Niyo: Michigan's defense ready to deliver some payback

John Niyo, The Detroit News
Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis

Ann Arbor — It was just one awkward moment among many during what now feels like a long-ago lost decade of Michigan football.

But three years ago, as then-Michigan coach Brady Hoke sat and answered questions about facing the Wolverines’ in-state rivals, he couldn’t help but sound jealous. Talking about the Spartans’ defense, he noted there were “probably five or six pro players on that defense.” And when asked how many were on his roster, he paused for a long while before answering diplomatically, “Less than five or six.”

Now the tables have turned, and listening to Jourdan Lewis talk as No. 2 Michigan kicked off another rivalry week Monday, it wasn’t hard to imagine where all this could be headed.

It’s Jim Harbaugh who’ll show up in East Lansing with the smothering defense Saturday, an experienced unit that ranks No. 1 in the nation in multiple categories — scoring defense, pass defense, third-down defense, total defense, you name it — and one that boasts multiple NFL prospects. More than five or six, to be sure.

“Oh, it’s a lot — definitely,” laughed Lewis, the All-America cornerback who passed up the NFL draft last year to return for his senior season. “I couldn’t even put a number on it. It’s unbelievable the talent that you see right now, especially in that front seven.”

And that’s why it’s hard not to see Saturday’s game at Spartan Stadium ending the way the game in 2013 did. Only this time it won’t be the Wolverines getting “bullied” the way they did — by their own admission — in a 29-6 rout that was far more painful than the final score indicated. Michigan State’s defense “basically lived in the backfield” that afternoon — according to cornerback Darqueze Dennard, one of those eventual pros Hoke was referring to — and by the game’s end they’d racked up seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss.

Lewis wasn’t predicting anything like that Monday. But the Detroit native acknowledges he really doesn’t have much patience for trash talk. He rolled his eyes at some of the social-media sniping this summer from Michigan State’s Jon Reschke (“100 days till they get locked in our stadium for 60 minutes again”) and RJ Williamson, among others.

“It’s kind of annoying,” Lewis said. “Let’s just focus on the game.”

Tables turned

Clearly, the Wolverines would rather focus on that than the recent history, losing seven of the last eight in this series, including last season’s infamous finish in Ann Arbor as the Spartans won on a botched punt returned for a touchdown as time expired. But as much as that loss lingers, it’s the ones that came before it that left an even bigger impression.

Wiser Wolverines have moved on from heartbreak

“Just seeing how dominant they were against our offense, and basically us having no hope in the game,” Lewis said of the losses in 2013 and ’14. “That stings more, when you see it’s not even competitive anymore, really. Just they’re out there doing whatever they want to do.”

And that’s what the Wolverines want to do this year, though they won’t come right out and say it.

Harbaugh, for his part, was typically austere Monday when asked about facing the Spartans.

“Our preparations will need to be at their best,” he said. “I don’t have much more to say about it than that. That says it all.”

The point spread suggests something else, however. Michigan was installed as a 21 1/2-point road favorite by oddsmakers, the largest spread in this series since 1992. And with Michigan State mired in a five-game losing streak, ranked ahead of only Rutgers in the Big Ten in total offense and scoring offense, it certainly looks like a mismatch.

Relentless approach

It’s not just that Michigan is averaging 48.7 points per game this season. Or that the Wolverines’ defensive front, backed by coordinator Don Brown’s aggressive blitz scheme, is so disruptive “that the quarterback has no time to even look my way, or anybody’s way,” Lewis said.

It’s also their head coach’s relentless approach on the sidelines. In Saturday’s 41-8 rout of Illinois, Harbaugh ran a fake punt with his team up 34-0 in the fourth quarter. He also challenged a third-down spot on the game’s final possession, and Monday he was still incredulous over the replay review that didn’t go in his favor.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a worse call in the game of football,” Harbaugh said.

Asked about that mentality Monday, Lewis just smiled. Yes, he admitted, he felt sorry for Rutgers in that 78-0 blowout a few weeks ago. But not nearly as bad as he felt a few years ago walking off the field at Spartan Stadium.

So if you’re asking him to choose sides, well, don’t even bother.

“You’ve got to be competitive in this game,” Lewis said. “There’s no mercy.”

Especially this week. @John_Niyo