The last four games played by the Michigan Wolverines football team have been losses. Three of the losses have been increasingly humiliating for players, coaches and alumni of the school. The first of these four losses, to the deeply-despised, albeit respected Ohio State Buckeyes was a nominee for Game of the Century. The second loss to the Trojans of the University of Southern California in the Rose Bowl was a blowout – but it was a second half blowout and it was a surgical undressing rather than what has occurred this season. Two losses this season: last week to Division I-AA two-time defending national champion Appalachian State, and today to PAC-10 competitor Oregon, have generated a great deal of consternation in Ann Arbor and all points outward.
There is a crisis in Ann Arbor and all hands are pointing at Lloyd Carr.
Coach Carr is part of the problem – but he is not all of the problem. Today, the defense was spread like butter. The offense was atrocious. The Wolverines had several possessions inside Oregon’s territory and were only able to put up 7 points. When Oregon had the ball, they were consistently able to drive the length of the field and score at will. Late in the game, I sent a text message to friend telling him to look at the jersey of Oregon’s QB, Dennis Dixon. It was spotless. When your QB has a clean jersey, you’re probably winning the game. Dixon, a major league baseball prospect, replicated the performances of Troy Smith, John David Booty and Armanti Edwards in dismantling the Wolverines. In addition to having sterling performances, each of these quarterbacks enjoyed fairly hassle-free days from the Michigan defense.
Few universities have as much history as the University of Michigan. The Wolverines have the famous winged helmet. There is the fight song, “Hail to the Victors.” There are so many legendary players and coaches. Over the years, Michigan has placed a significant number of quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive lineman, linebackers, and defensive backs in the NFL. However, there have been two positions which are curiously absent from the “honor roll” of elite Michigan players: defensive end and defensive tackle. The game of football is, with all its new complexities and machinations, essentially a simple game. It is played from the inside to the outside and is predicated on the play of the largest players closest to the ball. Watch the line of scrimmage and you can usually tell which team is winning or most likely to win the game. The game has evolved over the years, but elite, championship teams have always placed a priority on defense and specifically on the ability to stop the run. Consider this:
- In four decades, only 1 Michigan defensive lineman has made All-Pro in the NFL.
- The last time a Michigan defensive lineman was drafted in the First Round of the NFL Draft was 1985.
- The only UM player in the NFL at defensive end is James Hall.
- The only 2 defensive tackles from UM in the NFL are Alan Branch and Gabe Watson, both recent graduates.
- According to Michigan’s own Bentley Library, Lamarr Woodley is the ONLY All-American Defensive End in school history.
- The last All-American Defensive Tackle was Rob Renes in 1999.
Most defensive ends at Michigan become linebackers in the NFL: Lamarr Woodley, Shantee Orr, etc. These players are solid at the collegiate level, but they are not exceptional run stuffers. Typically, these players are smaller speed rushers. This distinction is the key to Michigan’s current woes. More on this later…
If you cannot stop the run, you cannot play championship football. Even the Indianapolis Colts became a tough run defense in the playoffs with the return of Bob Sanders (Iowa). With Sanders out of the lineup, the Colts were a different team. For most teams, though, the anchor of their run defense is the defensive line. Without excellent defensive lineman, it is difficult to stop the run without committing “extra players” to stop the run. In recent years, the growing appeal of spread offense has increased the urgency of having elite defensive lineman capable of dominating the line of scrimmage. Michigan has lost 3 of their last four games to teams running spread offenses (tactical decision by OSU given the presence of DT Alan Branch and DE Lamarr Woodley). In each game, the defense has been wholly incapable of controlling the line of scrimmage.
Over the past few years in college, a handful of teams have dominated the landscape: Florida, USC, LSU, Texas, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Miami. As a Michigan alum, what I find most striking about this list of schools is the number and quality of defensive linemen from these schools presently playing in the NFL.
- There are 8 Florida defensive ends in the league. The list includes Alex Brown of the Bears, Bobby McCray of the Jaguars and Jarvis Moss, fresh off last year’s championship game and his personal smothering of Troy Smith and company.
- Defensive tackles from the University of Miami include Vince Wilfork, Damione Lewis, William Joseph and Kareem Brown. Of course there is Warren Sapp. The tradition there goes back to elite players like Jerome Brown, Russell Maryland, and so many others.
- The resurgent USC Trojans have managed to put four defensive tackles and two defensive ends (Keneche Udeze and Frostee Rucker) in the NFL during Pete Carroll’s short tenure.
