Neither Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald or Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh would say so, but Saturday’s match-up between the No. 13-ranked Wildcats and No. 18-ranked Wolverines in Ann Arbor isn’t exactly being billed as a homecoming of powerful offenses.
No, it’ll be a display of top-rated defenses—Michigan’s No. 2-ranked ensemble versus that of Northwestern’s No. 5-ranked group. The 5-0 (1-0 Big Ten) Wildcats, however, have the Big Ten’s No. 1-ranked scoring defense (7.0 PPG), while the 4-1 (1-0 B1G) Wolverines sit at No. 2 (7.6 PPG).
They’re good. Really good.
But everyone’s playing coy. Everyone’s shifting the focus.
It’s not all about defense vs. defense. Not in the slightest bit.
“It’s part of it, yeah. The offenses, special teams, are all equal parts of the game,” Harbaugh said (opening question in video).
But will Saturday be a bout? Something like a title fight? Michigan has allowed 24 rushing first downs compared to Northwestern’s 35 on the ground. Big Ten teams pound the rock. With 285 attempts, the Wildcats lead the Big Ten. The Wolverines have rushed 207 times.
The ball probably won’t move a lot on Saturday, right?!
“The two defenses won’t go against each other (crowd laughs),” said Harbaugh, gesturing a collision with his hands. “They won’t face each other… so we’re looking at the way you always look at it… as three phases. We want to win each of those phases.”
During the Big Ten conference call on Tuesday, Fitzgerald—just like Harbaugh—said that games are decided by more than defensive lines, linebackers, safeties and corners.
“I think you look at trying to get all three phases prepared to go out and execute and play the best that they can at 3:30 Eastern on Saturday,” Fitzgerald said. “I mean, it’s–coaches typically just watch the tape and try to find ways to create plans to be successful in all three phases.”
Fitzgerald mentioned that most coaches don’t view games as one position group vs. one position group.
But what about the rest of us who see it differently?
Ahh, well, that’s why they coach. They don’t get too hyped up either way, which is probably a good thing when it comes to breaking down numbers. Numbers don’t win games, players who make plays win games. Surprisingly enough, neither coach said that when hit with their team’s shining defensive stats.
Guess we’ll find out Saturday.
In 2014, Michigan finished the year with the No. 7-ranked total defense, giving up 4.77 yards per play. This year, Michigan allows just 3.10 yards per play, and it has been particularly effective against the run.
Check the Wolverines’ average of 2.32 yards per carry for evidence of their incredible resilience while facing the rush. On the other hand, it doesn’t really matter how many yards opposing teams get per carry if they can’t get into the endzone.
Michigan has given up 38 points this year; its kicker, Kenny Allen, has 33 points on the season.
Northwestern has been stingy, too; it’s allowed just 35.
In terms of red-zone efficiency, not many teams get the job done against Northwestern. Opponents of the Wildcats are a paltry 6-for-10 while inside the 20-yard line, while those of the Wolverines are a surprisingly good 5-for-6. But most of that damage was done by Utah (L, 24-17) and Oregon State (W, 35-7)–and there was that one passing touchdown by UNLV (W, 28-7).
Since then, Michigan has been pretty stingy. It’s red-zone average would be better if it allowed teams to get that fair. Yards are difficult to obtain.
Points have been even more of a challenge.
Joe Bolden, a senior linebacker and captain, is proud of Michigan’s 14-for-16 streak of shut-out quarters.
But he wouldn’t mind having 16-for-16 on his team’s resume. He strives for zero points, like his teammates, and he’s always intent on stuffing the run. If a team does that, it has better chances of winning, says Bolden.
Watch the video below to hear Bolden speak about defense vs. defense (he agrees with Harbaugh) and a potential special year for Michigan.
The Wolverines’ secondary is one the rise, but it’s heavily relied upon the strength of the D-line—which has depth that most teams “would kill” to have, says defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow, who has evolved into one of the best D-linemen in the Big Ten.
Michigan coaches have used various terms—including “scraping the ground”—while describing the action of the front four, which has been powered by Glasgow, a 6’4,” 297-pound redshirt junior who never wants to give up a yard…
…let alone 2.32 per run or 3.10 otherwise.
But the term “scraping the ground” hasn’t made its way to Glasgow—but whatever it’s called by whomever, it works pretty well for Michigan, which has surrendered just two rushing touchdowns all year.
“You know, I’m not too familiar with the phrase—but the thing that pops into my head is kind of just like getting down and dirty and just like being really gritty out there and just trying to blow back the person in front of you and win your match-ups,” said Glasgow when asked to elaborate.
That’s what that means to me.”
Fair enough. Glasgow’s done that. Redshirt sophomore Maurice Hurst has done that—so have redshirt juniors Matt Godin and Willie Henry. In fact, Godin and Henry have been two of the most tenacious, other than Glasgow, throughout the first five games.
Hurst has three sacks. Godin has 1.5. As a team, the Wolverines have 11 of them—a total that’s actually only good for No. 8 in the Big Ten. Then again, Northwestern has nine sacks. At the end of the day, sack totals are a good way to gauge the intensity of a defensive line–but they’re not always the tell-all, as clearly made evident by this year’s Wolverines and Wildcats.
Pressure counts for something, and each team pressures as well as anyone in the country.
It’ll take a lot more than Northwestern’s No. 9-ranked total offense (Big Ten) to pierce the Michigan defense, which has been masterminded by coordinator D.J. Durkin, D-line coach Greg Mattison and secondary coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Zordich from the get-go.
There has been zero lag.
It’s called an incredible upgrade to an already great platform constructed by Mattison.
Likewise, it’ll take a lot more than Michigan’s No. 8-ranked total offense (Big Ten) to penetrate Northwestern’s end zone. The Wolverines haven’t dazzled the scoring columns. They led Maryland 6-0 at halftime before completing a 28-0 shutout and carried a 31-0 lead into the break before finishing BYU by the same score.
Michigan has the Big Ten’s No. 9-ranked scoring offense (27.8 PPG). Northwestern has the league’s No. 11-ranked scoring offense (25.4 PPG). Again, nothing much to see here.
But Saturday isn’t supposed to be about defense vs. defense. The defenses won’t directly face one another, and “all three phases of the game” will certainly come into play, just like the coaches and players say. But Fitzgerald, Harbaugh and Bolden have been modest.
They know that Michigan’s homecoming is going to be a brutal test of endurance between two of the best lines in the country. They know that some of the country’s top defensive backs, linemen and linebackers are about to collide this weekend.
They can play it cool and say otherwise, though.
But they’ll just end up reaffirming the popular opinion this Saturday.
“You know, we haven’t really reached our goals yet—we’re only five games into the season,” Glasgow said of the state of defense as it relates to the 14-for-16 quarter shutout streak and overall dominance of the defense. “But our goal every play is just beat the man in front of us—and when you do that, good things will happen. When you don’t beat the man in front of you, you’re letting the guy to the left of you and the guy to the right of you down.
So our goal every play is just beat the guy in front of us.”
Follow Adam Biggers of Today’s U on Twitter @AdamBiggers81