While currently 4-0, ranked 20th, and boasting one of the mega-stars in college football this season in quarterback Denard Robinson, the Wolverines appear to be flying high as the first third of the season is now underway. While still not up to the level of success the team enjoyed under Lloyd Carr, the team certainly is heading in the right direction. That all seemed to be in jeopardy this past Saturday when Robinson went down with an apparent knee injury in the first quarter in the Wolverine’s romp against Bowling Green.
While Denard Robinson’s left knee certainly is the team’s greatest concern, it isn’t the only one with a chance to derail this season. Michigan’s defense, while playing just well enough to get to 4-0 at this point, certainly has had their issues through the first four games of the season. The 42-37 victory over the University of Massachusetts immediately comes to mind, but upon further inspection, each of the first four games have yielded some glaring weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball.
To begin with, the defense has been unable to stop any of the offenses faced thus far. However, being that these four offenses have essentially been “warm-up” games for the Big Ten schedule, which begins Saturday at Indiana, currently averaging 41.3 points a game, albeit against its own cream-puff opponents. Michigan enters the meat of their schedule the following week, beginning a brutal three week stretch against Michigan State, Iowa, and the Penn State. If the defense doesn’t improve, and start eliminating the opportunities and long drives down the field, the Maize and Blue will surely drop one, or possibly more of those games.
The defense certainly took a step in the right direction against Bowling Green, allowing only 283 total yards and an impressive 32 yards on the ground. Still, they allowed the Falcons to get back into the game late in the second quarter before the potent Michigan offense blew the game open in the second half. Since the offense won’t be dropping forty points a game in conference play, to succeed in the Big Ten, the defense will have to come up with more ways to slow down opposing offenses, particularly on third down.
While this started out as a strength, (Connecticut converted only 4-15 third down plays, then Notre Dame converted on 4-14), Michigan’s defense allowed Massachusetts to carve them up for a 50% success rate (6-12), (as well as 2-2 on fourth down), and followed up that performance by permitting Bowling Green to be nearly as successful (6-14). Why is this such an issue? Currently, seven of the top 30 teams in the country for third-down conversion percentages play in the Big Ten, and that doesn’t include Ohio State. Unless the defense improves on third-down, any chance at a conference championship will be out the window.
Can they improve? Of course they can. I’ve always been a supporter of Rich Rodriguez, and I think he finally has a team around him who play to his system. He undoubtedly knows what needs to be done to improve the defense to give his team a shot to win each week, and with Robinson’s knee reportedly not an issue after all, he can further focus in on the defensive issues, beginning next week at high-octane Indiana. With that being their final tune-up before the real season starts, I’ll be watching closely, and unlike many viewers, for reasons besides the Heisman hopeful.
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Written by Curt Bell