- LSU is represented by six quality linemen, including the Patriots Jarvis Green. Of course, the Tigers also mourn the loss of Marquise Hill.
- Elite tackles like Casey Hampton (Texas) and Tommie Harris (Oklahoma) have anchored Super Bowl teams each of the past two seasons.
- There are 8 defensive linemen from Ohio State. That list does not include Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, originally drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers and converted to linebacker.
NFL franchises, until the draft of Alan Branch have not had a desire for the D-line products coming out of Ann Arbor. Gabe Watson’s most attractive features are size and strength, but questions about his motor have persisted from “The Square” to the league. If you remember names like Messner and Renes, you know how this story ends.
Alan Branch – the real deal…dishin’ out a can of whoop
The Michigan Wolverines defenders often find themselves in odd places. The linebackers and defensive backs are often playing zone coverages behind a soft pass rush. After covering fleet players for four, five, six, seven, and eight seconds, these defenders find themselves unable to close out after catches are made. Everyone plays “pitch-and-catch” against Michigan. Oregon did it. USC did it. Ohio State did it. App State did it. It’s as if the offense hangs out a sign, “The rush isn’t coming…We’ve got all day.” And so, the linebackers persist and the DB’s continue to trail behind elusive players. They fail to break down. They miss tackles. They take false steps on fakes. They miss reads.
Somehow though, the NFL has found Michigan linebackers and DBs very attractive. Tony Dungy loves Marlin Jackson and he certainly appreciated the work of converted safety, LB Cato June. Mike Shanahan loves Ian Gold. Larry Foote has found a home in Pittsburgh, the Holy Land for NFL linebackers. Dhani Jones has averted unemployment lines. Even Charles Woodson had a resurgence in Green Bay. Marvin Lewis has high hopes for Leon Hall. But, alas, the cupboard is bare on the defensive line.
When Lloyd Carr looks around, he had to be dumbstruck by how easily Florida dismantled an Ohio State team to which he surrendered 42 points. He’ll be shocked in a few weeks when USC throttles Oregon. The same team that looked so good this afternoon has played the Trojans with Dixon and Kellen Clemens (a highly touted, athletic QB in the employ of the New York Jets) the past two seasons. It’s been ugly. 45-13 and 35-10. The same kid with the spotless uniform today could only muster 11 carries for 24 yards against the Southern Cal D. If Michigan is to ever right this ship, they’ll have to abandon a core defensive philosophy of the past four decades. He could delude himself into thinking that a diversified offense like Oklahoma’s will be the elixir. He would do well to watch those 2003 Sugar Bowl tapes. LSU didn’t care and they dominated the middle. You think West Virginia and Rich Rodriguez has it figured out? Not a chance. Rutger’s coach Schiano is snatching every big man in Florida and inviting them to “Southwest New York City” because he knows that big speed beats little speed. Edge Rutgers. There is no choice here. The Wolverines will have to recruit the type of players capable of eventually commanding NFL double teams. Right now, those players are not enrolled in Ann Arbor. And it is precisely because of that the Wolverines will have no chance against teams with high-powered offenses who can play pitch and catch and wait for inevitable breakdowns in the defensive secondary. The game is played from the inside out – and it is won in the trenches.
When Vince Young was done with Michigan, he looked ready to go out dancing. When Troy Smith was done with Michigan, he looked ready to run a marathon. When John David Booty was done with Michigan, he looked ready to go surfing for catfish in the Bayou. And Dennis Dixon and Armanti Edwards were down for whatever. The defensive line does not, cannot exact a physical toll on competing players. They are wholly incapable of dominating the offensive line. Last year’s defense was the best in years. The excellence of Woodley and the maturation of Branch allowed that team to dominate until the last weeks of the season. What was missing, however, was depth. Michigan had one Woodley and one Branch. Florida has the equivalent of five. So did USC and LSU. NFL scouts see what should be obvious to Lloyd. Coach Carr is as responsible for this debacle as were his predecessors: Moeller and Schembechler. Michigan has looked everywhere for the answer: grass stadiums, faster athletes from the South and the West, fancy new uniforms, and even moving the student section in the Big House.
These are all diversions. It is a given that Michigan must always be able to compete on a SPEED basis. There is no rocket science there. What seems elusive for these past four decades is the resolve to dig down in the trenches and recruit and retain highly skilled players with the ability to dominate their competition. It has not happened in decades. If it doesn’t happen soon, Lloyd won’t have just Dennis and Armanti to blame.