Michigan's D-line is one of the best in recent memory
Posted: Thursday October 19, 2006 4:23PM; Updated: Thursday October 19, 2006 4:23PM
LaMarr Woodley and the Michigan defense terrorized Penn State QB Anthony Morelli before knocking him out of the game.
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In four years on the college football beat for SI, I'm not sure I've seen a defensive line as dominant as the one at Michigan.
I traveled to Happy Valley last week to see the Wolverines play Penn State, and spent Saturday night watching them chase Nittany Lions quarterback Anthony Morelli all over the field. At times -- before Morelli was knocked from the game in the third quarter -- the scene resembled a zebra kill on the African plain. Morelli was beset from every side: from the front by brobdingnagian defensive tackle Alan Branch, who collapsed the pocket on almost every pass play; and from the sides and rear by defensive ends LaMarr Woodley and Rondell Biggs, who had two sacks apiece. Morelli was sacked five times altogether, and was credited with five rushes for minus-49 yards. As a team, Penn State ran for minus-14 yards on the ground. The score may have had the Nittany Lions losing by only seven points, but that game was one of the most thorough 17-10 whuppings I've ever seen.
The dominant performance was hardly a surprise. Michigan's front four has pushed people around all year long, including No. 10 Notre Dame (a 47-21 Wolverine win in which the Irish rushed for just four yards) and No. 21 Wisconsin (27-13, 12 yards). The Wolverines rank first in Division I-A in rushing defense, giving up just 32.6 yards per game, and are also eighth in quarterback sacks, with 24 in seven games. Naturally, the line's superlative play has had an impact on the entire defense, but it has been most noticeable at linebacker, where Shawn Crable and Prescott Burgess have turned into playmakers outside.
A dominant defensive line might be the most common characteristic of national-championship teams. Just look at the recent history: In 203 and '04, USC was led by star defensive tackles Mike Patterson and Shaun Cody; and with defensive end Marcus Spears and defensive tackle Chad Lavalais, the 2003 LSU's D-line was absolutely devastating. Texas' front four may not have been dominant last year, but they were certainly good, and they benefited from playing in front of a magnificent secondary. An unstoppable line -- one that creates pressure without the assistance of blitzing -- makes the entire defense better, allowing linebackers the freedom to attack or drop back in coverage.
Head coach Lloyd Carr says that the man most responsible for the line's play is Woodley. The 6-foot-2, 269-pound senior has played both defensive end and linebacker during his days in Ann Arbor, and last year led the team with seven sacks and 16 tackles for loss. He also struggled with a bruised right forearm that limited his effectiveness. Playing healthy now, Woodley has been taking over games all season. His seven sacks ranks eighth in the country. On the other side of the line, the 6-3, 278-pound Biggs has six sacks of his own.
With teams worried about the rush off the edges, defensive tackle Alan Branch has asserted himself in a big way. With exceptional quickness for a big man, Branch has been more than just a space-eater in the middle of Michigan's line. At 6-6, 331 pounds, the junior from Rio Ranch, N.M., is actually playing 20 pounds heavier than he did last season -- the result of an intensive off-season weight-training program. His 15 tackles are the second-most among the Wolverines' defensive linemen.
After last season's 7-5 finish, Carr replaced defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann (the man who's dominant defense led the way to a national title in 1997) with secondary coach Ron English. Under orders to make the Wolverines' D more aggressive, English has done just that, turning his charges into an attacking, opportunistic unit. Michigan has 14 takeaways this fall, and ranks sixth in the country in turnover margin, a big improvement from last fall.
I'll be curious to see how the Ohio State offense handles the Wolverines' defense. Michigan has been burned the last two seasons by quarterback Troy Smith's ability to elude pressure. Freed from the need to blitz, though, there may be a chance that English and the D can find a way to contain him. Smith certainly has proven himself as a complete quarterback this fall, but he has yet to face a defensive front as good as the one that will line up across from him on Nov. 18.