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Neutralized in recent weeks, defensive line plans to step up at Penn State

BY NATE SANDALS
Daily Sports Editor
Published October 15, 2008

Football players and coaches say the film never lies. But last week it definitely deceived the Michigan defense.

On film, Toledo looked like an inside-running team, but the Rockets came out last Saturday with empty sets and max-protection packages. The Wolverines weren't prepared for the switch, at first.

“When we got to the game, everything changed,” senior nose tackle Terrance Taylor said. “It was seven on three. What really changed the game is how they took the D-line out of it.”

Michigan’s vaunted defensive line had little impact in the 13-10 loss, because of Toledo’s scheme. The Wolverines recorded just one sack, by redshirt freshman Michael Williams, and went without a sack the previous week against Illinois.

Coming into the season, the defensive line was supposed to be Michigan’s biggest strength, with all four starters returning. And it has come up big in key situations already, especially in the final minutes of the comeback win over Wisconsin.

But against Toledo, the line struggled to get pressure on the quarterback, and the Rockets took advantage, using an empty backfield and quick passes to move down the field a few yards at a time. Toledo quarterback Aaron Opelt rarely took a drop deeper than three steps.

“They hadn't shown the spread as much,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said at his postgame press conference. “But then again, having watched us on film and seeing we had struggled with it, it didn’t really surprise me.”

Considering the defense's difficulties against the spread in the past two weeks, Taylor said he expects to see more of the same against Penn State on Saturday.

But the Wolverines should get a boost with the possible return of junior defensive end Brandon Graham. Graham missed the Toledo game with a leg infection stemming from a turf burn. He was on antibiotics last week and expects to play against the Nittany Lions. Graham leads the nation in tackles for loss per game (2.1) and averages a sack per game.

"When Brandon Graham’s healthy, he gives us a lot,” fifth-year senior defensive end Tim Jamison said. “He’s a great athlete, powerful. He brings a lot to the table.”

Returning to Happy Valley should bring back some proud memories for the defensive line. In 2006, the last time Michigan traveled to Penn State, the defensive line created constant pressure, knocking the Nittany Lions' first two quarterbacks out of the game with injuries.

“That was a crazy game,” Jamison said. “The D-line did stand out that game. But we need to stand out as a team (this week).”

There is a greater sense of urgency for the members of the defensive line this week. The three senior starters — Taylor, Jamison and tackle Will Johnson — want to finish their college careers undefeated against the Nittany Lions.

But more important than getting another win over Penn State, Jamison said the veterans are focused on taking advantage of their final opportunities.

“There’s a lot of seniors on that defensive side of the ball,” Jamison said. “We only have six weeks to prove, to change this team around, and it’s going to be all on us, the seniors as a whole.”

Notes: Rodriguez said redshirt freshman quarterback Steven Threet didn't participate much in Tuesday's practice but would do more Wednesday. Rodriguez said he thought Threet will be available at Penn State on Saturday. ... Redshirt freshman linebacker Kevin Leach (high ankle) is out for Saturday. ... At Wednesday's practice, Threet, fifth-year senior cornerback Morgan Trent, senior strong safety Brandon Harrison, freshman wide receiver Darryl Stonum and junior running back Carlos Brown wore green jerseys, which denote minor injuries. ... Rodriguez said redshirt junior Tim McAvoy has been working at left guard. McAvoy started the Wolverines' first three games at that position. Redshirt sophomore John Ferrara has started there once and redshirt junior Mark Ortmann has started there twice. ... For the second straight game, no player of the games were displayed in Schembechler Hall.