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On the Defensive: Taking a Look at Michigan's Defense Versus Michigan State in the Wolverines' 17-34 loss

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Below is MGoVideo's outstanding video compilation of every defensive snap from Saturday. I couldn't break down last week's game without it so, as usual, my unending thanks for his seemingly tireless work. Watch it, review it, think about it. Every defensive play from Saturday's loss to Michigan State (it's really not as bad as you think):


Initial Thoughts

First, the Bad. Holy crap were there some critical mistakes in this game. I don't have a clue what Obi Ezeh was doing on the two big touchdown runs. It looked like he was flowing to where he thought the running back was going eventually but he completely misread the play, and the cut back lanesuper highway lead to six points... /urp/... Cameron Gordon was alternatively very good and aggressive or DEAR GOD WHAT ARE YOU DOING!? Then, poor Cullen Christian gets torched on a simple, no-move fly route to the endzone. Michigan did against MSU what it hadn't done since Notre Dame, make the catastrophic mistake that allowed easy touchdowns. The pass defense was abysmal. Michigan State competed passes of 44 (TD), 42, and 34 yards on the day. I think the worst thing about this performance was that Michigan can point directly at the performance of a couple of players for 21 points. And that really sucks.

Now, the Good. This may surprise you, but I though Michigan's defense actually played relatively well for long stretches of the game. The line got some pressure. J.T. Floyd is actually a pretty good football player. He finished the game with 10 solo tackles an 13 total. Usually he was the guy cleaning up everyone else's horrible mistakes. What really surprised me was that State was only four of 13 on third down attempts. If not for some incredibly ill-timed penalties, the score would've been much different. I wasn't pleased with the performance, but I've gotta tell you, it really wasn't as bad as I thought.

But it was still bad.

Positional reviews after the jump..............

Positional Reviews

The Defensive Line: Mike Martin, Ryan Van BergenCraig Roh were all okay early on. It wasn't until the game went into the tank that the line started to show some weariness. I'll be honest, I don't know how to grade the line this week. When I initially watched the game film, my supposition was that Obi Ezeh missed a pair of assignments that led to a pair of touchdowns. After reading Brian's Defensive UFR, I'm not so sure anymore. Adam Patterson was not very good and neither was Greg Banks, though I don't think Banks' day was as bad as it was made out to be. Jibreel Black had a rough game, but he's a freshman, so what do you expect going up against what appears to be a decent Big Ten offensive line?

I was grateful to see that Michigan played four guys on the line for most of the downs. This was a net positive. Michigan got a lot of pressure on Cousins and perhaps more importantly showed some teeth in the trenches. Still, Michigan State gashed the defense for 250 rushing yards. Even if you subtract the 102 yards of "Sweet Jesus, how big was that hole?" touchdown runs, Michigan still gave up 148 yards on the ground.

The line looked stout for a quarter, but then the wheels fell off. Because the linebackers are next, I'm not going to ding them too much, but this is still a C- performance.

The Linebackers: It's gotten to the point where I honestly have to single out the efforts by Thomas Gordon and Jonas Mouton from whatever performance Ezeh turns in. Even if you were to give him the benefit of the doubt on the two touchdown runs, he still had an awful day. Critical facemask penalties, whiffing on tackles, poor angles, generally looking lost. It's gotten to the point where whatever you want to say about his performance has already been written by someone, somewhere. The bottom line is this, he's not a Big Ten linebacker, and as long as he's on the field I don't see this defense getting any better. It sucks saying that about someone who, by all accounts, is a good young man. But it is what it is.

On the other hand, I thought Jonas Mouton was decent and I'm quickly become a very big fan of Thomas Gordon. Mouton had a standard workmanlike day, and continues to demonstrate that he is, in fact, a competent linebacker with the ability to make some big time plays. The thing that really stood out as the game went on was how State would attack whatever side of the line Mouton wasn't covering. They'd try to get a man on him, but the Spartans preferred to run at the hole in the defense occupied by #45. Gordon made some great reads on the screens and had some authoritative tackles. Mouton was generally pretty good when he didn't have two linemen in his face. J.B. Fitzgerald and Craig Roh played some linebacker at odd times, but both were more down linemen than linebackers. 

