Michigan continued its free fall and dropped its third straight game with a 26-24 loss to Rutgers, falling to 0-4 versus Power 5 schools. However, unlike their previous three contests against Power 5 schools, the Wolverines had an opportunity to beat Rutgers in the final minutes, needing only a first down on 3rd & 8 at the RU 38-yard line to put themselves comfortably within Matt Wile's field-goal range. But the officials and replay booth ruled what appeared to be a legitimate catch by Amara Darboh past the first-down marker incomplete. Thus, Wile was forced to attempt a 56-yard field goal, which was blocked, rather than one from inside 45 yards, where he has never missed in his career. The controversial call drastically impacted the outcome and may have costed Michigan a much-needed win.
But this was by no means the only reason why Michigan lost to Rutgers. The Wolverines also lost because their pass defense was shredded by the embattled Gary Nova, who has a penchant for throwing interceptions and making inexplicable mistakes. This seemed like the perfect game for Michigan, which had recorded only two takeaways through the first five weeks, to finally start forcing turnovers. Instead, Nova went, well, nova, exploding for a career-high 404 passing yards at 10.36 yards per attempt, three touchdown passes, and no picks. In fact, Nova became just the fourth quarterback ever to throw for 400 or more yards against Michigan. This was not the performance many, if any, expected from Nova, but it was necessary to lead the Scarlet Knights to a tight two-point victory.
So how did this happen? How did Michigan's pass defense, which had performed somewhat admirably all season minus one poor showing against Notre Dame, implode so spectacularly and allow Nova to look like a first-team All-American? The answers are revealed below, with the help of screen shots courtesy of MGoVideo.
Blake Countess Has Been Kidnapped
Blake Countess has been kidnapped. No, not literally. Do not worry. He is safe in Ann Arbor. But the Countess that was a cornerstone of a top-20 defense as a true freshman in 2011 and named to the All-Big Ten first team as a redshirt sophomore in 2013? Gone.
Regression is not unnatural. It happens. Often. But Countess' regression is jaw-dropping. It took only one offseason for Countess to transform from one of the Big Ten's best cornerbacks into a total liability for Michigan each time he steps on the field. Why? The Wolverines' shift to more man coverage has exposed his limited skill set. Countess was at his best when he could bait quarterbacks into throwing towards zones he had covered. But, in man, he has yet to demonstrate he has the technique to routinely jam receivers at the line of scrimmage or athleticism to stick with them after they release.
There was evidence of this before the Wolverines pulled into Piscataway. Countess was torched by Notre Dame's Everett Golson and William Fuller on critical third and fourth downs. Subsequently, opposing quarterbacks continued to attack him, throwing to receivers running inside slants in his direction frequently. The results were not always completions, but stops were due more to inaccurate throws or dropped passes than anything Countess did. Signs of progress were non-existent, and it just seemed like Countess was going to be burned again sooner or later.
The answer: sooner.
During Rutgers' first possession, the Scarlet Knights face a 3rd & 5 in their own territory. This is a wonderful opportunity for Michigan to force a three-and-out and extend its lead to two scores early. Rutgers comes out in a four-wide shotgun formation with bunched trips to the field side, so Michigan counters with its nickel package and a Cover 1 press scheme. Further, the Wolverines plan to slant their defensive tackles to the far side and blitz both linebackers into the vacated gap to the near side. If Michigan's cornerbacks can sustain their jams on Rutgers' receivers, the blitzing linebackers will have sufficient time to sack, or at least pressure, Nova.
Nova reads the blitz and realizes that the speedster, Janarion Grant (#1), will run into open space in the middle of the field on an inside slant after the traffic created by the other two receivers clears. This is why it is imperative that Countess jams Andrew Turzilli (#19) at the line of scrimmage. If he does so, the jam would interfere with Grant's slant and provide the blitzing Jake Ryan, who is about to burst through the near-side gap unimpeded, enough time to get to Nova.
However, as the red circle indicates, Countess whiffs on his jam. At the snap, Turzilli jabbed to the inside as if he was going to run a quick slant. Countess, wary of allowing another inside release like he has in recent weeks, leans to the inside to cut off the angle. But Turzilli then turns straight up field to run a corner route. Countess attempts to throw a punch to jam Turzilli, but Turzilli runs right through it without difficulty.
Turzilli burns Countess. However, not only does this fail to disrupt the timing of Grant's slant, it also screens Jourdan Lewis, who is responsible for Grant. Grant is free to run his inside slant, which is wide open because Jarrod Wilson is covering a shallow drag route. Nova eyes Grant and releases the football before Ryan or Frank Clark, who had just beaten Keith Lumpkin (#74) on the edge, can reach him.
Nova's throw leads Grant into the open space, and Grant, one of the fastest players in the Big Ten, turns on the jets. Lewis has little chance to recover, and Jeremy Clark, who had just been providing Countess help over the top, takes a poor angle before realizing Grant is about to fly right past him. Jeremy Clark changes course and uses an angle that nudges Grant towards the sideline, but he does not do this before Grant gains 53 yards and sets up Rutgers in the red zone. Michigan would hold Rutgers to a field goal, but an opportunity to kick the Scarlet Knights off the field after three plays was wasted.
