Vaunted Defense For Michigan Falling Short Of Expectations

Just a little, and possibly just enough.

Will Burchfield
September 15, 2018 - 11:25 pm

© Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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"That's a tough question to answer," said Chase Winovich. 

Maybe so, but it's a fair and necessary one to ask. Through three games, has Michigan's vaunted defense lived up to the hype?

In two words, not really. In one, no. 

With nine starters returning from a unit that ranked third in the country last season, Michigan's defense was supposed to be impenetrable. It was supposed to be historic. Linebacker Devin Bush said the expectation every game is to shut out the opponent. If the mentality is ruthless -- just as it should be, given all that talent -- the performance thus far hasn't quite matched it. 

Notre Dame knocked the Wolverines down a couple pegs in the season-opener. Then SMU came to town on Saturday a week after mustering 12 points versus TCU. With Michigan coming off a dominant defensive performance against Western Michigan, the ingredients were there for an encore. But the Mustangs put up 20 points, which put something of a damper on Michigan's 45-20 win.

Winovich said the attitude in the locker room was different, a little less satisfied, than it was a week ago. 

"It seemed like we were a lot more confident in the way the game went last week, in terms of just positivity. I don’t want to say that we were, 'Gee, oh my god, this is amazing,' but we were definitely more optimistic just the way things had gone in terms of, like, total unity. We held them to three points, our offense was clicking, special teams. We were firing on all cylinders, where this week it just felt like we had a lot of mistakes that we need to address," Winovich said. 

"We're not getting too high on this win," he added. 

That's a good thing. It reflects the high standard the defense holds itself to, a standard it won't bend after a victory. It also reflects the fact the defense surrendered over 300 yards -- 319, to be exact -- for the second time this season, something it did just three times all of last year. 

The issue in the season-opener at Notre Dame was a bad first quarter, some untimely penalties and a few long scrambles by a mobile quarterback. Take out the poor start, and the script was very much the same Saturday versus SMU. Michigan committed 11 defensive penalties, a couple of which came on third down and extended drives for the Mustangs, and had trouble at times bottling up quarterback William Brown. 

"He got outside of our contain a few times, he threw the ball pretty accurately from the pocket. I don’t know exactly how he broke contain each and every time, but that’s where he was very effective," said Jim Harbaugh. 

One of the hallmarks of last year's defense was its ability to get off the field. The Wolverines held opponents to a 26.1 conversion rate on third down, the best mark in the country. That number has jumped to 34.8 percent in the early goings of this season, which ranks ninth in the Big Ten. SMU went 5-14 on Saturday (35 percent), plus 3-4 on fourth down. That killer instinct the defense possessed last year hasn't yet kicked in. 

There's something lacking. Call it a dominant edge.

"We definitely are still searching for that," Winovich said, before adding, "I feel like you’re kind of pigeonholing me into a response. I don’t want to say that we’re searching to be dominant again. I don’t want it to come off like that. Really, honestly, we’re just working to be better. If someone says we weren’t dominant enough, maybe you can make a case on that, but I’m sure we’ll be better next week than we were today." 

Look, Michigan's defense has been plenty good. It's still the strength of the team, and the least of its worries moving forward. But it hasn't been as good as advertised. Don Brown's unit prides itself on holding opponents to 14 points or less, a goal the Wolverines achieved seven times last season. They're 1-3 so far this year. 

There's a good chance the defense will ratchet things up when Big Ten play starts next week. Good players generally perform better under higher stakes. The flip side of that is the competition is about to stiffen -- well, in theory -- which means the Wolverines will start paying for their mistakes if they continue. 

"The penalties, yeah, that was not ideal, especially when you keep extending drives. And I felt like SMU maybe wasn’t able to take advantage of those as much as other teams down the road will, if I’m being frank," Winovich said. "But that’s the great thing about it. We get to address it early. It’s hopefully not something that’s going to linger past today." 

"The penalties will be fixed," he added, "and I think the stat line and how many points they’re able to score will be a lot less." 

It was after Notre Dame that Winovich said he was "confused" as to how Michigan lost because he didn't think the defense had been dominated. The Irish just found a way to pop a few big plays, which ended up being the difference. Winovich was singing the same tune on Saturday, and he's not entirely wrong. The front seven was swarming in the back field for much of the game, but penalties and a couple long plays, including a 50-yard touchdown pass, changed the ultimate look of things. 

"I think I got a lot of flak at Notre Dame because I said I didn’t feel like they dominated us. If you look at what I see as a defensive linemen (on Saturday), I don’t think anyone will say, 'Oh, he got dominated.' For me, it’s like, a lot of penalties were pass interference," Winovich said. 

Michigan was flagged four times for pass interference, a couple of which were questionable calls. While that's an immediate indictment of the secondary, it's also somewhat damning of the pass rush for not getting home sooner. The Wolverines averaged more than three sacks per game last season, led by the defensive end duo of Winovich and Rashan Gary. They're averaging just two this year, with Winovich and Gary producing just 1.5 through three games. Those two need to step up. 

That goes for the defense as a whole. The need for improvement isn't drastic, by any means, nor is it pressing, with Michigan's toughest games still a ways down the road. But it's evident that the defense can play better, and it will have to for the Wolverines to make something of this season. 

The hype entering the year was justified. It's time to start living up to it. 

"There’s different levels of hype," Winovich said. "There’s hype that people outside of the team talk about, and then there’s the hype that we live with every day, where we see ourselves, and ultimately that’s all the really matters for us. How we see ourselves is how we performed in the most recent game, and I felt like we made a lot of mistakes today, especially with penalties." 

That's fair, honest self-assessment. The Wolverines want to suffocate their opponents, and Saturday they weren't able to. They generally had themselves to blame. Indeed, the only thing stopping this defense from being impenetrable, from being historic, is itself. The quicker the Wolverines correct the mistakes, the sooner they'll fulfill expectations. 

And the further they'll ultimately go.