Michigan defense charting same path as last year, and maybe doing it a little better
ANN ARBOR -- The Michigan defense was very good last year. But it wasn't very good to open the season against Western Michigan, and it was pretty awful the following week against Notre Dame.
This year's defense has chartered that same arc -- and in some ways, surpassed it, even after opening the season with a deflating loss against No. 1 Alabama.
The Wolverines allowed 21 first-quarter points and were all-but out of that game at halftime. But they've bounced back, no matter how difficult it was to put that loss behind them.
"It was very difficult because it was the first game of the season. You hype it up so much because that's what you're shooting for all summer," senior safety Jordan Kovacs said after Tuesday's practice.
"But I think we did do a good job of watch film, make your corrections and move on."
Move on, they have.
No. 20 Michigan (5-2, 3-0) enters Saturday's game at Nebraska (5-2, 2-1) featuring one of the hottest defenses in the country. It hasn't allowed 14 points since the second week of the season, and has allowed a Big Ten-low 23 points in league games.
It has allowed just three offensive touchdowns in its past 20 quarters.
Michigan's pass defense ranks No. 3 in the country, and the rush defense is allowing 91.0 yards per game in league play. It held Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell, the Big Ten's top tailback, to 68 yards on 26 carries.
Most significantly, the defense now packs enough punch to win games for Michigan, which knocked off Michigan State 12-10 last week despite not scoring an offensive touchdown.
"We played well enough to win," Kovacs said of the defense last week. "I think that goes without saying."
The Wolverines didn't win a game with defense last year until the Illinois game, which was the 10th week of the season.
Is this year's unit ahead of last year's?
"Last year at this time, we lost a couple games," Kovacs said, implying this year's unit might be better than last year's at this time. "We're on a roll right now defensively."
And then he caught himself, choosing the diplomatic route.
"They're two different defenses, so I don't think you can really compare them," he said. "But there is a similar arc. We did struggle to begin last year, as we did this year.
"We just have to keep continuing to improve, and that's what I anticipate."
Kovacs said the biggest difference between the two defenses is, last year, Michigan had experienced defensive linemen in Mike Martin, Will Heininger and Ryan Van Bergen who picked up coordinator Greg Mattison's schemes and fundamentals quicker than this year's bunch.
But this year's bunch has also made some of the biggest strides, which Kovacs said is the biggest reason for the defense's rise.
Michigan's week-to-week gains, especially defensively, is in contrast to the Rich Rodriguez era, where fast starts dissolved into sluggish finishes. And the defense, more often than not, was porous.
But the arrival of Brady Hoke, a defensive-minded head coach, and Mattison has ushered a knack for getting better each week, one of the hallmarks of good teams.
Kovacs said the key to that growth is simple.
"Coaching," he said without hesitation. "They don't let players get complacent. We're never going to be satisfied until we're Big Ten champions. That's what we're shooting for, that's what we've been about and that's what we'll always be about."
Funny thing: Complacent is the word Mattison used earlier Tuesday to desribe exactly what his defense will not be.
"We won’t get complacent -- believe me, that won’t happen," he said. "We’ve got so far to go, you know? I mean, again, I’m proud of the way they have played hard. I’m proud of everybody buying into try and run to the football as hard as you can, but there’s so many things we have to get better at, and they see that on the film.
"That’s what’s pleasing. They know where they have to get to yet and how far away they are. We just have to keep taking strides and keep trying to get better.”
It's already one of the hottest defenses in the country.
What does better look like?