ORLANDO — It lacks the certain prestige that comes with leading the country in rushing defense or scoring defense, but there is a certain air of elitism that comes with holding opponents to a third-down conversion rate of under 30 percent. Doing so for an entire season is almost always good enough to be in the top 10 nationally in that category.
Michigan got under that threshold as soon as Don Brown got to Ann Arbor to take over as its defensive coordinator. The 2018 season was a bit of a dip, falling down to 33.71 percent, but the 2019 season was well on it way to reestablishing itself in that elite company.
Then came the final two games of the season, when Indiana converted five of its 11 third downs and Ohio State converted eight of its 16. In two weeks, Michigan’s third-down defense went from 28.2 percent to 31.9 percent.
An otherwise excellent Michigan defense showed a rare situational weakness in its last outings before Wednesday’s Citrus Bowl against the University of Alabama. The ways it was done doesn’t necessarily give Alabama a clear blueprint for how to do it, but it is a window of hope for attacking a strong aspect of a strong Wolverine defense.
“They’re very, very good and very challenging with the scheme they have,” UA coach Nick Saban said of Brown’s defense. “The quickness, how aggressive they are and how they utilize their quickness on defense by stunting and changing up the coverage multiples is very challenging. A little different than maybe anybody we’ve seen this year, but very, very effective.”
Indiana did its damage with explosive passing on third down. Three of Indiana’s five third-down were completions of 23, 20 and 32 yards, two of them coming on third-and-20 and third-and-8. Both were atypical for Michigan’s season: the Wolverines are third in the nation in quarterback rating allowed on third down with seven to nine yards left to go and 17th when it’s third-and-10 or greater.
Ohio State did it the other way: get to third-and-short and convert with ruthless consistency. Michigan’s defense is still excellent against the run — it only allows first downs on 52.27 percent of runs on third-and-three or fewer, among the 25 best in the nation — even after what Ohio State did to it.
Ohio State ran on third down with four or fewer yards to gain six times; it moved the chains all six times. The six plays required Ohio State to gain 11 yards to gain the first down and the Buckeyes got a total of 22.
The Buckeyes even did what Indiana did once, facing a third-and-14 and meeting it with a 28-yard completion.
There may be no playcalling rhyme or reason to it, but a strength of the Michigan defense has been less strong in its last two games.
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson