Below are some charts - yes, charts - showing how the defense stacks up after three games, both this year and last year. Please take these charts with a massive grain of salt, but I was still a little surprised by the findings. Also, I know that the defense last year was statistically one of the worst in UM's history, but I still think that was due more to the offense's inability to stay on the field than a complete implosion by the defense.
So not as bad as I thought. Points are just about equal (one of ND's 2008 touchdowns was on a fumble return, which I did not attribute to the defense). The passing yards are essentially the same, with the rushing defense clearly taking a step back. At least part of that rushing difference, though, can be attributed to the Herculean effort the defense put on Utah, holding them to 0.8 yards per carry on 43(!) attempts in the first game of 2008. Put their average from last year (157 yds/gm), and you have effectively the same defensive effort.
But what about the offenses faced? Were the offenses UM faced last year statistically better or worse than the ones they have faced so far? I wanted to find out, so I go again to my trusty excel chart.*
*Note, the national rankings for the 2009 opponents only includes the first 2 games (since today's games are not complete). Also, I included both the final and after-3-games totals for the 2008 offenses.
|Teams||Utah||Miami (NTM)||ND||AVERAGE RANKING|
|After 3 games|
2009 - after 2 games
So yeah, the defense is struggling a bit, but certainly not to the extent people first envisioned. While I will update the 2009 numbers when they are posted, both ND and WMU have/are putting a hurting on their most recent opponents, and EMU showed some competence against both UM and NW. As you can see, the rush defense might have been helped by the fact that both ND and Miami (NTM) trotted out some of the worst rushing offenses last year, and Utah was the first game of the year against a fresh defensive front. This year it is clear that the line is a work in progress, and the LBs need to tackle better, but those were trouble spots everyone expected. Not to harp on the Denny Green meme, but the front 7 are who we thought they were - incredibly shallow with some clear weaknesses. Still, the rush defense is ranked #43 (last year it finished #50), and my guess is that it will improve somewhat as the season progresses and some of the younger players get their feet under them and GERG's principles become more familiar.
As for the passing defenses, they are remarkably similar statistically. Sure, Cissoko has struggled mightily this year, but don't forget that last year Stevie was letting bombs soar over his head and receivers scoot by him virtually unmolested. Angry Secondary Michigan Hating God works in mysterious ways, but apparently the pox can never be eradicated; just moved to a different victim. It should be noted that they have faced two top-30 passing offenses so far this season, so perhaps we shouldn't read that heavily into the fact that the backfield has been exposed somewhat. Currently the defense is 87th in passing defense, but that happens when you face top-30 passing attacks. Last year they finished #79, and I would be amazed if the pass defense didn't finish in the 60's or even the 50's by the end of the season.
So I guess my conclusion is that while the defense has struggled somewhat this year, let's not forget that it wasn't some juggernaut last year. For all of Cissoko's recent failings and the struggles of the front 7 against the run, the team is not that far away from last year's numbers, and should probably exceed them once the sample size increases. Yes, PSU and OSU will likely run all over the D, but that should surprise nobody. Those are top-notch offenses with dynamic playmakers in the backfield. But I like what I'm seeing so far under GERG - tackling alone seems light-years ahead of last year, the players seem to get the scheme, the young guys, especially Roh, look legit, and Warren and Graham have been revelations. I'm not saying this defense will approach 1997 or 2006, but I do think it will grade out better than people expect.
I would love to hear what people who know far more about football, especially on the defensive side, think of this defense and how it should look going forward.
EDIT: I have updated the rankings for this year's offenses after 3 games. Overall, they match up quite similarly to last year's offenses after 3 games, when the defense was touted as one of the best. My take is that while the defense certainly has to improve, I think that it will certainly be better than last year's because the offense should protect it via sustained drives and, hopefully, less turnovers resulting in bad field position.
2009 - after 3 games