The chant began in the final minute of No. 18 Michigan’s win against No. 13 Northwestern on Saturday. The two syllables boomed throughout the Big House, echoing around the stadium long after Jehu Chesson’s game-opening touchdown, long after the outcome had been decided.
Wolverine fans had watched their team dominate the Wildcats for the better part of three hours and seven minutes, and they decided to leave Michigan’s defense with a parting gift. “DE-FENSE!” they yelled. The team, in turn, showed its appreciation by motioning for the fans to be louder.
The defense was unrelenting in Michigan’s 38-0 undressing of Northwestern, just as it has been for much of this season. The Wolverines posted their third consecutive shutout, marking the first time a Michigan defense had accomplished that feat since 1980.
The Wolverines sacked Wildcat quarterbacks four times in the victory and allowed just 168 total yards. Junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis returned an interception for a touchdown in the second quarter, ripping the ball from the clutches of Northwestern wide receiver Mike McHugh, and the Wildcats never sniffed the red zone.
The string of nearly unprecedented success does not faze or surprise Michigan’s defenders. They had been bullied and brushed aside at times in the past, before Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin came to town, but those days are no more. The unusual has become routine. Michigan became the first Football Bowl Subdivision team to record three consecutive shutouts since 1995, according to STATS.
“It’s expected,” said redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers. “We have to be great. That’s the standard around here.”
Standards aside, the degree to which the Wolverines (2-0 Big Ten, 5-1 overall) dismantled their foe was unexpected. Northwestern (1-1, 5-1) entered the game as an undefeated opponent with the country’s stingiest scoring defense, surrendering seven points per game.
But it was clear almost immediately that those statistics were irrelevant. Chesson, a redshirt junior wide receiver, returned the game’s opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. Michigan’s sideline erupted.
Earlier this week, Northwestern’s coaches indicated they did not plan to kick to Peppers, who lined up to receive the kick opposite of Chesson. Sending the ball to Chesson, of course, did not yield better results.
“Big mistake,” Peppers said with a laugh.
Michigan seized the momentum and maintained it. The Wolverines scored again with 10:20 remaining in the first quarter, the offense gliding down the field on a seven-play, 59-yard drive. Redshirt junior running back Drake Johnson capped it with a one-yard touchdown.
Michigan did not allow the Wildcats to put up much of a fight.
“The fellas really came out balling from the start,” Harbaugh said.
The balling never really stopped for the Wolverines. Michigan tacked on another score with 2:35 remaining in the first quarter, when fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock scrambled for a two-yard run into the end zone.
The Wolverines’ defense even got involved in the scoring. Lewis picked off Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson with 3:20 remaining in the half and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown. After the play, Durkin chest bumped the nearest person on the sideline.
By the end of the game, his unit extended its scoreless streak to 12 quarters. The Wolverines’ offensive players were familiar with what the Wildcats were going through.
“Going against them every day in practice is kind of stressful sometimes,” said junior running back De’Veon Smith.
Any stress for Michigan during Saturday’s game was limited. The Wolverines did not turn the ball over, and mistakes were few and far between. One of the few causes for concern came in the third quarter, when senior linebacker James Ross III was ejected from the game for targeting after he led with his helmet. He will miss the first half of next week’s game against No. 4 Michigan State.
Harbaugh, though, wasn’t too worried about the looming matchup against the Spartans. He noted that it will be a tough game but said preparation will be no different than it is any other week.
His team will be hard-pressed to match Saturday’s performance. Michigan did not relent even in the game’s waning moments, scoring its fifth and final touchdown with 2:14 remaining.
Michigan has outscored its opponents, 160-14, in its last five games. Wolverine fans have not yet witnessed Harbaugh lose a game at home as the Wolverines’ coach. The coach was pleased with how physical his team was, particularly without getting injured.
“It’s a good sign, that you’re building a good callus,” Harbaugh said. “Play physical and not get beat up yourself. That’s a good gauge, probably the best gauge that the team is, the callus is hardening. Like a callus on a foot, it’s not soft and pus-y.”