Say What? Defensive Optimism

Submitted by Meeechigan Dan on October 5th, 2010 at 10:34 AM

Our defense...

Is hard to look at.

Our offense…

...however, happens to be so good-looking as to compensate for her ugly friend.

Now, this is not just a bad analogy or an excuse to look at a picture of Melissa Theuriau [Ed: Who needs an excuse?]; this is relevant to football.

In a previous post immediately post-UMass, I said:

3. It can't get any worse. Now, many of you may laugh at the implication that Wisconsin and OSU can't outperform UMass on Offense, but they pretty much can't. UMass dominated TOP - which will be the number one anti-Denard potion going forward...They employed the perfect beat-Michigan formula...

…and this came to pass on Saturday. Those who want to split hairs might argue that our defense against Indiana was worse than it was against UMass, and I am guessing some might argue the other way around. I would suggest we are debating insignificant differences in horribleness.

Where is the optimism in a defense that has twice in the last three weeks performed at or near its worst? They are called victories. Our offense has been sufficient to score more points than our defense at its worst has given up.

Why do I keep suggesting that this defense can’t get any worse? I, myself, was in a state of near gibbering panic at the thought of what Wisconsin and Michigan State might do against our defense. Then I laughed (I swear alcohol had nothing to do with it). This fear is grounded in the nightmarish unreality of a game without a clock.  As of last check, we still have one of these at every game:

Quite simply, UMass and Indiana have both plumbed the depths of the worst case scenario that Wisconsin and MSU can hardly outdo, but may duplicate. They pretty much squeezed in as much offense as the 120th ranked Bend-Don't-Break pass defense is going to allow in a sixty minute game.

Both UMass and Indiana:

  • Dominated TOP as a mechanism to keep Denard and the Michigan Offense off the field (edit: AND limit the number of possesions). This is relevant in that it accentuates the horrid stats that our defense puts up.

      Opponent TOP Michigan TOP
    UMass 36:67 22:22
    Indiana 41:47 18:13
  •  Specialized in long, clock-consuming, play-engorged series at the most damn inopportune time.

    UMass 11 plays 53 yards
      9 plays 67 yards
      9 plays 79 yards
      15 plays 70 yards
    Indiana 11 plays 77 yards
      13 plays 99 yards
      10 plays 72 yards
      12 plays 50 yards
      13 plays 80 yards


  • (I cannot recall as many long drives as Indiana had in all my years of watching college football. They relentlessly attacked the fundamental weakness of the Bend-Don’t-Break philosophy: take what is given. These opponents, as gracious guests, ate from the buffet set out by our caterer, GERG Special Events.)
  • Had superb success in drive scoring percentage. I don’t know what the national average is here, but I am willing to bet that those batting averages are all-star worthy. A little help from the Mathlete here would be nice.

      Score/Poss Scoring %
    UMass 6/11 55%
    Indiana 5/12 42%

So, in order for better teams to do more damage to Michigan than UMass and Indiana, one of the following things must happen:

  • Better drive scoring percentage.
  • Better defense against our offense.
  • Intangible success (turnovers, special teams, injuries, etc.)

…all the while Michigan does not have an appreciable improvement in defensive performance or tactics.

Now, it is possible that a couple teams will score more frequently than did the two teams above, and it is probable that Denard and company will be defended better. And we know that the intangibles, our enemy in past years, will bite us sometime soon. But the prospects are not as grim as you might believe for a couple reasons:

  1. Chappell’s passes were surgical. I was astounded at his gutsy and precise activity over the middle. I would suggest, based upon propensity for interceptions, that NONE of the remaining QBs possess that level of precision. In other words, our zone passing defense that invites 65 attempts will likely extract more errors out of Cousins, Stanzi, Bolden, Tolzien and Pryor.
  2. Last year demonstrated that RR’s offense could be defended effectively without the “Pat White” prototype QB that stresses defenses. I have finally seen, like a child slowly realizing the truth about Santa, the RR offensive philosophy embodied in that magical, wide-open slant after Denard fakes a QB iso. Does any defense so ridiculously abandon their zone responsibilities to cope with Sheridan, Threet or even Tate? Of course not. I don’t think any defense that we will face will more calmly react to Denard than the first five have. Oh, most will do better, but marginally so. That includes Norm Parker and Iowa (I predict we shred them).

