Michigan faces first bout of adversity
When greeted with adversity for the first time in the 2021 season, the Michigan football team emerged unscathed.
For three weeks, the Wolverines coasted to comfortable victories by double-digit margins. Neither Western Michigan, Washington nor Northern Illinois proved capable of slowing down their potent rushing attack.
That feel-good success came to a screeching halt Saturday against Rutgers. And yet, in spite of a furious comeback attempt by the Scarlet Knights, Michigan proved victorious.
Whereas the Wolverines simply collapsed in similar situations last season, 2021 is thus far telling a different story.
“I think as a team, we didn’t flinch at all,” sophomore linebacker Nikhai Hill-Green said. “Offense, they know they’re going to clean their stuff up, but I feel they didn’t flinch, they did what they could do, and we did what we could do. We didn’t flinch at all and we got the win.”
Junior defensive tackle Chris Hinton maintained that the team remained poised and positive on the sidelines, even amid the persistent struggles. It’s a mentality that first formed during spring ball.
“We just preached through the offseason, keep grinding through whatever, don’t flinch,” Hinton said. “Take the punches and respond when we need to.”
Games like Michigan’s contest with Rutgers could serve as a launching pad moving forward. The success, particularly in contrast to last season’s failures, also points to the refined culture that the Wolverines constructed over the offseason.
“Every game’s not going to be sunshine and rainbows,” Hinton said. “We just have to stay stout in tough times.”
Ross injury forces others to step up
Through the first half, Michigan’s defense held Rutgers’s offense in check, allowing only a field goal. Fifth-year linebacker Josh Ross was integral to that effort, contributing six tackles, including two tackles for a loss.
But Ross left the game late in the second quarter with a “stinger” injury and did not return. In his absence, the Wolverines’ defense proved increasingly vulnerable, allowing a series of prolonged drives and turning a blowout into a nail biter.
With Ross sidelined, freshman linebacker Junior Colson played alongside sophomore linebacker Nikhai Hill-Green, while sophomore linebacker Kalel Mullings also saw an increase in playing time. Colson racked up six tackles, while Mullings recorded five. Hill-Green, meanwhile, notched eight tackles and keyed a series of late-game stops that squashed a late Rutgers comeback.
“We practice situations like that all the time in practice,” Hill-Green said after the game, noting that Michigan had prepared for a similar scenario. “When your number’s called, you’re ready and do your job and step up to the plate. That’s what Junior Colson did; that’s when Kalel Mullings did. I’m super proud of those guys.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said following the game that Ross is “going to be okay,” mentioning that he didn’t regain the requisite strength to be cleared following the injury. While it appears the injury isn’t serious, losing Ross for an extended stretch of time would be a sizable blow for the Wolverines’ defense.
Offensive shortcomings hamper defense
The ineptitude of Michigan’s offense on Saturday triggered a two-pronged effect. Four consecutive three-and-outs to begin the second half wore down a nicked-up Wolverine defense, subsequently fueling a Rutgers offense that had previously been listless.
After the game, Harbaugh conceded that fatigue had influenced the unit’s performance.
“I think that’s part of it,” Harbaugh said. “That many three-and-outs, that’s gonna be a factor. Those kinds of things stacked up against them. (They were) on the field too much.”
Through the first three games of the season, fatigue hardly mattered, considering the fact that the starters were often pulled from the game early in the third quarter. But, it’s a situation that will likely repeat itself later in the season against more formidable opponents.
First-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald likes to rotate through swaths of players as a way to keep them fresh, a strategy that stands in contrast to Don Brown’s former scheme. On Saturday, the Wolverines rotated defensive line packages, pairing fifth-year Donovan Jeter with sophomore Kris Jenkins and junior Mazi Smith alongside Hinton. The secondary and edge rushers also shuffled through players with sophomore defensive back Jordan Morant and senior defensive lineman Julius Welschof seeing the field.
Macdonald’s tactic figures to bode well moving forward, when fatigue inevitably emerges as a variable.