STATE COLLEGE –

Angela Cesere

Michigan’s defensive line has a serious case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide-your-quarterback-if-you-want-him-to-survive syndrome.

Take defensive tackle Alan Branch. “Gentle giant” is the phrase that best describes the good-natured, always-smiling, 331-pound New Mexico native.

But ask Branch about his punishing third-quarter blow that knocked Penn State starter Anthony Morelli out of the game with a concussion, and he suddenly doesn’t seem so nice.

“I hit him,” Branch said, cackling. “I mean, he threw the ball. I didn’t know if he threw it or not, so I gave him a little shot.”

Then Branch summed up Morelli’s unpleasant situation.

“And he was down,” Branch said matter-of-factly.

Or take sophomore defensive tackle Terrance Taylor, whose jovial nature usually earns him the adoration of teammates, coaches and journalists alike.

When asked about the two signal-callers Michigan’s defensive line disposed of on Saturday, Taylor launched into a tirade about the dangers of playing quarterback against the Wolverine front.

“We keep coming, we keep hitting you,” Taylor said. “If you stand back there, we’ll keep hitting you, we’ll keep coming, we’re not going to let up. It’ll be 60 minutes, four quarters and we’re gonna keep coming. We’re gonna hit you.”

These guys aren’t playing dirty, and they’re not aiming to injure their opponents. But if that’s the natural consequence of their bone-crushing hits, don’t expect any apologies from Michigan’s fierce defensive linemen.

And that’s just the way it should be.

However cordial it is off the field, the Wolverines’ defensive front is straight up nasty on it. And on urday night, with the bright lights on at Beaver Stadium, in front of 110,000-plus fans screaming their lungs out, the front four delivered its most emphatic statement yet.

Michigan’s defensive front wasn’t picking apart measly opponents like Vanderbilt and Central Michigan. It was taking on the big, bad Penn State line – a unit that had given up just six sacks all season coming into Saturday’s game.

The Wolverines finished with seven.

Plus countless quarterback hurries.

Plus two apparent quarterback concussions.

From the press box, I couldn’t actually see the Wolverines’ eyes light up as they closed in for free shots at Nittany Lion quarterbacks. But from the looks of things, triple-sevens were lining up in the minds of Michigan’s defensive linemen as they closed in for vicious hit after vicious hit.

Taylor’s first career sack started the Wolverines’ hit parade. Early in the second quarter, backup defensive end Tim Jamison appeared to have Morelli – who was looking downfield after faking a handoff – in his sights. But then Taylor, a portly 305-pounder, came barreling through the line and zipped toward Morelli at light speed, drilling the quarterback and stealing the sack from his teammate.

And the Wolverines kept coming.

On the very next play, senior captain LaMarr Woodley jumped the snap, ran right past Penn State’s tackle and literally threw Morelli to the turf for a 14-yard loss.

And the Wolverines kept coming.

After Michigan marched down the field for a field goal, Morelli dropped back again on first-and-10. And, again, Woodley slaughtered him in the backfield, forcing Morelli to momentarily fumble at his own five-yard-line.

And the Wolverines kept coming.

When it was all said and done, Woodley and fellow defensive end Rondell Biggs tallied two sacks a piece, while Taylor, Jamison and linebacker Shawn Crable (who often lines up as a defensive end) notched one sack each.

And, oh yeah, the defensive front dominated against the running game, too. Star Nittany Lion running back Tony Hunt gained just 33 yards on 13 carries.

So far, the Wolverines have given up just 32.6 yards a game on the ground. That’s over 15 yards better than Texas, the second-best team against the run in the nation.

So, Michigan’s front four is good. How good, you ask?

Here’s a little tidbit for those on the compare-this-team-to-1997 bandwagon: This year, Michigan has 24 sacks – 17 of which have come from the defensive line. Seven games into the 1997 season, the Wolverines had 16 sacks . total.

Wow.

Even though Michigan fans can’t help but compare this year’s squad to the famed 1997 team, the Wolverines’ rock-solid defensive front knows there’s plenty of football to be played before that comparison holds water.

Asked how it feels to be 7-0, Branch turns serious.

“It feels great, but we’re not done yet,” Branch said. “We don’t want to take it too much, because we know what we came here for, and that’s for that crystal ball (awarded to the BCS national champion). We gotta keep winning, do what we do.”

I’m not much of a fortune teller, but my crystal ball shows this: Branch and the rest of the Michigan front four crushing helpless quarterbacks all season long.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s what the Wolverines need to finally nab that precious crystal ball.

Singer is grateful that the IM team he quarterbacks doesn’t have to face Michigan’s defensive line. He can be reached at mattsing@umich.edu.

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