Wojo: Hungry Michigan ‘D’ feeds on big moment
Ann Arbor – It was handsomely homely, throwback Big Ten football dominated by defense and marked by miscues. And for Michigan, the tightest victory of the year was the most telling, and easily the most important, so far.
The Wolverines confirmed their overwhelming strength – an experienced, mauling defense – and reiterated their concerns – field-goal kicking and the offensive line. But the most crucial development in their 14-7 victory over the Badgers Saturday is that they beat an excellent opponent the way you sometimes have to do it, when the offense is stalling.
Almost all the spectacular plays came on defense, including an incredible one-handed, leaping interception by Jourdan Lewis to snuff out Wisconsin’s last gasp. Less-celebrated cornerback Channing Stribling was just as good, with two interceptions.
“Defensively, it was an A-plus plus,” Jim Harbaugh said. “Defense was our shining star. Outstanding. Awesome with a capital A.”
He could’ve gone on, but he was threatening to commit synonym overload.
“I appreciate the style of football, no question about it,” Harbaugh continued. “It’s a good style of football, it’s been a winning style of football for us in five games, and it’s been a winning style of football for Wisconsin.”
It’s the style of football played here for a few decades, not quarterback-reliant, not flash-focused, just physical. Fourth-ranked Michigan beat a top-10 team – Wisconsin was eighth – for the first time in eight years, and there’s a reason it took so long. The Wolverines haven’t fielded a defense like this in a long time, with playmakers at every level, and they’re finally getting whole again.
Linemen Taco Charlton and Brian Mone are back. Lewis returned last week, and based on his first two games, you could argue he’s Michigan’s best defensive player, partly because Jabrill Peppers’ duties are spread so widely. When whole, Michigan’s defense is wholly loaded. Incredibly, 10 of the 11 defenders who started against Wisconsin are seniors, with Peppers (an NFL candidate for sure) the lone junior. For a team that hasn’t won the Big Ten since 2004, that’s a lot of pent-up hunger, and a lot of incentive to get things done now.
Coordinator Don Brown may be Dr. Blitz, but he couldn’t implement it without talented cornerbacks and a deep defensive line. Michigan saw what everybody saw last week, when Wisconsin redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook made numerous clutch throws in a 30-6 victory over Michigan State. On Saturday, he was four-for-15 on third-down conversions and finished nine-for-25 for 88 yards. Michigan more than doubled Wisconsin in total yards (349-159) and first downs (21-8), and dominated time of possession.
The Badgers are legitimate, in case their victories over LSU and the Spartans didn’t convince people. Their defensive front is tremendous, and sacked Wilton Speight four times. But basically, they were just trying to hang in and wait for an opening, and hope the Wolverines would overdose on mistakes.
There was a series of inexplicable false-start penalties, although Harbaugh disputed them, suggesting the Badgers were illegally mimicking the signal-caller’s cadences. The biggest concern was three missed field goals, 31- and 43-yarders by Kenny Allen, and a 40-yarder by Ryan Tice. Needless to say, that competition is wide open again, and more needless to say, missed field goals in taut games can be disastrous.
The Wolverines dodged it this time, thanks to a perfect 46-yard strike by Speight to Amara Darboh for the winning touchdown with 7:56 left. And they still have to show they can take their defensive show on the road. Their first trip of the season is next week against Rutgers, but the ultimate tests haven’t changed – at Michigan State, at Ohio State.
Michigan’s offensive struggles against Wisconsin weren’t a surprise. Harbaugh is still searching for a more-consistent line and a big-play back, and is trying to diversify the offense, which is why he’s using Peppers more and more. Twice, Peppers took the snap in the wildcat formation and handed the ball to Ty Isaac for decent chunks of yardage.
You have a wildly skilled guy like Peppers, you utilize him as much as possible. Ideally, you wouldn’t need him so much on offense. Defense is where Michigan’s championship hopes reside, and after they grabbed the lead, they were especially suffocating.
Wisconsin’s final three drives: Three-and-out, Stribling interception, Lewis interception. Wisconsin’s fourth-quarter total yards: 23.
Lewis’ leaping interception stirred images of the Charles Woodson classic against Michigan State in 1997, and it was the highlight of a smothering finish. It didn’t come against an experienced quarterback, but it did come against a big, bruising opponent.
“We’ve been through hard times, a tough road,” Lewis said. “It’s a great feeling. It’s not that they were ranked eighth, it’s that we’re finishing games, which we’re not really used to. We’re equipped now to finish them.”
With all those seniors, finishing has multiple meanings. This was the first time this season the defenders had to take so much upon themselves. There will be a next time, and a more important time, but they look more and more equipped to handle it.