In the end, I am not predicting that we will finish 12-0 or even 11-1. What I am suggesting is that there is a point where defensive ineffectiveness reaches a saturation point in a Bend-Don’t Break strategy that debunks a dark fear in all our hearts that teams will score more and more and more. Teams will score, but the scoring will look pretty much like what UMass and Indiana scoring looked like. As long as Denard stays healthy, we will be in every game.

The proof will be coming shortly - I will return to mgoboard to take my beating these next seven weeks if this prediction doesn't come true: no Big Ten offense will score more than 40 points on Michigan (OK, maybe one in a perfect storm game).

And the final consolation I take is in the offensive line. Last year, our OLine was horrifying. This year it is a source of strength. Assuming (a big assumption) that RR knows both sides of the football, I see a parallel in our secondary that should possess real depth next year and show similar improvement.



October 5th, 2010 at 10:54 AM ^

These guys are getting battle tested, and are able to learn from mistakes in the afterglow of victories.  This is a beautiful recipe for success:  play, learn, practice, learn, study film, learn, and do it all without the shroud of "you lost the damn game for us" hanging over your head.

Additionally, going against our receiving corps (especially with a healthy Hemingway back in the mix) should have us well prepared for anything other teams will throw at us this year.  The possible exception to this is blinding speed.


October 5th, 2010 at 11:29 PM ^

I completely agree with you man. I feel like our defense will improve, however slightly.

But as far as teams scheming to stop Denard...Our talented receivers will be the big trump card. The offensive scheme is so simple, but because the qb run has yet to be stopped with a front 7..teams are forced to bring 8 and 9 onto the box leaving man coverage with no safety help for Roundtree, Hemmingway. and Stonum. I think Brian Kelly said it best when they asked him how do you stop Denard in the 2nd half, "well, you can't" .


October 5th, 2010 at 10:47 AM ^

As long as Denard can handle the pressure (physically and psychologically), we'll win more than we lose. However, even though it's fun to watch, it's kind of a shame he has to be superman every week to give us a chance to win.


October 5th, 2010 at 11:09 AM ^

I think the fear of relying on the offense so heavily is that even more pressure is on the offense to avoid mistakes.  A mistake on offense like a fumble, interception, turnover on downs, or a missed field goal (DO NOT KICK!) would be exponentially more costly to this team than to a team with a stronger offense.  Here's hoping that the defense can repay the offense for all it has done to compensate for the defense's weaknesses if this situation arises in the coming weeks!


October 5th, 2010 at 10:49 AM ^

Excellent post.  I think this - "What I am suggesting is that there is a point where defensive ineffectiveness reaches a saturation point in a Bend-Don’t Break strategy that debunks a dark fear in all our hearts that teams will score more and more and more." - states well an idea I've had for a week now but have been unable to articulate this well.  Well done, sir.


October 5th, 2010 at 10:57 AM ^

I agree with the overall premise that our defense is probably a 30-35 point defense regardless of who we play...there is just a limit of the amount of time you have and points you can score if you are forced to produce using long drives.

But, that assumes that things stay relatively the same.  I think the formula is very different if we start turning the ball over (possible) or if Denard goes down for an extended period of time (also quite possible).


