After ‘unacceptable’ showing, Michigan’s defensive line looks for answers

Tuesday, November 17, 2020 - 6:35pm

Shaun Nua's defensive line unit has struggled this season, especially against Wisconsin.

Shaun Nua's defensive line unit has struggled this season, especially against Wisconsin. Buy this photo
Miles Macklin/Daily

When the Michigan football team allowed 359 rushing yards against Wisconsin last season, the jaw-dropping number felt like an outlier in a matchup that’s usually competitive.

But on Saturday, the Badgers marched into Ann Arbor and ran over the Wolverines’ defense once again. It didn’t seem to matter that they were coming off a three-week COVID-19 hiatus. Nor did it matter that running back Jonathan Taylor, who accounted for more than 200 of those 359 yards in 2019, left early for the NFL last spring.

Wisconsin still racked up 341 yards on the ground en route to a 49-11 drubbing, bringing its two-year rushing total to 700 yards against Michigan.

“If you’re not embarrassed by those numbers, then you shouldn’t be part of this frickin’ game,” Wolverines’ defensive line coach Shaun Nua said on the Inside Michigan Football radio show on Monday. “I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. It’s just unacceptable. So the challenge is — I’m talking about as a whole group — what the heck can we do to make sure that thing does not happen (again)? … Those numbers, that is not Michigan football.”

But so far this season, that has been Michigan football. The Wolverines have surrendered multiple big games to opposing backfields — Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim rushed for 140 yards, Indiana’s Stevie Scott picked up 97 yards and four Badgers rushed for at least 60 yards. 

Michigan’s run defense now ranks outside the top 75 nationally after allowing 714 rushing yards through four games. And at the moment, the Wolverines are struggling to put a finger on the problem.

“If you want to be honest, I feel like we’ve been practicing well these last couple weeks,” sophomore defensive tackle Chris Hinton said during a Zoom on Tuesday. “I feel like we need to hone in more on specific details, smaller details here and there throughout different periods and things like that. … I’m a true believer that repetition in practice makes perfect. If we just keep practicing and honing in, we can see different results.”

On Saturday, the absence of defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye exacerbated the defensive line’s existing woes. Hutchinson is out for the season after fracturing his leg Nov. 7, while Paye missed the game against Wisconsin with a lower-body injury. The tandem entered this season as the undisputed bookends of the defensive line after combining for 22.5 tackles for loss last season.

Their absences enabled the Badgers to rip Michigan apart with end-arounds and jet sweeps, in addition to their usual flurry of big gains up the middle.

Even when it had Hutchinson and Paye on the field earlier this season, Michigan’s defensive line struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Wolverines became the first Big Ten team in the last 15 seasons to record zero sacks or turnovers in five consecutive halves, spanning the entire game against Michigan State and Indiana and the first half against the Badgers.

Part of the problem, Hinton said, is the increased maximum protection looks Michigan has faced. Given the vulnerability of the Wolverines’ secondary, opponents have tried to give their quarterbacks as much time as possible in the pocket to find open receivers. That strategy led to career passing days for Hoosiers’ quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and Spartans’ quarterback Rocky Lombardi. But Wisconsin still carved up Michigan on the ground.

The problem isn’t max protections, then. It isn’t a technical tweak here or there, either. According to Nua, it’s not even football-related.

“It comes to passion and leadership,” Nua said. “… Let’s get the frickin’ mindset right. I’m sick and tired of all this wasted opportunity. That’s the motivation — just pride. Where the frick is our pride at? Let’s go put that on the table and let’s go whip some butt.”

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