D the key to Michigan making title run

A 9-3 season warrants a parade and a contract extension in most college football locales. But when you go 9-3 at Michigan and your defense finishes the season with its pants around its ankles, nobody reaches for the confetti.

Instead, some vigilante fans reached for the mouse and clicked their way to www.firejimherrmann.com, where they agitated for the ouster of their defensive coordinator. All Herrmann has done was win the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant in 1997, when the Wolverines were national champions.

That response is especially rash when you consider that Herrmann is another in a long line of Michigan Men, a former player and 17-year assistant at America's most successfully incestuous program. But family ties did not mitigate the bitter taste for fans heading into the offseason -- or the concern that a leaky defense could scuttle a potential national title run this year.

They look at the preseason rankings and see their team at No. 4 in both polls -- and then they flash back to last year. In their minds, Texas quarterback Vince Young is still galloping unimpeded across the Rose Bowl grass. Ohio State QB Troy Smith is still on the loose in Ohio Stadium. Buckeyes receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn is still leaving Wolverines grasping and gasping as he blows by.

Michigan finished the season with consecutive defeats, giving up 37 points and 446 yards to arch-rival Ohio State and then 38 points and 444 yards to Texas in a Rose Bowl thriller. Those defeats continued a couple of troubling defensive trends:

• The Wolverines repeatedly surrendered huge plays. They gave up eight touchdowns of 60 yards or longer, six of those in the final four games.

It's one thing to give up home run plays to Young (60-yard run) or Ginn (82-yard punt return). It's another when Northwestern's Noah Herron goes 68 yards to the house, or Michigan State's DeAndra Cobb runs one in from 72 yards and another from 64. That suggests major assignment busts, shoddy tackling, a lack of speed -- or all of the above.

"We've given up too many big plays," coach Lloyd Carr said. "When you give up big plays, it makes it difficult to win. Our major focus is to make people earn it."

• The Wolverines were strafed by mobile quarterbacks. Young ran for 191 yards and four touchdowns in the Rose Bowl. Smith ran for 145 yards. Michigan State's Drew Stanton scampered for 80 yards by halftime before being injured.

"They weren't accounting for (the quarterback as a running threat)," Stanton said. "They like to play packages, man-to-man, getting up in your face and not accounting for the quarterback."

After what he and Smith did to the Wolverines, Stanton said he watched the Rose Bowl in disbelief.

"I don't know how Michigan didn't account for (Young)," he said.

That's what the maize-and-blue backers wanted to know. Michigan's defense suddenly looked outdated and vulnerable against spread offenses, and that's why the heat came down on Herrmann -- and, by extension, on Carr, who was the subject of a flurry of January rumors that he was going to retire.

Carr wasn't going to retire -- not with the talent he had returning. And he sure wasn't going to listen to anyone telling him to fire his defensive coordinator.

"I'm responsible," was Carr's answer.

Thus Michigan's offseason has been a study in contrast. There has been rampant enthusiasm about an offense that returns quarterback Chad Henne, running back Michael Hart, and some big-play receivers. And there has been chronic concern about a defense that lost All-American defensive backs Marlin Jackson and Ernest Shazor -- and wasn't very good at the end of last year with those guys.

In the middle of a barrage of questions at Big Ten media day about the defensive problems, someone asked end Pat Massey if he thought this was an overreaction. Massey said no, the hair shirt fits just fine.

"We're the first to admit we didn't perform, and this is one of the consequences of it," he said. "It's our fault, and this comes with the territory.

"I think people are breaking it down too much, looking at schemes and saying you didn't blitz enough, you blitzed too much. Coach Herrmann put us in the right position and we just didn't make plays. We just had too many blown assignments, missed tackles, missed coverages. …

"We are looking forward to getting out there and showing we're a better defense."

That will start up front. The Wolverines recorded just 21 sacks last year, their lowest total in a decade. No wonder, when Carr was asked on Michigan's media day about what he'd like to see from his defense, the first sentence out of his mouth was, "We'd like to tackle the quarterback."

New defensive line coach Steve Stripling was hired away from rival Michigan State to upgrade the pass rush. He has a lot to work with in the 6-foot-8 Massey and speed-rushing LaMarr Woodley on the outside, plus a pair of 320-plus-pound tackles in the middle.

Carr is looking for more speed at linebacker and in the secondary. To that end, the Wolverines have juggled around some personnel, including moving redshirt freshman wide receiver Morgan Trent to free safety after spring practice. Carr said Trent is probably the fastest player on the team and could see some two-way duty, in addition to returning kickoffs alongside Steve Breaston.

But speed doesn't necessarily replace experience, and in Jackson and Shazor Michigan loses two guys who had seemingly been starting since the Schembechler Era. That will put some new players in the position of being the defensive signal-callers.

"The safety position, in my opinion, has become as complex as any position on the field, except for quarterback," Carr said. "Every game you're seeing motions, formations, personnel packages."

And the occasional running quarterback. Michigan must deal with those better this year, because 9-3 will definitely not be parade material in 2005.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.