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September 14, 2013Since the Michigan defense hit an all-time bottom in 2010, averaging 450.8 yards per game, head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison have taken over, retooled and reenergized the unit around solid technique and smart schemes.
Some of the cornerstones of the Wolverine defensive resurgence have been third-down defense and limiting opponents' big-play opportunities - and those are two things the Maize And Blue did very well in the last two seasons.
Three games into Hoke's third season, however, and those are emerging as major areas of concern.
The Wolverines have surrendered 14 plays of 20 or more yards this season, including an eye-popping six to Akron in Saturday's too-close-for-comfort 28-24 win.
In the fourth quarter alone, while Michigan was desperately trying to stave off the comeback attempt, Akron quarterback Kyle Pohl completed passes of 43, 40, 24 and 21 yards, three of which set the Zips up inside the Michigan 15-yard line.
Pohl also connected with wide receiver Zach D'Orazio for a 28-yard touchdown in the third quarter and on a 30-yard pass late in the second quarter that set up a 45-yard field goal attempt, which sailed wide left.
All told, a whopping 59.8 percent of Pohl's 311 total passing yards on the day came on those five throws, huge plays that kept the Zips hanging around far longer than anyone expected.
"We had a couple balls thrown over our head," Hoke said. "I think two of them were defended decently well. You've got to give people credit where it was a good ball, where it needed to be, and a good catch. There were still too many of those they hit the post in two deep and we should have been in better shape and we weren't. We, from the coaches first for me first, we've got to do a better job. You can't win championships with those mistakes."
Michigan has also allowed opposing offenses to move the chains on 21-of-47 third down chances (44.7 percent) this year. Akron went 9-of-18 (50 percent) on third downs Saturday afternoon.
"The problem [on third down] is not tight enough coverage, not fitting the run well enough and no pass pressure," Hoke said. "That would be it."
Under Hoke and Mattison, the Wolverines have excelled at limiting big plays and third-down conversions.
The Wolverines ranked first nationally in opponent plays of 20 yards or more, surrendering just 34 all season (2.6 per game) last year. In 2011, they ranked 26th nationally, with just 44 (3.4 per game).
At the current rate - 14 plays of 20 or more yards through three games - Michigan is on pace to give up 60 such plays this season. Only South Carolina in last season's Outback Bowl (seven) and Notre Dame in 2011 (eight) managed to hit more big plays against the Wolverines than Akron - a team that ranked 96th nationally with just 45 offensive plays of 20 or more yards last season.
"We have to compete," fifth-year senior strong safety Thomas Gordon said. "We have to get better pressure with the defensive linemen. That was an emphasis all week. And as defensive backs, we just have to be playmakers. They executed. All respect to Akron - they came out ready to play."
The Wolverines are also well off pace of their third-down rates of the last two years.
In 2011 and 2012, Michigan gave up just 127 first downs on 351 total opponent third downs (36.2 percent).
In those 26 total games, just five opponents finished with a third-down conversion rate of 50 percent or better: Western Michigan (6-of-11), Notre Dame (8-of-14) and Michigan State (7-of-14) in 2011 and Air Force (12-of-21) and Northwestern (8-of-16) in 2012.
Michigan's last two opponents have each converted at a 50 percent or better clip, with Akron's success and Notre Dame's 9-of-18 rate the week before.
"[Success on third down] starts with pass rush, with the guys up front," junior outside linebacker Brennen Beyer said. "We have to get to the quarterback more. We have been working on it, and we have to work on it a lot more going into next week. Also, in the backfield - know your assignment."