When Alan Branch was told after Saturday’s game that Minnesota had gained more than 100 yards on the ground, the defensive tackle seemed a little disappointed.
Branch’s slightly dejected reaction begged the question: How many yards would have been acceptable?
“We really do not want anyone to rush for any yards,” sophomore Terrance Taylor said.
It’s an indication of just how dominant the Wolverines’ run defense has been.
Even after counting the 108 yards amassed by the Gophers, Michigan has allowed just 182 net rushing yards this season. The Wolverines’ 36.4 yards per game average continues to be the best in Division I-A. Just as impressive, they haven’t given up a rushing touchdown.
Michigan’s run-stopping ability represents a major turnaround from last year’s squad. The Wolverines finished last season with the nation’s 41st-ranked run defense, yielding an average of 137.3 yards per game.
Perhaps even more significant, Michigan often gave up long runs in big games – contests it often lost.
So what changed? The Wolverines offer a number of explanations for their revitalization under first-year coordinator Ron English.
“Everybody knows what they’re supposed to do,” defensive end Rondell Biggs said. “Everyone knows their gaps – simple things. Everybody knows their jobs.”
Said Branch: “Since I’ve been here, I had never seen guys watching film as much as they are this year. . I think we are a smarter defense.”
In addition to being better prepared, Michigan’s defenders have improved their tackling. Especially in the Wolverines’ first four games, it was common to see as many as seven or eight defenders around the ball.
And unlike last season, when Michigan struggled to finish games, the Wolverines are confident they can stop opposing offenses when it counts.
“Last year, we were afraid to get tired,” Taylor said. “You can’t be afraid to get tired, because when you’re afraid of getting tired, you won’t run to the ball, you won’t give it your all. We have people laying out and just out there gasping for air.”
Michigan’s lone slip-up in this area came against the Gophers last Saturday. Minnesota running back Amir Pinnix gained 91 yards on the ground.
The Wolverines let Pinnix and the rest of the Gophers’ backfield outside for big gains.
And for the first time all season, Michigan’s defense let an opponent back in the game instead of finishing it off.
Coach Lloyd Carr dismissed most of that criticism, limiting his ire to the plays that led to Minnesota scores.
“No defense is going to be invincible,” Carr said. “That’s not going to happen. Some people get upset when a team gets a first down or runs for a 20-yard gain. Well, those people don’t know.”
Statistically, Michigan has been less impressive defending the pass than it’s been against the run. The Wolverines’ pass defense ranks 70th in the nation, giving up an average of 202 passing yards per game.
But much of that success through the air is a result of Michigan shutting down opponents’ ground game. If teams can’t run, they are forced to throw the ball, inevitably leading to an accumulation of passing yards.
Michigan fans and critics alike have praised the Wolverines’ new and improved defense. Some national pundits have started to liken the unit’s fast, aggressive style to that normally found in the Southeastern Conference, where defenders fly to the ball and tackle with authority.
Still, unlike the SEC, playing defense in the Big Ten is all about stopping the run. And like Branch, the Wolverines won’t be happy unless they shut down their opponent’s run game.
“We take great pride in stopping the run,” Taylor said. “We just want to continue holding teams under certain yardages.”
Apparently, that yardage is zero.