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Published: Thursday, 11/16/2000

Michigan defense not up to usual standard

BY DAVE WOOLFORD
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

When you think of Michigan football, what's the first word that comes to mind?

No.

Seven letters.

Defense.

It has been the hallmark of Wolverine football almost since its inception, with some rare exceptions, such as this season.

It's not that the Wolverines are bad on defense, it's just that they're not good at being consistent.

They're mercenaries at home and merciful on the road, which could play into Ohio State's hands when the two teams meet Saturday in Ohio Stadium with a Big Ten championship in the balance.

Even OSU coach John Cooper, during his all-but-consecrated commendation for Michigan earlier this week, had to admit, “Granted, this is not the best Michigan defense we've seen since I've coached here, obviously. But you know they're going to be sound, they're going to play hard and you know they've got good athletes.

“They're young, they're going to make mistakes and they have made mistakes. But they're extremely well coached. They know us, what we do and defensively and they will come up with a great game plan.”

If that's the case, it will be the first time this season in a Big Ten road game.

The 19th-ranked Wolverines (7-3, 5-2) are 1-3 on the road and could easily be 0-4 had it not been for a couple of erroneous calls by officials at Illinois that allowed UM to record a 35-31 triumph. The flip side of that is that Michigan's three losses are by a total of only seven points, or possibly three plays.

In conference road games against the Fighting Illini, Purdue and Northwestern, Michigan has yielded a total of 1,631 yards and 117 points. That's an average of 544 yards and 39 points per game.

Purdue and Northwestern expanded UM's defense past the breaking point with their variations of the spread offense. The Boilermakers totaled 530 yards, the most ever given up by a Michigan defense. That dour record lasted for only a month before the Wildcats desecrated UM's defense with 654 yards.

In between, the Wolverines shut out Indiana and Michigan State. Against Penn State last Saturday, UM's “D” forced five turnovers and held the Nittany Lions to just a field goal in six trips inside the UM 25-yard line. Four missed field goals had a lot to do with that in Michigan's 33-11 triumph.

“It would help if we had the philosophy Purdue has, with Drew Brees at quarterback, and Northwestern,” Cooper acknowledged. “Obviously it helps to spread them out and make them play the width and depth of the field. I think the worst mistake you can make in a ballgame like this is put a lot of new stuff in and try to do something you're not used to doing.

“We're not stupid. We're trying to incorporate some of those same (spread offense) principles that you see college offensive teams using. We're using three and four wideouts and the vertical passing game. We're doing more in that respect and so is Michigan. They're not the traditional I-back football team they used to be.”

Michigan's offense ranks third behind conference-leading Northwestern and Purdue, but the Wolverines don't have the luxury this season of getting a lead and then sitting on it in traditional UM fashion with a strong defense.

“They're always going to bring you some pressure, they're always going to show you something you haven't seen,” Cooper said. “We've got to be prepared for that. You can't take a lot of negative plays against Michigan.”

What OSU coaches haven't seen from Michigan's defense is pressure on the opposing quarterback. The Wolverines are last in the conference in sacks with 16 for minus 88 yards. By comparison, 12th-ranked Ohio State's defense has 43 sacks for 283 yards in losses.

OSU quarterback Steve Bellisari was sacked only once last week in the Bucks' 24-21 victory over Illinois. With plenty of time to make decisions, he played the best game of his OSU career.

“They (the Wolverines) are probably licking their chops at seeing an old-fashioned offense this week,” said Ohio State offensive coordinator Chuck Stobart with a smile that solicited suspicion. “Michigan State spread us out and it puts a lot of pressure on the defensive backs to make plays. They can't miss a tackle.

“Michigan has had trouble with the spread offenses. What does that say? Maybe we'll have to split them from sideline to sideline.”



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