BLOOMINGTON — Indiana looked the No. 4 Michigan football team’s defensive line in the eyes and dared them. Dropping back to pass 49 times, the Hoosiers challenged the Wolverines’ front — and the secondary behind them — to do something, anything, to stifle them.
The sheer volume of passes was enough to be seen as some form of slight to the two position groups, and for a while at least, it appeared that Indiana made the right gambit. The unranked Hoosiers moved the ball effectively and went into the half tied at 10 with a heavily-favored Michigan.
In the process, Indiana outclassed the Wolverines’ defensive backs, and the pass rush couldn’t excel enough to help them. But coming out of the half, Michigan ushered a stark defensive turnaround en route to a 31-10 victory.
“(We) pitched a shutout in the second half and we were at halftime, we (said) ‘We got to have the best half of football of the season. It’s gotta come right now,’ ” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “… And I thought our defense did a tremendous job of that.”
It started with the Wolverines’ defensive line. The group played easily its best game of the season, generating seven sacks — tallied by seven different players — and a total of 10 tackles for loss.
For the first time all year, Michigan’s front seven was dominant. Penetration came from the middle, the sides and the second level on blitzes. And though it didn’t play poorly in the first half, the corps looked transformed coming out of the locker room after the break — enough to inspire this postgame exchange between fifth-year receiver Ronnie Bell and sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy:
“The d-line in the second half was scary,” Bell said.
“Every possession, they had ended in a punt,” McCarthy said. “I touched on this last week, their just nonstop determination. I mean, they are in your face.”
“Relentless!” Bell interjected.
“Relentless, yes,” McCarthy continued, “They are relentless, every single play. And once they get tired, all those 150s We ran in the summer, all those cross-fields, everything like that — that’s where they show out, that’s where it comes to fruition. And those guys are just dogs.”
But just generating pressure wasn’t going to be enough. The poor play by the Wolverines’ defensive backs needed to be remedied as well. If not, Indiana would continue to gash the secondary and inevitably score.
Fortunately for Michigan, the adjustments both groups made went hand in hand.
“The pressure really came, and the tight coverage came along with it,” Harbaugh said. “And guys just understand they’re good enough, too. They don’t have to grab, they don’t have to interfere to get the coverage. And (we) made some great adjustments. Coach (Clinkscale) was coaching it hard, and there was a lot of coaching going on, but really felt like that coverage tightened and the pass rush started getting home.”
It certainly translated. After allowing 163 passing yards in the first half, the Wolverines held the Hoosiers to just 40 in the second. And five of Indiana’s six second-half drives ended in a punt, with the final drive culminating with a turnover on downs. The difference from the first to the second half performance was almost immeasurable.
But that success after adjustments doesn’t come without staying true to what the defense was already doing well. After holding the Hoosiers to 30 rushing yards in the first half, Michigan buried them, forcing a -11 yard total in the second. With both options gone, Indiana’s thread of hope for an upset was slashed.
The defense, though, isn’t satisfied with just a second half showcase. With No. 10 Penn State looming, among other threats in the Big Ten, a complete performance is necessary.
“We try to get better each and every week, each and every practice, every snap,” Junior edge rusher Jaylen Harrell said. “We just try to keep coming, keep bringing it each and every day. And this is gonna transfer over to the game because we’re gonna need that a lot next week as well. So we’ve got to keep going. Stay hungry.”
There’s still a lot of room to grow, and if the Wolverines’ are going to reach their potential, they better have worked up an appetite.