- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Brady Hoke called Michigan's 2011 season a failure -- never mind the 11 wins and the Sugar Bowl championship -- because it did not result in a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance.
When national titles are brought up around Hoke, he typically shifts the focus back to the Big Ten race.
Whether Hoke's singular focus excites you or disappoints you, it certainly rubs off on his players. Although they weren't happy about a 2-2 start to the season, they had no trouble turning the page to the Big Ten slate last week at Purdue. And if the Wolverines' performance in West Lafayette -- a 44-13 win -- is any indication, the Big Ten will bring out the best in them this fall.
"With the nonconference season, we had one of the toughest in the nation," Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan told ESPN.com, referring to games against No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Notre Dame. "We took those games very seriously, but the goal's always a Big Ten championship. There's a little more fire in this team.
"We're excited about it, and every game is a Big Ten championship game."
Stifling defense and powerful offensive line play sparked Michigan in 2011, and the Wolverines appear to be reclaiming both hallmarks for the 2012 conference campaign. After struggling in just about every area against Alabama and seeing continued problems against Air Force, Michigan took a big step on defense against Notre Dame and also received better play from the offensive line as the game in South Bend went on.
Although turnovers doomed the Wolverines against the Irish, they made progress in both areas at Purdue. Michigan held a Boilers team averaging 51 points on its home field to 13 points, 213 total yards and 56 rushing yards (2.2 yards per attempt). It also controlled the line of scrimmage from the onset, holding the ball for 12:11 of the first quarter and opening the game with the program's sixth-longest drive (8:48) since 1978, a methodical 78-yard march that required 17 plays and 19 players.
Michigan's defense has surrendered only 13 points in each of its past three games, and opponents' yardage totals have dropped (259 to 239 to 213). The unit seemed to turn the corner at the same time last season, when it blanked Minnesota 58-0 in Week 5, allowing only 177 total yards. The Wolverines held six of their next seven Big Ten foes to fewer than 335 yards.
"What you're seeing is the younger guys who have been in the program for a second year, you would expect them to play up to their talent level, and that's what's happening," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison told ESPN.com. "Some of our talented young guys are starting to now become older, and play like older players."
Although Mattison and his staff installed a new scheme in 2011, they had the luxury of leaning on three senior defensive linemen -- Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger -- while working several young players into major roles. The difference this fall, according to Mattison: Seniors with a ton of starting experience are in short supply, so some of the unit's more seasoned players -- Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan, Thomas Gordon -- are also young.
"We're getting a lot better communication," Mattison said. "... When you're young, at an early part of the season, you're just kind of fending for yourself. You're just trying to get yourself to play. And when you get a little older in the season, whether you're a sophomore or a senior, you start feeling more comfortable. Therefore, you can do the things that are expected of you, and that is to communicate and get everybody set.
"These are guys that are now starting to feel like veterans."
Hoke singled out the linebackers as the group that has made the most strides in recent weeks. Ryan, who started 11 games last season as a redshirt freshman, has been particularly noticeable. "You can feel him on the field," Hoke said.
Ryan recorded five tackles and a pass breakup against Notre Dame and followed it with six tackles, including two for loss and a sack, against Purdue.
"The sky's the limit for Jake," Mattison said. "He has God-given talent, and he also has showed that it's very, very important to him. He's become a very good student of the game."
After Week 3, Lewan challenged the offensive line to "play angry, play nasty." While the group isn't quite there, in Lewan's estimation, there has been progress.
Michigan averaged 5.6 yards per rush against a talented Purdue defensive front, which failed to record a sack or a quarterback hurry against Denard Robinson (235 rush yards, 105 pass yards). The Wolverines' rushing attempts also are on the rise, from 30 per game in the first two weeks to 46 per game the past three weeks.
"In the Notre Dame game, it was somewhat of a change," Lewan said. "We saw we can move the line of scrimmage. We found out we have the capability to do that. It really came together at Purdue, but we have to be a better team this week than we were last week. Every week from now on is championship week because our goal is the Big Ten championship."
Lewan, who will make his 21st consecutive start Saturday against Illinois, welcomes a leadership role on the line. He shares the responsibility with fifth-year senior guard Patrick Omameh and fifth-year senior Elliott Mealer, a first-year starter at center.
"[Offensive coordinator Al] Borges put pressure on us, so did Coach Hoke, but at the end of the day, we need to put pressure on ourselves also," Lewan said. "Coach Hoke talks about it all the time. There's a standard you play at Michigan. I can throw cliché lines at you and every program says the same thing over and over, but the fact is we have the tradition to back it up. There's a tradition at Michigan, and there's a way you play."
Especially in the Big Ten season. There are still areas to improve -- Michigan needs to spark running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (169 rushing yards, 3.3 yards per carry) and its pass rush (five sacks in as many games, 104th nationally) -- but the team's identity is taking shape.
"You don't want to say the games leading up to the Big Ten don't count," Mattison said, "but when you come to Michigan, you come to win a championship. Now, it's on the line. Every game is on the line."
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