Midway through the second quarter, the result of the Michigan football team’s game against Nebraska was no longer in question.
It was 30-0 already, and the Cornhuskers (0-1 Big Ten, 0-3 overall) were backed up on their own 20-yard line. Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez dropped back to throw and faced pressure like he saw all day. This time, fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich chased him down for the third of four sacks the Wolverines (1-0, 3-1) had in their 56-10 victory.
Then Winovich stood up and motioned as if he was pulling something out of his chest to take a bite out of it.
“After the sack, I figured if I was gonna take their heart from their offense, I figured it was about time that I took my own heart and ate that too,” Winovich said. “That’s kind of where I was at with that one. Some people thought I was eating a grenade. That was not the case. That was me taking my own heart and eating it.”
The rest of Michigan’s defense felt similarly, though maybe without the ripping-out-your-own-heart part. The Wolverines were swarming all over the field, and they held Nebraska to just 132 total yards, the lowest of any Michigan opponent since Rutgers on Oct. 8, 2016.
After the game, the Wolverines said they could feel the Cornhuskers’ offense begin to break, and according to them, it happened early.
“After the first series,” said junior safety Josh Metellus, who intercepted a tipped pass to end that first series of the game. “… You can just see it in their eyes. It’s like something you feel. It’s not really anything I could put into words. You can just tell by the way a receiver’s running his route or the way you’re getting blocked or the type of passion they’re playing with. We just sensed that they didn’t have it, so we just used that to our advantage.”
Added Winovich: “You just feel it. I don’t know, there’s something about this game. There’s an energy to it, where you look at the person across from you and whether it’s their play calling and how they operate. How they move about. I don’t know. I just didn’t feel like they wanted it as bad as we did.”
That’s a feeling that Michigan’s defense has felt at times throughout the last four seasons. But this season, fair or not, the defense has come under some fire for giving up big plays and untimely penalties.
So, save against Western Michigan, it would be hard to say that the Wolverines struck that kind of fear into opposing offenses like they did Nebraska.
“I feel like every week, we’re getting better and better with, you know, not getting penalties or not blowing coverages and stuff like that,” Metellus said. “You know, it’s a long season. You know, it’s football. You mess up, like, that’s what the game is. But, you know, we just try to find a way to limit each mistake every week. So, you know, I feel like going in to these next couple of weeks, we just still gonna harp on not messing up, not getting dumb penalties and stuff like that.”
Another good sign for Michigan was that it finally stopped a mobile quarterback, like it struggled to do against SMU and, especially, Notre Dame. Martinez finished with -12 rushing yards and just 22 through the air. The Cornhuskers averaged 1.3 yards per carry and 2.4 yards per play.
So the improvements that the Wolverines have talked about are becoming noticeable, even for a defense that didn’t have all that much room for improvement.
“It’s just success, man, it’s just a cyclical nature,” Winovich said. “And we’ve learned from a lot of our mistakes, and, you know, we’re not stopping here. I think the sky’s the limit. You’ve seen how well our defense performed today, and we’re hungrier than ever.”
In Winovich’s case, apparently, that’s a hunger for hearts.