In a theme that has become too familiar for Michigan, it started sluggishly Saturday afternoon against SMU. But like last week, the offense quickly snapped out of that funk, opening up a 28-7 lead by the first drive of the second half.
Then, an unusual problem reared its head ? defense.
The Wolverines were a 3rd-and-9 away from forcing a three and out before backup quarterback William Brown hit James Proche over the middle for a 12 yard gain.
On the next set of downs, Michigan appeared set to get the ball back before Tyree Kinnel was flagged for pass interference on a deep ball. Two plays later, linebacker Khaleke Hudson came over the middle and committed a targeting penalty on Brown.
?Are we going down that road of reviewing every play in the box,? Harbaugh asked postgame. ?Seems like a really high level of scrutiny to be placing on a play between the tackles.?
While Harbaugh expressed his displeasure, it appeared to be a clear targeting violation as Hudson made helmet-to-helmet contact with Brown.
Either way, it was not an isolated incident for the Wolverines. It?s their second targeting of the season, and was one of 11 defensive penalties on the day, including three on that drive.
A few plays later, Lavert Hill committed Michigan?s third pass interference of the day, putting the Mustangs inside the 10, where they would quickly punch the ball into the end zone and cut the deficit to two scores.
?We made a lot of mistakes, especially with penalties,? said Chase Winovich. ?That was not ideal, especially when you keep extending drives.?
Added Josh Metellus, who committed a pass interference of his own in the first half: ?It?s frustrating when anybody gets a first down like that. We like getting three-and-outs, that?s what we pride ourselves on.?
While Metellus was able to recover from his error with a pick-six on the following play, the Wolverines put themselves in too many defensive holes to climb out of in the second half.
Josh Ross began the drive after Hudson?s ejection with a pass interference of his own down the right sideline, allowing SMU to start their drive at the 35. 11 plays later, the Mustangs put up their third touchdown of the day.
Just two drives later, Michigan committed consecutive roughing the passer and offside penalties, giving SMU 20 free yards that likely would have resulted in points had the clock not run out.
?In football,? Winovich said, ?guns don?t kill, turnovers and penalties do.?
Against the Mustangs, Michigan can make these mistakes. Unlike last season, its offense is good enough to allow it that breathing room. But as it showed against Notre Dame, two bad defensive drives can be enough to doom it once the schedule ramps up.
?It felt like maybe SMU wasn?t able to take advantage of those as much as other teams down the road will, if I?m being frank,? Winovich said.
While the eleven penalties were inexcusable, they may not have even been the most excruciating part of the game for the Wolverines? defense.
The unit was the nation?s best against third downs last year and held the Mustangs to 5 of 14 in those situations Saturday but behind the box score, it permitted a number of indefensible conversions.
Between Hudson?s ejection and the touchdown to culminate that drive, it allowed two third down conversions and a successful fourth down attempt.
On the following drive, Brown escaped the pocket on 3rd and 16 to set up another SMU touchdown.
?(That play) was frustrating because I felt like I had the sack up the middle and we lost contain and he scrambled,? Winovich said. ?So that one hurt for me personally just being so close but the key is knowing your rush lanes and make sure you don?t vacate those because when you do, good athletes take advantage of them like they did today.?
One commonality in Michigan?s defensive miscues? They all came against Brown, who entered the game at halftime.
After the game, Winovich said the team was unaware of Brown before he came in. Winovich even had to inform some of his teammates that Brown was the backup quarterback and not running the wildcat.
?We gotta be better and be more prepared,? Winovich said. ?If somebody comes into the game, it doesn?t matter who it is, we gotta be able to shut him down and not let him make any plays.?
The rest of his team quickly found out about Brown as he repeatedly found Proche, who finished with 11 receptions for 166 yards and two TDs.
?We knew he was a big play guy for them, we knew he was the number one guy for them,? Metellus said. ?And we didn?t do a great job of playing to that.?
The fact that each player and coach can single out a separate defensive issue is alarming in itself. One week after what Winovich described as a performance ?firing on all cylinders,? the Wolverines defense has a lot of work to do ahead of Big Ten play.
Against SMU, it put itself in the unusual position of riding the offense?s coattails to victory. When Wisconsin and Penn State come to town, that will not be a recipe for success.
?We strive to be the best defense in the nation,? Metellus said postgame.
On Saturday, they looked nothing like it.