Don Brown had an extremely polarizing career with the Michigan Football program. If you look purely at the numbers, it may be a puzzling move on the outside looking in. This season was the only one in his tenure where the Wolverines did not finish with a defense ranked in the top-25. This season, they were 96th out of 127 FBS programs. It was the end of an exponential drop off from year one where they were the No. 2 defense in the country back in 2016. Not only that, but fans saw how Michigan’s defense unraveled every week as the book was out on how to pick apart Brown’s defense towards the end of his tenure.
Fans of the program and those in the know have been calling for this move for quite some time. Michigan has taken care of the little guys and the struggling teams in the Big Ten. However, they struggled defensively in their most important games, including complete collapses against their biggest rival, Ohio State.
For quite some time in the Jim Harbaugh era, the head coach leaned on Brown’s defense and it actually carried them to several wins with a stagnant offense. In recent memory, the tides have turned on Don Brown which inevitably led to his firing.
Let’s take a look back at some of the highlights and lowlights of his tenure with the program.
2016 Michigan vs Penn State, 49-10
The Wolverines hosted a Nittany Lions team that eventually went on a Big Ten Championship run and a Rose Bowl run. However, they opened the year unranked and lost two of their first four games. One of those two losses came in the Big House where the Michigan defense nullified any movement from a starting group of stars like Trace McSorley, Chris Godwin, and Saquon Barkley.
A defense led by a lineup of Rashan Gary, Taco Charlton, Chase Winovich, Ben Gedeon, Mo Hurst, and Jabrill Peppers had 6 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and forced 2 turnovers in the game. Penn State was held scoreless in the first half and picked up only 191 total yards in the game.
2019 Michigan vs Notre Dame, 45-14
Things looked bleak for Michigan as they were coming off a devastating loss on the road against Penn State after almost coming back after being down by three touchdowns. It was their second loss of the season as they headed into a game with another ranked opponent, the No. 8 Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
The Irish were stymied on the ground with their leading rushed having just 15 yards. Meanwhile, the secondary held starter Ian Book to 8-of-25 passing and only 70 yards through the air. The top-10 ranked team came into Ann Arbor and picked up a total of 180 yards. Cam McGrone starred with 13 tackles and a sack in the Wolverines’ first win against Notre Dame since 2013.
2018 Michigan vs Michigan State, 21-7
This game was the ultimate performance in the Don Brown era. We’re talking about a top-25 matchup between the No. 6 Wolverines and No. 24 Spartans in East Lansing where Brown’s scheme held Michigan State to less than 100 yards on their own field.
It was all about toughness after a pregame altercation between Devin Bush and the entire Michigan State roster. The 21-7 Michigan win was the highlight of ‘The Revenge Tour’ that the Wolverines marched on when they topped three-straight Top-25 opponents.
When all was said and done, the Wolverines sacked Brian Lewerke 4 times, forced two turnovers, and allowed a total of just 94 yards of offense to Mike Dantonio and the Spartans.
Relive the spectacular experience:
2017 Michigan vs Penn State, 42-13
The year after a highlight performance from Michigan’s defense comes a horrifying moment of revenge for Penn State. Saquon Barkley had his way tallying 161 yards and 3 touchdowns. Quarterback Trace McSorely had 358 total yards and 4 touchdowns in the win. In total, the Nittany Lions had over 500 yards of offense and averaged 8.8 yards per play.
In a largely forgettable 2017 season, Michigan finished the year 8-5 and this loss was the start of four losses in the last seven games of the year.
2020 Michigan vs Michigan State, 27-24
In the first week of a wild Big Ten season, Michigan State turned the ball over 7 times against a bad Rutgers team. The next week, quarterback Rocky Lombardi threw for 323 yards and 3 touchdowns. Michigan did not force a single turnover, and true freshman Ricky White accrued 196 yards on 8 receptions as the Spartans continually attacked the Michigan corners with no adjustments from Brown.
The Wolverines fell to a poor Spartans teams with a first-year head coach in Mel Tucker and Brown and the Michigan defense was a huge reason why. The pass rush never reached home, and Michigan State had their best offensive performance of the season with 449 yards. It was easily the most inexcusable loss of the Jim Harbaugh era and was the spark to the fire that led to Brown’s dismissal.
2018-19 Michigan vs Ohio State, 118-66
As great as Brown’s defense was against weaker teams, he will always be remembered as the defensive coordinator who could never stop the Ohio State offense, and that is perfectly portrayed in Michigan’s 118 points allowed to the Buckeyes in his final two matchups against their archrivals.
The past two Wolverines vs Buckeyes have been straight NSFW. In 2018, Dwayne Haskins threw for 6 touchdowns and scored 62 points, the most ever in the rivalry. It was the introduction of what would soon unravel Brown’s defensive scheme: crossing routes. Brown tried for the remainder of his career to finding ways to slow down receivers running across the field, he implemented bracket coverage and eventually threw in some zone in his waning moments, but it became his and the Michigan defense’s kryptonite.
The 2019 matchup showed a similar sentiment. Ryan Day came with an identical game plan of attacking the Wolverines through the air while adding a 211-yard performance from J.K. Dobbins on the ground to top 304 yards from Justin Fields through the air.
It got to the point where some fans rejoiced that Michigan’s matchup with the Buckeyes was canceled in 2020, where expectations were similar to the previous two. This was the worst defense in Don Brown’s era and they would have faced a surging Ohio State team that is currently prepping for the college football playoff.
Every coach in Michigan history is tied to their performances against the Buckeyes and other top rivals. To have all three of your most significant losses come at the hands of Ohio State and Michigan State does not bode well for how Brown will be remembered going forward.
Still, pause and consider that at one point, Michigan hung its hat on the pressure and aggressiveness that Brown’s defense generated and it pushed them to have a perennial Top-15 defense for the majority of his tenure. Was he the right man for this team to push for a national championship? No. But at his best, he got the most out of his players and completely shut down opposing offenses.
Whoever is his predecessor will expect to rebuild this defense to where he once had it: among the best in the country.