Third-down defense among frustrations Wolverines endured against Penn State
Melanie Maxwell I AnnArbor.com
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Freshman safety Ray Vinopal hadn’t seen much action on the football field until he started his first college game Saturday night against Penn State.
It didn’t take him long to identify a key problem for the Michigan defense.
“We get teams in a lot of third downs and let them off,” Vinopal said minutes after the team’s third consecutive loss. “If we make a couple third-down plays, all of the sudden we’re not such a bad defense.”
Such a scenario hasn’t happened in a while. Third down, particularly third-and-long, has been a sore spot for the Wolverines all year. It was no different in Saturday’s 41-31 defeat.
Penn State converted 10 of 16 third-down, including 3 of 3 on its opening drive that culminated in Evan Royster’s first touchdown run of the night, giving the Nittany Lions a 7-0 lead.
On the season, Michigan has allowed opponents to converted 44.8 percent of their third-down attemps (52 of 116), which ranks ninth in the Big Ten conference.
Penn State converted three 3rd and 10s throughout the course of the game. Afterward, Rich Rodriguez acknowledged the third-down struggles.
“That’s the most frustrating part,” he said. “Usually on third and long, you can limit them in what they do, and they got to kill the clock and then still got a first down.”
At the end of the third quarter Saturday, Rodriguez gathered every member of the defense on the field near the 40-yard line and implored them to stop the Nittany Lions.
On the ensuing drive, they did.
Denard Robinson retaliated with another touchdown that brought the Wolverines within 38-31. But Penn State converted a key 3rd-and-5 on its next drive and positioned itself for a field goal that made it a two-possession game.
On the final drive of the game, the Nittany Lions converted a fourth-down attempt via a fake field goal that allowed them to run out the clock.
“Obviously, you want to get stops and get off the field, you know?” linebacker Jonas Mouton said. “We need to make no mistakes, clean up the little things and keep working.”
The late-game sequence was symbolic of the problems Michigan endured all night. Under the guidance of quarterback Matt McGloin, a former walk-on making his first career start, Penn State compiled 435 yards of total offense -- six under the average Michigan has allowed per game this season.
The Wolverines (5-3 overall, 1-3 Big Ten) made several defensive changes during the off week to try and stem the hemorrhaging, moving Vinopal into the starting lineup and safety Cam Gordon to the hybrid linebacker position.
But the changes couldn’t mask the team’s youth.
At various times Saturday night, the Wolverines used true freshmen Carvin Johnson, Cullen Christian, Terrence Talbott, Courtney Avery and Vinopal in the secondary.
Inexperience has been a regular source of frustration for Rodriguez this season.
“Some people say you’re just making an excuse,” he said. “But there’s a difference. I’m a realist. The reality is there’s a true freshman and another true freshman and a redshirt freshman and whatever playing.
“We’ve got a few upper classmen trying as hard as they can defensively. Our youth gets picked on somewhat. Our young guys have to grow up in a hurry. That’s it.”