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Film Review: Michigan’s man-to-man defense cost them against Penn State

Don Brown’s lack of diversity on defense led to yet another loss.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Michigan at Penn State Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines came up short against the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday after a valiant comeback attempt was squandered thanks to some defensive struggles by both Don Brown and Michigan defensive players running his scheme.

Brown’s defense is difficult to prepare for because of the variety of different blitzes he throws at opposing teams’ offensive lines. The issue is it also comes out of a man-to-man defensive set that leaves no margin for error for the players on his defense, and can easily create mismatches offensive coordinators can exploit.

Penn State heavily prepared for the man defense Brown runs, and their offense executed extremely well against the Wolverines throughout the game, but especially early in Michigan’s loss.

This was the first big play of the game for Penn State:

Michigan cornerback Ambry Thomas is in coverage against Jahan Dotson, but Thomas loses a step; a costly mistake in Brown’s defense. Thomas recovers incredibly well, but Sean Clifford’s throw was perfect. And since there is no safety over the top, it resulted in a 37-yard gain and an early momentum swing for the Nittany Lions.

The very next play, Clifford took advantage of a mismatch in an eerily similar fashion.

This is a Cover 1 man defense with Brad Hawkins playing zone deep in the secondary.

The Wolverines are in a Cover 1 man defense, which means there is one safety (Brad Hawkins) deep in the secondary to help out with the long ball. However, he is on the right side of the line of scrimmage toward the top of your screen focusing on just one eligible receiver on that side of the line. Meanwhile, on the bottom of the screen is one of the best wideouts in the country in K.J. Hamler and a Big-Ten caliber tight end Pat Freiermuth who is being covered by Khaleke Hudson. Anytime you have a linebacker in one-on-one coverage with an athletic tight end, bad things are probably going to happen.

Clifford delivers a beautiful touch pass over the top as Freiermuth beats Hudson (even if there was a bit of a push-off). There is nothing Hawkins can do but watch as he failed to recognize there were three receivers on the other side of the ball pre-snap. Penn State went up 7-0 early because of mistakes amplified in a man-to-man defense.

There are so many times where plays like this happen for Michigan because they are not in the correct formation for a play. The Wolverines are in a 4-3 (four down lineman, three linebackers. That means there are four defensive backs on the field to help in coverage. This time, they are in Cover 2, with two safeties to help over the top in the passing game.

Penn State comes in a three-wide receiver set. If there are four defensive backs and two of them are playing in coverage deep, that means one receiver is open or has to be covered by a linebacker. In this case, it is the Nittany Lions’ best weapon, Hamler.

This is the formation that constantly trips up the Wolverines because Jordan Glasgow is now forced to go into coverage and guard one of the most electric players in the Big Ten, leaving a mismatch in the passing game, but also a hole in the defense for the running game with one less linebacker there. Watch what happens:

Glasgow is out of the picture on a run up the middle, Cameron McGrone moves toward the line on the left side, while Hudson moves toward the right, opening up a big hole in the middle of the field that wouldn’t have been there if Glasgow didn’t have to go into coverage. A big 44-yard run puts Penn State right back into position to score, and they did so going up 14-0 at home.

This next one is ugly. The Wolverines send the house on third down, and it may be the easiest play in the history of sports.

Do yourself a favor and pause the screen as soon as the video opens. Notice anything? All 11 defenders are inside five yards of the line of scrimmage. If you and I can notice that, so can Clifford and the Penn State offense.

Michigan shows seven in a blitz, but send five as Metellus and McGrone back off to cover any potential slant routes from the offense, but Penn State is thinking deep. Hamler is being covered by Hawkins, and he runs a fade route from the interior toward the sideline deep down the field. Clifford puts it up to him quickly, knowing his the faster of the two players, and it’s an easy touchdown for the Nittany Lions as they go up three scores.

Two mistakes in coverage and two times being out schemed cost the Wolverines’ defense 21 points in the first half. The second half was a much stronger performance, but then this happened in the game’s most important moment:

I’ll ask you, if you please, to pause the video right away once again with this one. No. 1 (Hamler) is wide open because the Michigan defense isn’t set. They are in a 4-3, the same formation that burned them on the big run early in the game. This time instead of Glasgow going in coverage, Metellus gets a call from the sideline that it should be him pre-snap. So he jogs over to cover the most explosive player on the field.

Meanwhile, Penn State snaps the ball, and Hamler is off and running. Metellus gets obliterated in the confusion, and the Nittany Lions score what would end up being the game-winning 53-yard touchdown.

Despite a better performance in the second half, this was a sloppy game by the Michigan defense mostly because of poor play-calling by the coaching staff. In Brown’s system, no one can make a mistake, and there were several costly ones in the Wolverines loss.