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'Gotta finish the mission': UM defense under Macdonald keys Big Ten title shot

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Indianapolis —  In one of those full-circle moments, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is returning to Lucas Oil Stadium for the Big Ten Championship Game where four months ago he took the podium at Big Ten Media Days and said the team would “die trying” to beat rivals Michigan State and Ohio State and win a championship.

Michigan didn’t get that win over Michigan State, the only smudge on its 11-1 season, but the Wolverines did rally to win the final four games, including a 42-27 victory against Ohio State last week, snapping the Buckeyes’ eight-game winning streak in the series and its stranglehold on the Big Ten East.

Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson hits Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud last Saturday.

Now, the Wolverines, ranked No. 2 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, will face Iowa (10-2, No. 13 in CFP) Saturday night for the Big Ten title. A win is expected to send Michigan to the national playoff semifinals.

Both teams have strong defenses. Iowa leads the nation with 22 interceptions and is third with 28 takeaways. Michigan is ranked 13th nationally, yielding an average 315.7 yards a game and is ninth in scoring, allowing an average 17.2 points.

More: Detroit News scouting report: Michigan vs. Iowa, Big Ten Championship Game

The Wolverines have been described as a balanced team, a complete team playing complementary football. And that seems to be an accurate assessment. But there has been an enormous change on defense, and that starts with first-year coordinator Mike Macdonald, the 34-year-old Harbaugh hired from the Baltimore Ravens, where he spent the previous seven seasons working under coach John Harbaugh.

Back in July at Big Ten Media Days, Harbaugh, in his seventh season coaching the Wolverines, shared that his older brother, in their discussions about staff hires at Michigan, is the one who recommended Macdonald.

“Yeah, this is the guy I would hire,” Jim Harbaugh said his brother told him.

It was an assist that Jim Harbaugh was grateful to receive.

“I even asked him, ‘John, it’s pretty awesome you would recommend somebody you think so highly of that’s on your staff,’” Harbaugh said in July. “He said, ‘Well, I really love Michigan football and I really love you, so I want to see you both be successful.’”

Months later and an Ohio State win under their belts after Macdonald’s defense held the Buckeyes’ prolific offense to 64 rushing yards and 27 points, Harbaugh said that is further evidence he made the right decision.

“The teams we had to play to win the championship and hire in the best possible defensive coordinator that we could, those were the things I was looking for,” Harbaugh said this week. “That’s pretty much exactly what I said to my brother.”

Ask the current players why the defense has been so successful, and they all immediately point to Macdonald.

“He’s done a ton,” defensive tackle Mazi Smith said this week. “I don’t know if we’d be where we are without him. I know we wouldn’t.

“I give him credit in the way that he gave us the ability to take the reins of the defense. In our first meeting, he said, ‘This is your defense, and we’re only going to go as far as you want to go. I’m telling you how to get it done, but it’s up to y’all to go out there and get it done.’”

The defense is Macdonald’s, but since that first meeting, through spring practice and the preseason and then the season, he made the lines of communication between players and the defensive coaches wide open. Players have been encouraged to ask questions and make suggestions.

“You’ve got to take ownership of what you take pride in, in being part of a defensive unit,” Smith said. “We all got to take ownership and pride in what we do within his scheme. I think that’s what he was trying to get at.”

Macdonald has had the luxury of having edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson to build the defense. Hutchinson, named the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year and the Defensive Lineman of the Year, back in July hinted at how versatile Macdonald’s defense would be this season. And within that scheme, his game would be enhanced as has been proven by his single-season program-record 13 sacks.

“None of this would be possible without my teammates doing their thing, without coach Mac coming in and really changing the scheme here at Michigan,” Hutchinson said Tuesday on the Big Ten Network after earning those awards. “It’s really a culmination of a lot of people that don’t get this recognition but really deserve it.”

Macdonald throughout the season has downplayed his role.

Michigan defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald.

“We’ve had the same mentality throughout the season,” Macdonald said on the “Inside Michigan Football” radio show this week. “We’re trying to play complementary football. We’re trying to play a team game, we’re trying to win games. Whatever it takes to win the game, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

What he has changed is scheme after he took over from Don Brown, who Harbaugh dismissed a year ago after five seasons with Michigan. But Macdonald also changed the mental approach the players have taken. He wasn’t at top form in the Michigan State game, substitution issues getting the best of them against a hurry-up, but that was corrected for the final four-game push.

The high point clearly was the Ohio State win.

“We just tried to give our guys confidence,” he said. “What we said was, ‘Hey, look, these guys are going to make plays. They’re great players. They’ve got a good system. But we’re really good players, too, and we have a good system.’

“With the zones and the mans, we try to change things up just so it’s not the same thing over and over again for our guys and give them relief every once in a while. You’ve got to give credit to our back seven guys. They played their butts off, and they were relentless.”

With elite pass rushers in Hutchinson and David Ojabo going against the Hawkeyes, ranked 13th in the Big Ten in sacks allowed, the Michigan defense will have to continue its relentless ways.

“(Iowa has a) different style of offense than we’ve played the last half of the season,” Macdonald said. “Some things we’re gonna have to kinda dust off a little bit, but we’ll be ready to go.

“We’ve gotta finish the mission.”

And that starts with defense.

Twitter: @chengelis