By Tony Gerdeman
It's all the talk in 2006.
Michigan's 1997 defense was the best defense in the country. It was the reason the AP voted Michigan as their national champion. Here we are nine years later and people are talking about 1997 again.
And wondering if the 2006 version is better.
But we're only four games into the season; let's slow things down a bit. Coming into the Wisconsin game last week, Michigan was only giving up 20.7 yards rushing per game, allowing 62 yards on 64 attempts. But who had they played that could really run the ball? Nobody.
The Big Ten's version of drowning by molasses.
Wisconsin came into the game averaging 198 yards rushing per game on 42 carries. When they left Ann Arbor, the 20.7 yards rushing Michigan was giving up dropped to 18.5.
Obviously, it was the defense that stuck out in Michigan's 27-13 victory over the Badgers, but the offense didn't exactly sit this one out. Mario Manningham won his second-consecutive Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week award for his seven receptions for 113 yards and two touchdowns. He now has five touchdowns in his last two games.
The offense wasn't spectacular, but it was efficient...enough.
Right now, however, "efficient enough" is plenty with this defense.
When Michigan Had the Ball
The Wolverine offense started pretty slow. On their first possession, Chad Henne threw a slant to Mario Manningham that Manningham couldn't handle and Wisconsin intercepted the ricochet. Wisconsin then drove the ball for a touchdown. Both Manningham and Steve Breaston continue to have trouble hanging on to the slant. Henne may be throwing the ball a little hard, but that's how you throw the slant, it's not a touch pass. His receivers need to start catching the ball.
Manningham did redeem himself a couple of drives after that one when Henne found him in the endzone for a 24-yard touchdown. Virtually all of Manningham's touchdowns look the same so far. He beats his man down the sideline and Henne throws it up to him. It's very Braylon Edwards circa 2004. I'm still interested to see what he can do after the catch, in traffic. Unfortunately, Michigan's offense tends to keep Manningham on the outside.
Manningham may have to tone it down a bit, however. In the second quarter, Chad Henne threw the ball away because of good Badger coverage, forcing Michigan to kick a field goal. Manningham had some words for Henne coming off of the field and when Henne tried to talk to Manningham, Mario turned his back to Henne. It's the "heat of battle" so things like that aren't unusual. They are, however, sometimes noteworthy. Also noteworthy is the fact that both were in good spirits after each of Manningham's touchdowns.
And as much as Manningham continues to emerge, Steve Breaston continues to demerge. Breaston continues to catch passes behind the line of scrimmage. Of his four touches via the pass, two were thrown three yards behind the line of scrimmage, one was thrown four yards behind the line of scrimmage, and the fourth was way, way downfield...about a yard. You have to wonder how much of that is Henne reacting to the defense playing off of Breaston, and just firing it over to him, as many teams do. Or if it's his (lack of) route running or his (lack of) hands. At least if he lets one go through his hands on the sidelines, it's not going to be intercepted.
Fortunately for Michigan, it looks like their need to rely on Breaston's capricious hands may be coming to an end. Adrian Arrington had his second strong outing, catching four balls for 79 yards. Unlike Breaston, Arrington actually runs routes downfield. And he catches the ball. Arrington is a rangy target with great hands and should not be forgotten by the opponent.
The tight ends only caught a couple of passes last week, as Henne was more focused on his wideouts for a change. However, just when you stop thinking about Tyler Ecker or Mike Massey, you're biting on the play action and then chasing one of them downfield for a 17-yard gain on second and six.
Chad Henne had an accurate day. He finished 18-25 for 211 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions, which means only four of his passes actually hit the ground. Henne's interceptions weren't all his fault though, one was a drop by Manningham, one was a nice play by the corner, and the other was a bad throw deep to Manningham late in the fourth quarter that was overthrown. If he continues to stay accurate, while stopping the interceptions, Michigan's offense becomes a little more difficult to stop.
Coming into the game, offensive coordinator Mike DeBord mentioned that their third down conversion percentage needed to get better. Perhaps if you didn't have three guys running two-yard routes and one guy running a twelve-yard route on third and nine, it would. You know Henne's going to look at the short guy first, why even give him that option? And if he's getting pressured, forget about it.
For the game, Michigan converted two of thirteen third downs.
It was not an improvement.
Henne was pressured some, but only sacked twice. The offensive line was okay. Right tackle Rueben Riley continues to be entertaining. He gave up a sack in the first quarter. The second quarter, however, was Riley's one shining moment. On first and ten from their own 28 yard line, Henne dropped back to throw, but his pass was batted up in the air. Seeing the pass tumbling end over end in the sky, Riley reached his meat hooks up into the blue, and pulled the deflected pass out of the air. Then, with only eleven defenders between him and the end zone, Riley immediately fell to the ground covering up the football. He was the proud owner of a negative nine-yard reception. Credit him for going down immediately so as to avoid a fumble, but you wouldn't have to worry about the fumble if you would've just let the ball drop to the ground.
It led to a three and out on what could've been a half-ending scoring drive. Instead, the Wolverines punted, leaving the score 10-10 at the half.
The offensive line also struggled a bit providing enough room for Michael Hart to run the ball. Obviously, Hart isn't a homerun hitter, but a couple of doubles here and there would be nice. But he just didn't have as many holes as he normally does. Of his 23 carries, only four of them were over five yards. (For comparison's sake, Antonio Pittman had nine such carries in fewer attempts against Penn State.) To Hart's credit, none of those carries were for a loss of yards.
No other backs even carried the ball for Michigan until the fourth quarter. That may be a slight indication of the trust level of not just guys like Kevin Grady and Brandon Minor, but even more so of Hart. Lloyd Carr knows that in a close game, Michael Hart isn't going to do anything that would set his team back.
