Criticism fuels Michigan defense's resurgence after Wisconsin loss: 'It gave us new flame'

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The Michigan Wolverines are underdogs heading into the whiteout night game at seventh-ranked Penn State, and that’s just fine with them.

If you listen to the Michigan players, they aren't sure why, but they feel they're the most maligned 5-1 team that happens to be ranked No. 16 nationally. If you listen carefully, they reveal they’re playing with a collective chip on their shoulder and speak with an edge.

In the last two games, Michigan's defense, which includes Khaleke Hudson (pictured), has 25 tackles for loss and 12 sacks and has held those three opponents to 111 yards on 102 carries.

They have insulated themselves inside Schembechler Hall and aren’t paying much attention to the cacophony outside from national and local media and fans.

That is, unless you speak to linebacker Josh Uche.

As the Wolverines prepare to play Saturday night at unbeaten Penn State at Beaver Stadium, where Michigan was walloped, 42-13, in 2017 in a similar environment — whiteout, prime-time, College GameDay in town — they know a win in Happy Valley would set the tone for their final brutal stretch that next week has them home against Notre Dame under the lights.

They also know that most believe it’s advantage Penn State.

“We always underdogs,” Uche said this week. “Everyone wants to count us out, and that’s OK, because we love being underdogs. That’s what we live for. That’s what we do. That’s going to make us work harder.”

Getting out to a fast start on the road is always a priority, but turnovers have undermined the Michigan offense much of this season. In the Wolverines only other major road test against a ranked team, at Wisconsin a month ago to open Big Ten play, they fumbled deep in Badgers’ territory their first drive and never recovered from that miscue offensively or defensively. The Badgers rushed for 359 yards, with Jonathan Taylor gashing the Wolverines for 143 and two touchdowns in the first quarter.

Their performance unleashed criticism from every direction.

“You guys were saying we can’t stop the run and we’re soft, and this and that, and we’ve kind of framed that in our minds,” Uche said. “That’s given us a lot of motivation to work hard.”

Uche pointed to the local beat writers as the source of this commentary.

“That’s what y’all was claiming,” Uche said. “I understand y’all not in the coaches’ office and not watching film how we watch film. I understand why you guys would feel that way. Yeah, that just gave us some motivation to execute and do our job to a high level.”

When it was pointed out that the Wisconsin performance was used as evidence to support the criticism, he countered.

“You all was missing some stuff there,” he said. “It is what it is. It gave us new life. It gave us new flame. It gave us new motivation, and we needed that, to be quite frank with you. We needed that motivation, and we thank you guys for that.”

Uche hammered a point that several players have made in recent weeks — that people don’t know the intricate details of their game plans and execution. That’s fair, just as it was to point out Wisconsin gained 487 yards against the Wolverines.

“It’s kind of funny, because it’s like, this is what we live, breathe, this is what we do,” Uche said. “I understand you guys follow it too, so you do the same, a lot of dedication. You guys, sometimes fans don’t see everything, they don’t understand the schematics of everything and they don’t understand what was happening there. They’ll be on the total opposite side of the spectrum knowing what was going on.

“It’s kind of funny, but it can be annoying, but it is what it is. I can understand. Not everyone is a football coach, a 15-year vet in the game that knows everything. It’s understandable.”

Different players find different sources of motivation, but the Michigan defense has evolved since that loss as the Wolverines have won three straight heading into this pivotal Big Ten East Division title. Two of the opponents were Big Ten cellar dwellers Rutgers and Illinois, but the other was Iowa, then ranked No. 14.

The Wolverines had eight sacks against the Hawkeyes and held them to one yard rushing. In the last two games, Michigan has 25 tackles for loss and 12 sacks and has held those three opponents to 111 yards on 102 carries. With the return from injury of tackle Michael Dwumfour to the defensive line, the emergence of Cam McGrone at middle linebacker, and heads-up play from cornerback Ambry Thomas, the defense has seemed re-energized.

“I felt we kept playing our game,” said Khaleke Hudson, who plays the viper in Michigan’s defense. “A couple things didn’t go our way in that (Wisconsin) game — it’s how you respond to it. I feel like we’ve been playing our tails off to get back to where we want to be.”

Michigan will find out where it’s going these next six games. Back-to-back night games at Penn State and at home against out-of-conference Notre Dame kick things off, then the Wolverines head to Maryland, then get a Saturday off before playing at home against in-state rival Michigan State. They travel to Indiana and close the regular season at home against Ohio State.

But first things first and for the Michigan defense, it’s about stopping Penn State led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford, who has been cool and efficient and has the ability to find vulnerabilities in a defense with his arm and legs. He leads the Big Ten in total offense, averaging 302 yards a game. He has thrown for 1,560 yards and run for 252.

Uche knows this is the type of game that could embolden this defense even more if it plays as it did in a 10-3 win over Iowa.

“It’s big time, prime-time television,” he said. “We’ve got a chance to be legendary. We just got to do our thing, do our jobs and execute and the rest will take care of itself.”

Legendary is his mindset when he thinks about the potential of this defense and the team as a whole. Being legendary isn't something the defense has discussed.

“We execute, there’s nobody in the country better than us, and that’s a fact,” Uche said. “We execute and do our jobs, do what the coaches ask of us, execute our game plans, I don’t feel like there’s anyone in the country that’s touching us. As for the legendary part, that’s what I tell myself in my brain. That’s how I get myself hyped.”

Michigan is 5-1, 3-1 with a loss to Wisconsin, while Penn State is 6-0, 3-0, and while the Wolverines dismantled Penn State, 42-7, last season, safety Josh Metellus said there’s still unfinished business.

“We ain’t finish the payback,” Metellus said. “Playing there, losing there, it still hurt regardless if we won last year, because we’re going back and last time we was there we lost. We got nothing to show for being there. It’s still the same feeling of revenge going back to their place.”

Defensive coordinator Don Brown said last year he’d wake up every day thinking about that loss at Penn State in 2017 and served as motivation while preparing the team before last year’s game. Those who played at Beaver Stadium two years ago, like Metellus, want to prove they’re undeterred by that big hostile stage.

“It was loud,” Uche said. “Some fans was cussing and being disrespectful, and I like that kind of thing. That’s my thing. I like that hostile environment. It gets my adrenaline going. I can’t wait to get to get up there and get that nasty taste out of my mouth from two years ago when they beat us.”

Twitter: @chengelis