Defense has been the story for the Michigan Wolverines this season, and as they face their toughest test of the Big Ten campaign, a road trip to Penn State to face the No. 2 Nittany Lions, Jim Harbaugh, coach of the 17th-ranked Wolverines, is confident they will carry the day yet again.
“The defense is playing really well, and then you start to stack up some of the things they’ve done in terms of limiting teams in total yards,” Harbaugh explained. “There’s a stat there that we’re one of 10 teams that have allowed 280 yards or less in their first six ballgames since 2000.
“There’s the most punts against us of any team in college football this year. The three and outs. The turnovers, the interceptions. Some really great things.”
Michigan rates first in the nation in defense, allowing 223.8 yards per game. The Wolverines are No. 1 in third down conversions allowed (20.5 percent) and pass efficiency defense, third in pass defense (138 yards per game) and sixth in stopping the run (85.8 yards per game).
With 10 of 11 starters gone from last season’s defensive lineup, most experts expected Michigan to take a step back this season on the defensive side of the ball. Instead, the Wolverines have proven to be punishing and stifling.
Harbaugh wasn’t certain about how his defense would stack up this season, and to be honest, he didn’t give it a lot of thought.
“I don’t put that kind of expectation on it,” Harbaugh said. “If you put an expectation of where you think you’re going to be, you limit the upside.
“Instead, let’s have at it. Let’s better every day. Better today than yesterday. Better tomorrow than today. It’s a simple formula.
“We thought we’d be good. Coach Brown (defensive coordinator Don Brown) thought we’d be good and our players thought we’d be good. We’re playing good and improving.”
The 6-0 Nittany Lions will throw wrinkles at the defense of the 5-1 Wolverines that they’ve yet to see this season, led by Heisman Trophy contender Saquon Barkley at running back and elusive quarterback Trace McSorley.
“We’ll need a team effort defensively as we go against a great player and a really outstanding offense – great quarterback, great receivers, line and backs, hitting on all cylinders,” Harbaugh said. “Guys are excited for that test.”
Stopping the versatile Barkley might be too much to ask of any defense. Containing his chunk plays will be the key to Michigan’s gameplan.
“He can catch the ball out of the backfield,” Harbaugh said. “He can run all the assortment of runs – inside the tackles, on the edge. He’s a very good pass protector.
“He is a multi-purpose back that can do everything well.”
Heading to Beaver Stadium, one of college football’s most intimidating locales, will be another challenge placed in the path of the young Wolverines.
“I’m excited about it,” Harbaugh said. “I feel like the players would feel the same way, excited for the opportunity. They’ve been on the big stage already this year multiple times in big games and have another crack at it.
“Knowing our guys the way I do, they’re competitors. I feel they’d be excited.”