 171 rushing yards, and 217 passing yards in 2009. The Huskies also averaged 41 rushing plays a game and 29 passing attempts per game. Certainly some of these Numbers are influenced by beating up on tomato cans like Rhode Island and Syracuse, but you're looking at a 70 play a game nearly 400 yards a game offense that returned all but two receivers and their right guard.

UConn This Season

With most of the offense returning, I think it's fair to extrapolate UConn's numbers from last season and apply them to this season's team. You can reduce them by 2o passing yards if you want, based on the loss of two WR starters, but with a returning QB and five of the top seven pass catchers returning I think it's fair to say you could anticipate similar (but decreased) production.

Based on the ratio of plays 41/29, the most important person on the offense is Jordan Todman, UConn's leading rusher. Last season Todman ran for 1188 yards and 14 TDs. One issue, though, is the loss of his back up Andre Dixon who graduated and took his 1093 yards and 14 TDs with him. The onus is clearly on Todman this season to produce in the ground game and back up his 5.1 YPC average from 2009.

At quarterback Zach Frazer threw for 1461 yards, 10 TDs and 9 INTs on split time. Frazer played his best football in the last four games with 7-2 TD/INT ratio. UConn's overall passing numbers were 217 passing yards per game, though Frazer only completed 53.2% of his passes. But, with another year under his belt, you'd expect him to build upon that in 2010.

The Game: Rush Defense

We all know the outcome. Michigan 30 - UConn 10. But there are numbers worth eyeballing. On the ground UConn managed 138 rushing yards. In the air, UConn went for 205 yards. All in all, Michigan held the Huskies to 341 yards, 46 below their season average in 2009. Even better, 42 of those yards came on UConn's futile final drive when the game was completely over. Effectively, Michigan held UConn to 299 meaningful yards.

That's not bad. But there's more to this than that.

On the ground Jordan Todman was his normal productive self, rushing for 105 yards on 20 carries. However, 48 of Todman's yards came in the fourth quarter afterthe score was 30-10. So yay! Looking a little closer though, Todman was remarkably effective when the game was still close, and with Zach Frazer being completely ineffective during the opening two quarters, Todman's 4 and 8 yard runs were often negated by a poorly thrown ball. Additionally, with UConn trailing by 21 points before the midpoint of the second quarter, UConn started throwing the ball more and brought in D.J. Shoemate as a change of pace back.

The Bottom Line:The defense was effective at limiting the non-Todman rushing game, limiting it to 33 yards on the ground (with no sacks to distort the numbers), but Todman was effective early in the game before Michigan decided that it no longer wanted to share the ball. With the quality of UConn's offensive line and a returning 1,000 plus yard rusher, Michigan did alright. Until the fourth quarter they held Todman to 57 yards on 15 carries (3.8 ypc). They also held UConn 11 plays under their season average for rushing plays in 2009. While I'm impressed with those numbers, I'm still a little worried that Todman nailed his season average from a year ago on Saturday. UConn only distributed 8 other non-Qb carries on Saturday, indicating that there isn't a change of pace back like they had last year. Notre Dame does have that luxury, and it may prove to be an issue this Saturday.

The Game: Pass Defense

Going into Saturday, the Michigan pass defense was my biggest area of concern and their play this weekend made me feel a little better about the way the season will go. But it did not assuage my fears. Saturday was more of a salve for recently sutured wound that I'm praying doesn't re-open.

On the day Zach Frazer was 18 of 37, a 48.6 completion percentage. That's pretty damn bad for a guy that wasn't sacked once. The yardage was about on par with a normal Frazer day, 205 yards and an 11 ypa average, but in reality Frazer was pretty awful. Many of his incompletions were low, high, short or wide of their intended target. Then, compounding issues, when he did finally hit his receivers in the hands, they dropped the ball. One of those drops occurred on UConn's second possession when receiver Michael Smith dropped a poorly thrown, but catchable, ball at the Michigan five. Sure he got lit up by Cameron Gordon, but that was after he should've caught the ball and the ball was already on its way to the turf.

This shouldn't take away from the coverage that Michigan's corners and safeties provided within the scope of the zone defense that they were playing on Saturday. James Rogers and J.T. Floydin particular have to be singled up for some outstanding coverage and hits on UConn's receivers when they were in a position to make plays. Neither of the corners let a receiver slip away from them or failed to make a tackle they should've. It was a very, very impressive day for both men.

But the reality is Notre Dame's receivers are far, far better than UConn's. Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolphare All-American calibre players at WR and TE, and the passes that were being dropped by UConn won't be dropped by those two. In particular Michigan's coverage of Rudolph will be critical on Saturday. With 5 catches against Purdue, Rudolph was Dayne Crist's safety valve on shallow crossing routes all afternoon and will most definitely test Michigan's safeties and linebackers in coverage.

The Bottom Line:Michigan's secondary acquitted itself well against a decent UConn passing attack. However, with the scattered efficiency of Zach Frazer and the inability of UConn's receivers to simply hold on to the ball, it's tough to get a real read on how well this unit performed. Three secondary players managed PBUs, but they weren't really challenged through the air in the manner I anticipated they would be. Michigan will have to duplicate this effort against Notre Dame's potent air attack for the Wolverines to have any hopes of pulling out a win in South Bend. If Michigan's zone breaks down or this unit has any trouble tackling, the stats are going to look a lot worse than they did against UConn.

Key Stat:If there's one thing that Michigan fans should be exceedingly happy about it was the defense's refusal to allow UConn to convert on third down. Michigan allowed just 4 third down conversions out of 15 UConn attempts. That, all by itself, is the stat of the game. When Michigan had to get it's stops, it did.

Overall a great performance by the Michigan defense. Even so, they've got a lot of work to do to prepare for Notre Dame. Still, UConn was a veteran team that many (including me) expected to severely test this defense. The fact that UConn was as disorganized and incapable of performing is as much the result of Michigan's preparation as it was UConn's incompetency.

It's only one game, but one game in, Michigan passed its first defensive test of the season.

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