Michigan defense improves, but enough to win the Big Ten championship?
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Entering the weekend, perhaps the biggest question surrounding the Michigan football team was its defense.
The defensive line was struggling. The linebackers were missing tackles. The secondary was still without its top corner.
The Wolverines had been bad on third down, questionable against the run and couldn't create a turnover.
On Saturday against Notre Dame, though, the Michigan defense flipped the script -- keeping what should have been a three-touchdown blowout in doubt until the game's final minutes.
The Wolverines' performance was encouraging. But was it enough?
"We made some strides in some areas," a somber Jordan Kovacs said after the game. "(But) we're not good enough to win a Big Ten championship right now."
Michigan allowed just 239 yards of total offense against Notre Dame, its best defensive showing from a yardage standpoint since a blowout win against Nebraska last November.
The Wolverines also snapped their interception drought with two first half picks, including one on the first play of the game. Michigan's two interceptions also doubled the team's season total on the year -- as the Wolverines had forced just one fumble entering its fourth game of the season.
And on third down, the Wolverines also found a way -- as Notre Dame converted just one third down before the last half of the fourth quarter, finishing the game 3-for-9.
"I thought our defense kept us in the football game," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "(But) it's still going to come down to little things in the game of football."
Michigan's performance defensively was improved, and is likely encouraging -- but the little things Hoke alluded to still aren't there.
In a game where the offensive woes forced the defense to basically play perfect, the Michigan defenders couldn't hang on.
The Wolverines were flagged for a clear pass interference call near the goal line on third down in the first half, which allowed Notre Dame to then easily score its only touchdown of the game -- a two-yard run by Tommy Rees which ultimately made the difference on the scoreboard.
Michigan also gave Notre Dame another first down late in the fourth quarter by jumping offside on third and short. Four plays later, the Irish kicked a field goal to make it a two-score game with 6:46 to play.
And then there were big plays at poor times.
Rees hit T.J. Jones for 24 yards on third and five late in the first half on the same drive as the pass interference penalty. And then, with time winding down, Michigan failed to get its offense the ball back on the final march of the game -- as cornerback J.T. Floyd slipped and allowed tight end Tyler Eifert to shake loose for a 38-yard catch and run that put the final nail in an ugly defeat.
There were most definitely signs of improvement Saturday from the defense.
Desmond Morgan returned from an injury to post an impressive seven-tackle performance. Jake Ryan, Craig Roh and Frank Clark didn't record a sack, but they were able to put pressure on both Rees and starter Everett Golson at times during the game.
Raymon Taylor made a play when he had to, and may have taken the starting corner job from junior Courtney Avery. And after struggling to make himself heard through the first four games, senior defensive tackle Will Campbell had a presence Saturday -- making four tackles and holding his ground against the run.
The offense certainly didn't help matters Saturday, turning the ball over six times in a row in the second and third quarters and mustering only six points.
But, according to Kovacs, that shouldn't matter.
"I came to Michigan to play defense," he said, refusing to discuss the offense's issues. "If you're a strong defense, you thrive in those situations, you embrace the adversity and you look forward to getting back on the field and making a big stand.
"It wasn't good enough to win."