For the No. 2 Michigan football team, it’s simple: “Tips and overthrows — got to get those.”
It’s a mantra, a battle cry and a motivation that has spurred recent success for the Wolverines’ defensive line. It’s also a ball-deflection drill the team practices every day.
“We call them mirror hands,” sophomore edge rusher Derrick Moore said Tuesday of the line’s ability to tip passes. “If you can’t get to the quarterback, get your hand up and (tip the ball). We work that every day — and it shows up in the game.”
Against Nebraska, the work came to fruition. Knocking three passes off course at the line of scrimmage, Michigan’s defensive-front seven made quarterback Heinrich Haarberg’s life arduous. The Cornhuskers’ signal caller finished the day with just 199 passing yards and one lone interception — coming off of a tipped ball from senior edge rusher Braiden McGregor.
It was a perfect storm in Moore’s eyes. He emphasized that Haarberg lacked verticality on his throws, making the Wolverines’ job of knocking passes awry easier. Compounding that impact, defensive film analysis of Haarberg’s throwing motion also provided ample opportunity to swat balls down.
“He’d wind it back,” Moore said, mimicking a deeper windup movement. “All his throws (were) real low. That was a big thing that we studied.”
While Haarberg may have simplified success for Michigan’s front line, its success at tipping balls comes from a more formulaic approach. As pass rushers attempt to get home to the quarterback, if they’re unable to generate pressure fast enough, they know to put up the “mirror hands.” In turn, after a week of film study, the rushers know when and where to place their hands.
Once the time comes to add movement to that formula, things become less structured. In deciding to throw their hands up, a defensive lineman effectively gives up on the pass rush, instead transitioning into a deflection-focused role. That’s where the film study ends and the intuition begins.
“It’s a reaction thing,” Moore said. “You see the quarterback put his arm up, you know that you go to put your hand up, and I think it’s just working it every day in practice and seeing it every day.”
Those timely reactions paid off for a Michigan defense that fired on all cylinders on Saturday. Allowing only one rushing touchdown in effectively garbage time while playing backups, the Wolverines’ defense has rounded into form because of their discipline to the method.
On Monday, coming off a successful week of his own, McGregor highlighted that Michigan’s defensive success was not simply because of one lineman’s intuition, but rather the entire line’s interplay. A new defensive coach addresses the unit as a whole every Monday, and they watch film together as a method of viewing how best to break-up a pass before it can even cross the line of scrimmage.
Thus, when the time comes to alter a play, or abandon the pass rush, the Wolverines’ pass rushers feel confident in their decision.
“You’re not always going to get there and get a pressure, or get a sack and get a QB hit,” McGregor said. “So being able to just get the ball up, get your hand up, knock the ball down, or tip it in the air.”
Whatever’s necessary to help the play, Michigan’s defensive line knows the mantra. Or at least, for McGregor, the messaging:
“We talk about tips and overthrows, how we got to get ‘em.”