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November 23, 2009

2009 Football Autopsy: What Happened to the D

It is time to begin the autopsy on the patient known as the 2009 Michigan Wolverine football team. This is the first in a series of columns examining what went wrong (a lot) and what went right (very little) in 2009, and why. We'll start with the defense. The result may surprise you.

After 2008 saw the worst defensive performance in the 129-year history of Michigan football, some of us figured that sheer chance dictated that things would have to improve. They didn't. After surrendering 28.9 points and 363 yards a game last year, this year's defense gave up 27.5 points and 393 yards.

The defense suffered from three basic problems, which I have been mentioning since the season began. First, due to a shortage of defensive linemen (and, especially, defensive tackles) on the roster, the defense was forced to use a hybrid scheme with nickel personnel all year long. This forced several players - Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen, Craig Roh, and Steve Brown -- to play over their weight class. Their quickness and athleticism helped them make frequent great plays, but they also got pushed around by bigger offensive lines.

Second, the inside linebackers played atrociously all season long. This failure was not caused by a dearth of bodies on the roster. In addition to Obi Ezeh, the position had four non-true freshmen 4 star recruits waiting in the wings, in Jonas Mouton, J.B. Fitzgerald, Kenny Demens and Brandon Smith. (Smith had only been moved to linebacker at the end of spring practice, but it's not unprecedented for a player to pick up a new position in that kind of time window.)

The third problem - which, as we'll see, is the most interesting and ultimately hopeful going forward -- was the precarious state of the secondary. Due to several years of inadequate recruiting, the back four had nowhere close to an adequate number of bodies coming out of spring practice. When Justin Turner failed to qualify in time for the opening of fall camp, Boubacar Cissoko failed to live up to his responsibilities, and J.T. Floyd suffered an injury, there were now, incredibly, a total of three non-freshman defensive backs on scholarship. The secondary had to reshuffle because there was no alternative. Production fell off a cliff.

Here it's actually possible to measure how badly the emergency move of Troy Woolfolk from safety to cornerback hurt the defense. Michigan played six games with Woolfolk at safety -- Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan, Indiana, Michigan State, and Ohio State. (I'm ignoring the Delaware State game because the competition level was so abnormal.) Michigan played five games with Woolfolk at cornerback, which forced Michael Williams into the starting lineup and Jordan Kovacs to move out of his more comfortable position. In those five games, Michigan played Iowa, Penn State, Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin.

You can probably figure out where I'm going with this. In the six Woolfolk-at-safety games, Michigan's opponents gained 380 yards per game. Those six opponents averaged 374 yards on the season overall, which means that Michigan allowed its opponents to gain just a bit more than they did against the remainder of their schedule. This is a poor result, though not an absolutely horrendous one.

But in the five Woolfolk-at-corner games, Michigan gave up 445 yards per game, against opponents who gained 382 yards per game on the season overall. That is a horrendous result. That is a sieve of a defense.

Indeed, the yardage totals don't tell the complete story. The problem with Woolfolk at corner was that the defense, already vulnerable to big plays due to the inside linebackers difficulties against run and pass, lost its final line of defense. Williams committed numerous gaffes, and Kovacs lacked the speed to patrol centerfield. As a result, even when the defense could put together a stack of three-and-outs, limiting the opponents statistical production, the inevitable long touchdowns would break the bank.

The difference in scoring is dramatic. In the six games with Woolfolk playing deep, Michigan surrendered 23 points a game (a bit below those six teams' season-long average of 25.5 points per game). That may not be exactly Ohio State-like, but it's not so awful in this day and age. Michigan's defense bent but, with a speedy defender in the deep middle, it didn't break much.

In the five games with Kovacs in the deep middle, by contrast, Michigan gave up 37 points a game, an unspeakably bad figure. (Statistically, those five opponents were about the same as the other six, scoring 26 points a game.) How awful is 37 points a game? Over a whole season it would rank 115th nationally in scoring defense. And it's not as if a couple especially bad performances skews the figure. Michigan gave up at least 30 points in each of those games. That was the five game stretch where the season tanked and Michigan lost its chance at bowl eligibility.

Michigan's relatively strong defensive performance against Ohio State, then, was not some fluke. (Nor did it result from an excessively conservative gameplan by Jim Tressel. Ohio State didn't pass more because its pass game didn't work. Terrelle Pryor finished 9 for 17 for 67 yards -- less than four yards per attempt, which is miserable.) Michigan looked like a halfway-decent defensive team against the Buckeyes because Michigan was a halfway-decent defensive team when it had Woolfolk at strong safety and Kovacs at free safety. With the lineup from hell of Kovacs at strong safety and Michael Williams at free safety, Michigan was two touchdowns a game worse on defense.

How should Michigan fix its defense in 2010? We'll start to look at that in a follow-up column. Meantime, if Michigan can get solid play in the deep middle, that by itself would go a long way toward a return to respectability.


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