If Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson has nightmares about Michigan co-captain LaMarr Woodley, no one would blame him.
In fact, you might even expect it.
On the Commodores’ second drive of the second quarter, Woodley made the pocket a dangerous place for Nickson to be. On first-and-15, Woodley pulled Nickson down for his first sack of the game. The next play, Woodley caught Vanderbilt’s signal caller in the backfield for a four-yard loss.
On Vanderbilt’s next offensive series, the senior defensive end came back for more. Woodley dropped Nickson yet again on the first play of the drive, notching his second sack in four snaps.
Michigan’s aggressive pursuit of Nickson represented a shift from last season. In 11 regular-season games, the Wolverines notched just 19 sacks, the fourth-lowest total in the Big Ten last year. Opposing quarterbacks – most notoriously Ohio State’s Troy Smith – weren’t pressured in the pocket, often leading to big gains.
This season, first-year defensive coordinator Ron English implemented a simplified defense with an emphasis on getting to the quarterback. After one game, Michigan sits at the top of the conference with six sacks, and the Wolverines limited Nickson to just 22 yards on the ground.
“The front four did a heck of a job,” linebacker David Harris said. “Those guys . had (Nickson) stepping around, running for his life. It just made the back seven’s job a lot easier. We got to the quarterback and rattled him a little bit.”
Woodley’s dominant second quarter was part of a banner day for the Wolverines’ defensive line, which recorded four sacks, eight tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Tackles Alan Branch and Terrance Taylor absorbed double teams and plugged up the middle, leaving Woodley and fellow defensive end Rondell Biggs free to go after Nickson.
Biggs doubled his sack total from last season with two quarterback takedowns. The first came in the third quarter with Vanderbilt pinned at its own 13-yard line.
“It was the game plan to throw in some new schemes, some new wrinkles, to confuse them,” Biggs said. “Everybody likes to get some quarterback sacks out there.”
That includes defensive backs. The Wolverines didn’t use much blitzing during most of the game, mostly relying on its four-man rush. But in the fourth quarter, English wanted to put a little extra pressure on Nickson and started sending corners and safeties in on the blitz, with notable success.
Five minutes into the quarter, safety Jamar Adams pulled Nickson down for his first career sack.
Then cornerback Leon Hall recorded the fourth sack of his career when he was sent blitzing on the Commodores’ next offensive series. Hall was tripped up at first; he was blocked and lying on the turf when he noticed Nickson was still on his feet. Hall got up, grabbed Nickson and brought him down.
“I don’t know how many times we blitzed, but right there at the end we brought some pressure,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. “I thought we got a lot of pressure without blitzing.”