During the Michigan football team’s last two meetings with Wisconsin, the Wolverines’ defense was the victim of a rushing clinic.
The Badgers ran for a combined 700 yards against Michigan in 2019 and 2020, blowing the doors off the Wolverines’ defense in a pair of lopsided wins. Even when Michigan knew the run was coming, its efforts to stop it proved helpless. Wisconsin’s offensive line routinely dominated the trenches, cleared gaping holes and reached the second level. It was a living, breathing example of the downfall of the Wolverines’ once-vaunted defense.
“Gotta be stouter against the run,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “And set a better edge. If you’re specifically talking about our game last year, we got hurt not setting the edge enough. A point of emphasis — stouter run defense and setting edges.”
In response, the Wolverines made drastic changes, starting at the top. Harbaugh fired longtime defensive coordinator Don Brown, whose unique aggression and blitz-happy playcalling faltered against Big Ten heavyweights like the Badgers in 2019 and 2020. Harbaugh replaced him with first-time coordinator Mike Macdonald, a 34-year-old former defensive assistant with the Baltimore Ravens.
Macdonald immediately installed a 3-4 scheme focused on physicality at the line of the scrimmage. The Wolverines’ staff hoped it would eventually pay dividends against teams like Wisconsin. For better or worse, they’ll find out on Saturday.
“It’s what we’ve been working on (all) offseason,” junior defensive tackle Mazi Smith said Tuesday. “It’s why we run the defense that we run, play the technique that we play. It’s for big, physical people who are trying to impose their will. Got to be in there, got to be strong, got to be stout.”
Despite a 1-2 record, the Badgers have lived up to their reputation as one of the country’s most physical programs so far this season. Their run defense ranks No. 1 in the nation, allowing only 1.01 yards per carry and 23 yards per game. That defensive success isn’t a product of playing soft competition, either, as the Badgers have already faced nationally ranked opponents in Notre Dame and Penn State.
In a loss to the Fighting Irish last week, the Wisconsin defense allowed just three — yes, three — rushing yards. Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, a Broyles Award finalist in 2016, has a proven unit stacked with veterans all over the field.
“Really stout, really good (defense),” Harbaugh said. “Big, physical, fast. … The linebackers, front — experienced, solid, physical, athletic defense that knows the scheme, and they’re very dialed in.”
Michigan, by contrast, enters this week as a top-five rushing attack. Against a Badgers team that has allowed only one rush of more than 10 yards this season, the Wolverines know they’re entering a contest of brute force. They’ve shied away from such battles in years past, but this year, players are openly embracing the trip to Madison as a measuring stick.
“It shows you who you really are,” Smith said. “As a D-lineman, as a defense, when you’ve got a team that is trying to really run it down your throat. They have big, physical guys, who have been getting the job done.”
“… When you turn on the film, you see a bunch of guys being physical. We’ve got to be the same way.”
Senior Sports Editor Daniel Dash can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @DanielDash_.