- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Greg Mattison spent spring and preseason practice challenging his players, teaching them as he pushed them. The Michigan defensive coordinator has been around a long time, coached in college and the NFL.
So he knows what works.
And all the poking and prodding and pushing has led to this: The main reason Michigan is a better team this season than last has little to do with its offense or ultra-quick quarterback, Denard Robinson.
It has everything to do with its defense, a unit now that's no longer allowing big plays, touchdowns and points by the dozen.
"We always have high expectations," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "The part of it that you like -- and this is something a coach may see more than you may -- when they come off the field whether it's good or it's bad, how they band together, stay together and listen.
"Greg and the staff on defense do a tremendous job of making the adjustments that may need to be made, and I think they do a tremendous job, the guys do, of keeping each other on that edge. They do a nice job staying together no matter what happened."
Considering the past two seasons at Michigan, that's a major accomplishment in itself.
While Michigan's win-loss record is only one game better this season (8-2) than last season (7-3) through 10 games, the defensive improvement is staggering.
In 2010, Michigan allowed 163.7 yards per game on the ground, 270.2 yards per game in the air and 433.9 yards overall. This season, the Wolverines have allowed 127.4 yards a game on the ground, 190.5 yards a game passing and 317.9 yards per game overall.
The Wolverines are 116 yards per game better this season than last. They are also allowing 15.5 points a game this season -- a massive drop from the 32.1 points a game allowed in 2010.
Moreover, Michigan has been good when it matters. The Wolverines have held opponents to a 37 percent conversion rate on third downs, have sacked opposing quarterbacks 21 times and forced 23 turnovers.
"I think we've exceeded a lot of people's expectations, defensively," defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said. "People probably counted us out as a defense after the performance we gave up in previous years, stuff like that.
"We've been motivated and focused the whole time on being a defense that has traditionally been seen at Michigan and a defense that alums and stuff would recognize."
It's getting close.
Mattison became emotional while discussing his defense's improvement after Michigan beat Illinois 31-14, the sixth time this season the Wolverines held an opponent to two touchdowns or fewer. The performance earned Van Bergen Big Ten co-defensive player of the week honors.
The coach became emotional because his players, the same ones for the most part who had been ridiculed as part of Greg Robinson's woebegone unit a season ago, have bought into what he said and believed in what he told them.
Believed in him. And it has paid off.
"He was probably a little more praising than normal," Van Bergen said. "You could definitely tell he was proud of what we had done as a defense, and at the same time we're not going to get complacent and say, 'We just played our best game.'
"We still have two more games to play."
And the Wolverines are acutely aware. Ohio State next weekend and especially Nebraska this weekend play a style of offense that has troubled Michigan the most this season -- they get out to the edges of the field to make plays.
Michigan couldn't handle Edwin Baker when the Wolverines faced Michigan State, and had trouble with the option when Northwestern ran it in October.
Nebraska, led by quarterback Taylor Martinez, will try to do that.
"We'll stress that a ton because of what they like to do and we'll prepare for it, and they'll have a wrinkle either formationally or something different that maybe you haven't seen," Hoke said. "They'll try to take advantage of leverage, but it'll be one of those things where you have to be highly disciplined. Whenever you're playing option football teams you've got to do your job.
"And that's an expectation, so it's an important part of it."
For Michigan to take the next step in its defensive progression, it needs to show it can handle that against the Cornhuskers.
Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.
Greg Mattison had a major reclamation project with the Michigan defense. What he has done is nothing short of miraculous.