Why Michigan football's offense deserves credit for defensive resurgence

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In the final 90 seconds of regulation Saturday, Washington quarterback Dylan Morris ran for his life. But there was no escape.

David Ojabo wrestled him to the ground for an 8-yard loss on the Huskies’ penultimate offensive play. Braiden McGregor then chased Morris to the sideline, forcing an incompletion that led to a turnover on downs. With only a few ticks of the clock separating Michigan football from a 31-10 victory, the Wolverines were still in heavy pursuit of their prey.

It was a welcomed sight for fans who witnessed the catastrophic 2020 season, when a lifeless U-M defense was bullied from beginning to end.

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“Putting them out there with no rest was something that was very tough for them,” right tackle Andrew Stueber recalled Monday.

Michigan Wolverines defensive end Taylor Upshaw (91) celebrates his tackle on Washington Huskies running back Richard Newton (6) Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan Wolverines defensive end Taylor Upshaw (91) celebrates his tackle on Washington Huskies running back Richard Newton (6) Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.

Last season, only one Big Ten team — Maryland — was forced to defend a higher average number of plays than Michigan, which faced 77.7 per game. It was no wonder then that the Wolverines hemorrhaged yards and points, plummeting to 95th nationally in scoring defense. Fatigue set in for a unit that was often betrayed by an offense that failed to sustain drives. With an inexperienced quarterback who lacked precision and a running game that was often neglected, the Wolverines maintained possession for an average of 25 minutes, 37 seconds — the second-lowest mark in the conference.

Something had to change.

[ Rugged attitude for Michigan's offensive line originated with this drill ]

And it has.

Through the first two games, Michigan has been able to execute a major course correction that has already paid dividends and could offer even better returns in the future.

Time of possession is up by nearly six minutes. The average number of plays defended is down almost nine per game.

“Yeah, it’s a good thing," Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. "…If you’re able to use more time, keep the defense fresh, off the field. That’s a really good consequence. Intended consequence, unintended consequence? It’s one of those two things. But it’s a really good factor.”

By understanding the effect Michigan’s offense has on its defense, the rationale guiding the renewed emphasis on the ground attack makes even more sense. This season, the Wolverines are running 49.5 times per game — nearly 21 more than they did last fall. They’re also throwing at the rate of a service academy. In fact, only three programs are averaging fewer pass attempts than Michigan — Navy, Air Force and Army.

Michigan Wolverines wide receiver Roman Wilson (14) is defended by Washington Huskies defensive back Kyler Gordon (2) Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan Wolverines wide receiver Roman Wilson (14) is defended by Washington Huskies defensive back Kyler Gordon (2) Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.

“There is a lot of ways to travel,” Harbaugh said. “Some people choose to travel on the ground, some people by air.”

Harbaugh’s allegiance right now lies with terra firma.

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The rugged offensive approach has allowed U-M to eat up clock and disguise its greatest weaknesses by reducing the exposure of a defense with shallow depth at key positions — specifically inside linebacker, safety and cornerback.

In turn, Michigan can rely on its starters to play the bulk of the snaps instead of being forced to dip into an unproven supporting cast more than it would prefer. The lengthier segments spent on the sideline have the added benefit of giving Michigan’s best players an opportunity to recover and the coaching staff the chance to reconsider its tactics.

“We have time to adjust,” said reserve defensive lineman Julius Welschof. “We are able to get a good breath.”

So often young offensive coordinators are guilty of devising a plan that doesn’t account for the welfare of their own defense. They have grand ambitions to throw the ball at will and push the tempo. It’s a great strategy when it works. But when it doesn’t, it creates a domino effect of bad outcomes. That’s what happened to Michigan’s Josh Gattis last season.

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By and large, the Wolverines’ possessions in 2020 were abbreviated and unproductive. Sometimes they were downright disastrous. Michigan had twice as many turnovers as takeaways, creating sudden change situations that strained the defense. The Wolverines also showed a wavering commitment to their running game — averaging the sixth-fewest rushing attempts in the Football Bowl Subdivision. That created the disadvantage in time of possession, which endangered Don Brown’s unit before it ultimately collapsed.

This year, the defense has stiffened under the direction of Mike Macdonald. The Wolverines have allowed only 12 points per game, which ranks 18th in the country.

Michigan Wolverines running back Blake Corum (2) runs by Washington Huskies defensive back Kamren Fabiculanan (31) for a touchdown Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan Wolverines running back Blake Corum (2) runs by Washington Huskies defensive back Kamren Fabiculanan (31) for a touchdown Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.

While Macdonald deserves credit for the improved results, so does Michigan’s offense that has kept his bunch off the field.

As linebacker Josh Ross saw his own teammates hammer away at Washington’s weary front seven en route to 343 rushing yards Saturday, a satisfied feeling washed over him on the sideline.

“We love it,” he said. “We … love … it.”

After all, he could sit back and watch somebody else do the work.

“I haven’t heard any words of appreciation yet,” Stueber said with a smile. “But I think they know what we did.”

Yes, they helped give a defense that flatlined last season new life.

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Michigan football's offense deserves credit for better defense