Ann Arbor — This was an eye-opener, the type of bludgeoning that leaves a mark, and can make a mark. Michigan’s steady improvement just erupted into something more, elevating expectations in the process.
Until now, Jim Harbaugh and his staff were selling an ideal, a return to the old Michigan ways. This was the ideal on full display for the first time, dominant in all facets. Michigan blasted No. 22 Brigham Young 31-0 Saturday, and while it doesn’t automatically alter timetables, it sure alters perceptions.
The Wolverines weren’t expected to contend for anything this season, but when the Big Ten opens next weekend, they’ll draw some murmurs, and maybe a spot in the Top 25. It’s not because the Big Ten’s behemoths, Ohio State and Michigan State, have shown weakness. It’s because Michigan, four games into the Harbaugh era, is showing strength.
Improvement has been obvious, especially on the smothering defense. It’s dangerous to draw conclusions on four non-conference games, but if you look at the bookends, it’s hard to ignore. Michigan opened with a 24-17 loss at Utah, unable to run the ball or stuff the quarterback. In demolishing Brigham Young, Michigan stuffed flashy freshman Tanner Mangum and trucked the Cougars with tough runs, including an all-time classic by De’Veon Smith.
The Wolverines defense is legitimate, and it reduced the Mangum magic dust to ashes. The Cougars came in averaging 30.3 points per game and 432.3 yards. They finished with 105 total yards and were 4-of-15 on third downs. Mangum was 12-of-28 and was sacked three times, and Brigham Young was forced into six straight three-and-outs.
“We’re not gonna get out in front of our headlights and start patting ourselves on the back,” Harbaugh said. “But it’s been good. I felt like the secondary has really been coming on, playing with so much more confidence. I don’t know about being on schedule or ahead of schedule, just gotta keep doing what we’re doing. It’s coming, it’s coming together.”
Defense where it starts
In beating Oregon State (35-7), UNLV (28-7) and Brigham Young, Michigan (3-1) surrendered two touchdowns in 12 quarters. The Cougars (2-2) were at the end of a brutal stretch and played like a team that lost its fight, as the Wolverines recorded their first shutout since 2012.
“They're a big, physical, tough football team, and our injuries reflected that,” Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “They're asking their quarterback just to do enough in the right settings, and they can rely on their defense while that happens. By far the best team we've played in the four games."
That’s a strong statement, considering Brigham Young played Nebraska, Boise State and UCLA. And Jake Rudock is getting better at doing just enough — he didn’t throw an interception and ran for 33 key yards.
Harbaugh has entrusted defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin with the task of stifling opposing offenses so Rudock isn’t pressed to do more. If the Wolverines’ secondary is as good as it appears — Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling at the corners, Jabrill Peppers and Jarrod Wilson at safety — it can stick in man-to-man coverage and give the line time to attack.
Linebacker-tackle Mario Ojemudia and tackles Chris Wormley, Willie Henry and Ryan Glasgow have been relentless. Now, will they be as relentless against heightened competition? We’ll see, but in most Big Ten games, is the competition really heightened? A trip to Maryland is next, and the Terps just got wrecked by West Virginia 45-6.
“We improve every week and you can see it on the stat sheet and on the field,” Ojemudia said. “Every single person has learned so much since the Utah game. I know I feel way more comfortable than I did the first game.”
Not forcing things
Harbaugh sets the tone with his unwavering positive demeanor, creating a self-assurance the Wolverines haven’t possessed. For instance, after Rudock was criticized for turnovers, Harbaugh adamantly supported him, and the quarterback seems to add a new element — runs, screens, bootlegs — each week.
Amara Darboh is a big-play receiver who hadn’t made big plays yet, but no one forced it. And there was Darboh, a brand-new American citizen after getting sworn-in this week, making a spectacular, one-handed, 21-yard catch that led to the first touchdown, a 3-yard run by Rudock.
And what about Smith, an imposing runner who hadn’t shown great instincts or moves? Harbaugh stuck with him early and now rides him hard, and Smith bashed for 125 yards. He hurt his right ankle in the third quarter but appeared OK afterward, certainly no worse than Brigham Young defensive back Michael Davis.
Davis was the last unfortunate defender who tried to bring down Smith on a 60-yard touchdown run that was as perfectly punishing as you’ll ever see. Smith disappeared into a scrum past the line of scrimmage, then emerged in full rumble, bouncing off tacklers and carrying Davis about 15 yards before throwing him aside and churning to the end zone.
“To be honest, I thought I was down,” Smith said. “Once I got to the second level, I knew for a fact I was not letting No. 15 (Davis) tackle me.”
Backs are battling defenders for extra yards, and battling each other for playing time. It’s the competitive swirl that Harbaugh promised to bring, and it’s most evident on that deep, experienced defense. This was a pummeling that looked like a pronouncement, that perhaps more is possible sooner than expected.