Michigan under pressure to toughen up ‘soft’ defense

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By The Associated Press

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Five weeks into his first season at Michigan, head coach Rich Rodriguez’s patience is beginning to wear thin.

Two days after the Wolverines surrendered 45 points in a lopsided home loss to Illinois, Rodriguez took his team to task, again characterizing Michigan’s play as soft.

And while Rodriguez insisted the Wolverines’ lack of toughness extended to all phases of the game, the Michigan defense – which was expected to be the team’s foundation – finds itself in need of an immediate change.

“It’s a physical ballgame, and there comes a point in time when you have to play physically,” Rodriguez said Monday at his weekly press conference. “You can’t catch people. You can’t allow them to block you. You’ve got to want to block them. It’s not that they’re not trying, but unless we become a tougher football team mentally and physically, we’ll have a lot of problems.”

After Michigan (2-3, 1-1 Big Ten) jumped out to a 14-3 lead, the Wolverines surrendered 28 unanswered points. Illinois quarterback Juice Williams – who earned Big Ten offensive player of the week honors for his play Saturday – began meticulously picking apart the Wolverines’ experienced defense.

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On many of Williams’ 13 completions, Illinois wide receivers found themselves in open space – a point of discussion during Michigan’s film study session on Sunday.

The Illini “executed well, but if they would have overthrown it or underthrown it, (they) still (would have) completed it because they were so wide open,” Rodriguez said.

In all, Illinois tallied 501 yards against Michigan’s defense, which is giving up an average of 347.6 yards per game and has struggled to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Rodriguez said he believes his players may be thinking too much rather than simply playing to their potential. He said many of his team’s issues can be tied to mental lapses.

Rodriguez isn’t convinced the answer is to run more demanding practices. But after a practice Sunday in which Rodriguez harped on his team’s toughness, his players realize the need for change.

“When you play like we played (against Illinois), you expect that to happen,” said senior cornerback Morgan Trent. “(Soft) is never a word you want to hear on defense. You want to be an extremely tough defense. We take pride in that here.”

Rodriguez said he won’t allow a letdown during Saturday’s game against Toledo, which has recorded one victory.

“We’ve got two issues: We have to get ready for (Toledo), and we have to get our football team right,” Rodriguez said.