October 5th, 2010 at 10:59 AM ^

I'm really excited for the future of this defense with the young talent we have. Right now it's hard to like this defense but the fact is that we are getting W's and that's the point of the game. These next few years we have Cam Gordon, Kovacs, Floyd, Martin, RVB, Demens, Roh, and Carvin Johnson back on this defense. Add guys like Jibreel Black, Marvin Robinson, Troy Woolfolk, (depending on his health and recovery) Will Campbell, and hopefully a few good recruits here and there, we will have an experienced and talented defense on the field. We lose guys like Banks, Rogers, Moundros, Ezeh, and Mouton but that's a far less number than we return. Their senior leadership will be missed and especially Mouton's numbers but someone will step up. It is frustrating this year but the fact is that they are keeping us in games with key stops. We can argue about the scheme and coaching another time but with this core of players we will return and hopefully gain with recruiting will be huge for us in the future with our offense putting up big points.


October 5th, 2010 at 6:21 PM ^

the guys that we have on defense now have potential to be great or even really good.  What if they don't have that potential to improve?  I have been saying that we could be really good by the end of the year since our team is so young and inexperienced,  But after 5 games, I haven't seen much improvement on defense.

All we need is for the defense to make 3 or 4 more stops a game in order to give the offense that many more chances to score.  With 4 more offensive possessions, we become a potential 50+ point team.


October 5th, 2010 at 10:59 AM ^

but also have no reason to think they will do much better, AND we have good reason to think the offense will do worse (against quality defenses) what does that say for the outcomes in the weeks to come?


October 5th, 2010 at 11:06 AM ^

When an 80-yard drive simply isn't enough, GERG goes the extra mile to serve you a tasty, mouth-watering 99-yarder that will keep you coming back for more. GERG also serves delicious 4th-and-15 appetizers for half-off on Happy Hour Tuesdays.


October 5th, 2010 at 1:11 PM ^

But honestly, MSU has a dimension Indiana does not- the run game.  Why tee up short passes when you can play-action and go over the top to Cunningham, Dell, and Martin?  Michigan HAS to respect the run fake or they'll get killed, and the heavy emphasis on zone defense means the secondary reads the ballfake and takes a step forward when they should be going back.  I think Michigan's weakness in the pass against MSU is exactly that- the bomb.  It's not like the UM secondary is covering anyone very well anyway at any depth.


October 5th, 2010 at 11:07 AM ^

I'm sorry, but I just don't think the TOP argument holds much water.

Here's why:

You can only score once per possession. If our opponent gets the ball first, then it doesn’t matter whether it takes them 8 minutes or 8 seconds to score their first TD. By the time we get the ball, the score is still 7-0 and we run the same offensive plays once we do get the ball.

Generally, a low TOP is thought to be a bad thing because it usually means you’re going 3 and out or just not finishing drives. But when your TOP is low because you’re scoring quickly, that concern isn’t present. In fact, there’s a benefit to scoring with a low TOP since it means you’re scoring with fewer plays and not having to show your entire arsenal of plays in order to get the job done.

There’s a semi-legit argument that opponents longer drives wears out our defense, but that doesn’t make it an “anti-Denard potion”, and the fact is longer drives wears out their players on offense as well.  


October 5th, 2010 at 11:22 AM ^

Fewer possesions goes both ways.  They'll score less but so will we...  So you're saying our D won't be any better, but the other team will score less because they'll have fewer opportunities.  Well good, but our offense will also have fewer.  So it'll come down to efficiency percentages, just like when we played UMass and Indiana and Notre Dame.

I guess I don't see what point you're really making other than games will be lower scoring when opposing defenses get better. 

Meeechigan Dan

October 5th, 2010 at 11:28 AM ^

My point is essentially this: the conventionaly wisdom that our defense will start to perform worse against better teams in the meat of the Big Ten schedule is false. Yet given the precision of RR's offense, I expect we will be still very effective. In other words, we are not going to get blown out 73-42 because there are just not enough possessions and clock for our defense to be that bad. They won't score 73, but I will bet you a donut we score in the 40s more often than not, and that includes Iowa and Penn State.


