Best vs. best, that’s what makes college football so great.
We get that Saturday when Wisconsin travels to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan Saturday night. Not the two best teams, really, because each already has a blemish on their respective records, but it’s the game within the game that brings out something special.
Wisconsin has made its bones the past decade or two by being one of the most dominant running teams in the country. They are averaging 287 yards per game on the ground this year, which ranks them No. 4 nationally behind three wishbone teams (Georgia Tech, Navy, Army) that practically run on every play. To call Wisconsin the best traditional running team in the country is no stretch at all.
And here sits Michigan’s defense, just waiting for them.
The Wolverines are No. 1 in country in total defense, allowing just 230.5 yards per game. Outside of a couple of slow starts for a quarter or so against Notre Dame and Northwestern, the group is nearly perfect during Michigan’s 5-1 season so far.
Last Saturday against Maryland was a good example. The Terps can run the ball, and they came into the game averaging 260 yards per game, good for No. 11 in the country. Michigan completely shut them down. Through three quarters, Michigan allowed only 46 yards rushing in the win, the Wolverines’ fifth straight. Another 100 came in garbage time, but the outcome was already no longer in doubt.
“Defensively, they’re number one in the nation for a reason,” Maryland coach Matt Canada said. “They did a great job. (Michigan’s) Don Brown is one of the best defensive coordinators around. Credit to him and what they do on defense. Obviously for us, we’re disappointed. We didn’t play our best football, but there’s no confusion about it – we didn’t play well because they’re a really good defense. They’re the best defense in the country.”
Brown deserves a lot of credit for this defense playing at a high level. Sure, the talent level is off the charts, but he does a great job of keeping them all in the right place, and dialing up the right defensive calls at the perfect times.
“There was a third down play where they ran a blitz and played a little different coverage than I thought they were going to,” Canada said. “That’s a great job by them. There was one blitz that got us on one of the sacks. We have answers for everything – but not really. They play very hard. They did things that we never saw on film, There’s a reason why people think Don Brown is one of the best coordinators in college football.”
What’s made this defense so special so far is that they’re getting great play at all three levels. That makes them so effective that they can game-plan for anybody.
In the secondary, cornerback Lavert Hill has been tested often, but he’s answered the call most of the times. Josh Metelles has been great at safety, turning an area of concern into a position of strength. He’s had two interceptions already and has been a stud in stopping the run.
Devin Bush leads the linebackers, and he’s been all over the field. Speed kills. When running backs or wide receivers try to get to the edge, it’s usually Bush chasing them down. Nothing gets past him, or through him, especially in the running game.
“They’re fast, they flow very fast, very disciplined,” said Maryland running back Tayon Fleet-Davis, who had all sorts of trouble finding holes last week. “Altogether, they’re very strong. They’re a good defense.”
And then there’s Michigan’s defensive line. Clemson and Auburn might argue a little, but this could be the best D-line in the country. They’re playing at a very high level.
Rashan Gary was the No. 1 recruit in the nation three years ago, and he hasn’t disappointed. Despite fighting through a shoulder injury and constant double-teams, he’s still living in backfields most games. And Kwity Paye keeps making so many plays that he’s simply making it hard for coaches to take him off the field.
And then there’s Chase Winovich, who’s been the best player on the best defense in the country. He could have turned pro last year, but he wanted to come back to prove that he’s a worthy first-round pick. He’s doing that. He’s was the Big Ten’s co-defensive player of the week for its efforts against Northwestern two weeks ago.
He leads the team by a wide margin with 10.5 tackles for loss, and has three sacks. That’s good for tops in the Big Ten and No. 3 nationally. He’s spent the entire first six games harassing the heck out of quarterbacks every week.
“Chase has been an animal this season … and I don’t really like to use human-to-animal analogies,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said.