ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) – The Michigan defense is no longer one of the worst in the nation.
That doesn’t mean Brady Hoke is satisfied.
“We just have to play hard and play better,” he said Monday. “The rest of it doesn’t matter. Winning matters.”
The 12th-ranked Wolverines (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) play at Northwestern (2-2, 0-1) on Saturday night. A big reason they are undefeated after five straight home games is a defense that is yielding only 10.2 points a game following Saturday’s 58-0 shutout of Minnesota.
The defense that finished last year ranked 110th is now ranked 31st.
After the defense surrendered 450 yards and 35.2 points a game, Hoke and first-year defensive coordinator Greg Mattison have worked tirelessly to turn things around. Before the season, defensive back Troy Woolfolk joked that the defense could only move in one direction and that was up.
The performance this season has given the Wolverines what senior defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen says is a bit of a swagger.
“There were criticisms (last year) that we weren’t giving our effort, we weren’t preparing the way a Michigan defense should, we weren’t physical like a Michigan defense should be,” Van Bergen said. “It wasn’t because we didn’t want to be. We were hungry to be great, we wanted to do everything we could and things just didn’t pan out.”
When Hoke was hired in January, he lured Mattison away from the Baltimore Ravens and one of the NFL’s top defensive units. Mattison installed a new 4-3 scheme at Michigan and vowed to get his players to perform the way the Wolverines had in the past.
The progress has been steady, leading up to the past three weeks when Michigan has allowed a total of 10 points. Despite the improvement – especially up front, where linemen and linebackers have been more disruptive and gotten more pressure on quarterbacks – the standard still hasn’t been met.
Mattison limits his praise, stressing instead the details that still need addressing. While some may relish Saturday’s shutout, Mattison harps on 8- or 9-yard runs that shouldn’t have gone for more than two or three.
“We’re still miles away,” defensive end Craig Roh said.
Despite the work that still remains, a defense that has forced a Big Ten-best 15 turnovers has changed its attitude.
“We’re doing OK, but right now, it’s, ‘Where’s the ceiling, where could we potentially be if we continue to get better?”‘ Van Bergen said. “That’s what’s encouraging to the coaches. We realize we haven’t played as good as we could.”
It’s an attitude that Hoke wants throughout his team, one he characterized as overrated. Michigan jumped seven spots after Saturday’s victory and hasn’t been ranked this high since 2007, when the Wolverines were ranked fifth prior to its upset loss against Appalachian State.
“We’re not playing well enough,” he said. “We’re not finishing things well enough. There’s a lot of fundamental things.”
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