October 5th, 2010 at 11:47 AM ^

"the conventionaly wisdom (defense will perform worse against the Big Ten schedule) is false"

Correct me if I'm wrong, but your rationale for this thinking is essentially: because they'll have fewer possessions (not because our defense is any better at stopping people).  If thats the case, our efficiency is unchanged, but the oppositions opportunities will decrease.  They'll be just as successful (per chance), but score less overall.

"RR's offense, will be still very effective"

The offense, however, is immune to this logic.   You acknowledge the defenses will be better, in regard to slowing down the drives, but argue the efficiency of our offense will be unchanged.

If so, M's scoring will be down as well.  The seconds tick off the clock equally for both teams.  Longer drives = fewer possessions, for both teams.

So, I'm not sure how this is an optimistic argument.

Furthermore, the idea that our O will be just as efficient with shorter drives is dubious.  MOre plays = more chances at mistakes/turnovers.


October 5th, 2010 at 1:14 PM ^

I certainly hope you're right.  I suspect our QB may be a little more error prone as well, however, with the difficulty level amped up a notch or five.

Cousins doesn't seem error prone to me (he's 12th nationally in QB rating despite 4 INTs). I know Stanzi's rep, but 10 TDs to 2 INTs indicates he's improved (5th in national QB rating). Tolzien - another experienced starter (17th in QB rating).

Pryor(14th in QB rating)...we'll see.  I'm not getting my hopes up yet.

For comparison's sake, Chappell is 11th in QB rating.

PSU, Illinois, Purde...I agree with you.  Those guys will screw up at some point.

Looking at the opposition I think the notion is unclear.  I see 3 quality vets, 3 liabilities, and a ?.  4 of the guys we'll face are in the top 20 in QB rating.  We've only faced one such player so far.


October 5th, 2010 at 11:09 AM ^

The TOP will be less unbalanced against teams like MSU, PSU, Wisky, Iowa etc. I, for one believe that although these types of teams are better defensively than UMASS or Indiana's of the world, I still doubt that they have the team speed on D to shut us down. We will get our against anybody we play. However, the drives will start to resemble the UCONN and ND drives.The methodical, time consuming stop us if you can drives, as opposed to the big play kill shots that we had against Indiana. The evening out of the TOP will help our D a ton, as even our D, gets a few stops here and there. Our D looked eve more rancid against Indiana because our offense scored 42 points in 18 minutes. Stick any defense in the world on the field for 48 minutes of a football game, and you will have some ugly stats.


October 5th, 2010 at 11:11 AM ^

Those scoring drive percentages will continue to be high because the M defense doesn't even challenge the opposing offenses.  With the likelihood that our offense will be slowed by good B10 defenses, the outlook is distressing.   So, our defense MUST improve or we're going to end up with yet another losing record in the B10, because I doubt our offense is going to average 40+ points per game in the B10. Hey, I hope I'm wrong.

And here is an important point to remember: with each passing week, the opposition gets to analyze our team's weaknesses and prepare more and more focused game plans to ATTACK those weaknesses.  Both offensively AND defensively. The result is that as the season wears on , teams will be more and more effective against us. 

That's what happened last year and count on it happening this year.   There are many ominous indications that this thing IS going to get worse.

Meeechigan Dan

October 5th, 2010 at 11:19 AM ^

Is that caup from the Haloscan days? Hey!

Here's where I think there's room for optimism.

  • RR's offense is going to score. Maybe less quick, but they will score (with Denard). Remember, the MSU and Iowas have given up mid-20s against good offenses...they will give up more to us.
  • Because they will slow us down, there will be less possessions for their offense. And, I expect more errors out their QBs.

Those two things working together, plus hopefully some schematic improvements on D and a deeper playbook on O makes me thinks we can do better than .500 in our next 7 games.


October 5th, 2010 at 11:44 AM ^

I think your take is overly pessimistic.  Much of last year's late season swoon on offense was due to Tate's and Molk's injuries.  For an illustration of this, just look at the difference between the offense against PSU before Molk re-injured himself and after.  Throw in a healthy Tate, and things could have been very different.  If they both stay healthy, we probably would have had a pretty good chance of beating MSU, Iowa and/or Purdue, putting us in a mediocre bowl game and changing the perception of RR and Michigan in general.  This year we have greater depth on both the O-line and at QB, hopefully making this less of an issue.

