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Posted on Tue, Nov 2, 2010 : 3:12 p.m.

Third-down plays have the Michigan defense down and unable to get out

By Michael Rothstein

Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin lofted a pass. Considering the down and distance, the result shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Wide receiver Graham Zug caught the ball in the front left corner of the Beaver Stadium field and scored, helping Penn State to a 41-31 victory on Saturday. Once again, the Michigan football team’s defense came up short on its dreaded defensive down-and-distance.

Third and long.

A down most teams use as a pressure down - a reward for two good defensive plays - has been a mess for Michigan.


Penn State wide receivers Justin Brown and Graham Zug celebrate a touchdown Saturday against Michigan.

Melanie Maxwell |

When most teams face a third-and-long play, they have two options: Play it safe and improve field position or go for a first down. Against Michigan, anything is possible. A halfback gut run turns into a long gain. A corner route ends up boxing the defense into a corner.

This season, Michigan (5-3, 1-3 Big Ten) has forced opponents into third-and-10 or longer 31 times. Opponents converted for first downs nine times, a 29 percent success rate.

Big Ten opponents convert 48.3 percent (28-of-58) of third-down plays against Michigan. The Wolverines are 95th in the country in third-down conversion defense at 44.83 percent - but the long-distance disconnects are the most obvious.

“It’s pretty clear we have struggled on third down,” Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said. “Just like turnovers, third downs are key parts of the game that we definitely need to improve on.

“I don’t know what it is, why we’re struggling with it.”

Michigan was better last season on third-and-long. Through eight games with a similar schedule - seven FBS teams, one FCS team and the same Big Ten teams - Michigan allowed just five of 32 third-and-longs to be converted.

“If it was just one particular thing it would be easier to solve or try to solve,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “But it’s almost been, or one particular guy, I wouldn’t give you a guy’s name, but it’s been one guy (one time), one technique one time. Sometimes it’s a call that didn’t match up right. That happens.

“It’s hard to pin it on one particular thing.”

Rodriguez said his defensive staff met Monday morning about the issue. Rodriguez said he's going to work more this week with Michigan's defense in advance of facing a 5-3 Illinois team on Saturday (noon, ESPN).

Not that there are any easy solutions.

“It’s not something you can improve on just in practice,” Kovacs said. “It comes with game reps. And I think we’ve been getting a lot of reps and a lot of the young guys have been in those situations.

“The more we’re in those situations, the more that we’ll improve.”

And once that is fixed, Michigan can go on to its next problem. It’s 106th in the country in fourth-down conversion defense, allowing opponents to convert 13 of 19 times.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan basketball for He can be reached at (734) 623-2558, by e-mail at or follow along on Twitter @mikerothstein



Wed, Nov 3, 2010 : 11:49 a.m.

The coach is just now deciding to focus more on the defense? After 3 years of pitiful defense it's now a priority? Na na na na, hey, hey, hey goodbye!


Wed, Nov 3, 2010 : 9:29 a.m.

Stop this nonsense now! Undersized and quick seems to be working for Rich Rod on offense but the same approach is just getting the Wolverines hammered on defense. I suppose there is some sense to wanting defensive players that can defend against the spread in practice but it just doesn't translate to playing against power offenses in the Big 10. Barwis is some kind of S & C guru? Ha! Am I serioiusly the only one tired of seeing our defense pushed back 5 yards from the line of scrimmage every play? Have we seen a D-Lineman over power anyone at the point of attack. Has anyone else been watch Mouton, Ezeh, Demens rush blindly the line of scrimmage with disregard to where teh ball carrier is actually going?is is just plain and simply bad, bad, BAD defense. There is, and can be, no excuse for this at a school like Michigan. Isn't it time Rich Rod quits blaming players - cupboard was bare, we're playing too many freshmen, yada, yada, yada and just simply admit he is failing as a coach at Michigan in large part because he has forgotten the one thing that Michigan football has been built on - Defense. Defense wins Championships. It really is just that simple. All the offense in the world is not going to get Michigan back to where it belongs without the ability to play great defense. Sigh.


Wed, Nov 3, 2010 : 7:22 a.m.

They cant fix it in practice?????????? are you kidding me? Maybe we should turn our first team offense into a fricking scout team and run plays against our sieve over and over and over again until they realize that if your playing the defensive line and you or one of the other two line mates some how get right into the quarterbacks face its not because you finally did your job to get pressure on QB its because it is a fricking screen and you just fell into the trap. Never mind this whole fantasy would require a coaching staff that had a clue. GO BRANDON!

3 And Out

Tue, Nov 2, 2010 : 6 p.m.

Overheard conversation from PSU Offensive coaches during the game: "OK boys, another 3rd down...lets run that screen again, or the roll out pass to the every time!"


Tue, Nov 2, 2010 : 4:02 p.m.

Yes, the continuing 3rd and long failures are intolerable. It doesn't seem to matter whether we blitz more guys, or only rush 3 and use 8 in coverage. The problem is players AREN'T WHERE THEY'RE SUPPOSED TO BE. And the other team knows it. They have a number of plays charted out just for playing us in 3rd and long. Our coaches haven't figured this out yet.


Tue, Nov 2, 2010 : 3:11 p.m.

Yeah 3rd downs are killing us. 3rd and 10 3rd and doesnt seem to matter what it is.


Tue, Nov 2, 2010 : 3:02 p.m.

I think it is safe to say that Rich Rod will get the job done on the offensive side of the ball in the future. However, there is NO excuse we should have this terrible of a defense 3 years in row. I don't care if we have had 3 different coordinators coaching our Defense in the last 4 years. OUr Defensive backs are getting progressively worse. Play after play I watch as our corners and safties defend 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. I would love to see our DB's play more aggressively. This means we would need to play more bump in run with two safeties for help. Our DB's reaction time after a receiver makes a move is at a snail like pace. Since we are giving up 40+ points/ game, why don't we become more aggressive with our DB's and force the QB's to have to make some accurate throws. Time after time I see oposing QB's not making good throws, yet our DB's are no where close to the receivers to make a play. I'm not a Football coach, but com'mon let's use some common sense here. I don't believe in the Lombardi comment at all. A good defensive coach would have his defense progressively making improvements and getting better, despite the talent. No progress 3 years in a row is unacceptable!