Commentary

Front four gets off deck, delivers

D-line has trouble in the run game but makes just enough plays to help victory

Updated: September 11, 2011, 3:02 AM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan stacked the line of scrimmage in an attempt to disguise its coverage Saturday, and it didn't matter. When Notre Dame called a running play, it usually found success.

Didn't matter if Cierre Wood or Jonas Gray ran the ball -- if the Irish wanted to apply pressure to the Michigan defensive front, they did.

This wasn't new, either.

[+] EnlargeRyan Van Bergen, Thomas Gordon, and Jake Ryan
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireThe defense had its struggles but was able to come up with several key turnovers.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison spent the majority of the week hammering the play of the defensive line after beating Western Michigan, pushing the Wolverines' front four for more pressure.

If that group couldn't reach the quarterback or own the line, it would alter what Michigan could do defensively. And in the first half of the Wolverines' 35-31 win over Notre Dame on Saturday, Michigan's front four had the same issues it had a week ago -- missed assignments, wrong gaps and just not being aggressive enough.

Notre Dame ran all over Michigan in the first half. The lack of pressure gave Irish quarterback Tommy Rees time to pick apart the Wolverines secondary and find star receiver Michael Floyd seven times for 112 yards in just 30 minutes.

The defense was struggling -- and the Wolverines knew it.

"Collectively as a defense we just needed to [improve] and we knew that us, as a D-line, it starts with us," senior defensive tackle Mike Martin said. "We knew we had a lot of improvement to do in the second half.

"I think we did a pretty good job with acknowledging that and stepping our game up."

Wood and Gray still gashed -- in all, Notre Dame had 198 yards rushing -- but the defensive line made some adjustments.

The defensive linemen, for the first time all season, followed the lead of their linebacker and defensive back counterparts and became more opportunistic.

Wood fumbled with 7:36 to go in the third quarter on the Michigan 30. Defensive lineman Will Campbell fell on it.

On the good-and-bad pendulum of the Michigan defensive line's day, it came right after a 38-yard run by Gray. Gray's run -- bad. Campbell's fumble recovery -- good.

Through two games, this is the theme of Michigan's defense.

"[Wood] ran the ball well," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "I thought we gave him an opportunity to run the ball effectively. Had a number of different looks. I thought Jonas Gray came in and had probably his best game, but we turned the ball over again."

Then, with 6:08 to play and Notre Dame leading 24-21 and driving for what could have been a game-clinching touchdown, Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees fumbled.

Another defensive lineman, Ryan Van Bergen, fell on it.

"Ryan's got the nose for the fumbles, and Will does, too," Martin said. "Those guys did a good job of getting to the guards, pushing to the center-quarterback exchange, to cause a fumble there, and we were able to get on top of it."

While Michigan didn't score on either ensuing offensive possession, those two turnovers in Wolverines territory allowed Michigan to set up its final 2 minutes and 16 seconds of craziness. Hoke said the Wolverines' forced turnovers -- five in all -- were huge.

But the Wolverines know one thing: They have a long way to go.

"No, we're a long way away," Hoke said. "You're going to get sick of me saying it, but we are. The expectation of this program is way too high for us to think we are where we need to be."

At 2-0, though, the record is where it needs to be.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.

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