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Stingy Wolverines ready to sink teeth into Big Ten competition

Ann Arbor — The confidence level among Michigan's defensive players after three blowout wins, including 103-0 dominance in the first halves when the starters have played, is high but not overblown.

No. 4 Michigan opens its Big Ten season Saturday against Maryland and its prolific offense directed by quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa. This will be the first real test for the Wolverines’ defense under Jesse Minter, in his first season as Michigan’s defensive coordinator, and it'll offer a better indication of what this group has and where it needs to improve.

“I think we know that we’re really in a good spot right now,” defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said after last weekend’s shutout win over Connecticut. “But we still got a lot of stuff to work on as the season continues and as the schedule continues to get harder. We know there’s still stuff to work on all across the board. So we’re in a good position right now, but we still got stuff to build on.”

The Wolverines are No. 3 nationally in total defense (194 yards a game), ranking third in passing yards allowed (91.3 yards) and tying for 38th against the run (102.7 yards). While Michigan leads the nation in scoring offense, averaging 55.3 points, the defense has been stingy and is allowing an average of 5.7 points, good for No. 4 nationally.

Playing mediocre competition during the nonconference can also test a team. Does it have the focus to play hard from start to finish? Will it slip to the level of play it's facing? Michigan has by no means been perfect, but it has maintained its poise and been locked in, especially on defense.

“I like our intensity,” Jenkins. “I like the juice we bring to the game in all aspects.”

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The most asked question heading into the season revolved around how Michigan could possibly replace the production of edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who are now in the NFL. Hutchinson’s 14 sacks last year was a program single-season record.

Michigan answered with seven sacks in the season opener against overmatched Colorado State and the defensive players spoke about everyone "eating." Three games into the season, it should be noted winless Colorado State ranks last nationally in sacks allowed, having given up 23 so far.

The Wolverines have eight sacks in three games, so one over the last two games, which means maybe they’ve only been snacking. But Minter, who spoke to reporters on Wednesday, doesn’t seem worried about the lack of production in that respect. He understands that with more film of Michigan's defense, offenses will try to get the ball out faster.

“Pass rush, it’s a funny thing,” Minter said. “A lot of the second and third game was based on what happened in the first game and sort of the other team’s way to try to combat that. So, I’m not overly concerned. I think pass rush and coverage always work together. I like where we’re at. I certainly think guys know that there’s opportunities to win one-on-ones that we still want to take advantage of. I’m excited to see how we go.

“When I look at the first couple of games — first game, lots of pressure, and that team now I think has given up tons of sacks over their first three games. So, take it for what it is. The second game, I think the ball was out really, really fast. I think the third game, honestly, we were preparing for a lot of screens and quick throws, which we did get early, especially on third down. I think it may have slowed our guys down a little bit. So we’ve just got to have some answers to combat that and let them turn it loose when it turns into more of a drop-back game.”

What has been evident from Minter calling plays is he’s comfortable blitzing from all levels of the defense. Linebacker coach George Helow, who appeared Monday on the "Inside Michigan Football" radio show, spoke of how each position group feeds off the other.

“We've been having a saying lately, when one eats, we all eat,” Helow said. “That goes for all three levels of the ball. The defensive line, when they're firing off the ball, striking blocks, staying square and setting edges; building a wall when linebackers are playing downhill; when DBs are coming down and playing physical.

“Everybody is just swarming to the ball. It's really scary how good it could look. I think the biggest thing is showing them, hey, when everybody does their job, when everybody does their one-eleventh, we get to the football and execute our assignment again and again and again and again, how good could we be? That's up to them. I think everybody has done a good job coaching it and we'll keep striving for greatness every single play."

Tagovailoa and the Maryland receivers will challenge Michigan’s defense. The Terrapins rank 20th in both total offense (499 yards per game) and passing offense (310 yards a game). Tagovailoa has two interceptions against six touchdowns, and the Terps have fumbled twice.

While the sack numbers have been down for Michigan the last two games, the Wolverines have had a recipe for killing drives. Hawaii and Connecticut each had seven three-and-outs. Their first three opponents have gone 14-for-29 on third down, but during the first halves of those games, while Michigan’s starting defense held them scoreless, they were 2-for-12 on third down.

Jenkins, in assessing the defense heading into Big Ten play, said the chemistry of the group is solid and that they all have a strong grasp of identifying formations and recognizing team tendencies.

“I really think our awareness is improving,” Jenkins said. “I think we’re definitely going to be dominant regardless of who we play.”

Minter credited the defensive staff for preparing the players.

I always say this — when you play good defense, you anticipate what’s coming. You don’t guess, you don’t say they’re for sure gonna run this play,” Minter said. “But when you can anticipate things based on, 'They’re lined up like this or they’re lined up like that,' you eliminate some of the thought process.

“Our guys are just keying into what these teams are running and what they’re doing. Doesn’t always mean that they’re going to run that, maybe the play they think is coming. But I think when you can anticipate and try to get ahead of plays, you play really fast. These guys have proven to be a really, really smart group that’s willing to really study, really willing to work really hard, and shows up in how they prepare every week.”

And now the tests get more challenging.

Twitter: @chengelis