Michigan strolled into South Bend last Saturday night with some pep in its step. The Wolverines had just thrashed Appalachian State by a score of 52-14 in their season opener and were feeling quite confident entering their rivalry showdown with the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Even though Notre Dame was a slight home favorite according to the Vegas bookkeepers, many predicted, myself included, that the Wolverines would walk out of Notre Dame Stadium with a 2-0 record. Not only did they seem to have Notre Dame's number in recent years, having emerged victorious in six of the last eight meetings, they appeared to have an edge in the on-the-field matchups as well, especially with Notre Dame holding out five key players due to an investigation of an alleged academic cheating scandal. A Michigan win seemed probable, while nothing worse than a close loss was expected.
We were very, very wrong.
Michigan was blown out by Notre Dame, 31-0. The 31-point margin of defeat was the largest Michigan has ever suffered against Notre Dame. And, not only was it the first time in the 42-game history of the rivalry that the Wolverines have been shut out by the Fighting Irish, it also was the first time they have posted a goose egg on the scoreboard in any contest since October 1984, snapping an NCAA-record, 365-game streak of tallying at least one point. Michigan had chances to reassert itself and make the contest competitive in the second quarter and early in the third frame but never capitalized. Thus, when Irish receiver Amir Carlisle scored on a tunnel screen to increase Notre Dame's lead to 28 points late in the third quarter, the game essentially was over despite that Michigan actually out-gained the Irish, 289-280. Football can be weird.
Why Did Michigan Fall Apart Against Notre Dame?
•Maize n BrewMichigan went into South Bend and got destroyed in a winnable game. What happened? We try and find out.
So went wrong for the Wolverines? How did a football program with a wonderful opportunity to prove to the nation in primetime that it was ascending back to the top of the college football landscape fall flat on its face? I re-watched the film, broke down each play frame by frame, took some screen shots via MGoVideo, and walked away with the following:
[Warning: This will be ugly and may induce the urge to slam your head against your desk, table, or any furniture in the nearby area. Walk away while you still can. But, if you are a glutton for punishment, like myself, then let's proceed.]
Michigan's Problematic Press
Throughout the offseason, Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison reiterated time and time again that Michigan's defense would be more aggressive and feature more press coverage in 2014 than it did in the previous three years of their tenure. This proposition excited Michigan fans. No longer would the Wolverines' secondary give receivers a cushion and sit back in a soft zone, allowing the quarterback to pick them apart underneath. Instead, Michigan's defensive backs would be set right in a receiver's grill at the line of scrimmage pre-snap. This was a shift to an attacking philosophy that Michigan State, which has had one of the nation's five best defenses each of the past three seasons, has adopted, even if Michigan's press Cover 1 scheme is not identical to the Spartans' press Cover 4 scheme. With the talent Michigan returned at defensive back in starters Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor and heralded underclassmen Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers, it seemed plausible that this new philosophy and strategy could boost Michigan's secondary among the elite.
This past Saturday in South Bend, Michigan's secondary looked like anything but as Notre Dame's receiving corps, which was missing its best member in DaVaris Daniels, burnt the Wolverines' press man coverage routinely. A significant reason for this development likely was the absence of both Taylor and Peppers to injuries. Taylor, who likely is Michigan's best press corner, hurt his right leg when Joe Bolden landed on it while assisting on a tackle during the fourth play from scrimmage; he did not play another series. Peppers, who is Michigan's starting nickelback, did not play a snap against the Irish after being on the receiving end of a nasty cut block in the opener against Appalachian State. This forced Michigan to insert Lewis as the boundary corner and Delonte Hollowell, who had appeared in only eight games as a reserve defensive back in his first three seasons, as the nickelback. Although Michigan still had some talent in its secondary, it was quite clear that those players really struggled with their press coverage.
I am going to focus on Blake Countess, who, as a redshirt sophomore last season, intercepted six passes and was named to the media's All-Big Ten first team. Countess' bread-and-butter is zone coverage. He is not the fastest, quickest, or most-athletically-imposing cornerback, but what Countess does that is so effective is bait quarterbacks into throwing towards zones that look open but actually are covered. The best examples of this are his first interception against Notre Dame and interception return for a touchdown against Minnesota last year.
Entering the 2014 season, with Michigan's coaches stressing publicly that the Wolverines would deploy more press man coverage, the expectation was that Countess may transform into a pure lockdown corner, or maybe a tad shy of that due to some physical limitations. The one concern in the back of everyone's mind was Countess' performance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, during which Kansas State speedster Tyler Lockett torched him -- and Raymon Taylor -- en route to 10 receptions for 116 yards and three touchdowns. The question was whether Lockett's outburst was a suggestion that Countess may underwhelm in press man coverage or an anomaly for Countess because Lockett is just that good. Most opinions leaned towards the latter and believed that, with the offseason to develop his technique in press coverage, Countess would be one of the best all-around cornerbacks in the Big Ten in 2014.
