Big Ten Notebook: Michigan’s defense leading to second half slide

BY J.T. BUGOS | NOVEMBER 03, 2010 7:30 AM

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Michigan may have the most dynamic player in the country, but even Denard Robinson can’t help the Wolverines avoid a second half slide.

Michigan started the season 5-0, thanks in large part to Robinson, who leads the nation in rushing with 1,287 yards. But the Wolverines have dropped their last three games to fall to 5-3 — an eerily similar situation to the 2009 season, in which they started 4-0 only to lose seven of their next eight games.

Head coach Rich Rodriguez said he doesn’t want to reflect on years past, but excluding the first four games of all three of Rodriguez’s seasons, the coach has won just three games at Michigan.

This year, the main culprit is the defense, which ranks second-to-last in scoring defense in the Big Ten — and 89th in the country — ahead of only Minnesota.

“I think experience is probably the biggest issue,” Rodriguez said. “If we do our job in developing, which I feel very confident in both in the weight room and the spring practice sessions, that our younger players their talent will show more and more as they get through the process of development. But the inexperience has sometimes got us because we don’t have a lot of experience at certain positions, and there are some positions that have one guy that’s inexperienced backed up by an even more inexperienced guy.”

Beyond inexperience, the Wolverine defense has struggled getting off the field. The defense ranks 95th in the country in third-down efficiency — ninth in the Big Ten.

“We’ve allowed drives to keep going on, and the frustrating part is sometimes we’re really close to making a play, and the other times we just have to execute a little better and react a little bit better,” the third-year head coach said. “We work so much on third downs throughout the week, and that’s probably the most frustrating part about it.”

Rodriguez said there’s no simple fix to the defensive issues, noting that each week a different problem has presented itself. But the head coach sees hope for his squad.

“I think that the young guys are getting experience and they are learning a little bit,” he said. “And when we go back and try and correct some things they know immediately what they did wrong. Earlier, you tell them what they did wrong and they’re still learning. Now, at least they know immediately the issues they have and try and get corrected.”

Rodriguez said he wants the defense to be more enthusiastic and excited, which will come when plays start being made. But in addition to turning around a mediocre defense, Rodriguez must shield the team from the criticism that comes with burning out after a 5-0 start.

“It’s hard to shelter them,” he said. “We don’t talk about what everybody else is saying outside of our building because there’s nothing we can do about it. But there’s been that for two or three years now. We’ve probably gotten kind of accustomed to it.

“We’re very close as a football family, I think all of our players and staff would tell you that, and we’re going to keep pressing forward.”

Coaching milestones

Three Big Ten head coaches will look for milestone victories on Saturday.

Penn State’s Joe Paterno will be looking for his 400th career victory, and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Indiana’s Bill Lynch — whose squads will go head-to-head — will both be gunning for their 100th victories.

“I’ve not ever gotten to the point where I’ve felt, ‘Hey, I’m going to get out of this thing,’ ” Paterno said. “But it’s going to come. That’s why I don’t get excited about that 400 if it happens is because, geez, you hang around long enough … How many years I been the head coach, 40? You know, you’ve got to win a couple of games in that time.”

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