LINCOLN — Everybody loves a big man interception — especially the No. 2 Michigan football team.
In what’s becoming a trend for the defensive line, the Wolverines earned a highlight-reel interception as sophomore defensive lineman Kenneth Grant snatched up a tipped pass. Similar to the pick by senior defensive lineman Kris Jenkins against Bowling Green two weeks ago, Grant wanted to return the ball but was tackled by a slew of opponents.
“I heard the ball get tipped, but I didn’t know where it was,” Grant said. “And then I turned around and looked at (senior defensive end Jaylen Harrell). He’s looking up in the air. I was like, ‘What is he looking at?’ I just looked up and I was like, ‘Oh, I gotta go get that.’ ”
As much as that lone play shows the talent of Michigan’s defensive line, the unit’s success shined in other facets of the game in a 45-7 blowout. Not only did the unit force an energy-sapping turnover, but it executed the Wolverines’ defensive pillars to shut down Nebraska’s highly-touted run game.
Since August, the Wolverines have thumped the four pillars of their defense like scripture. The four are block destruction, ball disruption, obnoxious communication and shocking effort.
For Grant, his interception embodies the latter, but it wouldn’t have been possible without a well-timed tip by senior defensive end Braiden McGregor, who learned of quarterback Heinrich Haarberg’s low passing angle this week and wanted to exploit it. And Grant wouldn’t have known where the ball was without forewarning from Harrell.
Those seamless actions utilized the ball disruption and communication tenets to a silencing effect. As Grant cradled his pick to the ground amid an onslaught of hard-hitting opponents, the energy inside Memorial Stadium dampened less than seven minutes into the game. The Wolverines effectively silenced the crowd, reducing Nebraska’s home field advantage to a minimal impact.
But one play didn’t win Michigan this game. The win stemmed from the way it smothered the Cornhuskers’ run game — a unit ranked sixth in the nation with 234.8 yards average entering the contest. Outside of a couple of quarterback scrambles from Haarberg and a 74-yard touchdown run scored against Michigan’s deep bench, the Wolverines stopped most runs within four yards. That includes 10 rushes of less than three yards.
There, the Wolverines executed their pillars too. Pointing and yelling, they planned defensive stops and blew up their blockers. On run plays, multiple defensive linemen and edge rushers got to the ball carrier with quickness.
“We pride ourselves on stopping the run,” McGregor said. “So (us) going out there to be able to do that is something big for us. And like Blake (Corum) said, we want to be the bullies out there. We want to be the guys that hold the run wall on the defense and run the ball on any down as an offensive line.”
That culture begins in practice, where specific drills hone the toolkits used to create such impact plays. One includes a tip drill, where defensive linemen rotate between practicing batting the ball up front and fielding high-arcing tips. Grant said that made his interception feel natural — even though it was his first in-game pick since his freshman year of high school.
As much as Grant’s interception highlights a banner day for the defensive line, Michigan can also point to its assertive performance stopping the run. Picks might be flashy, but its overall effort turned what was once the Big Ten’s best rushing offense into a shell of its former self. Outside of that big 74-yard run, the Cornhuskers averaged a dismal 1.6 yards per carry.
“Pretty dynamic running game that Nebraska has, especially with their quarterback,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “And I thought we defended those phases of the game really well. But just in terms of guys’ focus … I have to give the fellas an A-plus.”
Tougher opponents might not allow such a dominant shutdown, but the Wolverines also did this shorthanded. Sophomore defensive lineman Mason Graham, a known run-swallower, sat out with an injury against Nebraska. Yet, four other players in the rotation prevented the Cornhuskers from establishing a consistent run game.
If the Wolverines execute their pillars like Saturday’s outing — from Grant’s pick to its larger body of work — then these sorts of performances might become a pillar themselves.