Nick: So, we’ve already covered a lot of stuff in our conversation of the offensive side. But the defense has been the real star so far. What’s stood out to you the most about this group?
Garrett: I was surprised by exactly how much Jourdan Lewis affects the defense. I knew he was great, but we saw what his absence allowed teams to do — especially against Colorado. With his return, Michigan’s D has gone from great to best. Even with Lewis missing the early action, Michigan might be fielding one of the all-time great defenses in college football. It should be fun to watch.
Nick: Yeah, if you get down to it, that’s really the only question to ask - is Michigan the best defense in all of college football? I don’t think it’s homerism on our parts to say that they are.
The defensive line smothers the run as effectively as it did last season, but they’re also more disruptive against the pass thanks to Taco Charlton, Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary. The linebackers are pure weapons, led by a freakin’ Heisman candidate, and the secondary has one of the premier cornerbacks in the game and another guy - in Channing Stribling - who would start on almost any team in the country. Last year’s biggest weakness - getting turnovers - has been this team’s biggest strength. These guys are weapons, pure and simple.
Garrett: Michigan’s linebackers were supposed to be the weak point of the defense, too. All the preseason analysis predicted vulnerabilities there that opposing offenses could exploit relatively easily. Obviously that’s not the case.
It’s definitely not homerism from us to say this defense is amazing. The raw data supports it, and after the Rutgers dismembering, Michigan’s defense is separating itself from the rest on the S&P+ ratings. They’re the best and it’s not close. Michigan gets a score of 6.8 ahead of Clemson, Virginia Tech and Florida who sit at 10.5/11.6/11.8 respectively. So basically they’re at least twice as dominant as everybody else. Maybe four times (that might be some homerism showing).
Also, for all the talk of blitz-happy Don Brown, he really doesn’t have to blitz much with this unit. That’s a big reason why they’re so goo. I think that’s the easiest way to sum up how great they are. They’ve altered their own DC’s philosophy.
Nick: So true. Don Brown did an amazing job at Boston College, and had the #1 defense in the country there last year, but this group has a chance to be much better - year in and year out. Would you agree?
Garrett: Absolutely. Brown has the brain power to craft excellent defenses out of whatever players he has on the field. With the recruiting advantages and hiring budget he’ll have at Michigan, there’s good reason to think this year is just the beginning.
Nick: So, as it easy as it would be to star-gaze at the future under Don Brown, what are some specific things you’ll be looking at over the next month or so?
Michigan will face Illinois after the bye, followed by that back-alley brawl with MSU the week after. The rest of the schedule goes Maryland, Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio State. What do you want to see over those next few weeks leading up to OSU?
Garrett: I think it will be business as usual against Illinois. Or, at least, I don’t expect the defense to slow down over the bye week, and Illinois is a good team to face to get back into the grind.
Against MSU I would like to see Michigan get a shutout, or if they give up some garbage time points, hold the Spartans under 10. We know that MSU will come into that game ready and motivated -- an upset would render their season a success. I don’t believe there is much chance Michigan isn’t fully prepared, but it’s a rivalry game in hostile territory so anything is possible.
The Maryland game worries me a bit, and I’m reaching here, because it’s a good trap game coming off the MSU trip. I don’t think Iowa or Indiana is going to be much different from what we’ve seen so far in league play from Michigan, but D.J. Durkin at Maryland knows Michigan’s talent on defense better than anyone else. He has the insider education to find any holes or weaknesses that might exist with Michigan’s players and exploit them. Of course that works both ways, and Harbaugh should know Durkin’s tendencies quite well.
Conjecture and speculation aside, there are some things the defense needs to work on if we get out the microscope. They’ve missed tackles and given up first downs because of it (mostly from the linebackers) and they’ve given up a lot of big plays that you wouldn’t expect from a great defense. Early in the Rutgers game, the Scarlet Knights pulled a play from Colorado and tried to burn Michigan deep. The only difference was this time Lewis was there and he knocked the ball down easily. There are gaps that teams can force open if they get Michigan to commit heavily to the run (or pass). Against teams with either speed on the outside, or slippery slot receivers, Michigan could be more vulnerable than we’re used to seeing.
Nick: Yeah. My guess would be that, leading up to OSU, Michigan’s biggest tests will be Iowa’s run game, Indiana’s lengthy receivers, and the speed of Perry Hills in Maryland’s attack. That’s not to say that any of those will be enough to beat Michigan, but I think they’ll be good stressors to keep Michigan sharp leading up to OSU.
Actually, one other thought about Maryland: one of the things I’ve been most impressed with in Big Ten play has been how Durkin took a flawed Maryland offense and turned it around into a bruising and effective running attack. Maryland couldn’t pass well at all last year, they still don’t have a great passing attack this year, and yet they made life easy for Perry Hills and made a guarantee that, no matter what, week in and week out they were going to run like hell. Schematically, Michigan will have an advantage, but that doesn’t matter in a game where everyone is punching each other in the teeth.
And, I guess you could say that most of the season will look like that. MSU, Iowa, Indiana and OSU are all going to have physical, gritty rushing attacks. You could say this is good prep for the ‘mental toughness’ part of the OSU game, and it will give the coaches some time to shore up any possible concerns with the safeties’ and linebackers’ role in the pass defense, and get some of the younger guys ready in case of an injury.
Any chance Michigan is not ready for OSU? What do you think Michigan is able to do against an offense like Ohio State?
Garrett: I can’t think of any scenario wherein Michigan is somehow not ready for Ohio State. Especially if the defense stays healthy and continues playing like they have been. They’ll be eager to demonstrate their potential — something they didn’t get to do last year with all the injuries.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself since I’ll be watching a lot more tape from both teams to do a thorough preview of the game, but right now Michigan’s defense matches up well against OSU’s offense (if you’re a Michigan fan). Ohio State has a lot of talent at wide receiver, running back, and quarterback. But Michigan has as much or more talent to match up against those players. Our corners can shut down their wideouts, and our defensive line basically erases running attacks from the box score. Just look at what they did to Wisconsin’s heralded run game.
One major advantage, though, is the pressure Michigan can get on opposing quarterbacks. Ohio State hasn’t looked quite as good throwing the ball under duress, and that might be every dropback against Michigan. Barrett, however, can run, and Colorado demonstrated the inability of Michigan to slow down a mobile quarterback. If they can contain Barrett, I don’t know where else Ohio State will be effective. I fully expect OSU to score and move the ball, but it could be at a much slower rate than they are used to.
We will learn a lot about the Buckeyes this weekend when they travel to Madison. I realize Michigan missed three field goals, but the Badgers held a team used to scoring 40+ to just 14 points, regardless.
Nick: It will be interesting to watch everything unfold. I pray to everything holy that we’ll finally be able to beat the Buckeyes.
A couple other, quick thoughts about Ohio State’s offense against Michigan’s defense: Curtis Samuel and Mike Weber are each better running backs than anything Wisconsin could throw at us, but on the flip side, stopping them and J.T. Barrett becomes a lot easier when you’re blitzing the A-gaps like a madman. I do hope we can stop Barrett and I think we’ll be able to walk out of Columbus with a win.
Garrett: As long as OSU doesn’t put in new turf immediately before The Game.
Nick: I wouldn’t put it past them.