This defense has no business claiming responsibility for Saturday’s outcome. And yet, it is anyway.
Senior linebacker Mike McCray did so in the immediate aftermath of Michigan’s 14-10 loss to Michigan State. Sophomore cornerback David Long followed suit Monday afternoon.
“We left some plays out there on the field that could have changed the game,” he said. “I’m right there with Mike. I think we definitely could have helped.”
But then, of course, there is this fact: the Spartans recorded only one first down in the second half of Saturday’s contest. It’s hard to ask for much more, especially given who Michigan’s defense was facing.
While Long was quick to say Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke was no different than any other quarterback the Wolverines have faced this year, that isn’t necessarily the case. In Lewerke — who leads the Spartans with 342 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns while still boasting an average of 211 passing yards per game — the Wolverines encountered the most dangerous dual-threat quarterback they have faced all year.
And Michigan’s secondary rose to that challenge, finally legitimizing its rank as the second-best passing defense in the nation despite a lineup that featured new faces across the board entering the year. The Wolverines are allowing just 126 yards per game through the air, trailing only Air Force, and they held Lewerke below that average.
The secondary notched four pass breakups, one from sophomore safety Josh Metellus and another three from sophomore cornerback Lavert Hill. Metellus credited Hill’s dedication to his technique as the main source of his consistent success this season, calling it “just something you’re born with.”
“Lavert, he takes pride in his technique,” Metellus said. “He doesn’t like being on the short end of the stick. Lavert, he just plays his heart out every play, makes sure that nobody can catch a ball on him. And if they do, he comes back the next play trying even harder.”
On Saturday night, that is exactly what the unit as a whole did. Michigan State scored two touchdowns in the first half. It mustered just 66 yards in the second.
And yet, the Wolverines lost anyway.
Through four games, the 17th-ranked Wolverines got away with making mistakes. In reality, they were just delaying the inevitable. Against Michigan State, though, there was no more delaying it — their five turnovers had drastic consequences.
For Metellus, those consequences materialized in the immediate aftermath of Saturday night.
He admitted he was emotional. He confessed it “just really hurt to see all my brothers with their heads held down.” And more than anything, the image of the Michigan fans that remained in the stadium was implanted in his mind.
“Everybody in the crowd, they looked at us like they was kind of disappointed,” he said. “So you know, that just hurt. I just don’t like having somebody else having a better hand (than) me, having a one up on me.”
But the Spartans did, and Saturday’s outcome left Metellus admitting Monday afternoon that these Wolverines hadn’t faced adversity before. He’s not wrong.
Now, Michigan has a tally in the loss column, staring down the road at a season that will likely require an undefeated run for the Wolverines to have any hopes of playing for the Big Ten Championship. And it remains to be seen what impact Saturday night’s loss could have.
“I think this is gonna bring us more together as a team,” Metellus said. “… Everything’s been going pretty smooth for us so, you know, I feel like this is a big test. What we had planned for the season, I feel like this is gonna bring us all together, bring us to our full potential.”
That potential remains to be seen. On the offensive side, Michigan’s identity remains a mystery — even more so now that fifth-year senior John O’Korn is the quarterback. As for the opposite side of the ball, there’s almost no doubt about where this defense stands.
From Chase Winovich to Devin Bush Jr., and everywhere in between, this defense speaks with an uninhibited confidence in its ability.
“We as a defense, you know, we’re hungry,” Metellus said. “We want to be the ones to win the game. We want to be the ones that everyone can count on.
“We like competing, so we just take it upon ourselves to give everything we got, no matter how hard it is, no matter how tough it is, no matter what the situation is. The defense, we just want to handle things our way.”