Amid his tirade following Michigan’s blowout loss against Wisconsin, Jim Harbaugh made a point of calling out the defensive line.
He challenged the unit to step up after allowing 359 rushing yards and five touchdowns on over six yards per attempt against the Badgers. Despite knowing exactly what to expect from Wisconsin’s traditional ground-and-pound style, the Wolverines’ defense spent more time chasing Jonathan Taylor than tackling him.
“(The defensive line) has had a chip on our shoulder,” said defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour. “We know anything that happens, it’s going to be blamed up front. That’s just the nature of the game. We just try to come out everyday in practice not to talk about it but to be about it and just practice hard and go out in the game and execute.”
Since being exposed by both the Badgers and their own head coach, Michigan’s defensive linemen have answered the call. U-M’s defense has stymied Rutgers and Iowa in two dominant performances, allowing just three points on 413 total yards in the process.
That type of production starts up front with the return of Dwumfour and the rise of defensive ends Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson.
“We knew we had to come out and stop the run,” Dwumfour said on Tuesday. “That was what (defensive coordinator Don) Brown and (defensive line coach Shaun) Nua stressed to us. We’ve got to stop the run. That was our main focus as a unit, as a D-line, coming into the game. Everything starts up front, so we had to handle business.”
And that’s exactly what the defensive line did. The Wolverines allowed just 47 combined rushing yards against Rutgers and Iowa and repeatedly blew up plays in the backfield.
In Saturday’s stout showing, Hutchinson received Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors for his sack, 2.5 tackles for loss and forced fumble. Really, the conference could’ve flipped a coin between Hutchinson and Paye, who recorded 2.5 sacks of his own and added three solo tackles.
“(Hutchinson) does not have one ounce of stiffness,” said defensive coordinator Don Brown. “Very flexible, extremely strong, and is an elite athlete. I can’t think of anybody that’s his size that I think is more flexible than he is. … (Paye) is the best spread run defender I have ever seen. Now, why do I say that? Because you can’t fool him. … We’re blessed here with them and this Michael Danna is a close second.”
Added Dwumfour: “(Paye) took a huge step. He’s become one of the leaders on the defense. He works his tail off everyday in practice — him and Aidan — so what they did in the game to us in the locker room, it wasn’t a surprise.”
While it’s easy to point out the increased edge production, getting Dwumfour back has quietly made a significant impact on the interior. Dwumfour, who was sidelined for most of spring ball, re-injured himself in the season opener against Middle Tennessee State and wasn’t cleared to play again until Michigan hosted Rutgers. Since his return, U-M’s defensive line has looked noticeably better in its ability to generate pressure.
Dwumfour and defensive tackle Carlo Kemp played an instrumental role in limiting the Hawkeyes to a mere one rushing yard over the weekend. Their presence in the middle helped bottle up run plays and put pressure on Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley.
“The thing (Dwumfour) brings to the table is the ability to come out of his stance at 100 miles per hour,” Brown said. “It creates the ping pong effect in the backfield because he can knock on pullers, he’s athletic. Again for him, he hasn’t played a whole heck of a lot of football around here lately, so now he’s going through another practice week — a chance to sink your teeth into the game plan, sink your teeth into your stance, your footwork, your techniques, your fundamentals, your eyes, all those things. He’s benefitting and we’re benefitting from his solid play and athletic abilities.”
If the defensive linemen continue along the trajectory of the last two games, it’ll be a long time until Harbaugh singles them out again.