It’s been eight quarters since the Michigan football team recorded a sack. And on Saturday, things got worse.
Junior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson will miss the rest of the season and requires surgery to repair a fracture on his leg, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. ESPN reported that Hutchinson will be out for four months.
“He’s worked so hard,” Harbaugh said. “He’s put so much into it and playing really good, but I know he’ll come back stronger, faster, better. Just the way he is. He is so high drive that this is not something that’s gonna be a detriment to his career. And he’s young, he’ll heal fast and like you said, he’ll come back even better and stronger and faster.”
Hutchinson, a team captain and an NFL prospect, was one of the loudest voices in Michigan’s program advocating for a season to be played this year. For a defensive line that was already struggling, it’s hard to quantify what the loss will mean, and it might be exacerbated if Kwity Paye misses extended time.
Paye, another NFL prospect who starts opposite Hutchinson, limped off in the second half of Saturday’s loss to Indiana. He also left the Michigan State game with an injury but returned. Paye and Hutchinson combined for 10 sacks in 2019.
“Obviously when you have Aidan or Kwity, two guys that we really rely on, go down, it’s gonna really affect the game,” junior defensive end Taylor Upshaw said Monday. “But I have confidence in the backups and the guys behind me so it’s just gonna be one of those things, we have to step up.”
Upshaw, who had a tackle for loss against Indiana, is now a de facto starter on the defensive line. The position group has struggled in the last two games, both losses in which the defense assumed much of the blame.
“It’s a huge opportunity for me,” he said. “You guys probably know I haven’t received the playing time that I would’ve wanted, but now it’s a do-or-die situation, so I’m happy I get to showcase my skills to the nation.”
Defensive coordinator Don Brown has built his system around blitzing, pressuring the quarterback and supplementing it with press-man coverage. That hasn’t worked so far this year, in part because of inexperience in the secondary and in part because there hasn’t been pressure. Upshaw added that the line has seen more max protections and chip blocks this year.
When one part of the defense doesn’t go as planned, it’s hard to compensate. When both don’t, you get results like the last two weeks, in which Michigan’s defense gave up 460 and 449 yards to Indiana and Michigan State, respectively.
In years past, the defensive end group has been deep. Last year, for example, Michael Danna and Josh Uche were able to spell Paye and Hutchinson. This year, Brown will need unproven players like Upshaw, Dave Ojabo, Luiji Vilain, Gabe Newburg and Kris Jenkins to step up.
Harbaugh also named defensive tackles Chris Hinton, Jess Speight and Mazi Smith on Monday when asked about the pass rush. “Giving all those guys the opportunity to go and see if we can’t generate more pass rush,” he said.
He repeatedly referred to making tweaks in order to fix the problems that have the Wolverines below .500. When asked for specifics, he mostly demurred, saying it would include giving reps to guys who haven’t played, as well as minor schematic changes.
“Guys like Kris Jenkins and David Ojabo (are) really ready to play and play fast,” Harbaugh said. “Just get in there and give some reps and get the lip quiver a little bit and snot bubble coming out of the nose. Go play aggressive, play hard, free plays and then come out and you’re playing well, get another three (downs).”
If that doesn’t work, it’s hard to see where Michigan can turn next. The defense is at a crisis point after Saturday and just lost one of its best players for the season. And the schedule doesn’t get any easier.
“We have to get back there,” Upshaw said. “At the end of the day it’s on us. If we’re not producing we have to improve.”
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