If this past Saturday was any indication, this will not be the case. Countess was not picked on by Everett Golson as often as some Michigan defensive backs were, but Golson and William Fuller -- an unproven but fast true sophomore -- teamed up to beat his press man coverage on three critical third- or fourth-down plays that altered the entire course of the contest.
On the first of these three plays, Notre Dame has driven down the field into Michigan territory, holding a 7-0 lead as the first half draws to a close. Golson just threw an incompletion on third down to bring us to a fourth-and-three from the Michigan 36-yard line. Rather than attempt a 53-yard field goal, Brian Kelly makes the call to go for it on fourth down. If the Wolverines can force a stop here, they will have the football with solid field position and an opportunity to add some points or even tie the game prior to halftime.
The Irish align in a four-wide shotgun formation with trips to the field. Michigan is in its nickel package -- as it was for almost the entirety of the night -- and shows press man coverage in a Cover 1 scheme. On the far side of the field is Countess (circled above), who is aligned directly across from Fuller. Countess knows that he has no safety help and is on an island. He also knows that Jake Ryan and Joe Bolden -- both set over the A gap -- will blitz on the snap. Thus, if Countess can just jam Fuller long enough at the line of scrimmage and force him off his route, Michigan should be able to get pressure on Golson before a Notre Dame receiver pops open.
At the snap, Fuller takes a few stutter steps before jabbing hard to the outside with his left foot, acting as if he is running a go route down the sideline. Countess instinctively mirrors Fuller's jab to the sideline and begins leaning in that direction, even though he has Fuller up the field and to the outside as he desires.
However, Fuller is running a quick slant route and uses this jab move to create space and beat Countess to the inside. As Fuller cuts back in, Countess tries to throw his punch with his left arm to slow down Fuller and keep him to the outside. But, as you can see, Countess is completely off-balance, still leaning to the outside after Fuller's jab step, so his punch has no power and is ineffective.
Accordingly, Fuller easily attains inside position on his quick slant route and seals Countess to the outside. All Countess can hope for now is for Golson to throw an inaccurate ball that misses Fuller too far in front or is behind Fuller and allows Countess to break it up on the back side. However, as Golson did the majority of the night, he rifles a pass right at Fuller's jersey number. Fuller makes the catch and moves the chains.
Countess cannot allow Fuller to release inside here. Although he has no safety help over the top, Countess must realize that a longer-developing go route to the outside when his defense is blitzing is a much better alternative to defend on fourth-and-short than a quick slant to the inside. When Fuller makes that jab step to outside, Countess must stay balanced and keep Fuller there with a strong punch that jams the route. If Countess does this, Michigan likely forces Notre Dame to turn the ball over on downs. Instead, the Irish extend the drive and double their lead with a touchdown four plays later.
Here is the second of three critical plays during which Countess is beaten by Fuller in press man coverage:
Notre Dame is in a similar predicament as it was in the play just diagrammed. The Irish are at the Michigan 24-yard line and face a third-and-short with less than a minute remaining in the first half. Notre Dame has Michigan back on its heels, and the Wolverines cannot afford to head into the locker room at halftime trailing by three touchdowns.
So what do the Fighting Irish do? They align in the exact same formation as before -- four-wide shotgun with trips to the field. This time, because the football is spotted on the far hash mark, the formation is flipped. Michigan again counters with its nickel package and press man coverage in a Cover 1 scheme. This means Countess (circled above) and Fuller are lined up adjacent to the near sideline.
Golson handles the snap and drops back. Like last time, Fuller stutter-steps forward a few yards. However, Countess (circled above) recognizes the similarities between this play and the fourth-and-three on which he was beaten a few minutes earlier. So, unlike last time, Countess shades to the inside of Fuller to prevent any chance of ceding inside position and allowing Fuller to run a quick slant route. Concurrently, Frank Clark (indicated by the arrow above) speeds past Notre Dame left tackle Ronnie Stanley off the edge and closes in on Goslon.
The problem, though, is that Countess overcompensates for his prior error. This time, rather than cede inside positioning, he is set too far inside. Sure, now Countess can cut off the quick slant, but he is not in a position that allows him to jam Fuller on any route to the outside like, for example, a go route. And, with no safety help over the top because Jeremy Clark is playing center field, this is bad, bad news for Countess and Michigan.
