Mike Macdonald has surprised many as Michigan's first-year defensive coordinator.Madeline Hinkley/Daily. Buy this photo.

By any metric, the Michigan football team’s defense is miles ahead of where it was last year. 

This season, the sixth-ranked Wolverines have surrendered just 297.4 yards per game, compared to 434.3 yards last season. In points per game, that difference is even more profound — 16 points in 2021, 34.5 in 2020. The overall quality of first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s unit has been perhaps the greatest surprise in Michigan’s surprisingly successful season. 

But one metric stands out for Macdonald: rushing defense. Statistically, the defense is still far from elite in that regard — opponents’ 124 rushing yards per game rank the Wolverines 27th nationally — but compared to last season, when Michigan gave up 178.8 yards per game on the ground, it’s night and day. 

Still, the defense wants more — especially in the red zone. 

“Our mindset is like, nobody runs on us,” freshman linebacker Junior Colson said. “Nobody runs into the endzone, so that’s always been our mindset. We’ve not always kept it, but that’s been our standard, so we practice it a ton. Just, every week — nobody runs on us. 

“If they want to score, they gotta throw it, or do it in different ways. But nobody runs on us, because that’s just challenging our manhood, as we see it.”

Of course, the “we’ve not always kept it” carries a lot of weight in that quote. Fewer than two weeks ago, Kenneth Walker III put up 197 yards on 23 carries in Michigan State’s 37-33 win over the Wolverines. Keep him contained — or stop any one of his five rushing touchdowns — and the outcome of that game could look very different. 

Still, that mentality has largely been effective for the Wolverines this season. In five of nine games, they’ve held their opponent under 120 rushing yards, and in two, they’ve surrendered fewer than 50. 

To replicate those successes, Macdonald works with his players to develop game-specific goals. Each week, they look at their own principles — that they don’t want teams to run on them in the red zone, for example — and film from the previous game to determine where they were strong and where they can improve. 

“There’s not a lot of stats on there,” Macdonald said. “We kinda just took what would win the Big Ten, what would be the top in the country, so you’re kinda chasing perfection a little bit. So, if you’re hitting those goals, you’re doing a hell of a job.”

From there, it’s about ensuring the team consistently hits those goals. In doing so, one approach Macdonald has taken has been to create competition among his players to make sure no singular  player gets complacent in his job. Thus far, that competition has been most visible at linebacker. Sophomore Nikhai Hill-Green has rotated with Colson for much of the season, and last week against Indiana, senior Michael Barrett played more snaps than he has all year.

And as his players have improved, Macdonald himself has tried to grow, too. Since arriving in Ann Arbor from the Baltimore Ravens organization, Macdonald has worked to adjust to the varied offenses present in the college game. Thus far, the numbers show that he’s doing well. 

But when chasing perfection, there’s always room for improvement. 

“If you’re not learning … then you’re not doing your job,” Macdonald said.