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Film Focus: Michigan defense vs. SMU offense

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Don Brown’s defense took the foot off the pedal, and subsequently got burned by James Proche.

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Southern Methodist returned plenty of weapons from last year’s No. 11 S&P offense.

Quarterback Ben Hicks tossed for 3,569 yards and 33 touchdowns. Running backs Braeden West and Xavier Jones combined for 1,643 yards rushing and 11 scores. Slot receiver James Proche found a way to shine even when surrounded by future NFL draft picks Courtland Sutton and Trey Quinn.

Despite this, head coach Sonny Dykes’ bread and butter — his Air Raid offense — sputtered to just 35 points in the first two games, including 23 in garbage time against North Texas.

When they faced Michigan and Don Brown’s defense, their talent, some mismatches in the slot and extra opportunities from the refs led to their best performance of the young season.

DRIVE ONE, SMU 19-YARD LINE (12:57 FIRST QUARTER)

On the first play, Michigan lines up Josh Metellus on the slot receiver, but with a sizable cushion. Ben Hicks connects with his man on a quick slant for an easy first down. It spells a very bad day for the occasionally maligned safeties.

The next play is a wash: The official is trying to remove Devin Bush for a play for an equipment malfunction, which throws him out of position all the way until the snap.

If Bush didn’t have a ref yapping in his ear, he probably either beats a blocking Hicks to the edge, or obliterates all on his path to the pitch man.

Carlo Kemp pushes into the backfield on the next play, absorbing Jones on the run and stopping him for a minimal gain. Kemp is continuing the trend from the Western Michigan game: bulldozing his way into backfields and staying in his rush lane to allow Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary to clean up.

Two throwback screens fail due to defensive penetration; first by Bush and then by Winovich.

Drive: Five plays, 26 yards, punt (Game tied 0-0)

DRIVE TWO, SMU 42-YARD LINE (8:57 FIRST QUARTER)

It’s easy to like how Michigan’s front seven attacks the run. All linemen and linebackers stay in their lanes, pushing their blockers back and disengaging in time to stop the back. This pattern occurs on play one of this drive, as West manages a lone yard.

Michigan lines up in a 3-3-5 formation with Gary at the nose. Don Brown tries to stunt both Gary and Winovich toward the right side of the line. SMU inserts mobile quarterback Willie Brown, who runs a option where he reads the defensive tackle. Since Gary vacated the middle with his stunt, Brown bursts up the middle for a first down.

This option from Brown is called a midline option.

Don Brown returns to a four linemen look, and Sonny Dykes stays with Willie Brown on a read-option, this time off Winovich. Both he and WILL linebacker Josh Ross scrape, and swallow the play for a just a yard.

Bryan Mone stacks up the line on the next play, leading to a Ross tackle for loss. SMU had reinserted Ben Hicks, who doesn’t pose as big of a running threat. This allows the defense to tee off on the running back.

Gary hurries Hicks on 3rd-and-10 into a throwaway, batting aside the pass-blocking guard to flush him from the pocket.

Drive: Five plays, 11 yards, punt (Game tied 0-0)

DRIVE THREE, SMU 2-YARD LINE (0:16 FIRST QUARTER)

SMU again takes advantage of a soft cushion from the safeties, this time Tyree Kinnel on James Proche in the slot. The Mustang receiver catches Kinnel flat-footed and waltzes for a 13-yard gain for a first down.

Fundamentally-solid cornerback tackling defines the next two plays. First, Brandon Watson rips past a stock block from the receiver to push Proche out of bounds on a jet sweep. The interior helps string it out. Second, David Long rips past a block on a screen to erase the receiver for a loss.

Willie Brown tries the same midline option as before, but Mike Dwumfour stays at home and wraps up the speedster for no gain.

Drive: Four plays, 13 yards, punt (Michigan scores to lead 7-0)

DRIVE FOUR, SMU 25-YARD LINE (6:56 SECOND QUARTER)

Don Brown calls for another 3-3-5, which sets up a one-on-one situation between Ross and SMU’s Jones. The Mustang back jukes Ross out of his socks and rumbles for a 14-yard gain for a new set of downs.

This sets up the first SMU touchdown on a 50-yard pass from Hicks to Proche.

First, watch Proche motion from the top of the screen to a stacked look. This draws Long to cover the closest receiver, giving the Proche assignment to Brad Hawkins. Instead, Hawkins brackets the other receiver with Long and Proche streaks wide-open on a wheel route. His speed beats Metellus to the end zone.

Between the lost jump-ball against Notre Dame and this, Hawkins is turning into too much of a boom-or-bust contributor at safety.

Drive: Five plays, 75 yards, touchdown (Michigan scores to lead 14-7)

DRIVE FIVE, SMU 25-YARD LINE (2:34 SECOND QUARTER)

Khaleke Hudson looks like he blows up this drive early, blitzing off the edge to slam Willie Brown for a big loss. He gets called offsides, although on rewatch he times it perfectly. The ball is snapped right as he crosses the line of scrimmage.

Carlo Kemp follows that up with a sack after pushing through two blockers. The analysis on him last week talked about how he simply pushed his blockers backwards and stayed in his rush lane. This week, he is doing that all the way to the quarterback.

Hicks converts a 3rd-and-long with a deep throw to Proche, fitting a pass between Hudson and Metellus. While this is an incredibly accurate throw, Hudson fails to get any elevation to potentially break up the pass.

