Last Saturday, Michigan’s defense got a wake-up call.
In the second half of their 20-13 victory over Rutgers, the 14th-ranked Wolverines had to deal with their first real bout of adversity. While the offense floundered through three-and-out after three-and-out, the fatigued defense repeatedly had to make stops. And while the unit did enough to preserve Michigan’s lead despite the lack of production from the offense, by the final whistle, the damage was clear:
One hundred fifty-two second half rushing yards and 5.6 yards per play from the Scarlet Knights.
Entering the season, the Wolverines’ interior defensive line was expected to struggle. The program is in the midst of a transition between defensive coordinators, and defensive tackle hadn’t been much of a strength in previous seasons anyway. So while Rutgers’s second half success on the ground might not have been fully expected, it shouldn’t come as a surprise either.
That doesn’t bother defensive line coach Shaun Nua. Even going into Saturday’s matchup against Wisconsin — a team that’s put up a combined 700 rushing yards in its last two meetings with Michigan and is averaging 203 rushing yards per game in 2021 — Nua only sees an opportunity.
“Heck yeah, man. It’s friggin’ Wisconsin,” Nua said when asked whether the team is looking forward to the game. “They like to run the ball, they like to put heavy people — big people — in there. We’re looking forward to that. It’s gonna be a great battle.”
In what seems poised to be a defensive slugfest, the Wolverines will have to generate more production from their defensive front seven. The Badgers are already inclined to keep the ball on the ground — they’ve run the ball an average of 47 times per game this season, the 11th-highest total in the country — and after quarterback Graham Mertz’s four-interception performance last week against Notre Dame, that number should only increase this week.
The pressure will be on Michigan’s defensive front, and that starts with the tackles. They’ll be flanked with plenty of support; senior edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson looks like an early favorite to go All-American, while fifth-year linebacker Josh Ross leads the team with 29 tackles.
At tackle, juniors Christopher Hinton and Mazi Smith have played the most snaps, but they’ve been far from a force in the middle, combining for just eight tackles in Saturday’s win. While the Wolverines don’t need them to be worldbeaters, they’ll have to do better at plugging the middle to slow down run-heavy Big Ten offenses like Wisconsin’s.
“Mazi Smith, Chris Hinton, they’ve done a great job of just being hard on themselves with the demand and the expectations we put on them,” Nua said. “They’ve done a great job of responding each week, learning from their past games — their mistakes. … We throw a lot of stuff at them.”
Beyond those two, Nua and defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald have also worked to rotate in other players and keep the interior fresh. That lineup was thinned out a bit against Rutgers — graduate transfer Jordan Whittley was out with what Nua described as a “boo-boo” — but the line still received plenty of snaps from players like sophomore Kris Jenkins and fifth-year seniors Donovan Jeter and Jess Speight. For Jeter especially, that extra rotation against the Scarlet Knights offered an opportunity to earn more time moving forward.
“(Rotation depends) on the packages,” Nua said. “Different packages, different situations, early downs, long downs, who’s hot, who’s not. … The offense comes big, you want to go big. They go speed, you want to match it up with some speed, too.”
By season’s end, the second half against Rutgers could end up looking like an anomaly, but for that to happen, the interior defensive line will have to improve significantly. That’s no small task — the team can’t just flip a switch and suddenly have no problem stopping the run — but the line will need to progress each week for the tests that lie ahead.
And Saturday, Michigan’s interior will face its toughest test yet.