The No. 4 Michigan football team spent much of its bye week ruminating on last year’s crushing loss to Michigan State, an epic collapse in which the Wolverines blew a 16-point third-quarter lead.
A year later, as another chapter in the bitter in-state rivalry nears, the pain of that loss lingers and the wound is not yet healed. Of all the position groups, that holds most true for the defensive line.
Led by standout running back Kenneth Walker, the Spartans gashed Michigan’s defensive front; Walker racked up a whopping 197 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 8.6 yards per carry.
The Wolverines didn’t have an answer for Michigan State’s fast-paced offense, either. Using tempo, the Spartans wreaked havoc on Michigan’s defense and its substitutions, prompting an array of penalties and missed assignments.
This year, the defensive line has its sights set on revenge.
“Last year, we had a hard time on some plays stopping the run against Kenneth Walker, but this year we’ll be ready,” junior edge rusher Jaylen Harrell said Monday. “We’re ready to build a wall and just do our job, play together as a defense and be dominant.”
Harrell noted that the unit took advantage of its well-timed bye week, “fine-tuning fundamentals of the pass rush” while also stressing certain elements of the run defense. That latter emphasis is purposeful.
“Stopping the run is key in every game, especially in a conference like the Big Ten,” senior defensive tackle Mazi Smith said. “When a team keeps a balanced rushing attack, they’re usually able to keep the defense on their toes and surprise the defense with certain plays. Last year, (Michigan State) did a great job of that. They had a special back. It’s always important to stop the run. Just like any game, if we don’t stop the run in this game, it ain’t gonna be good.”
The effort to stop the run begins with swarming the ball, according to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. To emphasize this, the coaching staff implemented a “get to” coach, a riff off the traditional “get back” coach who is responsible for telling coaches and players to get back from the sideline. In that vein, the “get to” coach ensures that multiple — if not all — defensive players get to the ball.
“Let’s get to the ball,” Harbaugh said. “Can we get five guys, can we get six, can we get seven or eight? Probably not gonna be able to get ten or eleven because somebody’s really far away or playing the backside of the play.
“But I think that’s the pursuit, that’s what takes your defense from being a really good defense to being a dominant defense. Getting as many guys pursuing the football. That’s where a lot of those turnovers will come from and big plays. That’s been a focus, trying to take us to another level defensively.”
How important is this initiative? Well, it starts at the top — Harbaugh is the “get to” coach.
“I’ve enlisted some others, too, some fellow “get to” coaches,” Harbaugh said with a smile, laughing.
So far, that effort has paid dividends. A unit that began the season as a question mark has quickly evolved into the linchpin of the defense. Smith and junior defensive lineman Kris Jenkins combine for a staunch interior. Senior Mike Morris is suddenly a top-tier edge rusher, while Harrell and others have produced on the opposite end.
That success, though, would dissipate with a setback against the Spartans. Unlike last season’s rendition of the rivalry, Michigan State is laboring; so is its rushing attack following Walker’s departure to the NFL. The Spartans average just 106.1 rushing yards per game, 12th in the Big Ten. If they are able to replicate last year’s performance, it would be particularly disconcerting for the Wolverines’ defensive line.
That’s why this week’s efforts are concerted. Beyond swarming the ball, Michigan watched film to focus on the up-tempo offense that contributed to last season’s collapse. Last year, the Wolverines failed to make the requisite in-game adjustments to counter the pace. This year, they have a chance to make amends.
“We’re going to be ready for that,” Harrell said in reference to the tempo. “We’ve been practicing that. When it comes to substitutions, we know certain situations we can’t substitute. So we’ll be ready for the tempo.”
The early season success breeds confidence, too.
“We’re a ferocious defensive line,” Harrell said. “We just have a little edge to us.”
Saturday is the ultimate proving ground.