When Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was asked Monday how his defense could improve, he was stumped. Harbaugh leads his team with the mantra of improving every single day, but it’s hard to imagine how the defense could get much better.
“I mean, that’s a great question,” Harbaugh said. “They’re playing so good. We just really have to give them a pat on the back right now, but it’s not time to take a victory lap. Just to keep going at the same relentless, intense pace that they’ve had and approach that they’ve had to every game, because we’re a little over the halfway point. You don’t want to take a victory lap, but you do have to recognize that this defense is playing great football.”
The second-ranked Wolverines have allowed the fewest total yards in the nation while ranking first in passing defense and fourth in rushing defense.
The latter irritates fifth-year senior defensive end Chris Wormley.
“When you look at the different categories, we’re (ranked No. 1) in a lot of them, but we want to be (No. 1) in all of them. I think we’re third in like rushing defense, which kind of pisses us off, but at the end of the day, if we get wins, we’re pretty happy.”
This week, Michigan will travel to East Lansing to take on a Spartan squad that has lost its past five games. Michigan prides itself on preparing for each game the same way, and this week will be no different for the defense.
The unit generally looks at the opponents’ big plays that can cause a swing in a game when looking for areas of improvement, and after Michigan State beat the Wolverines on an infamous game-ending play last season, Michigan is unlikely to overlook the details.
After last week's game, when the Wolverines routed Illinois 41-8, the Fighting Illini’s fourth-quarter 43-yard touchdown pass has been a point of focus.
“I guess when you look at the film and you see what you can do better, you look at the big plays first,” Wormley said. “You look at when they scored, and you see what we can do as a defense better than what we did on that play.
“But at the end of the day, like you said, it’s hard to find things when we’re doing so well, but like I said, there’s always things to get better on.”
The Wolverines have allowed just 70 points this season, the fewest of any team in the nation. Part of that can be attributed to the defense’s overall age. Of the 11 starters on defense, nine are seniors.
Fellow senior Jake Butt isn’t surprised by just how prolific the defense has been because he has seen its work ethic and development throughout the last four years. The tight end has known for months how good they would be.
“I’m not dazzled, because I knew how talented they were,” Butt said. “I’m confident saying they work as hard, if not harder, than anyone in the country. That started with this summer and through this summer preparation. Those D-line guys have had that mentality for as long as I’ve been here. I’d say that they’re the hardest working group on the team and it shows in how they play.”