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Rocky Lombardi’s last trip to Ann Arbor was a disaster for the Michigan football team. 

Last season, Lombardi shredded the Wolverines’ secondary as Michigan State’s quarterback, totalling 323 passing yards — including 196 yards to receiver Ricky White — and three touchdowns. He led the Spartans to a shocking upset that was seen at the time as a new low for Jim Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan. 

Now the starter at Northern Illinois, Lombardi’s return to Michigan Stadium went differently. In the Wolverines’ 63-10 thumping of the Huskies Saturday, they bottled up Lombardi and Northern Illinois’s passing offense as a whole, holding it to a meager nine completions for 46 yards — the majority of which came after Michigan’s backups checked in. 

“Just executing in practice,” senior cornerback Gemon Green said. “That’s really what we did this week. We just tried to carry on from practice to the game, and tried to take it one play at a time every play. That’s pretty much it.”

While Lombardi found countless deep one-on-one matchups to exploit last year, the Huskies’ pass offense mostly worked to develop a short passing game on Saturday. For the most part, that looked similar to Washington and Western Michigan’s most successful plays in the previous two weeks: short outs underneath the zone defense, quick screens and curl routes. 

On virtually every throw, though, the Wolverines’ defenders swarmed to the ball. In one instance late in the first quarter, Lombardi set up a promising screen to wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph, only for sophomore safety R.J. Moten to close it out almost immediately. In another instance late in the second quarter, a throw over the middle was broken up near the line of scrimmage by fifth-year safety Brad Hawkins — a signal of Michigan’s commitment to shutting down the short passing game and trust in its secondary to not get beat deep. 

Last year, that trust existed when it probably shouldn’t have. Now, it looks like the right decision. 

“(Lombardi’s) a really good quarterback — we saw that last year,” Harbaugh said. “I thought our guys were really good. Gemon Green, Vince Gray, D.J. Turner — I care more about their growth, I think, in one year’s time.”

Ultimately, that growth was most visible on a Green interception midway through the third quarter, the team’s first pick this season. 

The defensive backs’ jobs were made much easier by the pressure that the Wolverines’ front seven — especially senior and junior edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo — put on Lombardi throughout the game. Even if Northern Illinois wanted to throw more deep balls, Lombardi probably wouldn’t have had the time, as the defense regularly collapsed the pocket and prevented him from settling into any rhythm. 

On two different occasions, that pressure forced Lombardi to bail out of the pocket early. In the first case — the last play of the first half — he scrambled for a gain of three yards, while on the second play later in the game, he was dragged down by Hutchinson for no gain and, effectively, a sack. 

“We’re not any good unless the front is good,” Green said. “And they’ve been doing their job. Aidan, Ojabo, all of them, they’ve been applying that pressure, so if they’re good, we’ve gotta be good back there. We’ve gotta do our job.”

Much attention has been paid to defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s new-look defense, but schemes can only improve a team so much. Zone defenses and modern pattern-matching looks are all well and good, but after Saturday’s performance — and the two that came before it — the explanation looks to be much simpler: 

Michigan’s defensive backs have gotten better. We’ll see if that holds through Big Ten play.