July 23, 2024

A Michigan flag is flown in the end zone during an NCAA college football game against Michigan State in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – DECEMBER 02: Jaylen Harrell #32 of the Michigan Wolverines makes a move on Nick DeJong #56 of the Iowa Hawkeyes during the Big Ten Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 02, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
By Austin Meek
2h ago
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It’s rare to see Michigan and Alabama at the bottom of any college football ranking. The place to find them is usually at the top, where they are right now.

For proof that it happens, pull up the defensive statistics from 2022, find the column for forced fumbles and scroll to the bottom. All alone at No. 130 is Alabama with three. At No. 131, dead last in the FBS, is Michigan with two.

Ball disruption is one of Michigan’s defensive pillars. Looking back on last season, the Wolverines felt that pillar wasn’t holding its weight. Pick sixes, strip-sacks and other game-altering plays have been more routine this season, and it’s one reason Michigan is 13-0 heading into the Rose Bowl against Alabama.

“When guys do things so much in practice and drill things and try to emphasize things so much, you certainly want to see the results,” defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said this season. “It’s still a process to keep working at it, but it’s great to see guys going up and attacking the ball. It’s great to see us attack the ball when the quarterback’s in his throwing motion. That’s something where we felt like we missed a lot of opportunities last year.”

Michigan is tied for 19th in the FBS with 13 forced fumbles in 13 games, including three against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game. The Wolverines had two strip-sacks against quarterback Deacon Hill, one by Braiden McGregor and one by Mike Sainristil on a controversial call that sent Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz into a rage.

Those kinds of plays happened far too infrequently for Michigan last season. One of Minter’s adjustments for 2023 was to place a heavier emphasis on Michigan’s four defensive pillars: communication, effort and angles, block destruction and ball disruption. One position coach took each pillar and hammered it home with drills and daily reminders.

Michigan leads the FBS in scoring defense at 9.5 points per game. (Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)
Jay Harbaugh, Michigan’s safeties coach and special teams coordinator, was in charge of ball disruption, which encompasses deflections, forced fumbles and interceptions. The Wolverines have improved in all three categories this season.

“It’s been more of an emphasis, for sure, this year,” edge rusher Jaylen Harrell said. “It wasn’t quite that big of an emphasis last year, but we finished last in the country (in forced fumbles). Turnovers create momentum, and they change the game. We really had to hone in on that all offseason, during the season and still to this day.”

The Wolverines want to be opportunistic, not reckless. This year’s defense has done a better job of capitalizing on the other team’s mistakes and turning those miscues into points. Michigan has returned four interceptions for touchdowns, which is tied for first in the FBS. Two of those pick sixes belong to Sainristil, with Will Johnson and Keon Sabb accounting for the other two.

It’s not an accident that Michigan’s interceptions have produced better returns.

“A huge, huge emphasis was: After you get an interception, what happens?” Minter said. “Our ability to score with the ball, that is something that you have to practice. You can’t just assume somebody intercepts the ball and all the other guys know what to do. Having coach Jay on defense turns into almost a punt return concept. Our ability to do something with the ball once we’ve got it has been a huge area of emphasis.”

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