Michigan's defense was a silver lining in its sixth-straight loss. Kate Hua/Daily. Buy this photo.

Last week against Penn State, a late comeback effort by the Michigan men’s lacrosse team was sparked by sophomore midfielder Justin Brown. This week it was the defensive unit that stepped up to lead a comeback that ultimately fell just short. 

In a nail-biting 13-12 loss against No. 7 Rutgers on Saturday, goals from sophomore defender Jack Whitney, graduate student defender Jackson Zaugg and junior defender Ryan Schriber were a silver lining for the Wolverines, and put an exclamation mark on an overall strong back-end outing. The unit played together for all 60 minutes, keeping Michigan competitive despite struggles on the offensive end. 

“I can’t say enough about Zaugg getting a goal there,” sophomore attacker Michael Boehm said. “It kind of provided that spark. I think everybody was unbelievably excited for him — that was just unbelievable.” 

Zaugg’s first career goal came at an important moment. The Wolverine offense mustered just three first-half goals and were looking for any source of energy. Whitney’s goal woke up a nearly sold-out crowd, and Zaugg’s subsequent finish following a messy faceoff had them roaring. 

With 11 minutes left in the third, Michigan settled in — especially on the back end. 

From that point on, the Wolverines let up four goals — one came on a power-play transition attempt, another came on a man-up opportunity. The unit was also able to force eight second half turnovers, giving the offensive unit a noticeable edge in time-of-possession. 

It would be reductive to say that the defense just had a strong second half — they came out playing well, too. 

“Our defense is doing a good job,” sophomore attacker Michael Boehm said. “It was zero-to-zero for a while (to start the game), like three or four possessions, which is just great.” 

Schriber’s goal to end the first half was the first from a long-pole in the game. He also won five ground balls, and was an anchor in the stout defensive performance along with Zaugg, Whitney and sophomore goaltender Shane Carr. 

For Zaugg especially, the strong performance on senior day earned high praise from Michigan coach Kevin Conry. 

“His day one was my day one,” Conry said. “He’s done such a great job of helping the program progress to a point where we have these expectations.”

But for the 11th ranked defense in the country, Saturday’s showing certainly wasn’t a huge departure from recent performances. The defense’s recent ability to keep Michigan in games has been a bright spot during this recent six game losing streak. A week after holding Penn State to nine goals, the back line not only kept the Wolverines in the game, but also started the late comeback effort. 

It’s hard to gauge improvement during a late-season losing streak, but the Michigan defense has stepped up in recent weeks. Its performance against Rutgers — and its scoring surge in particular — are evidence of that.