In recent weeks, attempting to score against the Michigan football team’s defense has been an exercise in futility. The Wolverines have mauled opposing offenses into submission, drive after drive.
Michigan’s four consecutive victories have been buoyed by its defense. The Wolverines (1-0 Big Ten, 4-1 overall) have posted consecutive shutouts and allowed just one touchdown apiece to UNLV and Oregon State in the two games before that.
But this weekend, Michigan’s defense could meet its match. The Wolverines are currently the second-ranked team in the nation in total defense, allowing 184 yards per game — one of just two teams in the country allowing fewer than 200.
One of the teams a few spots behind the Wolverines is Saturday’s opponent, Northwestern (1-0, 5-0). The Wildcats have allowed 247.4 yards per game, good for fifth in the country.
Looking at scoring defense yields similar results. Northwestern is No. 1 in the country in that statistic, allowing seven points per game. Michigan is No. 2 in the nation at 7.6.
The inclination based off these statistics is that Saturday’s game will largely be a defensive struggle. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is not entirely convinced that a matchup of two of the nation’s best defenses is relevant.
“The two defenses won’t go against each other,” Harbaugh said Monday. “They won’t face each other, so look at it the way you always look at it: It’s three phases, and you want to win each of those phases.”
Statistically, the teams are also similar on the offensive side of the ball. The Wolverines rank 77th nationally in total offense, while the Wildcats are 79th.
But because the calling card of both teams is defense, that phase of the game will be most tightly scrutinized Saturday. Michigan’s defensive players have not been afraid to vocalize their high goals for the unit.
“I think our goal is to be the best defense in the country,” said redshirt junior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow. “We don’t really shy away from talk about that, but the main key that is stressed every week is you have to remember what got you here.”
Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin was not quite that bold when he met with the media Wednesday, but he, too, is satisfied by what he has seen from his unit.
One of Durkin’s mantras has been to tell players to “stamp their personalities” on their role, meaning he wants them play with their own style and substance rather than act like “robots.”
Durkin even applies that same standard to himself, by frequently being a hands-on coach and jumping into drills to demonstrate instead of standing back and watching. He is not concerned about any laziness that could result from overconfidence after two straight shutouts.
“It’s about how hard you work and how you prepare. And our guys, we’re obviously talking about that a bunch,” Durkin said. “I think they’re starting to understand that. That’s who we want to be: a blue-collar team.”
Saturday, Michigan will face another team that could consider itself blue-collar, a foe with similar strengths to the Wolverines’. Michigan has had success against spread offenses like the Wildcats’ this year, despite struggling against similar offenses in recent memory. The Wolverines did not allow a score after the game’s opening moments against Oregon State, another opponent that ran a spread offense.
Similar results would bode well for Michigan this weekend. As much as Harbaugh wants his team to focus on all three phases of the game, all eyes will be on the defensive side of the ball, no matter whose offense is on the field.