For the Michigan defense, this weekend’s game will likely offer little in the way of conclusive answers.
Rutgers comes into this weekend’s bout in Ann Arbor ranked 107th in the nation in total offense (one spot shy of Tennessee). It hasn’t finished better than 127th of 130 teams in a full season since 2015-16. Starting quarterback McLane Carter is out for Saturday’s game with a concussion, and the backup, Artur Sitkowski, threw for just 40 yards and registered a negative adjusted passing yards per attempt, according to Sports Reference, in last year’s 42-7 loss to Michigan.
All of this is to say, this weekend likely won’t be a banner one for the Scarlet Knights. Conversely, this is far from the game to provide a litmus test for a defense suddenly on thin ice. That doesn’t leave this game devoid of meaning on the defensive end.
Last week, the Wolverines allowed 359 rushing yards in a revealing loss at Wisconsin. They have spent this week, as would be expected, touting a desire to improve and the will to do so.
Players and coaches admonished their effort from a week ago and noted a revamped energy in practice. Buzzwords like “physicality” and “execution” flew around the building like popcorn in a microwave.
“We didn’t play physical enough,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on Monday. “We were out-hustled. I take responsibility for that. In any ways that we were out-schemed, I take responsibility for that. It’s my job to make sure we are completely sound, in all offenses and defenses that we’re running.”
Added senior linebacker Josh Uche: “You’ve got to respond to adversity. Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Mike Tyson said, ‘You got punched in the mouth, what are you going to do about it?’ Am I going to lay down? Hell no. I’m going to get up, I’m going to keep fighting, keep swinging. That’s what this team is going to do.”
Swing, it presumably will, at a particularly feeble target Saturday. Though players would never entertain the idea, Rutgers might just be the ideal opponent coming off such a comprehensive drubbing.
As such, the nature of the loss seemingly required a full-scale breakdown — an effort to re-establish the fundamentals and start anew.
“There’s not a doubt in my mind that we can’t get that back,” said senior defensive end Michael Danna on Tuesday. “So we’ve got high expectations no matter what the outcome was last Saturday or whatever. Like I said, we still have high expectations. We still have a lot of hope.
“We were all surprised. We didn’t want to have that outcome. It is what it is now. That was four days ago, so we’ll move past it. It’s a new week, it’s a new challenge ahead.”
The questions this week — and subsequent answers — understandably focused on schematic and personal improvement. How does this get better? This is a unit that frequently touts its desire to be the best in the nation. It’s not an unsubstantiated expectation; all of Michigan’s defenses in the Don Brown era have finished top-3 in total defense, with the 2016 squad finishing No. 1 in the nation.
That’s the standard at Michigan these days, and rightfully so.
Last week’s performance, though, surfaced real questions about whether this roster’s personnel can live up to its internal expectations.
It wasn’t simply the result that raised alarm bells, but how it came to be. Wisconsin was unambiguous about its intention to run the ball down the defense’s throat. Then it went out and did so. The Badgers’ offensive line had its way with Michigan’s front.
The result was a performance Harbaugh described succinctly: “It was thorough.”
The players, many of whom have been part of nationally elite defenses in their Wolverines careers, would scoff at any such notions of decline. They believe they have the group in place to reach a different level. And they don’t have much interest in entertaining the alternative.
“A lot of people outside of the program have a lot to say, but we’re worried about what’s going on inside the program,” Danna said. “We’re all family here, we’re a brotherhood here. We don’t condone none of the outside opinions, we stick together no matter what everybody has to say.”
There is caution against overreacting to any one result, no matter how revealing. This week will likely alleviate some existential concerns, though far from all. The defense can only prove so much about their aptitude for big games against a decidedly sub-par opponent in Week 4 — that is, obviously, assuming the Wolverines win.
For now, the defense, and the team writ large, is treating Saturday as a stepping stone. Eventually it could reach a desired end. But not without taking that first step.
“I think we’re a physical, hard-nosed defense,” Danna said. “There’s no doubt in my mind about that. I spent all camp being here, seeing it. There’s no doubt in my mind we’re a hard-nosed defense. We’ve just got to put in on tape now.
“Everybody’s questioning us? We’ve just got to prove it.”