MADISON — For the Michigan football team’s defense, the annual conference crossover against Wisconsin delivered nothing but pain in 2019 and 2020.
Over the last two years, the Wolverines have surrendered a combined 84 points on a staggering 700 rushing yards. Breakdowns, miscommunications and physical mismatches gave the Badgers everything they needed to run Michigan into the ground, both literally and figuratively.
But on Saturday, the 14th-ranked Wolverines (5-0 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) flipped the script. Michigan’s defense held Wisconsin (1-3, 0-2) to just 210 yards of total offense and forced a pair of turnovers in a 38-17 blowout win, the Wolverines’ first in Madison since 2001.
“It’s relentless effort and trust in what (defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald) calls,” junior edge David Ojabo said. “He’s a genius, we know. We trust whatever he calls so we just go out there and execute. We did that to a T and you see what happens.”
Saturday’s dominance was a reflection of Macdonald, a rookie play-caller and ex-NFL defensive staffer, as much as it was of Michigan’s defense. And as the season progresses, the two are becoming increasingly synonymous.
The Wolverines’ preparation made a big difference from the opening kickoff, as they forced the Badgers into four straight three-and-outs to open the game. And even once their offense got going, Michigan remained unfazed. Macdonald began dialing up pressure, relying on the Wolverines’ defensive tackles to eat space up the middle as pass-rushers blitzed behind.
Edge rushers, outside linebackers and even defensive backs heard their numbers called, and it resulted in six different Michigan players earning credit for a sack. Ojabo, the only Wolverine to record multiple sacks, led the way with 2.5. Senior edge Aidan Hutchinson didn’t record any despite entering the afternoon tied for the nation lead, though he commanded his fair share of double-teams from the Badgers’ offensive line.
“Everybody knows what Aidan’s about, so it’s on us to step up and help him out, but ultimately help the team,” Ojabo said. “It feels good to finally contribute to smacking the quarterback.”
Added Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh: “The intensity of the blitzes were outstanding. It was great to see us getting that kind of pressure throughout the game.”
The biggest sack of the game came when junior safety Dax Hill, charging from the secondary with a full head of steam, rocked Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz in the midsection at the beginning of the second half. The hit knocked Mertz out of the game for good and sparked a dominant second half from Hill, who also recorded a pass breakup, interception and quarterback hurry to go along with six tackles.
During the winter, Hill was forced to learn the art of blitzing quickly. He spent his first two years in Ann Arbor playing safety, but after moving to nickel corner this past offseason, he’s been asked to pressure the quarterback as part of certain blitz designs. Macdonald doesn’t hesitate to bring him off the edge, and on Saturday, it helped keep the Badgers off-guard.
“That’s something entirely new for me,” Hill said of blitzing. “Whenever I get that call, I’m getting excited. I just go out there and try to make an impact, whether it’s blitzing or covering or whatever else it is with my teammates. We did a very good job play-calling and executing today.”
Michigan’s defensive success across the board stood out. Defensive linemen made themselves at home in the backfield, linebackers flew around and defensive backs made key plays in coverage. It was a far cry from not just the Wolverines’ last two meetings against Wisconsin, but their last two decades at Camp Randall Stadium.
From a big picture standpoint, it all traces back to one man: a 34-year-old calling shots for the first time.
“(Macdonald) is just a smart guy,” Hill said. “I feel like he puts us in the best situations. … He knew what we needed to do, what calls needed to be made. I feel like he knows what offenses are going to do.”