On fourth-and-two, Michigan’s defense needed a stop.
In part due to the offense’s failure to sustain any drives, the defense had been on the field for virtually the entire second half. Rutgers — down by just seven points after scoring 10 unanswered — was on its fourth straight drive of greater than five plays and was having no trouble running the ball through the teeth of Wolverines’ defense.
In that moment, though, Michigan stepped up.
When Scarlet Knights quarterback Johnny Langan kept the ball on a read option — a play that the Wolverines struggled to defend for much of the game — he was met immediately by sophomore and freshman linebackers Nikhai Hill-Green and Junior Colson.
That crucial stop late in the fourth quarter helped seal the win for Michigan, but in the context of the entire second half, it was more of an anomaly than the theme. Though Rutgers scored just 13 points over the course of the game, it found a formula for success in that second half that, until Saturday, had largely eluded the Wolverines’ opponents:
Run the ball up the middle and pass it short to the outside.
“We just needed to execute better,” Hill-Green said. “And just play fast and get the calls in faster. But really just executing and doing your job and playing team defense, that’s what helped us, down the line, get those stops.”
Part of the Scarlet Knights’ success on the ground came from a late second quarter injury to fifth-year linebacker Josh Ross, who leads all Michigan defenders with 29 tackles this season. In the nearly two quarters of gameplay prior to Ross’s departure, Rutgers tallied 38 yards on the ground. After the injury, they racked up 158.
Though Colson and sophomore linebacker Kalel Mullings made some plays in Ross’s absence — they combined for 11 tackles on the day, including Colson’s late fourth-and-two stop — the defense as a whole struggled to fill the gaps produced by the Scarlet Knights’ offensive line. Several times throughout the second half, the Wolverines’ defenders would converge on a running back on read options, only for the quarterback to keep the ball for a first down.
“We’ll clean it up,” Hill-Green said. “We just need to execute, play our gaps, be physical, knock them back and just communicate more — over-communicate.”
In the pass defense, the problems were less about execution and more schematic. With Michigan sitting back more in coverage to avoid getting beat deep, Rutgers found repeated success throwing into the flat on short out and curl routes.
Though a few misses from quarterback Noah Vedral meant the results weren’t as pronounced as they were in the run game, those open receivers still helped the Scarlet Knights extend drives and keep the exhausted Wolverines defense on the field.
“We were a little soft on the hitch routes,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “They were hitting those on first down and getting way ahead of the sticks.”
Ultimately, to the defense’s credit, the Wolverines made the stops necessary to come away with the win, but those stops are only going to get more difficult as the season wears on.
Next week’s matchup at Wisconsin — a team that will absolutely take advantage of any weakness on the interior — looms large. If Michigan can’t plug the middle and tighten up coverage in the flat, Big Ten offenses will continue to find ways to move the ball.
For now, though, the Wolverines are 4-0.
“I do think that this team is taking that gritty identity,” junior defensive tackle Christopher Hinton said. “Throughout camp, throughout winter, throughout spring and throughout the whole training process, we’ve been trying to pride ourselves on being a tough, gritty team for times and games like this.”