Following the incredible atmosphere of Saturday night's 31-10 win over Washington, It would be easy for No. 25 Michigan to fall asleep at the wheel on Saturday afternoon against Northern Illinois. After all, the Huskies (1-1) finished the 2020 season with a record of 0-6, losing by an average of over 13 points per game. Though NIU appears to have made slight improvements so far, it's highly unlikely that it'll stand much of a chance when the two programs meet in the Big House in less than 24 hours.
In a contest that will likely be completely one-sided for the better part of the afternoon, there's at least one intriguing matchup to keep your eye on when the Husky offense takes the field on Saturday. Rocky Lombardi, a redshirt junior quarterback and former Michigan State Spartan, makes his return to the Big House after torching the Wolverine defense through the air just one year ago.
In what is arguably the worst loss of Jim Harbaugh's tenure in Ann Arbor, Michigan's defense - led by former defensive coordinator Don Brown - somehow managed to make a very average quarterback in Lombardi look like an All-American and future first-rounder. Lombardi finished the afternoon completing 17 of 32 attempts for 323 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air. When it was all said and done, the 21-point underdog Spartans would leave Ann Arbor with a 27-24 victory and the Paul Bunyan trophy in-hand.
It was a stunning loss for Harbaugh and the Wolverines, particularly against an in-state rival in rebuild mode and with a first-year head coach. The loss to Michigan State would kick off a three game losing streak for the Wolverines - with consecutive losses to the Spartans, Hoosiers and Badgers all by an average of 19.3 points per game.
The defensive struggles for Michigan that had been building throughout the 2018 and 2019 seasons had come to head in 2020, leaving Harbaugh with no other choice but to part ways with Brown at the conclusion of the season.
It's still early but things look to be slightly improved for the Michigan defense under first year DC Mike Macdonald. Tied with Penn State at No. 62 in the nation in total defense, the Wolverines have shown the ability to give multiple looks and make meaningful in-game adjustments if something isn't working. More importantly, Macdonald's approach of simply allowing the players to do what they do best has boosted morale within the locker room and on the field.
Vincent Gray, a senior defensive back out of Rochester (Mich.), said as much during a recent media availability.
“I do think it’s going to be a really good change, I was ready for a change schematically.” Gray said. “I feel like this is going to prepare us more for the next level. It’s going to allow us to compete and make plays on the ball which is what I enjoy so I’m excited for it.”
“[The coaches] are closer to us in age,” Gray said. “It’s different talking to them now. It’s more of a back and forth conversation than just listening.”
Beyond the obvious questions that Gray's comments raise about Brown's defensive scheme and coaching style, it's clear that Macdonald's presence has come as a welcome change to many of the players on the defensive side of the ball. The hard part, of course, is proving its value on Saturday's.
If the Michigan defense is still looking to get the awful taste of 2020 out of its mouth, an afternoon with Rocky Lombardi in the Big House sounds like a pretty good place to start.