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Saturday, November 19, 2011
Defense slams door on Nebraska

By Michael Rothstein
WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Teams such as Nebraska, with a strong running quarterback in Taylor Martinez and an inside-outside running back in Rex Burkhead, would have given Michigan fits in previous seasons. They might have even caused the Wolverines major problems earlier this season, as Michigan continued to adapt to the scheme of new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.

But on Saturday, Michigan put together its second consecutive dominant defensive performance. The Wolverines held Nebraska to 260 yards and 3 of 13 third-down conversions as they won handily, 45-17.

Ryan Van Bergen, Kenny Demens, Mike Martin
Michigan relied on its defensive ends to stop Nebraska's option, and it worked.
And most impressively, it handled the perimeter and option rushing Nebraska attempted. Burkhead, the Big Ten's third-leading rusher at 107.2 yards a game, was held to 36 yards. Martinez, who averages 76.8 yards a game, was held to 49.

"That was one of the main focuses we had during the week," defensive tackle Mike Martin said. "Preparation is key, and we talked about that every day as a team beginning Sunday and Monday watching film, just getting looks from our scout team.

"We prepared well and it showed on the field."

Michigan had hired Mattison to replace Greg Robinson as defensive coordinator in the midst of a full coaching shift in Ann Arbor, and as Mattison installed the defense there were things that looked familiar.

Not from the 3-3-5, which Michigan bizarrely ran under Robinson despite being ill-equipped to be successful in it. This looked like the defense from Mattison's old employer -- the Baltimore Ravens.

Mattison brought in a completely different look -- and one more familiar to what Michigan had run for the 40 years prior to the arrival of Rich Rodriguez in Ann Arbor. Mattison restored a four-man front and mixed in a lot of blitzes and pressures to create what Michigan is seeing now.

"He brings an unbelievable scheme," safety Jordan Kovacs said. "He established an NFL defense here."

In talent level? Probably not. In scheme? Without a doubt.

Michigan accomplished its domination of Nebraska by relying on its defensive front, especially the ends. How the Wolverines handled the keys of reading the option came not from a safety reading the calls or middle linebacker Kenny Demens spying Martinez, but from the way the defensive ends were expected to contain the defense.

It worked.

"Our ends did a nice job on the quarterback," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "We tried to keep the backers inside because of what they were doing was part of it."

All of this happened while the Michigan defense was on the field -- which wasn't very often. Nebraska held the ball for just 18:47.

"Our defense is better," offensive tackle Mark Huyge said. "With a limited amount of time on the field."

That isn't a knock. It is the truth.

Last season, Michigan allowed 35.2 points a game. This season, the Wolverines are allowing 15.6 points. Consider this: Michigan hasn't allowed 35 points in a game all season. And before Martinez hit receiver Brandon Kinnie for a 54-yard touchdown in the first quarter Saturday, Michigan had not allowed a play over 50 yards this season.

The last two seasons, Michigan's defense was on the field a lot more as well, including 32:50 last season. Entering Saturday, Michigan was on the field a shade under 5 minutes less per game.

The extended usage left the Wolverines worn down at the end of games, at the end of seasons.

Not anymore. Heading into this season's biggest game, -- Ohio State -- the Michigan defense is looking and playing like one of the nation's best.

That's something no one could have expected 11 months ago.

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