Michigan's defense falls apart Saturday in what seemed like a cloud of confusion
Donovan Warren and Stevie Brown sat on the Michigan bench, white towels draped over their heads, seemingly waiting for the game to end, for the nightmarish day inside Michigan Stadium to finally, mercifully stop.
Yet almost to add insult to everything else, Brown and Warren had to go back out on the field one more time to let Penn State run one more play in a long-over game.
So it’s no surprise Brown talked to maybe one Penn State player and was the first one up the tunnel Saturday afternoon. He, and the rest of the Michigan defense save for defensive end Brandon Graham, played confused. Played without emotion.
Played, frankly, like they were lost in the Nittany Lions’ 35-10 waxing of Michigan.
“There were a couple of plays when they had trouble lining up,” Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark said. “They didn’t know what was coming in some certain plays.”
That is what offenses strive for - to so confuse a defense it has no idea what to expect.
That might have been an understatement, and feel free to cue the circus music with the way Michigan played in every way Saturday. Because as dominant as Michigan looked a week ago against FCS patsy Delaware State, it looked equally exploited against Penn State.
“We never gave ourselves a chance,” assistant head coach Tony Gibson said. “It was just big play after big play. Never could get a rhythm going.
It's also part of a pattern. All season, there have been questions about Michigan’s defense. Some of it could be personnel. Some could be scheme. Whatever it is, it clearly isn’t working against any opponent capable of creating any offensive output.
Michigan may have beaten Notre Dame, but it was torn apart defensively. Indiana’s offense made the Wolverines looked positively ordinary - and afterward Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson said there were things Indiana did that he hadn’t expected.
From the sound of it, that may have happened again.
All of this begs the question - what really is going on behind Michigan’s defense? Is it personnel? Is it scheme? Is it a combination of both?
Well, Saturday, at first, Donovan Warren wasn’t sure.
“I couldn’t even tell you what went wrong, man,” Warren said. “No clue.”
Then he said it had nothing to do with defensive coordinator Greg Robinson’s scheme - the same scheme where cornerbacks are routinely 6 to 8 yards from the line of scrimmage in zone coverage. He, instead, said it was on the players.
Except when asked what happened on some of Michigan’s big plays, including a second-half touchdown pass where Clark could have thrown it anywhere on the right side of the end zone and it would have been a sure touchdown, he changed his tone.
“Just part of the scheme, part of the defense that was called,” Warren said about Penn State’s big plays. “They just happened to call the right play on that play.”
That seems to be happening a lot against Michigan this season, and it doesn’t matter whether it is the first half or second half.
On Saturday, Michigan started with its usual secondary cushion - and Penn State threw a bunch of short passes to easily move down the field. Then, at halftime, Robinson switched from zone coverage to man coverage, allowing his cornerbacks to press the line of scrimmage and receivers. That’s when Penn State started throwing deep, using its multiple pass catching options to shred the Wolverines.
Even when Penn State went to its tight end, Andrew Quarless, in the middle of the second quarter there was a defensive breakdown resulting in a 60-yard Penn State touchdown.
On the play, Robinson said linebacker Obi Ezeh was supposed to have help that never showed.
“Those are things that you need everybody working together,” Robinson said.
Michigan didn’t Saturday. Not on defense, at least, when every Wolverine looked like they were playing on their own.