The scouts over at Pro Football Focus called Michigan’s defense the “best in the nation” coming into 2018, citing NFL Draft potential in the defensive ends, linebackers and cornerbacks.
Eight minutes into the first quarter, Notre Dame led 14-0 after 171 yards of offense spearheaded by maligned quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
While Don Brown’s dudes eventually stabilized, a few problems shattered the veneer of the presumably impenetrable defense.
DRIVE ONE, ND 25-YARD LINE (START OF FIRST QUARTER)
In the first two plays, the Wolverines flashed the pieces that made them the No. 10 S&P defense a year ago. Don Brown used Josh Metellus and Khaleke Hudson on run blitzes to swamp the Irish line with extra defenders for no gain.
Lavert Hill breaks up a pass on the next play, perhaps giving the receiver too much space to beat him over the top. His closing speed makes up for it, though, forcing a 3rd and 10.
Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long employs gorgeous play design to convert for a first down. Receiver Chase Claypool motions from the bottom of the picture, with both slot receivers running obstructive routes to occupy defenders. The routes make Hill weave around the traffic, and Claypool uses the space and momentum to waltz for a first down.
Wimbush, criticized for his inaccuracy in 2017 and all offseason, throws a clean ball over the top to Miles Boykin, who simply beats Hill. The potential All-American cornerback is adjusting to the intensity the Irish offense is bringing early.
After a Tyree Kennel facemask, Jafar Armstrong scores on a 13-yard run. Michigan tries to overload the right side of the Notre Dame line with blitzes from Hudson and Josh Uche, so Notre Dame runs away from it. Center Sam Mustipher pushes Mike Dwumfour to the turf, creating a gaping hole for the score.
Devin Gil also flies out of the crease.
While Wimbush was unusually accurate on this drive, the issues at defensive tackle loomed largest on the night.
Drive: Seven plays, 75 yards (Notre Dame leads 7-0)
DRIVE TWO, ND 4-YARD LINE (10:05 FIRST QUARTER)
Again, Michigan looks like a vintage Don Brown defense the first two drives, forcing another third-and-long. NBC color commentator Doug Flutie does a good job pointing out how Rashan Gary disengaged from his block and tracked down the back for a loss.
While Gary only made four tackles on the night, he anchored his side of the line well.
Wimbush makes a throw no one has seen him make, connecting with Alize Mack on a tight end wheel route over Noah Furbush in tight coverage. Good throws beat good coverage, and remarkably, Mack holds on for the catch despite clear targeting by Metellus — the refs didn’t call it consistently, as pointed out in the offense’s film review.
Good throws beat good coverage.
With Metellus out, Brad Hawkins enters for his first extended action at safety. Long calls for his offense to attack him right away. While in position, Hawkins loses a jump ball to little-used Chris Finke for a 43-yard touchdown.
#WalkLikeAPigeon pic.twitter.com/mfbatWuWc0— Chris Finke (@SlipperyFox10) September 2, 2018
Drive: Seven plays, 96 yards (Notre Dame leads 14-0)
DRIVE THREE, ND 20-YARD LINE (2:23 FIRST QUARTER)
The relentlessness of Gary and Chase Winovich force the first Notre Dame three-and-out.
Play one, Gary holds the edge until the rest of the defense cleans up for a 3-yard loss. Play two, a receiver stumbles on a bubble screen. Play three, Gary and Winovich almost meet on Wimbush, forcing an errant throw.
Drive: Three plays, negative four yards (Michigan field goal leads to 14-3 ND lead)
DRIVE FOUR, ND 25-YARD LINE (11:32 SECOND QUARTER)
Wimbush starts the drive with a 6-yard keeper off read-option. He holds the ball at the mesh point with the running back just long enough to draw Gary inside, then taking off and beating his fellow New Jersey native to the sideline.
Josh Ross, competing a WILL linebacker with Gil, tackles Wimbush in space to force third down.
The first-down conversion by Wimbush is Brandon Watson’s fault. Brown deploys eight defenders in the box against six blockers. While one defender has to account for the read option, the defense still outnumbers Notre Dame here.
Watson allows himself to get sucked inside by a wide-receiver down block, and a pulling tackle seals off the rest of the traffic to give Wimbush a free lane to convert. Watson needs to stay on the edge, either tacking the block from the pull or slicing past it for a tackle for loss. Kinnel was in the area, as well, so two defenders for one blocker and runner should equal a loss.
Later, Ross gets over-aggressive in coverage, tackling a eligible receiver on a wheel route, leading to a justified penalty for a first down. Hey, it’s a better solution than Mike McCray had against Saquon Barkley.
After an illegal shift penalty on the Irish, Michigan finally has Wimbush in a long-distance situation. A combination of bad pass-rushing technique by two new contributors ruins Michigan’s chance to keep pushing Notre Dame backwards.
First, newly-minted rush linebacker Uche beats the blindside tackle, but his over-pursuit of Wimbush leaves a gap open for a scramble. Dwumfour, rather than holding down his lane, is trying to work his way around the guard. In doing so, Wimbush has lots of room to pick up an 11-yard chunk. To quote Lavar Ball: “Stay in your lane!”
Skipping ahead to Winovich’s roughing the passer penalty on third-and-goal...it’s questionable. He’s a beat late in getting to Wimbush, and leads with his facemask. In real-time, it’s not egregiously late, and he lets up enough to not bisect the quarterback. By 2018 Sarcastaball standards, it’s probably the right call.
