From down and out to back on top, how Michigan's defense bounced back from Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 9, 2019 - 8:30pm

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Alexandria Pompei/Daily

Two-and-a-half weeks ago, Josh Metellus sat expressionless behind a podium in Madison.

The senior safety had just played four of the most embarrassing quarters of his career, helpless as Wisconsin beat up Michigan for 35 points and 359 yards on the ground. A defense that had faced another round of losing its best talent to the NFL was seemingly at its breaking point.

“I think we pride ourselves on being the best defense in college football,” Metellus said that day. “And these last couple weeks, we haven’t shown that.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh knew as much. In the days after that game, with the whole team watching and the whole room still feeling the sting of the loss, he called out the defensive line — the group the Badgers physically exposed. 

Harbaugh wasn’t angry, at least not outwardly. The message was simple: Step it up.

“He just challenged us as football players, as competitors,” said senior defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour. “Just challenged us in a great way.”

To get called out as a competitor by Harbaugh, a man who often views everything as a competition, is no small deal. This, remember, is a coach who tried to beat his players in running up a nearby hill at San Diego. He’s someone who, upon arriving at Michigan, instituted competition into every nook and cranny of the program — four-hour practices and a “submarine” during fall camp, practically cutting off contact with the outside world.

For any issues you could point to with Harbaugh, it’s hard to believe any of his teams ever struggled to fight. Certainly not at Michigan. Unsurprisingly, these issues didn’t last.

In the run-up to that Wisconsin game, Brown talked about the relief of playing a more conventional team after facing Army’s triple-option and a 10-personnel-heavy Middle Tennessee. At the time, it came off as brash confidence. And in the wake of the loss, it seemed like that confidence was fleeting.

Now, after two more games against relatively conventional opponents, with Brown’s defense ranked second in SP+, it seems he simply jumped the gun by a week or so.

Brown has been coaching football since 1977, and he’s spent most of that time as a defensive coordinator. He has a routine down to a science.

He starts preparing for a given team about two weeks in advance. He doesn’t like focusing on one team before he’s played another, but it’s a necessity of his job. As part of that, he spends a chunk of Sundays and Mondays drawing out about 250 practice cards for the scout team — by hand. It helps him learn the opposing scheme and how to beat it. “Nobody else draws,” Brown said. “... It’s a quirk.”

It’s a safe assumption to say the disparity between cards detailing Wisconsin’s, Rutgers’ and Iowa’s offenses were next to nothing compared to what Michigan dealt with for its first three opponents. And it doesn’t hurt that the defensive line — in particular, Dwumfour — has gotten healthier and more confident.

A group that got pushed off the ball every time the Badgers handed it off turned Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley into a speed bag, peppering him to the tune of eight sacks. The Hawkeyes finished Saturday’s game with a single rushing yard. Defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye, tasked with the impossible job of replacing Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary, look like stars in the making.

“He is unbelievable,” Brown said of Hutchinson.

As for Paye?

“He is the best spread run defender I’ve ever seen.

“Why do I say that? Cause you can’t fool him. Zone read, close out the zone, chase the quarterback from the inside out. Check mark. 

“Bluff? Now, that puller comes back and instead of him trying to kick you out, he bypasses you. Breaks go on, chase the quarterback from the inside out. Check mark. He can do all those things like that. It’s uncanny.”

It’s one thing for Michigan to perform at a high level. It’s entirely another to do it against Iowa, and another still to do it in the way the Wolverines did. Dominating the entire game so clearly that a coach who, two weeks earlier, called out the line’s competitiveness in front of the team, decided to go conservative with the offense late so the defense could win it the game.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t still questions to answer and better competition coming. But for now, Michigan is right back where it wants to be.

One of the best defenses in college football.