After a Bryan Mone sack — same formula of interior linemen pushing the pocket backwards and eating the quarterback when he steps up — SMU tries to make up the lost yardage in one throw. Metellus gets called for a dubious pass interference, as he goes for the ball the whole way.

He gets revenge on the next play.

Hicks tries to find Proche on another wheel route, but Metellus steps in front and ends the half in style. Props to freshman Aidan Hutchinson for blowing up Hicks on the return.

Drive: Five plays, 39 yards, pick-six (Michigan leads 21-7 at halftime)

HALFTIME

DRIVE SIX, SMU 25-YARD LINE (START OF THIRD QUARTER)

Michigan forces a quick three-and-out. Hutchinson’s block on Hicks just before halftime presumably knocked him out, so Willie Brown plays the rest of the game. He throws two quick incompletions, the second of which sees a receiver smack Devin Bush in the head.

Watson had to sit out a play in the first half due to a wideout whacking him in the throat, and with this happening to Bush, a pattern is emerging. Not a good look for SMU.

To end the drive, Winovich impressively chases down the mobile Brown.

Drive: Three plays, five yards, punt (Michigan scores to lead 28-7)

DRIVE SEVEN, SMU 13-YARD LINE (9:07 THIRD QUARTER)

With Brown at quarterback, Michigan attacks the line of scrimmage with multiple defenders to stop the run. After two short gains, though, Brown throws to Proche, who beats Kinnel for a first down.

After a Kemp TFL and a short gain on a screen, Kinnel gets called for interference, despite the ball sailing five yards over the receiver’s head into the brick sideline wall.

This now sets us up to look at the targeting call on Hudson.

To be honest, despite Harbaugh’s protests after the game, this is probably the right call. While Brown isn’t defenseless, as he’s breaking through the line, that’s forcible contact to the head, and Hudson is leading with his crown. Criteria met. Hudson tries to level Brown, instead of getting low and form-tackling him.

With new life, Brown exploits Michigan on the edge with a pass to Proche in the flat, gaining another first down. On an ensuing fourth-and-4, Brown scrambles and finds Proche again to move the chains.

Lavert Hill next gets called for a reasonable interference, setting up a short touchdown pass.

This drive was defined by SMU getting very little on screens and runs, and getting bailed out by penalties or Proche.

Drive: 16 plays, 87 yards, touchdown with a missed XP (Michigan scores to lead 35-13)

DRIVE EIGHT, SMU 20-YARD LINE (1:23 THIRD QUARTER)

The defense barely gets a rest from the previous 16-play drive, as the offense scores in just two plays. The fatigue starts to show, which is exacerbated by the humid weather.

It doesn’t help that the officials seem hellbent on giving SMU free yards, this time courtesy of a phantom interference call on Ross. The young linebacker is running with a back out the backfield, and tries to keep a paw on him to stay spatially aware. Light caressing is apparently too rough for these refs.

Rather than staying disciplined, the defense is trying to make too many big plays and starts abandoning rush lanes. The Mustangs subsequently start ripping off several big runs to get into Michigan territory.

After a holding penalty on SMU nullifies a touchdown, Willie Brown scrambles for a first down on a 3rd-and-16. While not a designed play reminiscent of the Notre Dame game, this play reeks of the breakdowns against Brandon Wimbush on 3rd-and-18. With three secondary defenders near the top of the screen, no one stays at home to take down Brown.

Guess how SMU scores? Brown to Proche, this time on a scissors route that sets a pick on Hill.

Drive: 12 plays, 80 yards, touchdown (Michigan scores to lead 38-20)

DRIVE NINE, SMU 20-YARD LINE (8:03 FOURTH QUARTER)

Dykes, with his team now down three scores, turtles on this drive. Two runs yield negative yardage, and Winovich chases down a throwback screen.

Drive: Three plays, four yards, punt (Michigan scores to lead 45-20)

DRIVE 10, 25-YARD LINE (1:05 FOURTH QUARTER)

Confusingly, Dykes chooses not to turtle again. After a 36-yard bomb to Proche, the drive stalls on four straight incompletions. There’s a couple penalties in there, as well, which is no surprise considering the officials Saturday,

Drive: Seven plays, 56 yards, end of game (Michigan wins 45-20)

FINAL THOUGHTS

Upon second viewing, Michigan’s defense actually dominates until penalties and Proche start burning them with regularity.

While a handful of those flags were head-scratchers, things like the targeting call on Hudson showed a lack of discipline. The hit itself wasn’t malicious, but rather than execute a fundamental tackle, he went for the big hit. Later, the team starts breaking down as players start abandoning responsibilities, leaving open running lanes.

Even with the late fade overall, I really like how Kemp and Ross are developing. Kemp is adding to his repertoire to disrupt in the backfield, while Ross is flashing more athleticism to rack up tackles for loss and stick with backs running routes.

The safeties, on the other hand, must play better. While Metellus made the game-changing play with the pick, they get beat repeatedly in the slot. Metellus, Kinnel and Hawkins will have their hands full covering Nebraska’s JD Spielman.

Don Brown may consider sliding Hill down into the slot, and giving Ambry Thomas and Brandon Watson more run on the boundary. Also, with another mobile quarterback in Adrian Martinez potentially returning from injury this Saturday, Michigan needs to stay at home to limit the damage.