As the Michigan football team mounted its largest comeback in the Jim Harbaugh era Saturday against Northwestern, fans saw a team clawing for its season. They saw an offense do just enough, led by a quarterback who showed guile and resolve.
They also saw a defense show a prolonged glimpse into what the future holds on that side of the ball.
Junior Josh Uche and sophomore Kwity Paye, in particular, asserted themselves in career-best days. Uche and Paye — dubbed as two of the players expected to fill the shoes of fifth-year senior Chase Winovich and junior Rashan Gary — notched two sacks each.
Their contributions proved game-altering against the Wildcats.
“Like I said, talked about it at halftime,” Harbaugh said. “We were being tested, this is time to find out what we’re made of. And our guys really responded.”
Though oft regarded as hard-working players, stubborn about taking even one play off, Gary and Winovich intentionally cede time in practice to get Paye, Uche and others more reps.
“Rashan and Chase, in practice, make sure I get my reps, make sure I know what I’m doing,” Paye said Saturday. “They quiz me sometimes on what I’m doing in those situations.”
The writing is on the wall, with Paye specifically, to ascend into a a more regular role next season. Gary and Winovich know it. Paye does, too.
The sophomore has been operating in practice at both the “end” side and “anchor” side, taking all the reps Winovich and Gary relinquish. It’s made Paye — a natural edge pass-rusher — a more well-rounded defensive end, he says, but remains a challenge nontheless.
“I think (defensive line coach Greg Mattison) knows those guys are getting ready to leave,” Paye said last week. “So I feel like he’s trying to prepare me to try and eventually take over, eventually fill those spots. But as of right now, I’m just trying to contribute.”
But it’s not only about the future.
Given that opportunity to contribute Saturday, with Gary in and out of the lineup due to injury, Uche and Paye made the most of the present, too.
In the fourth quarter, with the defense needing to get off the field on third down, Paye noticed Northwestern quarterback Thorson drifting to his left with the pocket eroding. Showing his athleticism, Paye exploded right at Thorson, finishing with vigor for a 10-yard sack, his second on the day.
Uche, touted as a potential up-and-coming pass-rushing force for years now, seems to finally be emerging into just that. He earned two sacks of his own by dipping his shoulder and sneaking past the tackle, the latter of which ended the game.
As Harbaugh rattled off names of guys who impressed after Saturday’s game, Uche and Paye neared the top of the list multiple times.
“Josh Uche, some of those speed rushes he had on the edge were huge,” he said. … “And also Kwity Paye, thought he really stepped up.”
Then again later.
“Kwity Paye, also showed up, as I said, Josh Uche,” he said again. “Two of those speed rushes went fast and powerful.”
When Harbaugh mentions a player off-hand, that alone merits note. He, along with Mattison, will undoubtedly be finding more ways to get the duo on the field. Perhaps that means sliding Gary inside on some downs. Maybe it means resting the banged-up Gary in lower-leverage spots. It could just mean a more frequent rotation in general.
These are good problems to have.
That these questions even need to be asked speaks well to the depth up front, and the future of the defense. And it wasn’t restricted to Paye or Uche. Freshman Aidan Hutchinson continues to demand playing time on the defensive line. Sophomore defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour played his best game in a Michigan uniform. Sophomore linebacker Josh Ross made several key plays, including a thumping pass-breakup on a third down in the second half. The list could go on.
Saturday’s game will be remembered in several ways. A late comeback on the road. A quarterback finding a way. A game that was closer than it should’ve been.
But perhaps the most lasting memory? The emergence of the next generation of Michigan’s defense.