WATCH: Rutgers goes down at Wisconsin, 31-17
Josh Newman, @Joshua_Newman
PISCATAWAY — The question to Rutgers offensive coordinator John McNulty on Monday afternoon focused on Michigan’s defense, which, under Don Brown, has morphed into the nation’s best.
Only a few words into the question, McNulty started laughing. Before the question was over, still smiling, McNulty made it clear what the Scarlet Knights will be up against when the fourth-ranked Wolverines visit HighPoint.com Stadium (3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network).
“They can play on Sundays,” McNulty said, tongue-in-cheek
McNulty might have been joking, but only a little. At a minimum, junior defensive end Rashan Gary, a former Paramus Catholic star, and senior defensive end Chase Winovich are projected first-round picks in next spring’s NFL Draft, which helps lead us to the main point.
This Michigan defense, especially up front, is elite. In nine games, four opponents have been held to 10 points or less. No team has scored more than the 24 Notre Dame did in handing Michigan its only loss, 24-17, way back on Sept. 1.
The fact U-M ranks first nationally in total defense (216.2 yards per game), rushing defense (71.7 yards per game), and pass efficiency defense (90.17) make this, on paper, Rutgers’ toughest take to date. Forget the fact that Michigan is holding its opponents to 13.6 points per contest, good for fifth nationally.
“They make you execute, they make you play hard, they make you give your maximum effort on every play and you may get nothing in the end for it because they’ll knock you back,” McNulty said. “I give them a lot of credit because they have a lot of high-rated players, or whatever it might be, and sometimes their effort is up and down.
“These guys, there’s 11 guys on every play playing their best. That’s the biggest test I think at the bigger places. Guys sometimes worry about injuries and their career and, ‘Oh, where am I going to get drafted? What’s my role?’ However they’re doing it, they’re playing at a tremendous level. It’s going to be the biggest challenge I’ve had.”
McNulty is coming at this challenge from an interesting perspective, given he spent the earliest days of his coaching career as a graduate assistant from 1991-94. Those teams were coached by Gary Moeller, while McNulty counts defensive assistants at the time as mentors, guys like Lloyd Carr, Cam Cameron, Les Miles, and Greg Mattison, who is currently the defensive line coach.
McNulty and Brown have also crossed paths. When McNulty coached wide receivers and special teams in the mid-1990s at UConn, Brown spent time as the defensive coordinator at both Brown and UMass.
“I’ve watched them a lot of years, and they are playing at a hellacious pace,” McNulty said. “The effort on every play. Don Brown, he was the coach at UMass 20 years ago when I was at UConn. He was the same relentless effort and scheme then, too.”
Staff writer Josh Newman: email@example.com; @Joshua_Newman