By Brian George
At the start of the year, we realized we had some good players coming back from last year's defense, but we also had a number of guys to replace. With that, our focus since the beginning of the season has been to get better from week to week. As coaches we have needed to do a great job of teaching and helping our young players get through the learning part of playing defense.
Last week at Penn State there were some real signs of improvement, particularly in the back half of the defense. That was an important progression for us to continue to take steps forward with that group. We need to keep getting better up front, and that's going to be even more important now that we have a few of those guys up front who are a little banged up.
With those injuries up front, there will be a greater sense of urgency on everyone from the linebacking corps to the corners and safeties to take on a little bit more of the load in terms of making plays and understanding where they need to be.
We are spending a lot of extra time working with some of our more inexperienced players to help them get ready for that extra work load. And the players who are filling in for the guys who are injured up front, we've been telling them all along that they never know when their time is going to come. They need to prepare every week like they are going to be the starter. Over the course of the last couple of weeks, we have several players who haven't played a ton in the past who have had to step in to bigger roles. I think the guys who have been asked to do that have done a very respectable job.
All of this has forced some players to learn, and that's good. We have a lot of guys who don't have that experience of seeing things over and over again. Now they are getting that opportunity, and it's going to make us better in the long run.
Even in practice, there were a lot of times last year when we had so many experienced seniors at key positions that we only had to show them something once. That's where we have to be different this year as coaches. Now we have to show our younger guys something over and over, and we have to do it in a way that is going to get them to the game fresh and ready to play. We spend a lot more time walking through things and talking through things. I think that will pay off. One of the results we saw last week was that we played a little better. We aren't where we need to be, but we are taking steps in the right direction.
This is a week at Western Michigan when we need to keep taking more steps in the right direction. It's our fifth game, and it will be against an opponent where we should be evenly matched. This game will give us a real good look at where we really are as a defense right now.
When I look at Western Michigan, I see a very talented core group of players who are learning a new system. They are in the same boat we are in to a certain degree, in that they opened their season with three Big Ten opponents and an FCS school with some pretty good players. They had similar results to what we had against the BCS teams, and they played a close game with an FCS school where they were on the losing end of a close game and we were able to pull a win out at the end.
Games like this always come down to a couple of key things. No. 1, we have to stop the run. No. 2, we have to prevent big plays. They are going to take their shots down the field. They have a couple of fast guys at wide receiver, so they will take their shots and throw it up to those guys. They are going to test us vertically, so we have to be good in those situations.
We have to have great eyes in the back end and we have to be able to create pressure with the guys we bring. Whether it is a three, four, five or six-man pressure, we have to get pressure on their quarterback, get the ball out of his hands and throw off their timing. In coverage, we have to do a great job with our eyes and feet to be in position to make plays.
This will be a good test for us. I know our players are excited to get back into conference play and see where we are in terms of taking another step forward.