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Wolverines improved defensively

They heard the same things a season ago, the defense giving up chunks of yardage on the ground and struggling to defend the pass. A scheme searching for defensive line pressure and signs of life from a front seven were the majority of questions Greg Mattison faced the first three weeks of his first season as Michigan's defensive coordinator in 2011.

"Other than the Alabama game, you're kind of where you were last year," Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said last week. "It's the same thing. There's always some good things, but not enough good things. And then all of a sudden it starts coming together.

"That's what we have to keep progressing to do every week."

In many ways, what happened Saturday against Notre Dame, in the fourth week of this season, mirrored what happened in the fourth week of last season. Michigan faced an offense that was supposed to be good and made it look bad.

A season ago, Michigan began to find its defensive identity in a win over San Diego State where it held the Aztecs, featuring now-NFL running back Ronnie Hillman, to 376 yards. While the number might not seem impressive now, at the time it denoted the game where the Michigan front four really pressured the offense for the first time and created havoc in the backfield.

This season against Notre Dame, the Wolverines were thrown into short-field situations over and over again due to offensive miscues. In that position, the Wolverines held often, allowing only one touchdown and 13 total points against a Notre Dame offense that featured two high-quality running backs in Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood and a dynamic tight end in Tyler Eifert. It was a season-low output for the Irish.

Michigan picked off its first two passes of the season. It forced Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly to switch quarterbacks from Everett Golson to Tommy Rees. And it showed perhaps its biggest progress at the position which has had the most uncertainty over the last three weeks -- the defensive line.

"I came to Michigan to play defense and if you're a strong defense, you thrive in those situations," safety Jordan Kovacs said. "You embrace the adversity and look forward to getting back on the field to make a big stand."

Nowhere was the progress more evident than in Michigan's front seven, where the defensive line and linebackers held Notre Dame to 94 yards rushing, the first time since Nov. 12, 2011, against Illinois where an opponent was held to less than 100 yards on the ground. It is also the lowest total offensive yards -- 239 -- Michigan has allowed since that game.

Perhaps not coincidentally, that game was the one where Mattison became emotional afterward speaking of the defense's progress throughout the season.

Michigan, though, is still a long way from where it needs to be defensively to be in the realm of good enough for its coaches. Hoke said his "defense kept us in the football game," and Mattison's group did, forcing Notre Dame off the field 6 of 9 times on third down.

"Defensively we played better up front," Kovacs said. "But we lacked discipline at times and had some big penalties when we needed to get off the field and other times we just didn't make a play when we were in position to get off the field."

The Wolverines weren't happy for obvious reasons. They lost. But there was progress, and with two-thirds of the season to go, they have to be somewhat happy with that.