Michigan's run defense, which has dramatically improved from the year prior, was on full display against Ohio State. Allison Engkvist/Daily. Buy this photo.

With a one-point lead on the first drive of the second half, the Michigan football team’s defense had a chance to get off the field. 

Ohio State had opened the half with two runs that set up a 3rd-and-2 at its own 33. A conversion would extend the drive and give a boost to an offense that struggled to start the game. A stop would derail that effort and blow the cap off an already electric Michigan Stadium. 

In that moment, Josh Ross stepped up. By the time Buckeyes running back TreVeyon Henderson took the handoff, the fifth-year linebacker had already blasted through the hole and was waiting to drag Henderson down. Four plays later, the Wolverines extended their lead to eight — a margin it would never shrink beyond.

That stop wasn’t Ross’s only big stop of the day, either. In Michigan’s 42-27 upset of Ohio State on Saturday, Ross’s four solo and two assisted tackles spearheaded a run defense that surrendered just 64 yards on the ground, far below the Buckeyes’ season average of 186.4 rushing yards per game. 

“I’m so proud of Josh,” Michigan defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said on the Inside Michigan Football radio show Monday. “He’s been battling all year. He probably played his best game (Saturday). He’s flying all over the place, smacking people, pressing blocks — wasn’t blocked once, I don’t think. Such control of what we’re asking him to do.”

That balancing act is key, because he’s been asked to do a lot. Throughout the season, Ross has anchored Macdonald’s system at MIKE linebacker, tasked with everything from filling gaps in the run game, to occupying a short zone in pass coverage, to spying mobile quarterbacks out of the pocket. 

But on Saturday especially, that job was made easier by defensive linemen taking care of their own jobs. All season, Macdonald has asked his tackles to take a “gap-and-a-half” approach — meaning they’re responsible for plugging their own gap and half of the next one over. 

Look at that third down stop again. Junior defensive tackle Mazi Smith (lined up across from No. 53 on Ohio State) was just as important to this play as Ross. The center is trying hard to get to Ross — you can see his right arm extend just as Ross hits the hole — but Smith is strong enough to keep him out of the gap and leave enough space for Ross to make the tackle. That’s not just one smart play; it’s the same disciplined, unselfish defense that the Wolverines have played all season.

“I think, to play D-line well, it’s all about your backbone,” Smith said. “It’s all about how much will you have, because you get in a fight every play. The more you play the game, the more you do it right, the less you’re willing to surrender because of somebody getting in your way.”

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about Michigan’s front seven without mentioning senior edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson. It’s already hard enough to run with the Wolverines’ tackles plugging holes. It’s damn near impossible when running to one side means going straight at a borderline Heisman contender. The alternative, junior edge rusher David Ojabo, isn’t a much better option. 

“I felt (Hutchinson) out there the whole game,” Macdonald said on the radio show. “He affects every play. If it’s run to him, he sets the edge in a violent manner, and he probably makes the play. If it’s run away, well if that thing cuts back, he’s probably making it. And every pass play, they have to account for him, because he’s gonna win. … I don’t see how he’s not the best player in the country.”

Across the board, Michigan’s run defense has taken massive strides since 2020. It’s evident both in Saturday’s performance and in the team’s success throughout the year. This season, the Wolverines have ceded just 122.5 rushing yards per game, a far cry from the 178.8 yard average it posted last year.

In the biggest game of the season, that front seven stepped up. Even so, Smith was hardly impressed:

“It’s what we aim to do every game. When it happens, it’s what you’re supposed to do.”