From the moment Saturday’s game kicked off, it was clear the Michigan football team’s defense wouldn’t give an inch.
With a “Maize Out” crowd of 108,345 at their back, the Wolverines forced a three-and-out on Washington’s first drive. The Huskies’ next series went four yards in the wrong direction; their third drive only netted two yards. Three quick punts electrified Michigan Stadium as the Wolverines’ offense established an early lead.
All told, Michigan held Washington to a paltry 18 yards in the first quarter and didn’t surrender any first-half points, setting the tone in what ultimately became a telling 31-10 win over a Washington team that debuted in the top 20 of the AP Poll just two weeks ago.
“Seeing the defense ball out like that, it motivates us,” sophomore running back Blake Corum said. “Now it’s our turn to do better and I think that’s what we did throughout the game. The defense had a phenomenal game, they kept shutting them out. I think it just put a little fire in us and motivated us to do a little bit better.”
It feels like a lifetime ago, but some of Michigan’s best teams under coach Jim Harbaugh have been built on defense. The Wolverines led the country in team defense in 2017, and the 2018 team that fell a game short of the College Football Playoff finished the season ranked No. 3 nationally in team defense.
That once-vaunted defense crumbled in 2019 and 2020, leading to the firing of former defensive coordinator Don Brown. Harbaugh replaced him with Baltimore Ravens defensive assistant Mike Macdonald, who installed a brand new 3-4 scheme this past offseason.
So far, the first-time coordinator’s system has rejuvenated the Wolverines’ defense. That much was evident in Michigan’s inspired play during Saturday night’s win.
“Mike did a great job calling the defense,” Harbaugh said. “From an offensive perspective, Washington ran everything known to man offensively in the first three quarters. And for the most part, three straight three-and-outs to start the game, that was huge. You talk about getting off to a fast start, that precipitated that. Four three-and-outs throughout the course of the game. It was really, really strong.”
Despite throwing the kitchen sink at the Wolverines, Washington didn’t reach the red zone until the second half and failed to score a touchdown until the fourth quarter. The Huskies struggled to block senior edge Aidan Hutchinson, who recorded 2.5 sacks, four tackles — three of which were solo — and a quarterback hurry. With NFL scouts from 13 franchises in attendance, Hutchinson looked the part of a first-round draft pick.
With every Washington drive that fell apart, Hutchinson was at the center of the wreckage. He blew up numerous short run plays in addition to his 2.5 sacks. His strong play in the trenches helped Michigan dominate the line of scrimmage — something the Wolverines’ own offensive line grew accustomed to as the season approached.
“(The Huskies) couldn’t block Aidan,” Harbaugh said. “In fall camp, we couldn’t block him either.”
Added senior offensive lineman Ryan Hayes: “It’s a really fun back and forth when we’re in practice. It’s really nice having Aidan on that side of the ball because we’re not really going to face anyone better than him this year.”
The defensive dominance stretched further than just Hutchinson, though. After allowing a 75-yard touchdown on Western Michigan’s opening drive a week ago, the Wolverines needed time to settle in. That wasn’t the case in Week 2 — a major step forward on the preparation front.
Fifth-year senior linebacker Josh Ross found himself at the heart of that improvement. His role in the middle of the defense affects everyone around him, allowing him to notice the contrast.
“For today, one of the things I was most proud of was how well we communicated and how much better we communicated from last week to this week,” Ross said. “There were a lot of formations, a lot of trickery. … We were getting to certain calls that we never went over, but we sort of went out and handled it.”
And at this point in a young season, rapid improvement is the best thing Michigan could’ve possibly seen.