To be fair, Countess adjusted. Rutgers ran the same play on 3rd & 10 in the second quarter. Although Countess still did not jam Turzilli, he at least got out of Lewis' way this time, allowing Lewis to come down and get in Grant's jersey. Nova still fired a pass at Grant, but Lewis' presence forced an incompletion and a fourth down. Nonetheless, the play diagrammed above was an ominous sign of what Countess had in store for him.
This is the first play of Rutgers' fourth drive, and the Scarlet Knights are starting on their own 20-yard line. They are in an offset I-formation with only two receivers, which gives the impression that they will run the football. Accordingly, Michigan is in its 4-3 Over and will blitz the strong-side linebacker, James Ross III, to stop the run. Further, because Michigan expects run, Wilson will creep down towards the box at the snap to provide additional support, while the Wolverines will have a zone scheme behind him.
Rutgers does not run the football, though. Rather, this is a play-action pass, and the fake handoff sucks in Wilson. This means that Countess, who is to the left of your screen, does not have safety support over the top and needs to play this like he is in man coverage. However, look at Countess' outside leverage. He is playing Turzilli to the inside like he does have safety help, which, as you will see in the next frame, is a huge problem.
Turzilli runs his deep post and leaves Countess in his dust. Because there is no Michigan safety over the top, there are no Wolverines within yards of Turzilli. He effortlessly completes his route, hauls in Nova's bomb, and jogs the final 40 yards into the end zone.
This was a coverage bust. Plain and simple. Now, credit must be given to Nova and Rutgers. This play-action pass with a deep post above the shallow safety was the perfect call to attack the weakness in Michigan's zone defense. But this does not mean that Rutgers should have had an 80-yard touchdown. With Wilson closer to the line of scrimmage, Countess needed to play more inside to cover the middle of the field in case Nova went deep. Yet he did not, so Nova tallied his first touchdown toss of the game.
Let's fast forward to Nova's second touchdown pass:
Late in the first half, Rutgers faces 3rd & Goal on the U-M 7-yard line. A stop will hold Rutgers to no worse than a field goal and maintain Michigan's lead heading into halftime. The Scarlet Knights are in a four-wide shotgun set with trips to the field side. Michigan is in its Okie package with seven players at the line of scrimmage. Michigan uses this package to confuse the offensive line as to which defenders will be rushing and which defenders will be dropping back into coverage. Here, the Wolverines are sending all of them, hoping to bring down Nova before he can get rid of the football.
The Okie blitz works as Frank Clark explodes through the line of scrimmage untouched. He should sack Nova in about one second, which would render the rest of this play meaningless. However, pay attention to the circled Countess. He is in press coverage and supposed to be jamming John Tsimis (#84) at the line of scrimmage. But, yet again, Countess fails. Tsimis runs forward two yards, gets into Countess' body, and throws a punch with his left arm that tosses Countess to the outside. An argument could be made that Tsimis should be flagged for offensive pass interference with his push-off, but it does not change the fact that Countess' press technique is poor.
This move allows Tsimis to release to the inside on his slant route, while Countess is bent over and unbalanced, trying to recover. None of this should matter because, at this point, Frank Clark should have sacked Nova. However, Frank Clark allows Nova to slip through his fingers, which will be discussed in further detail below, so Nova now has time to look up field for an open receiver. Nova sees Tsimis sprinting across the middle...
...and connects with him for a seven-yard touchdown to give Rutgers a halftime lead.
This was not the last time Countess would be the victim of a Nova touchdown. It happened again in the second half when Countess failed to jam Turzilli at the line of scrimmage and allowed Turzilli to release inside on a crossing route. Although Countess did a decent job of sticking with Turzilli and not allowing much separation, the inside release was all Turzilli needed as Nova threw a dime in front of him that Countess had no chance to break up. The result was a 14-yard touchdown toss from Nova to Turzilli, which I chose not to diagram because, well, you get the idea.
Countess was the main or secondary culprit on all three of Nova's touchdown passes and another 53-yard reception. Three of these plays occurred because, midway through the season, Countess still cannot use proper press technique at the line of scrimmage, while the fourth was the result of his bust in coverage. His biggest problem is his footwork. It is sloppy, which causes him to be unbalanced when receivers use stutter steps, jabs, or punches of their own. Accordingly, Countess essentially has allowed himself to be beat before the receiver begins to run his route. This is a glaring issue, and one that does not seem like it will be fixed at any point this season.
It is time to accept that, in this new 4-3 Over man defense, Countess is likely the fourth-best cornerback on Michigan's roster. Lewis is hands-down the best press man corner the Wolverines have, while Jabrill Peppers and Raymon Taylor have demonstrated better technique when they have been healthy. In my opinion, once Peppers returns from his rumored knee injury, Countess needs to sit. Michigan is at its best when Lewis is the field corner, Taylor is the boundary corner, and Peppers is the nickelback. Countess should still see a few snaps here and there to spell the others, but any additional playing time will be a detriment to Michigan's pass defense.
