- Todd Needle/Daily
By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 6, 2012
WEST LAFAYETTE — The nondescript black lettering is only slightly visible against the camouflage canvas of the Michigan football team’s undershirt: Team 133, Road Warrior.
Until their visit to Purdue on Saturday, the Wolverines had been anything but road warriors. Since Michigan coach Brady Hoke arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan has posted an unbeaten 11-0 record at home. Away from Michigan Stadium, though, the Wolverines were 3-4.
With the goal of winning the Big Ten title on the line every weekend and four road games on the conference slate, something needed to change.
“If we lose Saturday, then we might not go” to the Rose Bowl, said fifth-year senior linebacker Kenny Demens. “It’s do or die, basically.”
There are no days off. The Michigan defense took matters into its own hands in a 44-13 victory against Purdue, holding the Boilermaker offense to just 213 total yards.
Purdue’s lone touchdown came at the end of a drive that needed to cover just 36 yards following a fumble by Michigan senior quarterback Denard Robinson.
With the end zone at their heels, the Wolverines faltered. But just that once. The Boilermakers didn’t register a gain of over 20 yards on any single offensive play on Saturday.
“We want to get the ball rolling and win the game on our side of the football,” Demens said. “We don’t want to wait for the offense, sit back and see what they’re going to do. We want to make plays for ourselves and get it going from our side.”
From the outset, the defense set the tone, forcing a three-and-out on Purdue’s first posession. And then it did have to wait on the offense. Robinson and the offense kept the ball for 12:11 of the first half.
“Your offense is your best defense,” joked fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs. “If they’re out on the field I don’t think (Purdue) can gain any yards, can they? I don’t think so. Maybe.”
Michigan’s defensive corps, headlined by defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, faced the same question again and again last season: Is the Michigan defense back?
Back to basics. Back to fundamentals. Back to relentless dominance.
That team, ‘Team 132,’ answered emphatically, propelling the Wolverines to a 10-2 season and a Sugar Bowl victory.
But early struggles against Alabama and Air Force saw the doubts resurface. Then the defense held Notre Dame to 13 points in its last game. The question returned: Is the Michigan defense back?
“It’s definitely a motivation,” said redshirt sophomore linebacker Jake Ryan.
If the defense isn’t back, he admitted, it has certainly turned the corner.
“We played how a Michigan defense would play,” Ryan said. “We played with good technique, fundamentals.”
He paused as the defense’s singular glaring weakness came to mind.
“Tackling,” he added. “We had a lot of missed tackles today and we just need to improve on that.”
Hoke echoed Ryan’s words.
“I’d really be pleased with the defense if we tackled,” Hoke said. “I don’t think we tackled worth a dog. We’ve got to be much better there.”
Improvement in tackling comes with practice. “Practice, practice, practice,” Ryan said. Hats to the ball, wrap up, keep the legs moving. Those are the small details. The big picture looks much rosier.
The defense has allowed just two touchdowns in the last three outings. Michigan's secondary is allowing just 155 passing yards per game — good for No. 1 passing defense in the Big Ten — and has more interceptions (4) than passing touchdowns allowed (3).
The improvements couldn’t have come at a better time as Michigan settles into conference play. Now two weeks out from a tough rivalry loss to Notre Dame, Kovacs said they traveled to West Lafayette as a “focused team.”
“I think it was a team that understood the magnitude of this game on the road, a Big Ten game,” Kovacs said. “I think we accepted the challenge and played pretty well.”
With one Big Ten road victory under their belt, the Wolverines will head home for matchups against Illinois and Michigan State. The ‘Road Warriors’ made a statement in West Lafayette, but every Saturday afternoon brings a new test. Three road games lie ahead on Michigan’s schedule before the Big Ten champion is crowned.
“We understand what’s at stake this year,” Demens said. “We want to win the Big Ten Championship and we know to do that we have to win on the road.”