When Michigan Was on Defense
Michigan's defense came into this game having given up 62 yards on 64 carries, for 20.7 yards per game. That statistic now stands at 74 yards on 91 carries (0.8 ypc), for an average of 18.5 yards per game.
The Badgers started out quickly. In fact, running back P.J. Hill's first three carries went for 33 yards. On his remaining 17 carries, he gained 19 yards.
Hill was pasted all day by linebackers David Harris and Prescott Burgess. Harris had ten tackles (nine solo) and two tackles for loss. He also had about four collisions with the 240-pound Hill where the Badger buckled and was stopped dead. Burgess finished with seven tackles, including a sack. He also broke up a pass that should've been an interception for a touchdown.
Obviously, when you play Wisconsin, you expect your linebackers to put up appealing statistics. But these weren't tackles seven yards down the field, they were tackles at the line of scrimmage, and there wasn't much falling forward. Hill was the only Badger to finish with positive yardage. Dywon Rowan, Hill's backup, had two carries for -8 yards. He never even got to sniff the line of scrimmage.
For the game, the Badgers rushed for 12 yards on 27 carries. Yes, that's impressive. Even more impressive, however, is that the Badger running backs lost 18 total yards on their 22 combined carries.
And when your running backs aren't even getting back to the line of scrimmage, the credit goes to the defensive line. As a unit, the front four combined for a total of only nine tackles, but that doesn't really tell you anything about their dominance.
Defensive tackle Alan Branch was again commanding two or three lineman, and he still had two stops in the backfield. Terrance Taylor was his usual self at the other tackle spot. He's an occupier and part-time maligner. LaMarr Woodley only had one tackle, but it was a sack. Wisconsin has some good tackles, so Woodley had his hands full, but he was still disrupting play after play. Backup defensive end Tim Jamison notched a sack as well.
The front four allowed Harris, Burgess and Shawn Crable to run around and meet Badger after Badger at the line of scrimmage. It was pretty much the same story for the defensive backs as well. When they were in run support, they didn't shy from contact. Even cornerback Leon Hall stood P.J. Hill up straight. Hall had a couple of hits that surprised me. He was definitely getting after it and was looking for people to hit. I'm guessing that he was probably bored out there because Wisconsin throws the ball about as well as Air Force.
The Wisconsin passing game is a painful thing to watch in practice. Imagine how ugly it was against Michigan.
John Stocco was 22-42 for 236 yards and a touchdown.
Fourteen of his completions went to P.J. Hill and the Badgers' two tight ends. Together, they amassed 158 yards receiving. It may be something to keep in mind for future reference. However, Wisconsin's receivers and tight ends are so inexperienced, I don't know that it would be wise to draw your game plan from anything they do through the air.
Leon Hall was again the best cornerback on the field. The other corner, Morgan Trent, continues to be solid. Trent may allow receivers to break open, but he's got tremendous recovery speed. And when you do catch the ball, he's usually right there to keep you from advancing any further. I'm left wondering how Charles Stewart could have ever beaten him out.
The Wolverines played four safeties, and all were involved. Ryan Mundy and Jamar Adams started, but Brandent Englemon and Willis Barringer got plenty of time. Barringer was especially impressive in run support. There isn't a whole lot of drop off when the back ups come in. Although I'm still not sure if that's because the back ups are so good, or if Mundy and Adams just aren't anything spectacular.
The Special Teams
Steve Breaston had nine punt returns for 116 yards, with a long of 29 yards. This, of course, begs the question: Wisconsin, why in the world are you letting Steve Breaston field nine punts? I'm still surprised he didn't take one all the way back. He looked close to taking it all the way a couple of times. However, on his long return, there were about three blocks in the back. Flags were thrown...and then mysteriously waved off. Needless to say, Badger head coach Bret Bielema wasn't too pleased.
The Wolverine kick returns don't really frighten you, as long as you kick away from Steve Breaston. Johnny Sears had a seventeen-yard return, but that was it for Michigan.
Ross Ryan was okay on kickoffs, putting two of his six kicks deep enough for touchbacks. The Badgers only averaged sixteen yards per return on the four non-touchbacks.
The punting continues to be split. Zoltan Mesko averaged 47 yards on his three punts and Ryan only averaged 30 yards on his three punts. Mesko had a nice day, but both punters are just as likely to "boom" it 35 yards as they are 60.
Garrett Rivas made both of his field goal attempts (31, 32) and all three of his extra points. For the season, Rivas has made eight of his nine field goals. He's currently second in the Big Ten in scoring and his 89% field goal percentage leads the conference as well.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that Michigan just aced their test last week.
After Notre Dame, people were saying, "Well, let's see what Michigan does against a power running team that will just pound them."
Twelve yards later, here we are.
The next test comes this week in Minneapolis. I don't expect the outcome to be much different than the Wisconsin game. However, Michigan's offense needs to continue to improve, because they have a rough stretch of four games coming up.
Fortunately for them, Michigan State's collapse has come a month early.
The Road To The Big One
Sept. 2 Michigan 27 - Vanderbilt 7
Sept. 9 Michigan 41 - Central Michigan 17
Sept. 16 Michigan 47 - Notre Dame 21
Sept. 23 Michigan 27 - Wisconsin 13
Sept. 30 Michigan at Minnesota
Oct. 7 Michigan State at Michigan
Oct. 14 Michigan at Penn State
Oct. 21 Iowa at Michigan
Oct. 28 Northwestern at Michigan
Nov. 4 Ball State at Michigan
Nov. 11 Michigan at Indiana
Nov. 18 Michigan at Ohio State
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