Michigan defense dominating again, this time chewing up Le'Veon Bell, MSU
ANN ARBOR -- Michigan punted the ball to Michigan State with 3:07 left and trailing by two points, displaying faith that its defense would get a quick stop.
It's not hard to imagine it would, considering how well the defense has played the past month. Yet, the last time it was given such an opportunity, it failed.
The Wolverines needed a quick stop against Notre Dame to get the ball back trailing by six points, but the Irish picked up a big first down and drained the clock.
There are parallels between the two games -- but different results.
Michigan forced a three-and-out against the Spartans, and the offense marched down the field to set up Brendan Gibbons' game-winning 38-yard field goal with 5 seconds left. The Wolverines won 12-10.
"That's what I was thinking as we took the field," Kovacs said, referring to the Notre Dame game. "It's our opportunity to redeem ourselves and get the offense the ball back. Same situation as Notre Dame.
"Today, we executed."
Michigan's defense put on another clinic, holding its fifth consecutive opponent to fewer than 14 points. It has allowed only three offensive touchdowns in that time, including zero over the span of eight quarters before Michigan State scored one after halftime.
The defense is allowing 8.4 points per game in the past five weeks.
Kovacs said he thinks the defense is good enough to carry the 23rd-ranked Wolverines (5-2, 3-0) to a Big Ten title, starting with next week's matchup against fellow Legends Division heavyweight Nebraska (5-2, 2-1).
"We believe it, but at the same time, if we play like this every week, we're going to be in trouble," Kovacs said. "We got to play better. That's one thing coach (Brady) Hoke and (defensive coordinator Greg) Mattison emphasize, is never become complacent. Get better every week.
"That's what we plan on doing, and that's what we're going to do."
That's not all talk. Last year's unit finished the country sixth in scoring defense (17.4 points per game) and 17th in total defense (322.2 yards per game), but struggled to begin the season.
It rounded into form around this time last year.
And at this time this year, it's achieved a similar arc -- and in some ways, perhaps even exceeded it.
It wasn't until the 10th game of last season, against Illinois, that the defense won a game for Michigan. This year, that win came in the seventh game against Michigan State.
The offense converted only 5-of-15 third downs, couldn't sustain drives, managed only 326 yards of offense and didn't score a touchdown.
Yet, it won anyway, the first time it has won without scoring a touchdown since beating Purdue 5-0 in 1995.
"Football's a team sport, last time I checked," offensive lineman Taylor Lewan said. "There's been times when (the offense has) done well, and helped the defense out, but there's been plenty of times when the defense has helped us out.
"I think what we did today was a 'W.' Probably a couple years from now, when we look back on it, it'll still be a 'W.' And that's how I'm looking at it right now."
Michigan's pass defense entered the season ranked third in the country. Against Michigan State -- a game so often determined by the rushing battle -- the Wolverines got it done on the ground.
Spartans taiback Le'Veon Bell entered the game as the Big Ten's best tailback, averaging 130.9 yards per game. He finished with 26 carries for 68 yards and no touchdowns.
His 2.6 yards per carry matched a season low.
Why was the defense so successful shutting down the league's most prolific tailback?
"The front seven," Kovacs said. "I don't think there's any secret to it. Those guys are really playing some good ball. Those guys have gotten better week in and week out, and defensive back-wise, we just kept the ball inside and in front."
Defensive lineman Craig Roh said the defense's rise can be attributed to the NFL-style preparation implemented by Mattison.
"It's all the work that goes in before that makes us feel that we can play with anyone in the country," Roh said. "It's just that way. We prepare like an NFL team, and we're going to keep preparing that way until the season's over."