I also disagree with the idea that our offense is doomed to decline just because teams will have some film to watch.  First of all, there are significant chunks of the offensive playbook that haven't been implemented yet.  Hopefully we will have answers for adjustments that teams make against our offense.  Second, the problem is not that teams don't know what we plan to do, they just can't stop it.  We now have more film on Cousins than we had last year - do you think that means that their offense is likely to fare worse against our defense?  Knowing what to do and being able to do it are different things.

Of course the offense will probably score fewer points against better defenses than worse ones, but I don't buy the argument that the offense will decline simply because the novelty of our offense will wear off.  The offense works because we have the speed, athleticism and execution to make it work - not because it is some gimmick that only works if you don't see it coming (like maybe a fake FG in OT?).

Also, it is not going to take 40+ points to beat PSU, Illinois or Purdue.  We have a pretty decent shot at winning all three, even if we don't win any of the others.  8-4 is very realistic, and with even marginal improvement on defense our record could improve from there.


October 5th, 2010 at 11:13 AM ^

This was a good read and I agree with what you're saying.  RRod/GERG seem confident that we'll score 40 a game and are happy to give up 25 or 30 points to the opposition.  I just can't wait until we have corners and safeties who can make play after play on the ball.  Hoping this happens next year as everyone knows our schedule is set up to make quite a run


October 5th, 2010 at 11:17 AM ^

Mostly concur. Strongly agree that Chappell was great, and probably the best we will see this year. I am curious about several things, however.

  1. How much of a dropoff do you think we see with Tate in as QB? While I would prefer Denard by a mile, I actually think that our backup is good enough to keep Michigan in any game.
  2. What about our defense vs. a strong running game? Does it matter if a team can "run" all over us (vs. passing.)
  3. I still am concerned about special teams, and think that if we are basically playing "even" with someone, special teams may tip things in our opponents favor.

All in all, however, I think our defense is doing the best they can, and it will only get better, assuming no catastrophic injuries.

Meeechigan Dan

October 5th, 2010 at 11:32 AM ^

  1. I think Tate can do well, but I think the playbook becomes truncated with him and defenses do not have to freak out every time he starts towards the LOS.
  2. I expect MSU right now is thinking of spreading the field and pounding our three man front with Baker and Bell. This scares me more than Cousins. A lot, lot more.
  3. Ditto.


October 5th, 2010 at 11:22 AM ^

Here is the biggest reason for optimism, broken down:

- IU and UMass were huge underdogs, or at least felt like it, and therefore approached the game the way underdogs do.  That is, do crazy things that offenses don't usually do, and pass a lot.  The likes of MSU and Iowa and such are coached by stodgy old Big Ten coaches confident in a Bo-like manner: ours can beat theirs if we just play football.

- "Just play football" means running about as often as you pass.  This defense can stop the run with a reasonable amount of success, and it can especially stop the run if the run isn't especially imaginative because Barwis.  Look what it did against IU's run with eight men in coverage.  Dantonio, Bielema, Ferentz, et al. are not the kind to feel the need to come up with a devastating aerial assault the way IU has to just to survive.

- "Reasonable amount of success" is good enough as long as the offense continues to have the potential to score on one play from literally any yard line.


October 6th, 2010 at 9:33 AM ^

Last year, Iowa:  MSU pulls out a hook-and-lateral for a 40-yard gain on 3rd and 17 or something.

Wisconsin, this year:  MSU goes for it three different times on fourth down, converting twice, once for a TD.

Even the third down screen pass to Caper for 35 yards was a thing of beauty.  Wisconsin blitzed inside to stuff the run three times in a row, and the third time, MSU exploited them ruthlessly.