Drive: 15 plays, 75 yards (Ambry Thomas kick return makes it a 21-10 ND lead)
DRIVE FOUR, ND 22-YARD LINE (3:36 FIRST QUARTER)
Chip Long finds some run against a Michigan defense expecting pass early. The drive stalls when they adjust. End of first half.
Drive: Eight plays, 28 yards (Notre Dame leads 21-10 at halftime)
DRIVE FIVE, ND 27-YARD LINE (13:42 THIRD QUARTER)
Winovich’s pressure forces Wimbush into an interception to Watson on second down.
This play not only gets Michigan the ball back, but it changes the complexion of the game. The Irish quarterback started the game 10-of-15 for 148 yards and a touchdown. He finished the second half two for seven for only 22 yards and a pick.
The reversion to his previous inaccuracy handcuffed Notre Dame, opening the door for a Michigan comeback. Also, Winovich deserves mention for producing against quality Notre Dame tackles, such as former 4-stars Robert Hainsey and Liam Eichenberg.
Focused on the offensive line and Brandon Wimbush when I watched #NotreDame's game again today. I counted 18 dropbacks that Wimbush was pressured. Chase Winovich was part of 12 of them. He beat Hainsey 5 times, Eichenberg 4 times, Kraemer once and was unblocked twice.— Tyler James (@TJamesNDI) September 3, 2018
Drive: Two plays, three yards (Notre Dame leads 21-10)
DRIVE SIX, ND 45-YARD LINE (10:57 THIRD QUARTER)
Three-and-out. Two Wimbush incompletions and no gain on a Armstrong run inside.
Gary and Winovich are starting to abuse Hainsey and Eichenberg. Both incompletions come after intense pressure.
Drive: Three plays, zero yards (Notre Dame leads 21-10)
DRIVE SEVEN, ND 28-YARD LINE (8:06 THIRD QUARTER)
Wimbush gains little on his initial keeper. While he still forces Gary to hesitate while reading the option, strong run support from Hawkins strings this play out for minimal damage.
Next, Devin Bush slips Mustipher, an All-American hopeful, for the sack.
Oh, boy. The third-and-18 draw. Nobody is spying Wimbush, who finds a crease inside as Dwumfour and Aubrey Solomon get driven out of their lanes. With Ross in no man’s land, Wimbush easily beats him for a 21-yard scamper and the first down.
After some missed tackles lead to a Tony Jones moving the chains again, Wimbush simply makes a nice play to buy time with his feet, eventually finding Claypool on the sideline for a first down.
He almost finds himself in a groove, as a almost perfectly-placed fade route to Boykin leads him barely out of bounds.
The defense survives with just a 48-yard Justin Yoon field goal. It should have been a 53-yarder, if the officials looked at the play clock.
September 2, 2018
Drive: 10 plays, 41 yards (Notre Dame leads 24-10)
DRIVE EIGHT, ND 36-YARD LINE (1:20 THIRD QUARTER)
The run defense stiffens on this drive, particularly the defensive tackles. Against Mustipher and fellow All-American candidate Alex Bars, this isn’t nothing.
However, how is this a first down?
The play ended up being mostly inconsequential, outside of some more seconds potentially on the clock for the last drive. That is clearly fourth-and-inches, though. The ball doesn’t graze the line to gain.
Drive: six plays, three yards (Notre Dame leads 24-10)
DRIVE NINE, ND 44-YARD LINE (7:14 FOURTH QUARTER)
We’re starting to see a pattern here.
The defensive line remains disciplined by staying in their rush lanes. The safeties are trapping Wimbush to the sideline on option keepers.
On third down, Winovich forces an inaccurate throw. Bing. Bang. Boom.
Drive: Four plays, 13 yards (Higdon touchdown, Notre Dame leads 24-17)
DRIVE 10, ND 27-YARD LINE (2:18 FOURTH QUARTER)
The defense does its job at forcing its third three-and-out of the night.
Long tries to implement a wrinkle here, having Wimbush read the defensive tackles rather than the ends on the read-option. This is called a veer concept.
The defense refuses to bite, giving the offense one final chance to tie the game.
Drive: Three plays, eight yards (Notre Dame wins 24-17)
Brian Kelly and Long knew they needed Wimbush to complete passes down the field to keep the Wolverine defense from pinning its ears back all evening.
With the first drive, they did just that. From there, they noticed a mismatch between their interior guards and Solomon, Dwumfour and Bryan Mone. Without the tackles stabilizing the interior, Don Brown needed to blitz to stop the run.
Once the tackles found their feet, along the rest of Michigan’s defensive stars, the second half looked like what many expected: Notre Dame manufacturing some points of Wimbush scrambles, but little else.
The good: Gary and Winovich will harass most teams, as Hill and David Long will provide enough time for them to get to the quarterback. Despite the jump ball touchdown allowed by Hawkins, the safeties seemed to fix the run support issues from 2017.
The bad: Dwumfour and company need a lot of work over the next month. Western Michigan, Southern Methodist, Nebraska and Northwestern probably lack the heft inside to truly take advantage of them, but veteran lines such as Wisconsin — and to a lesser extent Maryland — provide looming obstacles.
In addition, the WILL linebackers had their share of blunders, particularly the Ross defensive holding and his inability to tackle Wimbush in space. If you’re saying Mike McCray would’ve done the same thing, watch him against J.T. Barrett. He prevented many big runs by the departed Buckeye.
Ross and Gil are making their first extended action of their careers, so watch them grow week by week.
In 2015, the defense rounded into form after the Utah loss, eventually pitching three consecutive shutouts. With two games before Scott Frost comes to Ann Arbor, or three games before the trip to Evanston, the defense has time to return to form.
They started the growth in South Bend, after all.