Before the Michigan football team’s season opener against Hawaii on Saturday, Channing Stribling asked Jourdan Lewis if he was OK, and Lewis said yes.
But Lewis had been battling an injury in practice leading up to the game, and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh wanted to make sure he didn’t rush him back. So Harbaugh sat his All-American cornerback as a precaution, and his defense still delivered an electric performance.
“We made sure this season,” said senior defensive back Channing Stribling, “that even though somebody goes down, we gotta make sure that we keep it going.”
Last year, the Wolverines were dominant in several games, but most of them came when the defense was at full strength and playing its best football of the season. When defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow injured his pectoral Nov. 7, and other injuries such as defensive end Mario Ojemudia’s Achilles began to take their toll, the unit faded.
Not Saturday. Despite not learning of Lewis’ absence until just before game time and not practicing without him all week, Michigan stifled Hawaii for the duration of the afternoon.
The Wolverines allowed just 232 total yards, forced six punts and made four sacks. They returned two interceptions for touchdowns for the first time since the 1999 Citrus Bowl.
As it did last year, the defense’s pressure best showed in its effect on the opposing offense. In the first half especially, the Rainbow Warriors rushed throws, struggled with blocks and faced jarring hits. Michigan kicked off to start the game and didn’t allow Hawaii so much as a positive play until its third series, a first down until its seventh or a point until its 10th.
“(Defensive coordinator Don Brown) talked to the D-line (and) said, ‘We’re gonna bring a lot of pressure early, making sure that this quarterback is rattled,’ and he got rattled,” Stribling said. “Just kept it going for the whole game.”
But before long, the defense suffered even more attrition. Senior end Taco Charlton and redshirt sophomore tackle Bryan Mone, two starting linemen, each went down in the second quarter and did not return. Reserve defensive tackle Maurice Hurst sat out the game for the same reason Lewis did.
Still, the Wolverines managed to rotate eight defensive linemen with their first team. Still, the secondary locked down on Hawaii’s passing game.
“Watching our defense go through the first half and even into the third quarter, there wasn’t a mistake made,” Harbaugh said. “There wasn’t an alignment mistake made. … It was very impressive. Everybody knew exactly what they were doing.”
Hawaii — which lost to California in Sydney last weekend and then traveled halfway across the world to Ann Arbor with a stop at home in between — found no relief.
A Michigan interception gave the Rainbow Warriors good field position, and they moved backward. A long ensuing drive gave them some rest, and they went three-and-out again. Mone and Charlton left the game, and the Wolverines had replacements for them. Then came the second string, and Michigan just kept firing fresh bullets from the sideline. And so on, and so on.
“The D-line’s gonna do their job, the linebackers are gonna do their job and in the back end … we make their job better, and then they make our job better,” Stribling said. “So a lot of pressure equals a lot more turnovers; a lot more turnovers equal a lot more pressure.”
Stribling had one of the pick-sixes, atoning for a missed interception earlier and recovering from another that was called back for a penalty elsewhere.
Even without Lewis, the Wolverines started Stribling and three other seniors (Delano Hill, Dymonte Thomas and Jeremy Clark) in the secondary. Lewis’ return will give them a fifth.
And Harbaugh expects the All-American back at full strength next week, when he can provide one thing Stribling said Michigan lacked.
“I think what was missing was the trash talk,” Stribling said with a smirk. “That was missing. (Clark) kind of made up for it, but when (Lewis) makes a play, you hear him.”
The All-American not completely replaceable? Go figure.