Defense lags in forcing turnovers

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Last season against Michigan, Notre Dame didn't help its cause in a 35-31 loss. Three times, the Irish fumbled. Quarterback Tommy Rees threw two interceptions. And at that point, it could only end one way -- with a Wolverines win.

That contest was just two games into a season that ended with a minus-15 turnover margin for the Fighting Irish. Meanwhile the Wolverines finished 2011 with a plus-7 turnover margin.

But this season, the Fighting Irish have charted a different course, one they hope to continue. Through three games Notre Dame has a turnover margin of plus-5, while the Wolverines have struggled mightily to force turnovers and are at minus-3.

Michigan doesn't have a single interception. Its only takeaways are two fumble recoveries.

"You do turnover drills and all that stuff, but we have to play tighter coverage, whether it be man coverage or zone coverage," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "You have to get pressure on the quarterback, and you have to get 11 bodies to the football."

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison believes that as the season goes on and the Wolverines become more experienced that Michigan will force turnovers. But even he can't deny the disappointment that occurs after possible fumbles aren't recovered or interceptions aren't made.

At one point during the Massachusetts game, the ball was obviously fumbled in front of Michigan defenders, but still, the Wolverines couldn't even corral that.

"I think you have to get more hats on the football, number one," Mattison said. "I think we have to get a lot more guys to the football, and we addressed that. One thing I think we have to do is play faster. We have to get off blocks better, and we've got to get more guys to the football."

But Mattison admitted the problem is that the Wolverines can't play faster until they play with better technique, which is what the coaching staff and defensive players have harped on after every single game. No one associated with the defense seems to be happy with how the Wolverines have performed schematically and technically yet this season.

Part of it is the youth of Michigan's defense. With a starting D-line that features just one player with significant playing experience, defensive end Craig Roh, the Wolverines haven't gotten the push up front that they want. Past that, true freshman linebackers Joe Bolden and James Ross have gotten meaningful reps through the first three games. And in the secondary, there's inexperience outside of safety Jordan Kovacs and cornerback J.T. Floyd.

With that kind of youth on defense, the Wolverines are barely keeping up with opposing offenses rather than reading and reacting. And when it does come together on one play, the next seems to feature a significant breakdown that allows big-play possibilities.

"In defense, if you take a false step on a key, you're behind in the race," Mattison said. "If you don't have your hands inside where they're supposed to be, you're caught in a block. All those things are the very basics of technique, and that's what we're working on daily."

A year ago, Michigan forced fumbles and turnovers, keeping Notre Dame on its toes. This year, it might be a different story as the tables have turned dramatically.

"It's one of those things where [Notre Dame is] doing a good job with the football," Hoke said. "We're not getting the football much right now, and that's got to improve."

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this article.