ANN ARBOR — Josh Uche was asked a question Saturday after the Michigan football team’s win over Penn State about an interception.
While he was happy for his teammates, cornerbacks Brandon Watson and David Long, for both coming up with turnover, the junior linebacker made no bones about his job.
It’s become an important one of late, and part of the reason for his team-high seven sacks.
“Me, personally, I’m looking for third down,” Uche said. “That’s what I’m looking for. I’m hoping. Get it to third down.”
That’s because the Michigan defense has been deploying an alternate, pass-rush front with the goal of getting to the quarterback as soon as possible. Chase Winovich lines up on the strong side, with fellow anchor end Kwity Paye next to him at tackle, and the speedy Michael Dwumfour to next to Paye inside, and the speedy Uche on the weak side.
The results have paid major dividends for a Michigan defense that ranks No. 1 in the country (216.2 yards per game) and first in passing yards allowed (122.3). Opponents are converting on third down at just a 27.8 percent clip, lowest in the Big Ten.
“We really enjoy getting fast guys out on the field,” Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison said. “If it’s a passing situation and you know it’s a passing situation, you’re better with speed. And we happen to have some guys that are a little faster than others.”
Note how different the pass-rush line is from Michigan’s usual starters along the defensive line, a group that includes Rashan Gary on the strong side and Winovich on the weak side, Carlo Kemp inside at tackle and Bryan Mone at the nose.
With Gary sidelined due to injury for the three games before Penn State, Paye filled in for him on the strong side. That opened the door for defensive coordinator Don Brown to tinker.
“You have a lot of talent, and it keeps people involved in the game,” Mattison said.
Mattison event went one step further this week when asked where this defensive line stacks up with some of Michigan’s best. He was around to help develop the line that helped the Wolverines to a 1997 national championship and coached the 2016 group that led Michigan’s No. 1-ranked defense.
This group, he says, is right up there. And a big part of it is the depth. Gary and Winovich, a pair of potential All-Americans, aside, the group has three ready-to-play nose tackles in Mone, Dwumfour and Aubrey Solomon and Carlo Kemp, a former defensive end who’s found a home at tackle.
Then, of course, there’s Uche — a defensive end by trade, with the speed and burst of a linebacker.
“We’ve been able to carve a role for Uche,” Brown said this week on 97.1 The Ticket. “And boy, he’s played really well. When you take production in terms of time on task and the snaps he has in a particular week and what he accomplishes in a game, it’s special.”
Snap counts are not made public, but Mattison says Uche has seven sacks in 61 snaps played this season. That’s a sack every eight or nine plays.
We heard Uche’s name come up time and again in spring practice and fall camp. Brown told the story of Uche coming to him after the Outback Bowl in January asking for more playing time.
Now, under a specific set or guidelines, he’s flourishing. And Michigan has been able to give opposing offenses a different look.
“It’s also a credit to Don Brown and the schemes that he comes up, with the ways to try and get our best football players in the best positions a the right times,” Mattison said.
“(We) keep talking about guys who are doing well where they’re at — then keep playing guys. So you get more people involved and more people can help us win. And more people have their stamp on this defense.”