Michigan has two servicable to good players at linebacker right now. The problem is, neither play middlelinebacker. Michigan's linebacker play at this position basically cost them half a dozen stops, prolonged drives that were dead in the water, and put points in the bad guy's total. C+ for Mouton, Gordon, and Roh. F for Ezeh. It's just not getting any better.

The Secondary: Without a doubt this was Cameron Gordon's worst day as a safety. He was often out of position. He whiffed on tackles. He tried to bludgeon ball carries rather than tackle them. He bit on play action fakes the way a fat kid goes after a desert bar. He took a horrible pursuit angle that allowed the first big touchdown run. In coverage he looked confused as well. He couldn't decide whether he was going for the knock out shot or the kill on the Brian Linthicum (TE) completion. That was his day in a nutshell. Operating somewhat unhinged and confused the entire day.

With regard to the Mark Dell touchdown catch over Cullen Christian, I'll defer to Touch the Banner.

Rogers's replacement at cornerback, Cullen Christian, has been noted by this blog(and many others' observations) for his lack of speed; he was almost immediately beaten deep by Spartan receiver Mark Dell.

The kid is not very fast. Hopefully it's something he can work on, but I'm not optimistic based on what I saw. But if you take these two out of the equation, the secondary wasn't as bad as you'd think. Say what you want about J.T. Floyd, but I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that he is one hell of a football player. Switching between safety and corner Floyd led the team in tackles and was often Michigan's last hope to prevent a touchdown. Floyd has good coverage on the day really seems to be a guy that will develop into a good corner/safety the more he plays.

Jordan Kovacs was his normal, reliable self. The thing that's surprised me the most about Kovacs is that he's actually turning into a good TE cover safety. Despite his size, Kovacs is consistently dragging bigger men to the ground and wrapping up his tackles. Regarding Rogers, better than meh. He wasn't to blame for anything other than a lousy facemask penalty. Frankly, I thought his coverage was decent. It says something when you watch him in tight man coverage and he's fine. The second he's off the field, his replacement gives up a touchdown. Rogers may not be the second coming of Charles Woodson, but he's nowhere near as bad as people have made him out to be. Finally, Terrence Talbott and Courtney Avery saw some time, but were unremarkable to me. That's a good thing, yes? Gordon's awful day drags the whole average down. Gordon was an F, Christian an F. Everyone else, B. That averages out to a D-.


I really don't know what to tell you. There were a lot of things that looked promising going forward. The biggest thing of promise was announced earlier today, Kenny Demens will finally spend some time replacing Ezeh. I think Cameron Gordon's awful day is a coachable fix. He's athletic enough and has shown a propensity to bounce back from bad showings. Michigan's going to need that desperately against Iowa.

Michigan actually did adapt their defense to fit their opponent. I called for a 4-2-5, and to an extent, that's what they ran. This is the first time I can remember that happening under Rodriguez. Excepting the massive screwups by Gordon, Ezeh, and (according to MGo) Patterson and Banks, the defense actually looked better than it did at any point this season. I know I may beam reaching here, but let's say Michigan only gives up two rather than three easy touchdowns because Gordon or Ezeh play better. All of a sudden it's a winnable game.

So much of the rest of the season is going to hinge on Gordon's improvement and someone else taking over the middle linebacker position, that it's tough to tell you how the rest of this will turn out. Michigan's line is decent. There's promise in the secondary. Michigan has two functional linebackers in Gordon and Mouton. All I can do is hope and pray that somehow there continues to be slight improvement at the positions that continue to cost Michigan points. Safety and middle linebacker.