As Rutgers running back Kyle Monangai scampered for an explosive 25-yard gain early in the first quarter, the No. 2 Michigan football team saw a flag in the backfield and heaved a sigh of relief.
Instead of a fresh set of downs and an opportunity to build on their early run game success, the Scarlet Knights’ second drive took a hit, sending it back into a third-and-nine. On the ensuing play, Monangai’s three yard loss resulted in a 28 yard swing and breathed new life into the Wolverines’ run defense.
And as Michigan’s defense caught a gasp of fresh air, Rutgers’ running game couldn’t catch its breath for the rest of the contest.
“You can’t run the ball on us,” junior linebacker junior Colson. “(It) doesn’t matter … they’re smash mouth, trying to run the ball. So that was our mentality, you can’t run the ball. You got to throw it over our heads.”
It’s a defensive mentality that produced a noticeable final statline, as Michigan’s front seven iced out a scarlet-hot running game.
“77 yards on the ground on 23 carries, that’s a run wall — that’s big boy football,” Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Those “big boys” had to show up early and often, because limiting the Scarlet Knights’ potent rushing attack is no mean feat. Led by Monangai and the wheels of quarterback Gavin Wimsatt, the group sprinted into Ann Arbor, with Monangai and Wimsatt rushing for 357 and 144 yards respectively on the season.
To complicate matters further, one of Michigan’s “gifts from the football gods” and sophomore defensive lineman, Mason Graham, was sidelined to injury. Often branded as a staunch run-stopper, replacing Graham came at a premium. Nevertheless, the onus of stopping the run game fell on the front seven unit as a whole — and they delivered for the full 60 minutes.
Time and again, the Wolverines left Rutgers with little breathing room. When the dust settled, the Scarlet Knights finished with just six runs that eclipsed four yards.
“Tremendous run wall — have we talked about that?” Harbaugh asked.
He had, was reminded of it, and proceeded to talk about it again anyway in his press conference.
“(Junior) Rayshaun Benny really stepped up today, and (senior) Kris Jenkins, he’s always the difference maker in there. And the edge guys, every single one of them played well and made a big contribution in the game. And the linebackers are playing extremely well.”
Harbaugh probably could’ve kept on talking about it. A concoction of depth, the front seven of the “no-star defense” combined for 25 tackles and two tackles for loss. As Colson emphasized stopping the run to force the pass, the Scarlet Knights actually saw their biggest running plays come from out of the pocket.
Of Rutgers’ three rushing plays totaling more than 10 yards, its longest came from a scrambling Wimsatt, who opted to use his legs on a passing play to avoid oncoming pressure. Scrambling for 15 yards, Wimsatt’s play ended with a cacophony of crashing Wolverines as the defensive line pushed him into the sharp jaws of the second level.
Wimsatt finished with 28 rushing yards on the day. Yards which often came from necessity, not design, for a quarterback who came into Saturday’s contest averaging 50 ground yards per game. With their running backs stuffed at the line of scrimmage by a staunch defensive line, and their quarterback forced to scramble into oncoming linebackers, the Scarlet Knights had their hands tied tight.
“There can’t be two smash mouths,” Colson said. “We were the first one, so we had to go out there and dominate them up front, dominate them in the back end and you just got to show him who’s boss.”
With the return of Big Ten competition, so too has the Wolverines’ run-based identity — on offense and defense. In terms of “smash-mouth” football, Michigan has become an all-star.
Colson and co. did just that, slowing Rutgers’ thundering into Ann Arbor from a sprint, to a skid and then finally a full blown stop.