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Michigan's pass defense dominating at levels not seen in years

Jourdan Lewis and the Wolverines lead the FBS in passing yards allowed, at just 120.1 per game. Junfu Han/The Ann Arbor News via AP

The Michigan secondary needs something. It needs a nickname.

Just down the road, Michigan State has had the "No Fly Zone" moniker. Nebraska's defensive backs started calling themselves "Lockdown U." this season. What about these Wolverines?

"We haven't really thought about it," senior cornerback Channing Stribling said. "We'll probably think about it soon."

The nickname might be the only thing this Michigan pass defense lacks. All season long, it has been dominant. At historic rates, in fact.

Consider:

  • The Wolverines lead the FBS in passing yards allowed, at just 120.1 per game. If they were to finish the season at that rate, it would be the lowest number yielded by a Power 5 team in five years, since Alabama allowed 111.5 YPG in 2011 (San Jose State led the nation at 117.8 YPG in 2014). Michigan's current rate is the second lowest by a Power 5 team since the 2005 season, and it would be the lowest in the Big Ten since 1987 (Illinois, 104.7).

  • Michigan's pass efficiency defense rating is currently 89.3, second in the FBS behind Florida. That would be the lowest posted by a Big Ten team since 2006 Wisconsin (84.2). The last Power 5 team to finish with a pass efficiency defense rating under 90 was, again, Alabama in 2011 (83.7).

  • Opposing quarterbacks are completing just 41.7 percent of their throws against Harbaugh's team this season, averaging an FBS-low 5.01 yards per attempt with an adjusted QBR of 11.6 (that latter figure is on a scale of 1-to-100).

What's even more impressive about those statistics is that most of Michigan's opponents have found themselves facing huge deficits -- the Wolverines' average margin of victory is nearly 35 points. That usually leads to more passing by desperate teams. But other than Michigan State, which threw for 150 yards and two touchdowns in last week's fourth quarter after mustering just 34 passing yards in the first three periods, success has been rare even in garbage time.

"It was kind of weird," Stribling said of last week's fourth quarter. "We got a little tired out there and weren't executing like we usually do."

Usually, the Big House is the House of Incompletions. How did the Wolverines build such an impenetrable air defense? Head coach Jim Harbaugh says it starts in the trenches.

"The defensive line has really been the backbone of our team," Harbaugh said Tuesday. "They've gotten good pressure on opposing quarterbacks -- sacks but also hurries, and those sometimes are just as important to good pass defense."

According to ESPN Stats & Info, opposing quarterbacks have been sacked, hit or under duress on 45.6 percent of their dropbacks this season. No other FBS team has a rate higher than 40 percent in that area.

"The quarterback can't really go through his progressions," Stribling said of the effect the pressure has. "He has to look at his first receiver, and if he's not open, it's hard to look at who else is open, because you have somebody in your face."

The team's linebackers have also done a good job of covering backs and tight ends in one-on-one coverage, Harbaugh said. That includes Jabrill Peppers, who can play anywhere on the field and who was named a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award. Michigan's safeties don't draw a lot of notice. But senior starters Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill own a wealth of experience, get the defense properly lined up and are "playing their best football," Harbaugh said.

Of course, any great pass defense needs a shutdown cornerback. The Wolverines happen to have two.

Everybody knows about Jourdan Lewis. An All-American last season, he missed the first three games of this year with assorted injuries. Since his return to the lineup for the Sept. 24 Penn State game, Michigan has allowed just 98.6 passing yards per game, a 38.9 completion percentage and a 7.7 opponent QBR. Those numbers are all best in the FBS over that time span.

Just as important, though, has been the emergence of Stribling on the other side. According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks have a QB rating of just 4.7 when throwing to Stribling's area, which is the lowest in the nation among corners who've been targeted more than 30 times. In fact, Pro Football Focus has Lewis and Stribling rated Nos. 2 and 3 among all cornerbacks this season.

"Jourdan and I never go, 'I'm the No. 1 corner, and you're alongside me,'" Stribling said. "We compete with each other, with both of us saying, 'I'm the No. 1 corner.'"

We also must point out that Michigan hasn't exactly faced Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson every week. The list of the Wolverines' quarterback victims has included: Illinois' Jeff George Jr., a redshirt freshman making his first career start; Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook, another redshirt freshman who was making his second career start; Rutgers' Chris Laviano; and Michigan State's combo of Tyler O'Connor and redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke. In addition, Colorado starter Sefo Liufau got hurt and left the game after throwing a touchdown pass early in the second half. His replacement, freshman Steven Montez, went 0-for-7 the rest of the way.

Maryland's Perry Hills, who leads the Big Ten in pass efficiency, comes into Ann Arbor this week as one of the best signal-callers the Wolverines have seen this year.

Still, the numbers speak for themselves, though a nickname might garner even more attention.

"If somebody wants to give us one, we'll go on with it," Stribling said.

It's the only thing Michigan's pass defense needs right now.