Defensively, the Wolverines maintained their ranking as the second-best run defense in the nation by limiting the Spartans to 58 yards.
Rick Osentoski/Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — One thing has become clear about the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan: The Wolverines are playing tougher on both sides of the ball.
A stingy defense and an improved running game have become Michigan’s calling cards through the first six games of the season heading into Saturday night’s game at Minnesota.
Although the 15th-ranked Wolverines fell nearly 140 yards below their average rushing total in a loss to Michigan State, Harbaugh said he "wouldn’t categorize it as regressing."
Defensively, the Wolverines (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) maintained their ranking as the second-best run defense in the nation by limiting the Spartans to 58 yards and they remain the top scoring defense at 9.3 points per game after three shutouts earlier this season. Safety Dymonte Thomas said the Spartans’ passing success (328 yards by Connor Cook) was due to a very good quarterback making throws where only his receiver could catch them.
"We are really eager to get back out there," Thomas said. "We’re not going to let one game define us, just like we didn’t allow those three shutouts to define us."
Thomas said the defensive line stopping the run and making opponents one dimensional has been a key to the defense’s success.
Willie Henry leads a rotation of players along the defensive line with six sacks, 19 tackles and nine tackles-for-loss. Chris Wormley (19 tackles), Ryan Glasgow (18), Maurice Hurst (15) and Matt Godin (14) have also played key roles.
"I think the defensive line as a whole has been executing a lot better than the last few years," Henry said. "Coaches tell us we don’t have one first team, we have two first teams. There can’t be a dropoff from the first guy to the second guy, you have to practice like a starter if you’re a rotation guy."
Henry’s counterparts on the offensive line has shown even more improvement in 2015. Last year, the Wolverines were among the nation’s worst units in terms of sacks allowed (2.8 per game) and tackles for loss allowed (8.8 per game). This season, Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock — less mobile than last year’s starter, Devin Gardner — has been sacked 11 times in seven games and opponents are averaging 5.3 tackles for loss.
Wide receiver Amara Darboh said limiting negative yardage plays has been a big point of emphasis with the team, a task more easily attained with a veteran offensive line that took its lumps the past two seasons as underclassmen.
"A lot of them looked at last year and tried to improve from that," Darboh said. "Football is a game of inches, so it helps tremendously if we keep moving forward. With the o-line doing what they’ve been doing, it helps the offense as a whole."
Asked to assess his team’s line play on both sides of the ball, Harbaugh said "play has improved, the prologue has been written."
"Now, if we’re going to have a great book, we’re going to have to have one heckuva conclusion," Harbaugh continued. "We’re looking for that from our team and each unit."