Michigan defenders change losing legacy

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
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It didn't take long for Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison to realize that repairing Michigan's defense would take more than schematic adjustments and refurbished fundamentals.

The problems went deeper than that. They struck at the core of each player who had suffered through the darkest stretch of defensive football in Michigan history.

Hoke, the Wolverines' first-year head coach, and Mattison, the team's defensive coordinator, inherited defenders whose pride had been wounded.

[+] EnlargeRyan Van Bergen, Mike Martin
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioSeniors Ryan Van Bergen, top, and Mike Martin (68) powered Michigan's improved defense from their positions on the line.
"When we went through spring, maybe the offense does something well or Denard [Robinson] gets loose -- there were some runs that were big plays," Hoke told ESPN.com, "and I don't know if [defenders] didn't have the confidence or if how they practiced was different, but you could see a little bit of a self-defeating attitude."

Mattison tried to clean the slate. He didn't care about the past, so why should his players? But he soon learned that he couldn't ignore what had happened or its effects.

"All you had to do was read papers," Mattison said. "Any comments that ever talked about the Michigan defense always ended with, 'Boy, the defense was not very good.' You can sense that when people look at you, they go, 'Oh boy, they're bad.'

"You don't wish that on anybody that works hard."

Mattison and Hoke had to change attitudes on defense, but they never had to worry about players working hard. While many factors played into Michigan's renaissance on defense this season, perhaps none meant more than the players being fed up with their reputation and hungry to change it.

The result was a defense that improved from 110th nationally to 17th, the biggest one-year jump in college football. Michigan improved from 108th to seventh in points allowed.

Name a significant category -- rush defense (95th to 34th), takeaways (77th to 22nd), red zone defense (87th to fourth), third-down defense (95th to 30th), first downs allowed (107th to 16th), sacks (98th to 27th) -- and Michigan not only made strides, but dramatic ones.

The papers now describe Michigan's defense in a different light. The unit is the single biggest reason why the Wolverines won 10 games this season and returned to a BCS bowl for the first time since the 2006 season. Michigan faces Virginia Tech next Tuesday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

"Nobody likes being criticized," safety Jordan Kovacs said. "But at the same time, it made us the defense that we are today."

The coaching staff also played a significant role in the transformation. Hoke and Mattison, defensive assistants at Michigan in the 1990s, knew what Wolverines defense was supposed to look like.

When Hoke hired Mattison away from the NFL's Baltimore Ravens, he didn't have to map out the defensive plan with his coordinator. The two men go way back, to their days as assistants with Western Michigan in the mid-1980s.

"Brady knew he and I thought exactly the same," Mattison said. "It all starts up front, it starts with technique, it starts with running to the football -- all the things great defenses do."

The line became the focal point. Michigan had used three-man fronts for much of the past three seasons, but Mattison restored the base 4-3 set, the one to which senior linemen like Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen had been recruited.

Although Hoke hired a defensive line coach in Jerry Montgomery, both Hoke and Mattison spent much of their time with the front four. Hoke even coached a position, nose guard, setting him apart from most head coaches, who either work with specialists or serve primarily as overseers.

"I'm not one of those head coaches who's going to walk around," Hoke said. "I've hired good assistants, guys who understand how we want to play. I'm smart enough to know where my strengths are. And selfishly as much as anything, I love my time with those guys, coaching defensive line."

The coaches were fortunate that the line, more than any area on defense, featured veterans such as Martin, Van Bergen and end Will Heininger, a walk-on. The three seniors had one final season to make things right, and they played with great urgency.

Michigan's line accounted for 16.5 sacks, 33.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and a safety. The Wolverines have 28 sacks through 12 games, 10 more than they had in 13 contests last season.

Michigan's improvements up front helped the rest of the unit.

"There were times last year where you're beat and they'll complete that ball," Kovacs said. "There's times this year where you're beat and you feel like, 'Oh, gosh, please don't throw it.' And the next thing you know, we've got a sack, or [the opposing quarterback] had to check it down because of our pressure from the defensive line and linebackers."

The secondary absorbed most of the criticism for Michigan's defensive woes the past three seasons. A combination of youth, injuries, attrition and flat-out poor play led to repeated breakdowns.

When Mattison arrived, Kovacs remembers him telling the defensive backs, "Keep the ball inside and in front of you. Don't give up the big play. Live to play another down and let these guys in front of you do their jobs." The DBs obliged and several players made significant contributions, including Kovacs, an effective blitzer who recorded eight tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles.

"It's different, but I can't say I don't like it," he said. "In the first game, there were a couple blitzes I came clean on, and I realized I really like to blitz."

Michigan's defensive awakening can be traced to three areas.

1. Eliminating big plays: According to ESPN Stats & Information, Michigan's defense last season allowed 64 plays of 20 yards or longer (46 passes, 18 rushes). This season, Michigan's defense has allowed only 41 plays of 20 yards or longer (25 passes, 16 rushes). The Wolverines went from 107th nationally in allowing passes of 20 yards or longer to eighth this season.

2. Third-down defense: Michigan ranked 95th nationally last season, allowing conversions at 43.3 percent. Five of eight Big Ten opponents converted more than half of their third downs against the Wolverines. This season, Michigan ranks 30th nationally, allowing conversions at 36.1 percent. Only one Big Ten team, Michigan State, converted half of its third-down attempts against the Wolverines.

3. Takeaways: Last season, Michigan had 19 takeaways, which ranked 77th nationally and eighth in the Big Ten. The Wolverines matched the total in just seven games this fall and finished the regular season with 27 takeaways, tops in the Big Ten and tied for 22nd nationally. They recorded at least one takeaway in all but one game and multiple takeaways in nine contests.

"Those three things," Mattison said, "are what separate defenses."

Michigan's defense separated itself this season despite a lack of star power. The Wolverines feature no first-team All-Big Ten defenders and just one second-team selection in Martin. The starting defense includes two walk-ons (Kovacs and Heininger) and three freshmen (linebackers Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan and cornerback Blake Countess).

But the components meshed under Mattison's leadership, and after being trashed in print and elsewhere, the Wolverines found a way to write a different conclusion to their story.

"Every man on that defense, especially the older ones, wanted to come out of Michigan being successful," Mattison said. "It's something you have to have been at Michigan to understand. You're judged by how you play when you graduate. You won't get around that. That's been forever, since Bo [Schembechler] was here.

"To see these guys buy in and work as hard as they did, and to have the success they had at times, was probably one of the most rewarding things I've ever had in my coaching career."

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