The Wolverines turned games into a grind for opposing teams, and that allowed Michigan to field a top-25 defense despite not being exceptional at any one aspect of the game. The defense executed as a whole, caught a few breaks and came up with big stops at important times.
The South Carolina game last week was anything but that. From the very beginning, the Wolverines looked out of sorts, as South Carolina went deep on its third play from scrimmage and scored on a 56-yard touchdown pass. The worst was still yet to come.
There won't be many people walking away from the Outback Bowl loss with a real great feeling about the defense. It was an up and down day that was only really seen two other times this year, first against Alabama in the opener, then against Northwestern late in the season.
Most of the rest of the year Michigan's defense followed the script -- make teams drive the field, convert third downs, and get touchdowns in the redzone. Even poor stretches against Ohio State and Air Force were eventually overcome by the defense* as it clamped down and finished games strong. While the offense swung wildly in different directions, the defense was the rock. A steady unit that you could set your watch by.
In light of this, the big plays given up by the defense against South Carolina are both disturbing and not necessarily indicative of anything bigger. Michigan played without its best corner (two best if you really want to count the Countess loss -- something that has hung in the background all season as a big blow often overlooked) which threw the rest of the unit into disarray. Some players had to step up to fill other positions, and that doesn't always go off smoothly.
Still, that South Carolina so blatantly attacked the middle of the field with downfield throws while Michigan tried in vain to get any sort of pressure is disconcerting. It may not mean anything going forward as this team gets more athletic, but with such a small sample size in football -- 13 or 14 games at most -- these problems loom larger than in other sports.
*(There is an argument to be made that the defense eventually overcame its problems against Northwestern -- and given the great overtime defensive stand that is a valid point.)