Lackluster results have Michigan's D-line taking hard 'look in the mirror'

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan’s overall defense has been struggling the last three weeks, but it starts up front and the line hasn’t been able to wreak the havoc it thought it would.

That’s partly because starting defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye have been out of the lineup. It's also because offenses know what trigger to pull, and that’s having quarterbacks go with quick-release passes to counter the defense trying to be disruptive.

It hasn’t just been the pass that has carved the Michigan defense, but the run, as well. Wisconsin had 341 rushing yards in a 49-11 victory last weekend, while Michigan State and Indiana torched the secondary in previous weeks.

The Wolverines (1-3) are preparing to play at Rutgers on Saturday night and hope to snap a three-game losing streak. The Scarlet Knights might just be what the Michigan defense needs. They’re ranked 106th nationally in total offense (329.5 yards per game), tied for 94th in rushing (133.5 yards), tied for 93rd in passing (196 yards) and are 82nd in scoring (26.5 points).

Michigan's defensive line, which includes Christopher Hinton (15), has recorded just one sack over the past three games.

Defensive line coach Shaun Nua, appearing Monday night on the “Inside Michigan Football” radio show, said his players should be “embarrassed” by Wisconsin’s offensive stats on Saturday. The Badgers had 468 yards of total offense.

The Wolverines rank 79th nationally in total defense (425.8 yards), are tied for 76th against the run (178.5 yards) and are 80th in passing yards allowed (247.3 yards). In the Wolverines’ three losses, opponents have averaged 459 yards of offense.

“The challenge is, I’m talking about as a full group, what the heck can we do to make sure that doesn’t happen?” Nua said. “It comes from passion, leadership. Let’s get the fricking mindset right. I’m sick and tired of all these wasted opportunities. That’s the motivation is just pride. Where the frick is our pride? Let’s put that on the table and let’s go kick some butt. Those numbers, that is not Michigan football.”

Hutchinson was injured the first series of the Indiana game and has undergone surgery on his ankle that will prevent him from playing the rest of the season. Paye was injured late in the third quarter at Indiana and missed last week’s game, as well. Nua said Paye is working to get back from the injury that Michigan has not disclosed.

With both of them unable to play, defensive tackle Carlo Kemp moved outside against the Badgers and Taylor Upshaw started at the other end. Chris Hinton and Donovan Jeter started at the tackles.

"The experience that they get is invaluable,” Nua said of Hinton and Jeter. “It’s constantly strengthening their foundation of them just continuing to become better players. Unfortunately, their progression and their time came a lot faster than we thought with Kwity and Aidan out, but it’s a good opportunity for all of them.”

He mentioned Gabe Newburg, Luiji Vilain and Upshaw also gaining valuable experience.

Hinton, who was a five-star recruit, considers himself his hardest critic and said he knows he can play better.

“Obviously, we haven’t been getting the results that we’ve been wanting,” Hinton said. “It doesn’t matter how well I’ve been playing, there’s ways that I can play even better to maybe hopefully impact the game even more. As a D-line we feel the same way. At this point, it doesn’t matter how well we play because the results have not been what we’ve been wanting. We look at ourselves in the mirror, just have to improve every week, every day.”

Michigan is tied for 94th out of 121 ranked teams in sacks per game (1.5) and tied for 112th out of 126 teams in tackles for loss per game (four).

Hinton said the linemen have been oh-so-close to getting to the quarterback, but have been just off. Michigan had no sacks against Michigan State and Indiana and only one against Wisconsin.

“A lot of teams have been doing max protection and play-action and a lot of quick throws,” Hinton said. “You see the quarterbacks we’ve been playing against are getting the ball out really fast. If you watch, we’re one step away or one second away from getting a sack.”

Hinton is trying to work on ways to combat the quick throws.

“I try to get my hands up, try to deflect passes, because a lot of these short passes are low to the line of scrimmage, so I have a good chance,” he said. “I have long arms and I have a good knack for where the ball will be to get my hands up and try to deflect passes and change the game in that sense.

“Maybe just change up some pass rushes, because you don’t have that much time, just try to get there quicker. You just try to find things here and there to get there faster. It’s hard. There’s no excuse. We still have to be able to execute and get pressure on the quarterback and get hits on the quarterback, because that’s the name of the game.”

The line has missed Hutchinson and Paye.

“This sport is the next-man-up mentality,” Hinton said. “Everybody has to pick up their role. If we all just step up in certain areas here and there we can eliminate that gap with them being absent. As a D-line we’re extremely hard on ourselves in the meeting room and the practice field. Coach Nua holds us a to a high standard. I have full faith in my teammates to step up in areas needed to eliminate that void.”

Practices, Hinton said, have been focused on details in an effort to slow anything coming at them. Rutgers is Game 5 of the eight-game schedule, and then the Big Ten teams will play a “bonus” crossover game. But first things first and that’s the defensive line trying to find a way against the Scarlet Knights.

“I feel like we’ve been practicing well these past couple of weeks,” Hinton said. “We need to hone in on specific details, smaller details here and there throughout different periods to make sure when it comes down to Saturday, we’re locked down 100%.”

Michigan at Rutgers

► Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, SHI Stadium, Piscataway, New Jersey

► TV/radio: BTN/950

► Records: Michigan 1-3, Rutgers 1-3

► Line: Michigan by 10

Twitter: @chengelis