'Cat coaches traditionally hand out eight awards after each week's game. But after their Saturday night loss to Michigan, they cut that number to seven. There was here, for the first time this season, no Defensive Player of the Game. "As we talked," Pat Fitzgerald would explain, "we didn't have anybody play consistently enough for four quarters. Tyler Scott (the defensive end) played really well for three-and-a-half quarters. Really well. Maybe as well as anyone's played on defense this year. But for half-a-quarter he didn't and that's kind of indicative of the way we're playing on defense. We've got to put together a full 60 minutes."
"We're not happy about that and I think that definitely reflects what we saw (on tape)," defensive tackle Jack DiNardo would echo minutes later. "There were definitely players who had a good quarter, a good half, some guys had a good three quarters. But nobody really put it together and was able to earn that. To be Player of the Game, you have to play a complete game and we didn't really see that on film from anyone."
Does his unit take the slight personally?
"It's never something you want to see," he said. "You want to see guys getting it done. You want to see a lot of production out of your defense. That's something we'll get corrected. I feel we'll have a Defensive Player of the Game Saturday against Iowa."
ONE THING TO CORRECT:
A telling stat last Saturday night was the third-down efficiency of Michigan, which converted 14 of 17 opportunities. But two points should be made here: after one of its missed opportunities, a third-and-one at its own 42, it went for it on fourth down and picked up four yards and a first down; and on 10 of those 17 opportunities, it needed to pick up just five yards or less.
"They were in way too many third-and-manageables. But Denard (Robinson, the Wolverine quarterback) is going to give them that chance," Fitzgerald would say of that last fact. "We've just got to win those situations. Again. We pointed to seven of those. . . that we felt, from a lack of execution, we gave them the third-down pickup. The other seven we thought, 'Good job by them.' You tip your hat and move on. But seven-out-of-17 is a different deal from 14-out-of-17."
AND ANOTHER THING:
The 'Cats did pick off three of Robinson's passes to push their turnover margin for the season to a plus-six. But, said Fitzgerald, "As we looked at the tape, we thought we had the opportunity to intercept the ball eight times and we got three. If we get just one more, it's a difference maker in that game. If we get two more (on jump balls that Michigan caught to set up touchdowns) when we're there 50-50, it's a big change. Then from some alignment things, if we were aligned properly we would have been in position to pick off some balls.
"So we're just going to keep working with those guys in their first year of experience (corner Jeravin Matthews and safety Ibraheim Campbell). That's why we get paid. We've got to work our butts off to help them get better and their attitude's in a good spot. That's all we can ask. Then we've got to put guys in position to make plays."
The mystery everyone -- ardent fan, casual observer, you name him or her -- wants solved is just what happened in Saturday's second half, just how did the 'Cats go from up 10 at halftime to down 18 at game's end. "It's execution," Fitzgerald said. "Obviously it's on us as coaches to get our guys to execute better and stay poised. But when you watch the tape, they ran the same pressure, they ran the same quarter-half coverage they ran in the first half, they ran the same quarterback power plays and quarterback outside zones. The one thing that they probably did a little less than we thought might happen, they pressured a little less in the second half than they did in the first. But, you know, we stopped ourselves."
GET THE DRIFT:
That is how it went Monday at Fitzgerald's weekly press conference, where the recurrent themes were consistency and execution, making plays and staying fundamentally sound. None of it was news-making stuff. But all of it was obviously true. "We've got to get better, we've got to improve fundamentally, we've got to execute better," is how he would put it in a signature moment of his time behind the microphone. "When we've done that this year, we've been pretty good. When we haven't, we've stunk. That's why we've lost a couple games here in a row. So we need to stop stinking and we'll be all right."
THE MASKED MAN:
You may have missed it, or not believed it, but that really was wide receiver Venric Mark in there at linebacker for a handful of plays against the Wolverines. "QB spy mainly was my goal. Make sure Denard stayed in the pocket, which he did," he explained Monday. "I believe on two plays I was in he actually threw two picks. I'm not saying I caused those picks" -- and here he laughed -- "but I think i did my job fairly well."
And was it strange for him to rush the passer, which he actually did on a couple of his appearances?
"Most definitely," said the 5-foot-8, 175-pound Mark. "A 6-foot-8 lineman, I never really encountered that before. He's two times my weight. But coach says to me, 'If a hole opens up, don't just stand there. Do something.' So I did my best to rush."
Mark, on Saturday, also carried twice for 18 yards and, as always, returned punts and kickoffs. "Wherever coach feels I should be to help the team, I'm going to try my best, I'm going to give it my all," he said of his multiple duties. "I just want to be out there. As you all know, I haven't played that much in the past. So I'm glad he's actually giving me this (running back) role right now." ... Here's what Mark had to say about Saturday's second half: "We talked about it today in the team meeting. When we're up, as you all saw, we played a great first half. Then we came out and the team energy, it was low, was down. That same hunger that we had the first half, it seemed like it's not there. But it takes all four quarters in a Big Ten game because a Big Ten game can change really fast, as we all have seen. So coming out and putting all four quarters together, coming out with the same hunger whether we're up or we're down is going to be the key to us winning." ... In weeks past, one of the starting receivers on the depth chart was shown as Christian Jones OR Rashad Lawrence. This week the 'or' is gone and the job now belongs to Jones, who had three receptions for 68 yards against the Wolverines. Lawrence, in contrast, dropped a ball in the back end of the end zone while wide open and dropped another on the goal line under pressure from tough coverage. "It's a production business and (Jones) produced on Saturday. He made the plays and we're going to reward that," said Fitzgerald. . . When it came time for his weekly injury report, he said, "For the first time in a long time, I have nothing to share with you. So it's a good Monday morning. Everyone's doing well, feeling great."
When things are bad, well, they're bad: It was just over five minutes into the second quarter and the 'Cats, up seven, now faced a fourth-and-one at the Michigan 32. They went for it with an option right, but after taking the pitch from quarterback Dan Persa, running back Adonis Smith was thrown for a one-yard loss. "It was there, but they misaligned," Fitzgerald would say with a rueful grin as he thought back to that play. "They had a defensive end line up on the wrong side and he was the extra hat over there. So we look back at that play and say gosh, that's one of those you wished you held the call because if we'd gone the other way, I think we might have walked into the end zone. So we'll all sleep on the other side of the bed. Karma's not in a good spot right now. That's the way it's going right now. The way it's going."