Fuller releases free down the sideline, uses his wheels to explode past Countess untouched, and creates a two- to three-yard gap between he and Countess. Golson's first option is Fuller, so Golson sees all of this unfold and lobs a rainbow to the end zone before F. Clark can get home on his speed rush. Given the separation that Fuller has, a perfect pass by Golson would see Fuller haul in the football in stride while Countess eats dust.
But Golson does not toss a perfect pass. Instead, feeling the pressure from F. Clark, Golson's throw has a tad too much hang time, which forces Fuller to cool down the burners a touch once he reaches the goal line. Accordingly, Countess is able to close the gap a bit. He tries to recover fully before the football gets there, but...
Fuller times his leap splendidly to high-point the football. Countess never has a chance.
The frustration fans expressed with Michigan's press man coverage had much to do with the Wolverines' defensive backs allowing Notre Dame's receivers to release easily inside. While this was a significant problem, it was not the only one. And the foregoing play is the perfect example of what can occur when a defensive back over-leverages to the inside. Countess was so concerned about not letting Fuller run his route inside that he never had a chance to jam Fuller's route to the outside. The end result was a demoralizing touchdown for the Fighting Irish before halftime.
And here is the third of three critical plays on third or fourth down during which Countess was beaten in press man coverage by Fuller, and it is nearly identical to the first play diagrammed above:
It is late in the third quarter, and Notre Dame, possessing a 21-0 lead, seeks to deliver the final kill shot. The Irish face a third-and-four from the edge of the red zone. Unlike the previous two plays diagrammed, Notre Dame walks into a five-wide shotgun formation with trips to the field. Michigan still responds with its nickel package and press man coverage in a Cover 1 scheme, but Notre Dame tight end Ben Koyack is unaccounted for in the slot because Michigan plans to blitz both linebackers -- Bolden and Ryan. So, unless one of Michigan's defensive linemen drops into coverage or Jarrod Wilson abandons his deep zone to match up in man with Koyack, Koyack will have a wide-open route underneath. As Michigan tries to solve this dilemma, Countess (circled above) is matched up with Fuller one-on-one on the near sideline.
Michigan solves this dilemma by dropping defensive end Brennen Beyer into a shallow spy zone in the middle of the field. This allows Beyer to not only prevent Golson from scrambling for a first down but to undercut Koyack's quick inside slant route. Further, Michigan's blitz works like a charm as Bolden surges past Notre Dame's offensive line unchecked and bears down on Golson. If Michigan's defensive backs can jam Notre Dame's receivers at the line of scrimmage for just a second or two, Bolden will record the sack and force the Irish to kick a field goal from about 45 yards.
But Countess is unable to jam Fuller successfully at the line of scrimmage because he is beaten in the exact same fashion as he was in the first play that was diagrammed. Fuller stutter-steps for a few yards before jabbing his right foot hard to the sideline. Countess begins to shade to the outside because he does not want to be toasted over the top again. This opens the inside slant for Fuller, which he gladly takes. Countess tries to throw a punch with his right arm to slow down Fuller, but Countess is so far off-balanced that his punch whiffs completely. Thus...
Fuller has a free release to the inside and beats Countess on the slant route thoroughly. Golson recognizes this and fires a pass to Fuller before the blitzing Bolden can get to him in the backfield. It is a simple toss and catch for Golson and Fuller, who finished with a career-high nine receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown, as Notre Dame converts and picks up the first down. Two plays later, Notre Dame extends its lead to 28 points with its fourth touchdown of the contest and snatches away any hope of a comeback Michigan might have had.
To be fair, Countess was not the only Michigan defensive back burned on the inside slant on this play. Delonte Hollowell (circled above), who struggled in press man coverage at nickelback all contest, allowing separation whether the Irish's slot receiver cut out or in, ceded inside position to C.J. Prosise and missed his punch, too. Golson had both targets for an easy first down.
So what does this mean for Countess? Well it means Countess had a poor game against Notre Dame as Fuller beat him on key plays over and over again. Everyone has bad games. It happens. But this is further proof that Countess is a liability in press man coverage against speedy, quick wide receivers. First, there was Lockett. Now, there is Fuller. A trend is developing that Countess cannot stick with these types of receivers, which causes him to demonstrate poor technique in trying to jam them at the line. The good news is that there are not too many of these types of receivers in the Big Ten, so Countess may not be exposed often. The bad news, though, is that Countess should not be expected to improve his technique drastically during the season when he does have these matchups.