I would take issue with your characterization of MSU's offense, not in the generalities (often boring, ball-control football) but in the particulars- Dantonio believes he has something special with this team, and so do his assistants.  They are going to go all-out to win this game.  What does that mean for UM?  They won't run Little Giants again, but I'd expect to see a flea-flicker.  I'd also expect to see Nichol and Martin in Wildcat formations.  I'd also be looking to see a double pass from Nichol and/or Martin.  Believe me, you will see some decidedly non-stodgy offense from MSU this Saturday.

yossarians tree

October 5th, 2010 at 2:17 PM ^

Difference with MSU is that they will want to control the ball and clock with the running game, as opposed to Indy and UMass who both relied on a perfectly executed short passing game to the outside, where they were getting the dreaded bend-don't-break ten yard cushions. State will pound the ball, then go downfield in playaction or hit the TE over the middle. We have not really seen this in 2010, except maybe UConn, but State will play it better.

I believe in this game we'll see a lot more 4-man fronts with Roh at DE and possibly even Campbell in more to clog lanes in the run game. State will get its rushing yardage, but the key will be to prevent the 30 and 40 yard rumbles from 235-lb backs--this is what State lives off of. Their offense gets its confidence from controlling the rushing game.


October 5th, 2010 at 11:25 AM ^

This post gives me more hope then any other has.  Forcing a lot of long drives gives more opportunities to get stops or turnovers and we can use as many chances as we can get.  I do hope that as the year continues we can trust our DBs to stop giving such huge cushions and challange them to throw maybe even one deep ball a game.
Also, I can't hardly believe they only scored on 55% and 42% of their possessions respectively.  Watching the game it feels like it's closer to 80% or 90%.  What's left of my remote thought they scored on most of their drives too.


October 5th, 2010 at 11:27 AM ^

In the vain of optimism that was put forth in this post, consider this. RR and GERG are controlling the TOP exactly as planned. They know we will score on more than half our possessions, and an average possession for us seems to be about 2-3 min (needs confirmation). So, we will average 40ish points per game with 8-10 possessions. If the opponent drives take twice as long and score on 40-50% of the possessions, that is a recipe for wins. I'm not saying it is the case, but if RR and GERG have thought about this, it might just be their plan to bend-don't-break to the tune of 6-minute opponent drives.

Braylon 5 Hour…

October 5th, 2010 at 11:39 AM ^

I think Michigan State, from a defensive perspective, is going to be the toughest test we have left so this is the game I'm most worried about for our defense.  The reason why is the fact that they are so balanced offensively.  Other than Notre Dame, we haven't really played a truly balanced offense yet.  Between their running game and Cousins, plus the receiving options they have, it's going to be really tough to stop them if they have it going early.  

Although Wisconsin's offense is similarly scary, Tolzien just has not been playing that well. Stanzi has played pretty well but is capable of making mistakes.  Ohio State's offense has not looked scary at all.  I'm more worried about what those defenses will do against Denard, but defensively we will hopefully be dealing with less of a challenge than this week.  

I think this week is really going to tell how much better we are than last year, and if Sparty is still Sparty. If we can win this, basically anything left is winnable. 


October 5th, 2010 at 11:55 AM ^

Keep in mind, though, that even last year's Denard was able to move the ball on Iowa's defense.  And that was basically with a one-play playbook.  Defenses may be able to slow our offense a bit, but all of the opposing fans (primarily OSU and Iowa) that are predicting defenses to be able to stone our offense are in for a rude awakening.

Braylon 5 Hour…

October 5th, 2010 at 12:16 PM ^

I agree, I don't think stoning our offense is really in the cards.  But we haven't played anyone with great pressure up front, people who could fluster Denard and make him turn the ball over.  Our lowest point output this season so far has been 28 vs Notre Dame.  I'm just curious if we can win against OSU, Iowa, Wisconsin, or MSU on an 'off' day where we score something around 28.  I hope so...