Missed Tackles, Missed Tackles, Missed Tackles
And in case you want those final missed tackles in action:
To make matters worse, all of these occurred on third down. First, Joe Bolden took a poor angle at a scrambling Nova that allowed Nova to cut inside for 20 yards on 3rd & 16. First down, Rutgers. Second, Jeremy Clark tried to arm-tackle tight end Tyler Kroft (#86) four yards shy of the sticks on 3rd & 9, but Kroft bounced off him. First down, Rutgers. Third, Frank Clark, rather than run through Nova for a sack that would have forced Rutgers to kick a field goal at the end of the half, tried to grab and throw him to the turf, but Nova slipped through it. Touchdown, Rutgers. Fourth, Grant made seven Wolverines miss on a third-down conversion that allowed him to pick up an additional 15 yards, which put Rutgers in a position to score its touchdown at the end of the first half.
Imagine what the score would have been if Michigan's open-field tackling was not awful.
The Front Four Flunked
You may have expected this section to focus on how Michigan's pass defense seems weak in the middle. It is. Michigan's linebackers -- Bolden and Ryan -- have issues with their zone drops, while the safeties are hesitant to trust their reads and stop crossing routes over the middle. But I want to concentrate on Michigan's defensive line, which, outside of the occasional speed rush from Frank Clark, cannot generate an organic pass rush.
The best pass defenses are the ones that can drop seven defenders into coverage and still put pressure on a quarterback with only four rushers. This is what defensive coordinators dream about. Blitzes are great and can be very effective, but, if they do not work, the coverage behind them can be extremely vulnerable to a big play. This is why defensive coordinators wish that their defensive line will be able to get to the quarterback without any additional assistance, but Greg Mattison's wish has yet to be granted.
Each time Nova dropped back to pass against Michigan, I charted whether the Wolverines deployed an organic pass rush, a blitz, or a stunt and how frequently they were able to put any sort of pressure on Nova. The numbers were, um, bleak. By my count, Michigan sent its defensive line and only its defensive line 19 times. Of these, only three times did a Wolverine get near Nova, and none resulted in a sack. Essentially, Nova had all of the time in the world to pick apart Michigan's coverage when Mattison used only an organic pass rush. It was only when Mattison used blitzes or stunts that Nova experienced rushers in his face, and, even then, those were rare occurrences. Until Michigan's defensive line can generate pressure on quarterbacks without any help or tricks, the pass defense will continue to suffer.
And there is one last concept I want to discuss: defensive linemen peeling off a pass rush to cover screens. For three straight weeks now, Michigan's defense has been terrorized by screens. Utah ripped off a 50-plus-yard gain on a screen against a Michigan blitz in the first quarter. Minnesota used a plethora of screens to counter Michigan's aggressive tendency to stop the Gophers' power-running offense. And then Rutgers called three screen passes against the Wolverines, one of which went for a 33-yard gain.
Why have screen passes been so successful against Michigan, even when the Wolverines do not bring a blitz? Michigan's defensive linemen are not recognizing the screen passes early enough to peel off their pass rush and cover the screen in the flat. Look at this:
Michigan blitzes Ryan and drops Frank Clark into a shallow zone, making Chris Wormley the edge rusher on the far side. At the snap, it is evident that Rutgers has called a slip screen to running back Desmon Peoples (#6) because three interior linemen rumble into the flat to pick off Wolverines. An outside lane begins to form just before Peoples catches the football and turns up field.
But look at Wormley. He should be in the flat to either discourage Nova from dumping the ball off to Peoples or at least slow down Peoples before help arrives. Instead, Wormley is still engaged with Lumpkin, Rutgers' left tackle, four yards behind the play. As soon as Rutgers' three offensive linemen departed for the flat, Wormley needed to peel off his pass rush and cover Peoples. Maurice Hurst, who was another gap over, tried to peel off in time, but he had far more ground to cover than Wormley did. Therefore, what should have been shut down for an incompletion or a minimal gain at best...
...turned into a 33-yard completion Rutgers, also thanks to a poor angle taken by Wilson.
All of this week, Michigan's coaching staff needs to instruct the defensive line about peeling off to cover screen passes once offensive linemen began running into the flat. This is not a complicated concept to teach a defense at the collegiate level. Yet the Wolverines have not done it much of this season and have been exploited because of it. Expect opponents, especially Penn State, which likely will rely on screens to compensate for its poor offensive line, to continue to do this until Michigan corrects the problem.
As you can see, Michigan's pass defense was a complete mess against Rutgers, whether it was Countess' inability to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, the Wolverines' struggle to tackle players in open spaces, the lack of any sort of organic pass rush from the defensive line, or the lack of recognition of screen passes. There were a few positives that can be gleaned from this game -- Lewis is still on his way to becoming a star in the Big Ten and Taco Charlton may not be far behind him once he learns to set an edge against jet sweeps -- but the Wolverines' pass defense has many problems that must be repaired quickly because Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, a potential future first-round pick in the NFL Draft, will do worse to Michigan than what Nova did.