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Grading the 2015 Michigan Wolverines Defense

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—With exception to Boston College, there is no team in the land that can top the Michigan defense.

That’s on paper, of course.

On the field, well, that’s different.

The Wolverines’ No. 2-ranked total defense (203.8 YPG) has shut-out opponents in 10 of the past 12 quarters. It has suffocated quarterbacks to the point where they have produced mere fractions of expected output.

That defense–led by an “incredible” front line, according to right guard Kyle Kalis–gives up 9.5 points per game and ranks in the top 10 nationally in just about every major statistical area. Kalis knows the ins and outs of Michigan’s D-line better than opponents–he faces it every day in practice.

In terms of the Big Ten, coordinator D.J. Durkin’s defense is essentially in a class by itself. Sure, the top-rated Nebraska rushing defense gives up 73.5 yards per game compared to Michigan’s 82.5. But those nine yards are a needle in a haystack when looking at the running threats crossed out by Michigan’s D-line.

Utah’s Devontae Booker, one of the best in the nation, was held to 69 yards on 22 carries. And just one touchdown.

In 2014, Booker rushed for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns. Prior to this fall, he was considered to be a potential Heisman candidate–so stopping him certainly bodes well for Michigan.

And it’s not like Booker is having a down year, either. He was two yards shy of 100 during the Utes’ 62-20 thrashing of Oregon. He threw 156 yards and two touchdowns at Fresno State (W, 45-24) and  120 yards and a touchdown at Utah State (W, 24-14).

Oregon State quarterback Seth Collins has serious potential. A week ago, the freshman threw for 275 yards and a touchdown during a 42-24 loss to Stanford. He also rushed for a touchdown. The dual-threat in him is strong, and he looks to be getting better. He also looked very good in wins over San Jose State and Weber State.

His worst game of the year? His 79-yard passing, 17-yard rushing performance during a 35-7 loss to Michigan.

As a whole, everything looks to be coming together for the Wolverines. The secondary is evolving and the linebackers are beginning to take a little more control. The defensive line is one of the best in the nation.

At 3-1, the Wolverines–who face Maryland (2-2) on Saturday–are in position to compete for a Big Ten East title.

The offense has helped out in certain cases–it just put up 31 points versus then No. 22-ranked BYU–but the defense has carried the majority of the load.

That’s how 31-0 happens.

Now it’s time to grade and analyze it.

Against the Run–A+

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 12 Oregon State at Michigan

Michigan is allowing crumbs on the ground.

Michigan has the No. 2-ranked rushing defense in the Big Ten (82.5 YPG) and has given up just two touchdowns–it also allows just and 2.6 yards per carry. Michigan (tied with Iowa) is second to Penn State in that category–the Nittany Lions surrender 2.5 yards per rush.

In terms of touchdowns allowed, only Iowa has been better than Michigan. The Hawkeyes haven’t given up a rushing score all year. Nebraska has given up a league-low 294 rushing yards. The Wolverines have allowed 330 yards on the ground.

First and foremost, the importance of accountability is very high in Ann Arbor. After losing 24-17 to Utah, senior linebacker and captain Joe Bolden admitted to missing a touchdown-saving tackle–Utes quarterback Travis Wilson ran up the middle, essentially untouched.

Bolden should have had him.

Since then, he’s elevated his tackling prowess and leads the team with 26 takedowns. He also had an 18-yard fumble recovery during Michigan’s win over the Beavers. That, and a team-high seven tackles. Bolden’s been a big part of the linebackers’ recent success.

Along with fifth-year senior Desmond Morgan, who has 21 stops, Bolden leads a position group that’s responsible for roughly 70 of Michigan’s 131 tackles. The linebackers have also helped the Wolverines leverage eight sacks this season.

Redshirt junior defensive tackle Matt Godin has stepped in as valuable contributor–he had a career-high four stop vs. UNLV (W, 28-7) and was called one of the team’s fiercest pass-rushers/run-stoppers by fellow lineman Ryan Glasgow, who battles alongside Godin on daily basis in practice.

