September 5, 2017
On Saturday against then-No.17 Florida, Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown showcased yet another wrinkle to his blitz-heavy defense.
The new scheme incorporated a 3-3-5 stack, which, as redshirt junior defensive end Chase Winovich explained, involved moving the eighth-ranked Wolverines’ SAM linebacker to defensive end. In doing so, Michigan had the flexibility to add a linebacker to the box while putting a VIPER on the field as well.
Winovich added that the new formation allows the linebackers to blitz while deceiving opposing quarterbacks with the guise of their standard 4-3. And if the Gators’ offensive performance was any indication, the Wolverines weren’t easy to figure out.
“When we unveiled it, I think they were just like, ‘Oh, crap, how do we adjust to this?’ ” Winovich said Saturday night. “We had so many plays early on (in the) first half, Coach Brown said we have so many plays we haven’t even done yet, and we’re having a lot of success. And he said, let’s keep pushing.”
According to senior linebacker Noah Furbush, the inception of the new scheme all began during spring practices, as Brown was rotating a collection of players at different positions in an attempt to try to maximize everyone’s strengths.
And as it turned out, Furbush’s strengths were maximized at the SAM position of the new 3-3-5 stack.
“I think it’s a lot of the same things I do at SAM,” Furbush said. “A lot of the principles carry over. But it’s definitely a new thing, it’s different having your hand in the dirt than just two feet on the ground.”
Originally, though, Michigan never intended to anchor its defense around the stack in its season opener. But with the success the formation yielded, there was no reason for Brown to deviate from it.
After all, the Wolverine defense recovered three fumbles — including one for a touchdown — while applying enough pocket pressure that Florida managed to register just 181 yards in the air. Perhaps most relevant of all, though, is that the new formation held the Gators to just 11 yards on the ground. By the end of the day, the Wolverines had registered six sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
“The defense, the way they played, it was the best since I’ve been here coaching, that I’ve seen our defense run to the football,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Holes opened up and they closed. Pursuit. Nobody on the ground. Everybody (was) getting up running, making the tackle.”
As it turns out, one of those fumbles was the icing on the cake for Furbush and the Wolverines during the debut of their new defense.
With just over 90 seconds left in Saturday’s game, after Michigan had already chased Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks, Malik Zaire took the snap on 2nd and 18 in his own end zone. But Winovich burst through the line, forcing a fumble that Furbush promptly covered up for a touchdown, putting a nail in the Gators’ coffin.
“Don Brown had an excellent game plan,” Harbaugh said. “(He) worked one style of offense with the first quarterback that was in there. When they went to Malik Zaire, it changed. More read option and adapted the scheme.
“Our players knew it. They knew what they had with the one, and they knew what they had with the next. They were on it. Very happy. We were a confident unit, really well-coached defensive unit. We thought we were going to be good, and we were good. We’ll continue to build. I was really pleased with the way they ran to the ball.”
And while the Gators will be glad Michigan’s new-look unit is in the rearview mirror, there may be no one happier than the Wolverines’ own offensive unit. For the first time in a calendar year, they finally got to play someone else.
“We’ve seen it for so long now that — to me it’s more personnel, just because we’ve got a lot of guys that do a lot of things really well,” said fifth-year senior running back Ty Isaac on Monday. “I know when we first started seeing it, it was giving us fits, just because it’s hard to tell what’s coming from where.
“It turns into playing spots instead of body type. They’ve done a really good job of keeping (the) offense, at least us, off balance and obviously it worked against Florida.”