By now, just about everyone who follows Michigan football knows about the team’s stout defense.
The 14th-ranked Wolverines are first in the nation in scoring defense, second in yards allowed and are one of just four teams in the country to hold every opponent under 30 points this year.
But unlike other top defenses, Michigan’s key to success isn’t turnovers, sacks or defensive touchdowns. It’s the ability to make stops in any situation.
Michigan has done a nice job keeping teams out of the red zone, leading the nation with just 16 trips allowed. Three of the team’s opponents didn’t even reach the red zone. But once teams do get close to the Wolverines’ end zone, the defense really starts to shine.
Fans will remember Michigan’s goal-line stand as time expired to beat Minnesota on Oct. 31, but they can also the credit the defense for its effort a week later. Rutgers found holes in the unit and made it to the red zone four times, coming away with just nine points.
“Our red zone defense was outstanding again today,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh after Saturday’s win. “It’s been something that’s really been good for us. Our defensive coaching staff is doing a tremendous job. I don’t know if anybody’s doing a better job of playing defense in the red zone. A couple times they had the ball in the scoring area inside the 20 and we only allowed field goals. The only touchdown came on the kickoff return, so that’s very impressive to me.”
On the season, the Wolverines are allowing just 3.56 points per red-zone trip — fifth in the country. Additionally, Michigan’s six touchdowns allowed in 16 trips is the fourth-lowest touchdown rate in the country.
“You never want to allow a team in the red zone,” said senior linebacker Joe Bolden. “But when you get backed up, it finally hits you and you can’t break. Ultimately, when they’re in the red zone, you want to hold them to three points. I think our mindset, our defensive mindset, is we don’t want them to have even three points.”
Before the red zone — where the vast majority of possessions against Michigan end — the Wolverines are the nation’s second-best third-down team. Even when offenses get creative, desperate and aggressive, Michigan stands tall. Just 21.8 percent of opponents’ third-down attempts are successful, down 17 percent from last season.
“Our mentality is just to get off the field,” said junior defensive end Taco Charlton. “From the first play of the drive, our goal is to get off the field. And when it’s third down, every guy is thinking of how they can be aggressive or help.
“I feel like we do a good job overall, but when we know we have a chance to end the drive and give the momentum back to the offense, all 11 guys see that.”
The Wolverines have been the best in the country at getting off the field this season. They lead the nation in punts per play, with 12.2 percent of opponent’s plays resulting in a punt — an average of seven plays per drive.
Perhaps the scariest part of Michigan’s defense is that it doesn’t slow down. The Wolverines allow 6.2 points per game in the first half, but that pace improves to 5.22 in the second half. While the rest of the players get tired, the defense gets stronger.
That endurance was on display Saturday. After allowing 69 points in the previous five halves combined, Michigan buckled down, holding Rutgers to 105 yards and zero points.
After having its shutout streak snapped against Michigan State and Minnesota, Michigan’s defense looked back to its normal self.
“We don’t want to give up anything,” Charlton said. “We don’t like giving up yards, we don’t like giving up first downs. We want to be a stingy defense.”
They are, especially when it counts.