Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Indiana defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton don't shy away from responsibility.
They want to carry the burden for an improved Hoosiers defense. And who better to take on such a task?
No defensive end tandem in the FBS has combined for more career sacks than Kirlew and Middleton (40). Middleton had his breakthrough in 2007, leading the nation with 16 sacks and finishing as a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award. Kirlew followed last fall with a huge season, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors after finishing second in the league in sacks (10.5) and third in tackles for loss (20).
Like his teammate the year before, Kirlew was named a Hendricks Award finalist.
"Just thinking about it, it’s amazing having two very talented defensive ends on the same team at the same time," Kirlew said. "We should definitely be doing damage. We expect it of ourselves. We have to have big games to help our team do well."
The tandem needs its best game Saturday against Michigan, which has surged offensively in its second year under head coach Rich Rodriguez. The Wolverines lead the league in scoring through three games (38 points per game) and boast a ton of speed at all the skill positions.
While Indiana's defense has made obvious strides from 2008 -- the Hoosiers rank among the top four in the Big Ten in rushing defense (76 ypg), sacks (9), scoring (17.7 ppg), total defense (312.3) and opponent third down conversion percentage (29.4) -- Michigan provides a much bigger challenge than any of the teams IU has faced.
To have a shot at the upset, Indiana needs both Kirlew and Middleton to apply steady heat on freshman quarterback Tate Forcier.
"They’ve got great speed and their quarterbacks are playing very well," Indiana head coach Bill Lynch said. "It certainly helps to have Jammie and Greg, the experience they bring and the way they’ve been playing the first three weeks. They’ve really set the tone for the defense.
"They’ve been a force, particularly in some key situations, in the first three games.”
Kirlew and Middleton talked before the season about the importance of both having strong senior seasons. So far, they've combined for 3.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and two pass breakups. Kirlew also had a fourth-quarter fumble recovery to help secure a win against Eastern Kentucky in the opener.
While Michigan has run the ball extremely well and protected Forcier decently well, it hasn't seen a pass rush like Indiana's.
"We feed off each other a lot during the game," Kirlew said of himself and Middleton. "We line up at different sides and we constantly switch sides, saying, ‘Hey, what does this offensive tackle do? I think you’ll be good with this move or that move.’ We’re always exchanging ideas.
"We can’t sit back. We have to set the tone."
Veteran leadership on defense has been a big reason for Indiana's hot start. Along with Kirlew and Middleton, linebackers Matt Mayberry and Will Patterson provide a presence in the middle. Same with safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk in the secondary.
The defense can truly validate itself Saturday as Indiana aims for its first 4-0 start since 1990.
"It would be amazing," Kirlew said. "I can almost sense the feeling of the team and the school and the fans and the city if we got that win. The big thing is just putting everything in this week and going out there and competing as hard as we can."