For one drive during Saturday’s game against Wisconsin, Michigan’s defense returned to last season’s form.
And that’s not a good thing.
On Wisconsin’s first two plays from scrimmage, running back P.J. Hill cut through Michigan’s defense like a hot knife through butter, gaining 23 yards on two carries. Two plays later, Wisconsin quarterback John Stocco found Hill completely uncovered in the left flat. The Wolverines were caught badly out of position, and the 242-pounder rumbled 29 yards down the left sideline to give Wisconsin an early 7-0 lead.
“We probably weren’t as focused as we could have been (on the first drive),” Michigan safety Ryan Mundy said. “We weren’t really wired in like we normally are into the game. . So we knew we had to saddle up and get back out there and do what we gotta do.”
After the early wake-up call from Hill, the Wolverine defense stiffened. Hill – who came into the game as the Big Ten’s leading rusher – ran 18 more times for just 31 yards. Through four games, Michigan’s defense has given up just 74 yards on the ground, the best in the nation.
With Wisconsin’s vaunted rushing attack struggling to gain traction, the Badgers’ offense ground to a halt. The Wolverine defense forced six straight three-and-outs to open the second half, including every third-quarter drive. By the time Wisconsin started moving the chains again late in the fourth quarter, Michigan had opened up a 17-point lead and started playing second-stringers.
“I don’t think it was really an adjustment (after the first series),” said defensive tackle Alan Branch, who finished with three tackles and a sack. “It was just the mental mindset of the guys. I think we just saw what they had. I think we were just feeling them out, and from there, we were just playing some ball.”
Middle linebacker David Harris led the Wolverines’ defense with 10 tackles, including two for a loss. Michigan also sacked Stocco four times, bringing its season total to 16. Four games into the season, the Wolverines are already nearing their season-long total of 24 from last year.
Yo, Adrian: Sophomore wide receiver Mario Manningham is a master of the deep route. Fifth-year senior Steve Breaston loves quick screens and swing passes. But until Saturday, Michigan didn’t appear to have a replacement for former captain Jason Avant in the intermediate passing game.
Enter junior Adrian Arrington.
After catching just four passes in Michigan’s first three games, the 6-foot-3 wide receiver nabbed four passes for 79 yards against Wisconsin, both career highs. On short and intermediate routes, Arrington used his big body to provide a comfortable target for Michigan quarterback Chad Henne.
“I said last week, ‘I think he’s a possession receiver,’ ” Henne said. “He runs great routes, and, with his size, if you put the ball in his body, he’ll make that catch. I think he understands his role and understands, if they’re going to double Mario, we have a chance with Steve (Breaston) and him.”
Who caught it?: Late in the second quarter, Michigan had the ball in its own territory, preparing to run its two-minute drill. It’s safe to say the Wolverines’ plans didn’t include getting offensive tackle Rueben Riley the ball.
But on Michigan’s first play of the drive, the 305-pounder ended up with the pigskin in his hands.
On first-and-10, Henne’s pass was tipped into the air, and the ball floated in Riley’s direction. The lifelong offensive lineman snatched the ball and fell straight to the ground, rather than risk advancing the ball. Riley’s grab went into the books as a negative-nine-yard reception – and the first catch of the fifth-year senior’s football career at any level.
“Nothing went through my mind,” Riley said. ” . It fell in my hands and I fell to the ground.”
Falling on the ball may have been the smartest play under the circumstances, but Riley knows he may have wasted his only opportunity to show off his ball-carrying skills.
“If I could rewind it, I’d try to go get the first down,” Riley joked.
Maize Out: For the last few weeks, the Athletic Department has bombarded Michigan students and ticketholders with messages imploring them to wear maize to the Wisconsin and Michigan State games. For the most part, the experiment appeared to work.
The Michigan student section turned into a virtually uniform sea of maize, creating a stunning visual effect in the Michigan Stadium bowl. The rest of the Big House had a decidedly yellowish tint, compared to the even mix of maize and blue usually displayed in the alumni sections.
The cheerleaders’ uniforms might have put the only real damper on an otherwise-successful “Maize Out.” In place of their usual white outfits, the Wolverines’ cheerleaders wore pastel-yellow collared shirts that would be better suited for a round of golf than a football game.