Redshirt sophomore Maurice Hurst has evolved into a run-stopping threat. He’s consistently in the backfield, pursuing running backs, and has picked up a team-high two sacks in the process.

BYU scraped together 105 total yards this past Saturday. The Cougars couldn’t pass the ball, so they tried to run–and the Wolverines held them to 50 yards–or 10 fewer than De’Veon Smith’s 60-yard touchdown trot.

UNLV rushed for 92 yards on 36 attempts. Oregon State rushed for 59 yards on 33 attempts. Utah, aided by a dose of Booker, racked up 127 yards on the Wolverines in Week 1. Wilson, the quarterback, helped pad that total with a 14-yard touchdown run.

But the Utes still averaged just 3.4 yards per carry–a clip that’s on par with or better than 18 of the NCAA’s top 50 rushing defenses.

Against the Pass–A


Michigan’s pass defense has tightened up since Week 1.

Michigan has the No. 1-ranked pass defense in the Big Ten, giving up a stingy 121.2 yards per game. The Wolverines have surrendered two passing touchdowns and have intercepted three passes. More importantly, they’ve allowed just 485 total yards this season.

Nebraska, which has the No. 1-ranked rushing defense, happens to have the No. 14-ranked passing defense in the league, giving up 379.5 yards per game. Just some food for thought, and it’s further evidence of Michigan’s defense being in a class by itself in the Big Ten.

“Ball Hawk” Jourdan Lewis is the clear-cut leader of the secondary. The 5’10,” 175-pound junior has six of the team’s 13 pass break-ups. His aggressive nature has propelled the Wolverines, who have yet to be dominated by a wide receiver.

BYU’s receivers were supposed to hurt Michigan. Three of BYU’s top five pass-catchers had significant size advantages over standard-sized defensive backs. Despite being smaller, Lewis actually heads a group that has a handful of 6’1″ and 6’2″–or better–pass defenders.

Jabrill Peppers, a redshirt freshman, has also factored into recent success. His play versus BYU forced Tanner Mangum to second-guess throwing over the middle. With the outside covered by Lewis and junior corner Channing Stribling, options were very limited for the Cougars’ freshman quarterback.

With exception to Wilson, who threw for 210 yards during Utah’s win, a quarterback has yet to severely ding the Wolverines’ secondary. In fact, he has 210 of a total 487 on the year.

Opponents have thrown 107 times versus Michigan. Twenty-three of the top-50 defenses have faced more attempts. Michigan’s secondary is sending a message: Try if you dare.

“You know, we take a lot of pride in what we do,” Peppers said of the “personality” of Michigan’s defense. “In terms of aggressive, coach likes to play man-to-man, he likes to mix in some zone.

When we get a chance to get in somebody’s face, we’re going to make sure that our presence is felt–whether it’s a hit, a tackle, or breaking up a pass, interceptions… you know, we just want to make them think twice before they think about putting that ball in the air.”

Read more about the “personality” of Michigan’s secondary

Missed tackles and assignments, not precision passing, has been the position’s group defect. It’s in the middle of being corrected, and once that happens, there won’t be any reason to question Wolverines safeties and corners.

Michigan vs. Maryland Prediction

Normally, I write a preview/prediction for upcoming games, but the recent grading series can be applied to Saturday’s game versus Maryland. Just plug in the Terps’ stats vs. Michigan’s numbers. Due to weather, Hurricane Joaquin, the Wolverines and Terps rescheduled for noon instead of staying with an 8 p.m. kickoff Saturday.

Michigan is 3-0 in noon games, if that matters, and I expect that record to be pushed to 4-0 after disposing of Maryland, 27-10. I’d call for a higher score, but I’m envisioning a game ruined by rain. The Weather Channel says that massive flooding is possible–and the rain will probably prevent both teams from throwing the ball.

The Terps have the No. 7-ranked rushing offense in the Big Ten, averaging 196 yards per game (5.9 per carry). Expect them to try, but not succeed, against the Wolverines increasingly effective D-line.

Check out the grades for the offense

Follow Adam Biggers of Today’s U on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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