PISCATAWAY — Jourdan Lewis handed his towel to a fan in the front row. Jabrill Peppers started playing around with a football on the sideline. Channing Stribling took off his jersey, then his warmup shirt, then the wrap around his shoulder.
Michigan’s first-team defense’s night was done, and the unit had done its job better than it ever had before.
The numbers were again staggering, the effect again obvious, the opponent again depleted. But this game was different. This time, against Rutgers, the Michigan football team’s defense reached its own nearly implausible standard.
Last year, as the Wolverines strung together consecutive shutouts of Brigham Young, Maryland and Northwestern, they vowed to play even better. They said they would not be satisfied until the opponent did not gain a single yard or first down.
Those outside the program downplayed the goal — surely, such a statistical anomaly wasn’t possible. And yet Michigan found a way on Saturday to shatter those lofty expectations. The first-team defense exited after the first series of the third quarter having given up minus-10 total yards and no first downs.
“That’s what we expect to happen when you’re on a defense like we are,” said senior linebacker Ben Gedeon. “We want to execute every single play, and we know if we execute, they shouldn’t score a point.”
The dominance in the numbers went even further. When the first team defense came out — after a sack by senior end Taco Charlton sent Rutgers to its 10th three-and-out — the Scarlet Knights were 1-for-12 passing. They went through two quarterbacks, as Michigan’s opponents often do. They exhausted all of their options, to no avail.
But all of those results were familiar. The difference Saturday was Michigan’s completeness. Each of the 11 series the first team played lasted three plays. A week after No. 2 Ohio State blanked Rutgers, 58-0, forcing a punt on every drive that didn’t finish a half, the Wolverines allowed the Scarlet Knights even less.
They locked down every part of the field. They pressured Rutgers starting quarterback Chris Laviano into a third-down incomplete pass on the first series. They sacked him on the second. Lewis blanketed a receiver to half the next drive.
On the sequence went, Michigan stifling everything the Scarlet Knights tried. Charlton had two of the Wolverines’ four sacks. Thirteen different players combined for 13 tackles for loss.
“It was constant pressure,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Our front, I think that’s the spine of the team is that front. … They were fast. Our whole team was really fast tonight.”
Gedeon said as a linebacker, the statistic he focuses on most is rushing yards, of which the starting defense gave up minus-16. Rutgers’ passing game did not fare much better, finishing 2-for-18 with five yards. Neither of the completed passes traveled past the line of scrimmage.
And while the Scarlet Knights managed to reach 39 total yards and two first downs while playing against Michigan’s second-team defense in the second half, they still failed on all 17 of their third downs. By the time the starters forced their last punt, they had taken care of their business. The score was 43-0.
As difficult as it was to find fault with Michigan’s dominance last year, it will be even harder with this performance. The Wolverines cannot give up fewer than zero first downs and can hardly limit an opponent to fewer than minus-10 total yards. They can, however, turn in those performances more regularly, a frightening thought for the rest of the teams on their schedule.
“I mean, this set the bar, but now we keep trying to improve,” Charlton said. “If we’re trying to go out there and be the best defense in the country, it can’t stop with just Rutgers. We gotta go into the next week, improve on this bye week, and once we go onto Illinois, we keep on improving — show the country what we’re really made of.”
That effort, Charlton said, started in the summer, when the Wolverines knew the depth they had coming back and what they could do with it. Charlton insisted Michigan didn’t realize the extent of its dominance during the game Saturday.
Most everyone else did.
“The offense knew,” said redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight. “We just love watching.”