The only other Michigan cornerback I will feature is Jourdan Lewis, who replaced Raymon Taylor as Michigan's boundary corner once Taylor left with an injury. While I could spend an inordinate amount of time breaking down the miscues of Delonte Hollowell and Channing Stribling -- there were quite a few -- their errors in press man coverage were similar to the ones Blake Countess committed. Further, once Taylor and Jabrill Peppers return, Hollowell will be relegated to Michigan's dime back and Stribling will see few snaps as Michigan's sixth cornerback. On the other hand, Lewis is part of the regular rotation at cornerback, and his mistakes were of a different nature.
Lewis does not have the same issues Countess has when needing to jam a receiver at the line of scrimmage. Lewis not only has demonstrated that he can use the proper technique to impede the receiver, he also has shown that he has the speed and athleticism to run stride for stride with that receiver or recover quickly if initially beaten. These are valuable skills for a conerback to have in press man coverage, which is why there was so much talk during the offseason that Lewis was challenging Countess and Taylor for one of the starting corner spots.
But Lewis' problems in press man coverage arise at the end of the play, not the beginning.
Notre Dame has first-and-10 at the Michigan 41-yard line and is looking to strike first. The Irish deploy a five-wide shotgun formation with quads to the field. The Wolverines are in their nickel package with press man coverage in a Cover 1 scheme. Because Everett Golson is in an empty backfield, Joe Bolden is lined over Notre Dame's most inside slot receiver, while Jake Ryan and Frank Clark are in two-point stances book-ending Michigan's defensive line. And, then, all by himself on the boundary is Lewis (circled above), who is directly in the face of Irish receiver Chris Brown.
When Golson receives the snap, Brown tries to use a similar stutter-step move that William Fuller used on Countess, but Lewis has none of that. As you can see in the foregoing screen shot, Lewis is in perfect position not only to punch with his left arm if Brown tries to cut back on a slant but also to bump Brown off his route if he tries to go over the top. This is how press man coverage is supposed to be played.
Brown tries the go route to the outside, but Lewis does as he is supposed to do and bumps Brown off of it. Nonetheless, Golson sees that he has a one-on-one matchup with Brown versus Lewis, so, even though Lewis is draped all over Brown, Golson hopes that Brown can either make a play in the air or draw a defensive pass interference penalty. After Golson lobs it up, Lewis continues to nudge Brown towards the sideline. By the time the football reaches Brown, he has little to no space with which to work. Even if Brown does indeed make the reception, he likely will come down out of bounds for an incompletion anyway.
This is perfect press man coverage by Lewis. He has beaten Brown on this play. All Lewis needs to do is turn his head around and make a play on the football, and it is over.
Except Lewis never turns his head around. As Brown leaps up to make the catch, Lewis freaks out and begins to shove Brown out of bounds while he is in the air, never making a play on the football. This is textbook defensive pass interference, and it completely bails out Golson and Brown. So, rather than facing second-and-10 at the Michigan 41-yard line, Notre Dame benefits from a 15-yard penalty and is much more of a threat to score from the Michigan 26-yard line. The Irish would score a few plays later, thanks in part to another Lewis pass interference, although that one was a more questionable call, and take the first lead of the contest.
Lewis needs to learn how to finish the play when in man press coverage, especially when he is on an island. He does everything correctly at the line of scrimmage, jams the receiver properly, but then panics at the end of the route when the receiver makes a play for the football. Lewis needs to do one of two things: (1) turn his head around and knock down the pass; or (2) do not turn his head around but then put both hands up in the air and through the receiver's arms to prevent him from making a clean catch. The first option is preferable. The second option is adequate. And both are much, much better than Lewis grabbing at and pushing the receiver as he jumps for a reception.
Overall, where does this leave Michigan's secondary? Well, the Wolverines will not be overhauling their entire defensive schemes, so expect to continue to see press man coverage in a Cover 1 scheme. Blake Countess will still have his struggles at times, but Michigan can mitigate this by not having him cover the opponent's faster wideouts. This would be a better job for Raymon Taylor or Jourdan Lewis, both of whom have better press man coverage technique at the line of scrimmage than Countess. Plus, even though he has played only one half in his collegiate career, there likely is a big upgrade at the nickelback spot when Jabrill Peppers is there rather than Delonte Hollowell. When both he and Taylor return from their injuries, which should be soon, I expect Michigan's pass defense will look much better, and I would not expect the thrashing it took from Everett Golson and Notre Dame to happen again.
This is the end of Part One. Tomorrow, Part Two will examine how Everett Golson neutralized Michigan's pass rush and what happened to Devin Gardner in the second half.