ANN ARBOR, Mich.–The construction of Michigan’s No. 2-ranked total defense has been the result of a stifling defensive line and assignment-driven linebackers.
But don’t forget about its secondary, which was especially dominant during Saturday’s 38-0 homecoming trouncing of the Northwestern Wildcats.
Because of the Wolverines’ flexing of safeties of corners, the Wildcats–who threw for 130 yards on Saturday–are now at the bottom of the Big Ten’s “passing offense” category.
And because of those boosts from the backfield, the Wolverines now find themselves enjoying three consecutive shutouts–something they haven’t done since 1980. That stretch included a 35-0 blasting of Indiana, a 24-0 sweeping of Wisconsin and 26-0 hammering of then-No. 16-ranked Purdue.
This year, the Wolverines–who are now ranked No. 14 by the Associated Press–have dealt a 31-0 blow to then-No. 22-ranked BYU; they’ve given a 28-0 road shelling to Maryland; and they’re fresh off of a 38-0 manhandling of then-No. 13-ranked Wildcats.
They’ve given up two touchdowns through the air and essentially dare quarterbacks to throw the ball. But they’re just getting started.
“You know, there’s still room for improvement,” said redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers. “We just come in, time in and time out, with a great game plan–it’s just up to us to execute. We have a lot of talented guys who take pride in what they do, and when you have a group of 11 guys who are all doing their job and are hungry to do their job, you know, the sky’s the limit for us.
We’re not going to pat ourselves on the back, you know, and all that other stuff. But it’s time to go down into the gutter of our schedule–and we still to improve on a lot. That’s how we look at it. Just get in the film room tomorrow (Sunday), try to correct our mistakes and take it one game at a time.”
The “gutter” of the schedule includes a meeting with the No. 7-ranked Michigan State Spartans (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten). It’ll be on ESPN this weekend, naturally, but there’s a special twist: Ann Arbor will also be the site of the popular pregame show. It’s kind of like a feather in the cap after, well, a 38-0 annihilation of what was supposed to be a better team.
Michigan (5-1, 2-0 B1G) will face another test in Week 7.
The Spartans are a “good team,” says Peppers. Jourdan Lewis, agrees, and he went one step further during Saturday’s post-game press conference.
“We haven’t seen them on film yet, but we know they’re a good team–a great team, actually,” said Lewis, the cornerstone of the No. 2-ranked pass defense in FBS. But like Peppers, Lewis didn’t want to look too far ahead–they were just moments removed from a monumental win and didn’t want to spoil it with talk of Michigan State.
All of that begins this week, they said.
The Spartans, on the other hand, probably started thinking about Lewis and the Wolverines secondary right after barely escaping Rutgers with a 31-24 victory. Really, judging by the way they played during the game, they may have started thinking about the next week a little too early–like before kicking things off with the Scarlet Knights.
Spartans senior quarterback Connor Cook will have to be masterful Saturday. Getting a seventh win in nine tries will depend his ability to guide the offense.
Cook will also have to be very careful, as Lewis leads the nation with nine pass break-ups.
The 5’10,” 175-pound junior is climbing the individual ranks, garnering more and more praise as he progresses through the season. However, as far as Peppers is concerned, Lewis doesn’t have to climb any further.
He’s already there.
“Jourdan is the best corner in the country, and that makes everbody’s job a lot easier, you know, when you got a guy out there who’s going to shut down half the field–that makes all of our jobs easier,” said Peppers, who had five tackles (1.5 TFL) and three pass break-ups versus the Wildcats.
The 6’1,” 205-pound safety is pretty good, too, but he said that he draws strength from Lewis.
“So you know, (great play is) expected from him–it’s not like, ‘Oh, good job.’ We expect that from Jourdan,” he added.
“Jourdan inspires me to play better, along with Channing (Stribling) and Jeremy (Clark)–the whole secondary. We just feed off each other and just try to make as many plays as we possibly can.”
With a pick-6 in the second quarter, that’s precisely what Lewis did–he made a play. And it’s one that helped cement the win for the Wolverines.
And they didn’t even need two halves to do it.
Video highlight: Watch Lewis take what he wants at 4:30
On 3rd-and-9 from his own 9-yard line, Wildcats redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson made the mistake of throwing the ball in Lewis’ general direction. Oops. Lewis then returned the gifted throw for 37 yards, giving Michigan a commanding 27-0 advantage prior to the extra point.
Was the ball bobbled by Wildcats receiver Mike McHugh, or was it a clean pick?
“Oh no, I took it from him,” said Lewis, who has two interceptions this season. “He had it… he had the ball and I guess he was trying to brace his fall. But it got snatched out of his hands. I didn’t even know I had it. So it was on my leg, soon as a I saw it on my leg, I just started hitting it (running hard).”
Peppers said that the defense wanted to impress against Northwestern’s Big Ten-leading ground attack. Mission accomplished: The Wolverines held Justin Jackson, who was No. 10 in the nation with 636 yards, to just 25 yards on 12 attempts.
Pressing defensive backs and superb pressure from the line helped make that happen.
“You know, that was one of the statements we wanted to make,” said Peppers, who smashed Jackson with a big tackle in the first half. “I guess they were first in the Big Ten in rushing, and we were, I guess, first against rushing. We just wanted to come out here and make a statement.
We knew that they were going to try to run the ball early. We just wanted to fluster them, try to get vertical. You know, the defensive line did a great job all game. The linebackers did a great job of fitting (gaps), it just opened things up for us to make tackles back there in the secondary.
It’s all a collective effort, and we definitely took it personally to try to come out here and make a statement against the run.”
Statement versus the run, the pass–everything. Michigan’s linebackers and D-linemen get a lot of deserved attention. But don’t look past the secondary, especially when Lewis and Peppers are on patrol.
Michigan allowed 2.9 yards per play this past weekend, and it surrendered just 13 first downs. Offensively, well, things were just clicking for Michigan, which piled a season-high 38 points on Northwestern during homecoming.
“Honestly, it’s expected,” Lewis said of his team’s performance. “That excellence is expected from all of our coaches. From Coach (John) Baxter on special teams, from Coach (D.J.) Durkin on defense. And (Tim Drevno) on the offensive side. Their job is to score points. It’s expected.
We have to be great–that’s the standard around here.”
— JJ Sports Video (@jjsportsvideo15) October 10, 2015
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