Michigan is searching for healthy bodies on the defensive line wherever it can find them after the previously impermeable Wolverines rush defense was made to look very human against Indiana this past weekend.
The Hoosiers ran for 307 yards Saturday, including 18 straight hand-offs during the fourth quarter and two overtime sessions before throwing an incomplete pass on fourth down to end the game. That’s nearly 30 percent of the total rushing yards Michigan has surrendered in its first 10 games of the year. The Wolverines went through a five-game stretch early in the season when they allowed a total of 260 yards on the ground. Indiana’s Jordan Howard had 238 on his own by running right at them.
The fast-tempo Hoosiers attack ran 98 total plays to wear down the Michigan front, exacerbating a group that was already playing shorthanded. Nose tackle Ryan Glasgow, who sat out the game with a pectoral injury, was missed. Without Glasgow and Bryan Mone, a sophomore who hurt his lower leg during training camp and has yet to play this year, the Wolverines were missing two of their top run-stuffers in the middle.
“That’s kind of taken a toll; everybody is not 100 percent,” linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone said. “We try to fill in gaps. We try to make guys tough-minded and just preach that we’ve got to make plays and we’ve got to step it up. There are a lot of guys missing time, and we’ve got to fill it.”
There is still talent in the trenches. Seniors Willie Henry and Chris Wormley are more than capable of holding their own against most offensive lines in the country. But a lack of experience and depth behind them led to the season-high rushing numbers Indiana was able to post.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said tight ends Henry Poggi and Tom Strobel would both spend time with the defense at practice to help plug those holes. Fullback Brady Pallante was also listed as a defensive tackle on this week’s depth chart. All three have previously played the defensive line during their careers in Ann Arbor.
“We’re working guys in there,” Harbaugh said. “Henry Poggi is now a two-way player. Tom Strobel is a two-player. He played quite a few snaps at the end of the ball game. We’ll continue to try to prop that up from a depth standpoint.”
Harbaugh rejected the idea that his team was beat up or dragging itself into the final two weeks of the regular season. He said as far as he could tell his players that are healthy enough to suit up have a “bounce in their step” during practice.
Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said a week ago that still hanging on to hope for a conference title shot makes it a little easier to play through the bumps and bruises that are hard to shake toward the end of the season.
“This is when you need to play your best. You just have to fight through it and keep going,” he said. “At every spot on the field you could (say it’s an issue) if someone wasn’t there. That’s part of the game. You’re never going to be really three or four deep in any spot, I don’t think.”
Harbaugh didn’t rule out the possibility that Mone could return before the end of the season. If he doesn’t, Michigan will have to keep its top linemen fresh with a patchwork second unit against some of the better backs in the Big Ten. Ezekiel Elliott and the Ohio State Buckeyes loom at the end of the schedule, and before then Penn State’s Saquon Barkley (averaging 6.3 yard per carry this season) has the potential to take advantage of any gaps in the Wolverine defense.
“He’s a great back,” Jenkins-Stone said about Barkley. “He’s somebody we’re going to have to stop. The run game has been a problem for our defense. We’re definitely looking forward to fixing that problem.”