Wojo: When Wolverines' offense thumps like their defense, watch out

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan defensive back Lavert Hill (24) and his teammates celebrate after Hill scored a touchdown after an interception in the fourth quarter.

Ann Arbor — The offense is doing impressive things it hasn’t done before, pounding for tough yards, completing tight passes. The defense is doing crazy things it has done before, only more convincingly, more consistently.

The Wolverines put it all together as resoundingly as imaginable Saturday night, dismantling Wisconsin 38-13 at Michigan Stadium. But it wasn’t the outcome that resonated. It was the punishing way it was achieved. You wondered what would happen if Michigan ever developed a thumping offense to match its dominating defense, and perhaps we might find out.

Good timing for the Wolverines, because they’re about to jump from one physical clash to another. Michigan State dispelled rumors of its demise with a stunning 21-17 victory at Penn State, winning precisely as it often wins big games. For Michigan, this is still a bit new, grinding to the finish against touted opponents.

More: Niyo: Patterson provides the juice as Michigan is electric under the lights

No, Wisconsin didn’t look remotely like the 15th-best team in the country, winner of 10 straight road games and 17 straight Big Ten regular-season games. You almost had to double-check those numbers to realize they’re real, because Michigan made it all appear like a mirage.

The Wolverines (6-1) probably will be in the top 10 this week, while still carrying a pesky dichotomy — they’ve shown they can be a physically imposing team, yet still have much to prove. This was supposed to be a gut-check, grit-check game, and at halftime, Michigan only led 13-7. But the difference from previous seasons is growing from a theory to a legitimate possibility, looking more like a Jim Harbaugh team is expected to look.

Getting physical

That once-maligned offensive line? It was mauling, as the Wolverines rushed for 320 yards — 105 by Karan Higdon, 90 by Shea Patterson — and thoroughly controlled the second half. Michigan ran for 237 yards after halftime, and we saw how Patterson’s running ability can spread out a defense.

That top-ranked Michigan defense occasionally prone to over-aggressiveness? It smothered the Badgers, holding the nation’s leading rusher, Jonathan Taylor, to 101 yards, and turning quarterback Alex Hornibrook into Hornibroke. At one point, he threw 12 straight incompletions and two interceptions, to Lavert Hill and Josh Metellus. Hill returned his 21 yards for a touchdown to make it 31-7.

“The guys up front, they were really on their assignments, very physical,” Harbaugh said. “In terms of being a physical team, I think we are. Defensively, I can’t talk enough about that. That’s a heckuva back (Taylor) and a really good offensive line.”

The Badgers’ line is loaded with future NFL players, including two possible first-rounders. In four seasons under Paul Chryst, Wisconsin is 38-9. In 101 games since 2011, the Badgers had lost only twice by more than 10 points.

That’s not intended to prematurely pump up the Wolverines, because like I said, they’ve got to do this more often against quality foes before we confirm their identity. We can only go on what we’ve seen, and Michigan has struggled to finish games, especially in last season’s 8-5 disappointment.

Changes were enacted and changes are noticeable, from the power in the trenches to the discipline of the blocking schemes. New strength coach Ben Herbert gets credit, as does new offensive line coach Ed Warinner. As does Patterson, who brings a play-making swagger that seems to lift the entire team. Hey, an 81-yard scamper that led to the game’s first touchdown will do that.

Same with Higdon, who outgained Taylor, partly because he didn’t have to run against Michigan’s defense. The senior captain has become a spirited and vocal leader.

“This was more of a personal game for us,” Higdon said. “A lot of people have a lot of questions about who we are as a team, our offensive line, our run game, they don’t show up in big games. I think that really got laid to rest. We came out, made some great adjustments, and there’s no question we got the best o-line in the country.”

All on the line

It’s amazing that such a statement can even be uttered, but Warinner has stuck with the same five guys, led by guard Ben Bredeson, and the improvement is noteworthy. Bredeson talked about Warinner and Herbert changing the “culture” of the offensive line, putting it on them to finish out games by gaining the toughest yards. It hasn’t come against the most-imposing competition, unless you think Wisconsin’s weak performance was an aberration. If it was, maybe Michigan turned it into an aberration.

The defense, even without injured Rashan Gary, who may or not return for the Michigan State game, made the Badgers look silly. Whatever you think of Hornibrook, he had won 10 straight on the road. In those contests, he had 18 touchdowns and three interceptions. In two games against Michigan, including the Wolverines’ 14-7 victory in 2016, Hornibrook has two touchdowns and five interceptions. He was 7-for-20 for 100 yards Saturday night.

Don Brown’s defense attacked the quarterback as always, but stayed disciplined in the secondary, while the linebackers were instrumental in containing Taylor. Junior Josh Uche had one of Michigan’s two sacks against Wisconsin’s enormous offensive line.

“Just doing what we do, we’ve been a dominant defense all year,” Uche said. “They were coming into our house, trying to take something from us, and we weren’t gonna allow that.”

Michigan returned nine starters from the nation’s No. 3 defense last season, and the maturity should be evident in games like this. I asked Uche what he considers the trademark of this defense, and he considered it for a moment.

“You tell me, speed, toughness, you choose one,” he said. “We just kept pounding, we didn’t even look up, we didn’t care what they were doing, what their game plan was. Every game is a statement victory. It’s win or go home from here on out, to the end of the season, to the championship game.”

To further convince people, they’ll have to find a way to win the next game. The Spartans would’ve been riled up anyhow, but now they should be revived and riled. Michigan State has won eight of the past 10 meetings, and you figure this will be another slugfest.

If there’s a statement to be made, the Wolverines appear capable of making it, more physically capable than they’ve been in a while.


Twitter @bobwojnowski