Michigan’s defensive performance close to perfect

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Piscataway, N.J. — Michigan’s defense earned its first shutout of the season on Saturday, held Rutgers to two late first downs, 39 total yards and did not allow the Scarlet Knights to convert on third down.

After a 78-0 annihilation of Rutgers, what could this defense do for an encore?

“At this point we try to improve even more,” said U-M defensive lineman Taco Charlton, who had two sacks. “We set the bar and we keep trying to improve. We go out there and try to be the best defense in the country. It can’t just stop with Rutgers. We have to improve this bye week (Michigan plays again in two weeks) and once we go on to Illinois we keep on improving and show the country what we’re really made of.

“The goal was to be the best D Line in the country and we knew we had to prove that, and where that starts is being able to rush four and that’s what (defensive line) coach (Greg) Mattison preaches to us since I’ve been here, to be able to rush four. I feel like the last couple of weeks we’ve been able to do that.”

Even with Michigan’s defensive starters out of the game in the second half, Rutgers could do very little. The Scarlet Knights had 1 yard of offense in the first half and minus-5 yards rushing.

“There is no backups. That’s what we preach on the defense,” Jabrill Peppers said. “Every time you go out there you’re expected to play like a starter. We don’t look at the scoreboard. We want to impose our will as fast and as hard as we can. The younger guys are starting to adapt to that because it’s up to us to set the foundation. I definitely think they’re starting to buy in and trusting the coaches and trust what the older guys are telling them.”

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Rutgers had 17 possessions, and on 15 went three-and-out. The Scarlet Knights were 0-of-17 on third down. This season, the Wolverines have only allowed their opponents to convert on 10 of 82 third-down opportunities.

“I don’t know how many three and outs it was,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game. “It was two first downs the entire game and not until late in the game. We were playing on half the field the entire night. The guys up front, it was constant pressure and that field position we were playing on half the field.

“The spine of our team is that defensive front. Greg Mattison does a great job coaching our guys, and they were fast. Our whole team was really fast tonight. They were executing on a really high level. The pressure was tough to deal with.”

Charlton said the defensive players weren’t exactly playing to just stop Rutgers from getting a first down.

“We weren’t aware of exactly what it was,” Charlton said of the first downs. “We kind of knew they didn’t have a lot of success. Our goal was basically to stop everything. So we didn’t want to give up anything. We kind of preach that that we want to be relentless defense, and we were able to do that and impose our will.”

Quarterback Wilton Speight, who didn’t play in the second half — after all, Michigan rushed for 481 yards against the Big Ten’s worst rush defense — was sitting next to Charlton in the postgame news conference and nodded that he was aware of the potential first-down shutout.

“The offense knew, because we just love watching the defense,” Speight said. “It’s pretty nice to get the ball back in three plays.”

Michigan was able to score 78 points in part because the defense was so good.

“It certainly wasn’t the intent to make the score what it was,” Harbaugh said, before praising Rutgers coach Chris Ash. “Our players were better. Not to take anything away from their players. They’ve got a lot of good players, but we had more of them tonight and one great player (Peppers). Great, great player.”