At some point on Saturday, Jim Harbaugh came to a realization. He’d been watching his defensive line — watching senior Kwity Paye rip through Minnesota’s backup offensive tackles and rack up two sacks and three tackles for loss — and knew there was nothing the Golden Gophers could do.
“If he was a secret to anybody, certainly wasn’t to us how good he can be and how dominant he can be,” Harbaugh said on the Inside Michigan Football radio show Monday night. “We had the same feeling as the game was going on. They can’t block Kwity. Aidan (Hutchinson) wasn’t too far behind.”
As the status of the Big Ten football season fell into question, so did Paye’s future. Regularly mentioned in NFL mock drafts, nobody would have pointed at fingers at Paye for leaving. But he stayed, and never wavered in doing so.
Hutchinson, a junior defensive end, and senior defensive tackle Carlo Kemp might have left, too. In August when he spoke to reporters, Hutchinson didn’t say whether he would leave to train for the NFL Draft. Kemp, at that time, seemed to indicate he would stay. Still, uncertainty was everywhere.
On Saturday, that trio made up three-fourths of Michigan’s defensive line and an even higher percentage of its impact. Kemp blew up a handoff early in the first quarter, helping set a tone. Hutchinson finished with five solo tackles and drew double teams all night. Paye dominated all night.
“Just being out there was so much fun,” Hutchinson said on a Zoom call this week. “I love this defense. I love playing with these guys, and this defensive line is so good, we’re so powerful and strong and fast.”
Contributions on the defensive line extended beyond those three. Behind them in the two-deep, junior defensive tackle Julius Welschof had his first career sack. Junior defensive end Taylor Upshaw made what Harbaugh called, “probably the unheralded defensive play of the game,” keeping Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim out of the end zone with a chasedown tackle in the first quarter. Senior Donovan Jeter scored a touchdown after a Mike Barrett hit knocked the ball from Gopher quarterback Tanner Morgan.
Under Don Brown, the Wolverines have always had good defensive lines. The combination of star power and depth they showcased in the opener, though, is one that hasn’t fallen into place as of late.
Michigan’s defense was far from perfect on Saturday, giving up 24 points, a few explosive plays and 140 rushing yards to Ibrahim. But as Hutchinson pointed out, if Minnesota wanted to run the ball late in the game when they were down by multiple touchdowns, that was just fine with the Wolverines. “He can have all the yards he wants, but it doesn’t really matter too much about the yards,” Hutchinson said.
It’s worth adding as well that seven of Minnesota’s points came after a blocked punt let them start a drive at Michigan’s 17-yard line. Beyond that, the Gophers averaged an abysmal 4.5 yards per play. Points allowed, perhaps, don’t tell the story particularly well.
“I unfortunately missed a couple of my sacks but I’m enthusiastic and I’m ready to get after them again,” Hutchinson said. “I think we really got after them for what it’s worth, for how many opportunities we really got in that game.”
Asked about Michigan State and its seven turnovers in a loss to Rutgers last week, Hutchinson gave a verbal lick of his chops.
“We’re a very aggressive, fast defense,” he said. “I saw they had all those turnovers last week and I’m hoping (we) can do the same.”