In Saturday’s game against UNLV, the Michigan football team’s defense allowed just 235 total yards (92 rushing, 143 passing), forced eight punts and intercepted two passes.
But another number stuck out to the Wolverines. And it frustrated them: seven points allowed.
“We wanted that shutout,” said junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis on Monday. “They weren’t supposed to score. We weren’t supposed to let them score, so we let up seven points, and that’s the biggest statistic we’re supposed to fix. There wasn’t supposed to be points on that board.”
Michigan blanked Oregon State for the last 58 minutes of its second game of the season heading into the UNLV game. An early touchdown prevented a shutout in that game, but the sentiment was the same: Rather than being pleased with giving up just seven points, the Wolverines were upset that they allowed even that many.
And it’s that sentiment that has Michigan among the top defenses in the country.
“Since spring ball, there’s been an increase in that (mentality),” said secondary coach Mike Zordich on Wednesday. “It’s something we want to build on. We’ve got a long way to go, but it’s something we want to build on.”
The first step in building on it will be Saturday at home against Brigham Young. Through three games, the Wolverines rank seventh in the nation in total defense and are tied for 12th in scoring defense. But they haven’t faced an offense as potent as the Cougars’, led by freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum and a host of receivers. They have the ability to pose an issue for Michigan.
But the Wolverines can counter with aggressiveness. They pulled down two interceptions Saturday. On one, junior cornerback Channing Stribling jumped a slant route and snatched the ball out of the air. On the other, redshirt junior cornerback Jeremy Clark stuck with his receiver, used his hands to gain separation and turned around at just the right moment for the interception.
Michigan might need those kinds of plays in its tough games going forward.
“We’ll line up Jourdan Lewis against a (6-foot-6 receiver), scrappy as Jourdan is, that’s a tough matchup,” Zordich said. “But that’s how we’re going to play it. They’ve got to fight, for sure.”
And fight the Wolverines have on defense in each of their first three games. While they’ve had struggles of their own, they’ve also helped out the offense by getting a stop when needed or gaining valuable field position.
In order to do so, they’ve developed a confident attitude that’s the hallmark of all great defenses. More than once this year, Michigan has dug in while defending its own red zone or come up with a turnover to give the offense an opportunity.
“It might sound bad, but we kind of thrive off those situations,” said senior linebacker James Ross III. “We like them. I mean, we would like to limit them, but if it happens, we love to be back on that field, and we love to get the ball back for our offense, so if that happens we go back out there and we look at it as an opportunity. We try to do our best and get the ball back.”
The Wolverines will need that mindset, too: Their games are about to get closer, starting Saturday. They might find themselves behind and in need of a stop to stay in the game, or just ahead and in need of a stop to protect the lead.
As Michigan has struggled over the past few years, its defense has been more of a stopgap than a true asset. The Wolverines are ready to take the next step, aided by a high confidence level.
“We can be the best in the country if we just continue to use our technique,” Lewis said. “Just need to get the ball back, honestly. Need to improve on turnovers, get more turnovers. That’s the main goal.”
Asked on Wednesday about Lewis’ comment, Zordich — his position coach — smiled.
“That’s what we want them to think,” Zordich said. “Certainly the work they produce has to match that. We absolutely want that kind of attitude for those guys. It helps. Certainly their position requires that kind of attitude.”