In year four of Don Brown running Michigan’s defense, there’s little question as to what he wants his unit to be.
He’s going to play man-to-man. He’s going to blitz. He’s going to tell his team to swarm the ball carrier with abandon. They’re going to do all that, and dare the offense to beat them.
When Brown coached at UMass, UConn and Boston College, the first pages of his playbook carried a parable about the African plains. He’s relayed the story at Michigan, too. Every gazelle knows it must outrun the fastest lion or be killed. Every lion knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve.
And then, in all caps: “WHEN THE SUN COMES UP, YOU BETTER BE RUNNING!”
All this is to say that, as words like “identity” have gotten thrown around the Michigan football team this week, Brown has never had any question as to what he wants his team to be. It’s just a matter of whether they can do it.
On Saturday, without question, they did.
A week after Wisconsin throttled them in Madison, gaining 359 yards on the ground in one of the most resounding losses of Brown’s tenure, his unit held Rutgers to 46 rushing yards, 152 total yards and zero points. It’s Michigan’s first shutout since 2016.
You’d be justified to take that with a grain of salt — a 52-0 win against Rutgers is, ultimately, a win against the Power Five’s perpetual bottom-feeder. It means little in terms of whether the Wolverines can improve when they play a team like Wisconsin again.
But, if nothing else, it provided a pretty good reminder of what Brown’s defenses can be at their best.
“We got back to playing how we play,” said sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone. “How we played last season, the two games before Wisconsin. We just got back to who we were.”
McGrone is one of the bolts on which Michigan’s defense hinges, a reality that was exacerbated on Saturday with Josh Ross sitting due to injury. A four-star prospect, he sat and watched last year. When he got in during the first three games this year, he did little to stand out.
Against Rutgers, he felt like he was in high school again, flying all over the field, hitting the quarterback, viscerally impacting the game. “If he keeps playing like this, he’s gonna be a star,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
For a defense that had played well on paper but had yet to really click, McGrone was one of several puzzle pieces that seemed to fall into place.
A defensive line group that the Badgers manhandled dominated the line of scrimmage behind Kwity Paye and a healthy Mike Dwumfour. Michigan notched two sacks, four quarterback hits and six tackles for loss. It felt like more.
“I felt like our whole D-Line was playing well this week,” Paye said. “We really took it upon us in practice to really dive for the quarterback and make sure we do everything that we can (to get) back there.”
McGrone played sideline-to-sideline and the linebackers played with the energy they sorely lacked in Madison. The secondary shut off whatever options Rutgers quarterback Artur Sitkowski had downfield and freshman safety Daxton Hill, a five-star who was pegged to contribute immediately from the moment he committed, made a tangible impact.
All of this comes with the obvious caveat that it’s what any competent team should do to Rutgers. Call it a result of that, or call it a result of extra motivation stemming from last week. Certainly both explanations have some truth to them, and replicating the performance against Iowa next week is the first real test. But Michigan at least has a blueprint now.
“I feel like our linebackers played well this week,” Paye said. “I feel like our safeties played well and I feel like our D-Line played well. I feel like we were just hungry to just come out here and play. Our main objective was just to shut them out.”