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After Michigan’s resounding 21-7 win over Michigan State two weeks ago, social media flooded with eye-opening stats in praise of the Wolverines. They outgained the Spartans by 301 yards, held Brian Lewerke to 5/25 passing, and didn’t allow a 50-yard drive. Amid this sea of stats emphasizing Michigan’s dominance, one stood out — it prevented a single conversion on Michigan State’s 12 third downs.
Two weeks later, Penn State and its high-flying offense completed just two of 11 third down opportunities — the same rate Wisconsin managed back in Week Seven.
Much of that third down dominance comes from the positions the Wolverines get themselves into. Their suffocating run defense forces lengthy third down attempts—the Nittany Lions’ nine failed third down attempts came with an average of 8.8 yards to gain.
But it also comes from the type of defense Michigan has.
“We really enjoy getting fast guys out on the field (on third down),” said defensive line coach Greg Mattison. “It’s a passing situation. If you know it’s a passing situation, you’re better with speed. And we happen to have some guys that are a little faster than others.”
When Mattison says that Michigan has some guys that are a little faster than others, its linebacker corps immediately springs to mind. Juniors Khaleke Hudson and Devin Bush are among the best linebacker prospects in next spring’s NFL draft, and both possess top-level speed.
Last weekend, Penn State faced a 2nd and 11 midway through the third quarter, needing a touchdown to get itself back into the game. Running back Miles Sanders got good blocking to the right side, appearing to open a running lane for a first down until he inexplicably bounced outside into traffic and was stopped for a three yard gain.
Murmurs of confusion filled the press box until TVs flashed replays of Sanders’ run. Upon further review, both Hudson and Bush had used their elite speed to shut down his path to a big play.
“(Bush’s) speed is top-caliber. His speed is speed,” Mattison said on Wednesday. “… We talk to our defensive linemen all the time, ‘play your position and control your gap and let these guys run, and you will have success.’ And we sit there and watch the film and say, ‘good job, look at these guys go to the football,’ and Devin being the guy.”
One play later, the Wolverines’ other third down weapon — its versatility — shone through, as junior linebacker Josh Uche broke through for a sack on quarterback Trace McSorley, forcing a punt.
With just 61 snaps played on the season, Uche seems like a bit player for Michigan — until you realize he ranks third in the Big Ten with seven sacks.
“He’s got a real knack to create speed off the edge,” said coach Jim Harbaugh on Monday, “and convert that to power when he needs it, but he’s also got the threat of speed off the edge. He’s a really special player.”
Added Mattison: “I think it’s also a real credit to Don Brown and the schemes that he comes up with and the ways of trying to get our best football players in the best positions at the right time. So now you see a young man like Uche who’s very fast and quick and he’s improved.”
Brown’s ability to maximize his personnel has the Wolverines’ defense performing at its highest level in years. But it’s the personnel that makes that possible in the first place.
When Brown wants more speed on third down, he has the luxury of replacing a top-10 NFL draft prospect, junior defensive end Rashan Gary, with Uche. Fifth-year senior Bryan Mone has been a black hole for opposing running backs at nose tackle but on passing downs, he makes way for sophomore defensive lineman Kwity Paye, who filled in for Gary with minimal drop-off in production when Gary was injured.
“He’s very versatile,” Mattison said of Paye. “He played anchor behind Rashan. He also would be the first guy to back up Chase and some of the packages that coach Brown puts together. He’s a guy that do a lot of different things because he’s very intelligent and he’s very fast.”
Michigan’s first team defense is already among the nation’s best. Add in Uche and Paye and you get the 27% opponent third down conversion percentage that makes it nearly unbeatable.