- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- As the sun started to set over Ann Arbor on Saturday night and the student section slowly maneuvered down onto the Michigan Stadium field in a slow-moving field rush, Denard Robinson, large smile on his face, bounced up and down as he headed toward the tunnel just off the 50-yard line.
This was the moment he had been waiting for, the one albatross left for Michigan to vanquish in his career. The senior quarterback almost floated back to the locker room, taking leaps instead of steps as Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" blared over the speakers inside the stadium.
Michigan rocked its club of almost 114,000 patrons Saturday afternoon, four seasons of anguish and defeat to Michigan State lost in one final celebration. Michigan had beaten the Spartans 12-10 on an afternoon where Robinson was mostly contained for the third consecutive season and its defense took another step to being the best in the Big Ten.
And it's a defense capable enough to lead Michigan to a Big Ten championship whether the Wolverines' offense puts up points or not.
"We believe it," Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said. "But at the same time, if we play like this every week, we're going to be in trouble.
"We have to keep getting better."
It is a defense that allowed one touchdown in the second half over its last five games. A defense that held the Big Ten's second-leading leading rusher, Le'Veon Bell, to 68 yards rushing and kept him out of the end zone.
A defense that, when Michigan was desperate for a stop to give the offense and special teams a chance to pull out what looked like an improbable victory, it did. It is a defense that held its fourth straight opponent to fewer than 250 yards of offense and second straight opponent to fewer than 200 yards of offense.
"The way that we prepare. It's all the work that goes in the week that makes us believe we can play with anyone in the country," defensive end Craig Roh said. "We prepare like an NFL team and that's how we have to keep preparing every week until this season is over."
The NFL mindset and mentality comes from Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who used to run the defense for the Baltimore Ravens and has taken the same philosophy of blitzing and playmaking from one of the NFL's top defensive units to turn the Wolverines into one of the strongest ones in college.
So when defensive lineman Jibreel Black hugged Mattison after the game, it made sense. On a day when Michigan's offense was nonexistent, its defense was dominant.
"I'm grateful to the defense," offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said.
He should be. Michigan's defense won this game and has allowed the Wolverines to blow out their other two Big Ten opponents. The defense kept the Wolverines in the game against Notre Dame a month ago, when the offense continually turned the ball over.
Michigan's defense grew up in that game and continued to ascend in its play since. So when Michigan needed a late stop to give the offense one more chance to win Saturday, some members of the Wolverines defense couldn't help but think back to that Notre Dame game.
To how they couldn't make the stop then.
"That's what I was thinking as I took the field," Kovacs said. "That it was the opportunity to redeem ourselves."
They did Saturday. They gave the offense one last chance to score. Yet in all Michigan's improvement, Brady Hoke still wasn't satisfied. He still saw areas of concern.
That it is a defense that can still improve. It can still find ways to force more turnovers and pick up more sacks and find a way to get Ryan, the Wolverines' star, even freer to make more plays.
It has a defense allowing 9.8 points a game over its past five contests and 7.6 points in Big Ten games. But Michigan will face Nebraska and Northwestern in the next three weeks, two offenses capable of turning the Wolverines' juggernaut to mush.
Hoke understands that and he knows for Michigan to reach its Indianapolis and California dreams, the Wolverines will need to rely on their defense the rest of their season. Their defense has the consistency Michigan's offense would do anything to have.
"We're not near the defense we need to be," Hoke said, "to win a championship in this conference."
Maybe not. But if Michigan keeps showing similar improvement to Saturday, it will have an awfully good shot of getting there.
11hPat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler