Seven games in to the 2007 season, Michigan fans are still unsure what to make of their defense. Despite holding the Big Ten's highest rated passer under a blanket and pounding him without mercy, the images of Appalachian State and Oregon sprinting towards the goal line remain the most poignant visions of the season. Because of that it's difficult to believe the defense we saw on October 13, 2007 will be the same defense that will take the field in Champaign on October 20, 2007.
At this time last year Michigan had only given up 95 total points and had limited opposing rushing attacks to 116 carries and 228 total yards (32.6/game) at a 1.4 yard average. The pass defense allowed 1461 yards at a rate of 208 yards a game, despite 257 passing attempts against. They also recorded 24 PBUs and 6 INTs. Further, last year's bone grinding defense had notched 52 TFL, 25 sacks and 6 forced fumbles.
For comparison, Michigan has already given up 141 points, 888 rushing yards on 252 attempts, 126/game and 3.5/carry. The pass defense has given up 1485 total yards on 227 attempts at a 212/game clip. These numbers would seem to indicate a defense on its heels, as the numbers show offenses racking up more yardage this year on fewer passing attempts and running right at the Wolverine defense.
What's strange is that this year's Michigan team has 56 TFL, 25 sacks, 11 INTs and forced 12 fumbles. This is what frustrates people the most. Michigan obviously has the personnel who can accomplish great individual things, but as a team can't put it together consistently enough for these individual efforts to be anything more than details for the back of a Topps card.
Everyone has opinions for why the defense fluctuates like the Chinese stock market. It's the spread. It's Carr's stubbornness. It's the fact we can't recruit linebackers. We lost too many studs from last year. The talent level is down. And so on. However, one strain of frustration runs through every criticism listed above and is either mentioned immediately before or immediately after them, Ron English.
Hailed as a messiah last year when a defense loaded with first round talent dominated the Big Ten, this year, with his defense flailing in the wind, he's been hailed as a lot of other things. Many not fit for print. English's ouster has been called for by fans, message boarders, and bloggers (your's truly) since the first week of the season. From November 4, 2006 (Ball State) through September 29, 2007 (Northwestern) Michigan has been ill prepared to deal with anything but a standard single or double back offense.
Against Ball State we said it was the back ups, so we ignored the fact the defense looked totally out of synch against a spread offense. Against Ohio State we were a little worried because we gave up so many points, but we comforted ourselves with the notion that we could've won the game because the offense was so good. The Rose Bowl showed otherwise. Then ASU. Then Oregon. Then 300 yards in the first half to Northwestern. At a certain point you start to notice a pattern.
In English's defense, it's not as though he began the year starting all conference performers. Brandon Graham was hurt. We were starting two new linebackers, including one that never played the position prior to the season. New safeties. Cornerbacks we knew going into the season that weren't very good. A defensive line we knew next to nothing about.
But we looked past all of that. We wanted to believe, like Notre Dame did last year, that we were unstoppable and that the defense would sort itself out. And if it didn't, the offense would pick up the slack. Not so much. The first two games the offense was as much a disaster as the defense. Forced into short fields on turnovers or to play three quarters of the game, the defense looked tired and over matched. The freshmen and sophomores were taking their lumps and all the Achilles heels we knew existed turned out to be much much worse than first expected.
While Michigan's players perhaps weren't playing at the top of their game, the defensive play calling was atrocious. During Appalachian State, instead using its superior size and strength, Michigan stunted itself out of plays. The defensive backs clearly didn't have a clue what they were doing. Personnel decisions placed players that were not prepared to play on the field and cost Michigan point after point. Soft zones and poor linebacker positioning allowed ASU and Oregon's quarterback to run wild. Oregon successfully executed not one but two Statue of Liberty plays against Michigan.
Against the more traditional offenses of Notre Dame and PSU Michigan shined. They played like we expected they would going into the season. Unfortunately, then Northwestern happened. The same problems that emerged against ASU and Oregon reemerged. The linebackers looked confused. Our Defensive line was stunting itself out of plays. If not for the talent differential between NU and Oregon or ASU, it's fairly conceivable Michigan's yielding of 300+ yards in the first half would've been far worse.
The question becomes how much of this do we lay on English's shoulders? At a certain point we have to acknowledge the Linebackers we have at MIKE and OLB really aren't that good, and English is doing what he can with them. We also have to acknowledge that any defensive line that loses Branch, Woodley and Biggs in one fall is going to suffer a tad. For the most part, these are kids. Terrance Taylor was the only defensive lineman with extensive starting experience going into the year. Trent and Adams were coming off a two week roasting by OSU and USC. This was, at best, a rebuilding defense that would need some time to gel.
And it appears that is finally happening. Michigan's defense played its best football against Purdue. The corner and safety play was excellent. The Line got pressure. The linebackers, well, they weren't horrible (believe men, it's a step up!). Collectively, the defense is playing as a team and when someone misses a tackle other players are there to clean up.
One of the things that caught my eye this week was Jim Carty's column in the Ann Arbor News immediately following the game. English was quoted saying the following:
"We've got guys really listening and buying in right now, and I think we're going to continue to improve."
This quote is encouraging and dismaying at the same time. It seems English finally has the attention of his players and is able to grind a solid performance out of them. This is good. The fact that it took 6 games including two embarrassing home losses is not. We all knew English was a laid back coach. We heard this over and over again during the off season. How he really was in tune with the players. How he helped them to understand their assignments. How they all got together and sung "It's a small world" after every practice.
Maybe this particular group of players needed to be embarrassed before they turned on their hearing aides, but I doubt it. After ASU it should've been clear this team needed tougher love than English was doling out. After Oregon if a chair didn't meet a blackboard in splintery fashion, something ain't right.
All coaches, whether quiet or verbose, must continually find new ways to reach their players/students, otherwise the message gets lost. Maybe English isn't that guy. Maybe he knows only one way to coach, and that's a self motivated method. Maybe I'm totally wrong and taking things out of context. But 7 games into the season, when your team is considered a national title contender at the start of the season, is far too late to have your first complete game against a legitimate opponent.
Regardless of how the season turns out, short of routing Oregon in the Rose Bowl, nothing will erase the sting of this year's first two games. However, if the defense plays like it did against Purdue the rest of the season there may be room for forgiveness. This is heavily caveated on the assumption that Michigan's defense will not go into the same death spiral that engulfed last season's final games this year. If that happens again, a fruit basket and a pink slip are in order. If Michigan becomes dominant, then we've been wrong. But there's a long way to go before either postulate is proven correct.
A year ago people were talking about English as a possible successor to Carr. This year they're wondering whether he should be coaching anything. Quite a difference a year makes.