A week ago, Michigan’s defensive line — so vaunted a year ago — left Madison among the most beleaguered units on a team that faced criticism at every position.
The criticism centered on the run game, in which the Wolverines allowed 359 yards and five touchdowns. Hidden behind those eye-popping numbers, Michigan’s pass rush also struggled, finishing with only one sack and allowing Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan ample time to throw all game en route to a 13-for-16 performance.
“(Wisconsin) controlled the game,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game. “With the running game, it was easy to see that and make the big plays as well, so (running back Jonathan Taylor) was impressive.”
Any bounceback the Wolverines provided against Rutgers was always going to be shrouded in the caveat of the opponent. While Wisconsin features one of the nation’s best offensive lines, Rutgers was overmatched by Michigan’s athleticism.
Still, dominating Rutgers beats the alternative.
Early on, it looked as if the easiest remaining game on Michigan’s schedule might not be as simple as promised. Quarterback Artur Sitkowski completed five straight passes, taking Rutgers into the red zone as Michigan’s defense unexpectedly found itself on the ropes on its second possession of the day.
As Sitkowski rolled out on fourth-and-5 from the Wolverines’ 8-yard line, there was a sense that the play carried a greater importance than seven meaningless points in what would soon become a blowout. This was Michigan’s chance to put a week of talk about bouncing back to the test. So when sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson stopped Sitkowski at the line of scrimmage, the Wolverines’ defense reacted accordingly.
“It was great,” said sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone. “You always bring your best on those fourth downs when they try to disrespect you and say that they can get this first down and get in the end zone so it was really good to get that. We needed that.”
For the rest of the day, Rutgers’ offense reverted to what was expected of it. All 10 of the Scarlet Knights’ remaining drives ended in their own territory. Just three featured first-down conversions.
Though Michigan’s pass rush finished with just one more sack than it did against Wisconsin, its constant pressure was obvious throughout. After looking at ease during points in the first quarter, Sitkowski rarely had time to look beyond his first read, forcing incompletions and dump-offs when Rutgers needed chunk plays.
“Man, the pressure they got, they made it easy on the secondary and the linebackers,” McGrone said. “It was just great from them and helped us … cause they couldn’t throw it anywhere, they had no time.”
The run defense also rebounded, limiting the Scarlet Knights to 46 yards on 29 attempts. Their biggest run of the day went for just six yards — a touch below Wisconsin’s average of 6.3 per carry last week.
“That’s a position group that was really challenged during the week — the inside players, the nose, the three-techniques,” Harbaugh said. “And I thought that group really responded well.”
And yes, the biggest reason for that response was the opponent. McGrone even admitted to needing to replicate Saturday’s performance next week, “against a better team” in No. 14 Iowa.
One difference that will carry over to Iowa is the presence of senior defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour. While Dwumfour sat for most of the first three games, a hodgepodge of players playing out of position failed to make up his production beside Carlo Kemp, leaving gaping holes in the middle of Michigan’s defense. In his return to significant playing time, the difference was instantly notable.
“Mike had a huge impact,” said junior defensive end Kwity Paye. “Mike’s one of our best pass rushers so to have him in there on our stunts, to be able to pressure the quarterback was huge. So I’m happy he’s back.”
Where Michigan’s performance on the defensive line against Iowa next week falls on the vast spectrum between its showings against Wisconsin and Rutgers remains to be seen. But against the Scarlet Knights, the Wolverines did all they could, quieting criticism for at least one week.
“We got that goose egg on the board,” McGrone said. “And that’s what we needed.”