- Marissa McClain/Daily
By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 24, 2011
It was only after the San Diego State players removed their helmets and approached him after the game that Michigan coach Brady Hoke recognized his offense from last season.
NFL-caliber quarterback Ryan Lindley was harassed in the pocket. And Heisman Trophy candidate Ronnie Hillman was contained by the Michigan defense in the Wolverines’ 28-7 victory.
It was the most lopsided Aztec defeat since Hoke led them to a 38-7 loss to No. 18 Utah on Nov. 21, 2009 — also the last time a defense held San Diego State to a single-digit score.
The past two seasons, Hoke’s Aztec teams averaged 35 points per game. Now his Michigan defense nearly shut them out.
Prior to the game, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison gathered the Michigan defense at the hotel — and later in the locker room — to stress the importance of playing sound defense from the first snap.
In their three previous games, the Wolverines suffered through opening drives of 74, 57 and 55 yards, twice allowing touchdowns. Against the Aztecs, Michigan took control of the line of scrimmage early, smothering Hillman behind the line on third-and-one to force a punt on the first set of downs.
Three and out, just the way Mattison wanted it.
“(Michigan's defense) had a lot to do with us playing poorly,” said San Diego State coach Rocky Long. “We played poorly in the first half, so obviously I did a bad job coaching.”
On San Diego State’s next possession, Hillman fumbled the ball away. Later, he did it again — both times inside Michigan territory.
It was only the second and third lost fumbles of his careeer — his other was on his first career carry for Hoke last season.
Fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen caught Hillman from behind inside the 10-yard line and knocked the ball loose for the second fumble.
Try reading it this way: a 288-pound defensive tackle caught the nation’s second-leading rusher from behind in the open field — 30 yards away from the line of scrimmage.
Van Bergen got a block from fifth-year senior defensive tackle Mike Martin, but most of his help came from practice.
“But when it comes down to it, we have the most explosive player in the country in our backfield,” Van Bergen said. “We get to play against (junior quarterback) Denard (Robinson), so we’ve learned how to take angles at guys who have speed.
“I took off on my horse just thinking, ‘I’ve almost caught Denard before, maybe I can catch this guy.’ ”
The lion caught the gazelle, for once. But the whole family feasted on Lindley.
Michigan learned early that Lindley couldn’t handle the blitz — he threw erratically with a collapsing pocket.
So Mattison dialed up the pressure.
“We knew that if we got in his face, got pressure to him, pressed the pocket on him he’d get happy feet and would miss throw,” Martin said.
The final line on the quarterback read 23-for-48 passing for 253 yards and a touchdown. Not gaudy. Not glorious. Not the same quarterback his old coach remembered Ryan Lindley being.
The lone score came late in the third quarter, when Lindley spun a tight throw to wide receiver Colin Lockett crossing over the middle for a 16-yard touchdown.
It ended a nearly six-quarter scoreless stand by the Wolverines, stretching back to a field goal by Eastern Michigan to open the second quarter on Sept. 17. The offense scored 52 points in that timeframe.
“Whenever we can watch our offense (from the sidelines), we always play better defense,” Martin said.
But the Michigan offense wasn’t so kind as to oblige against the Aztecs, because the defense spent a lot of time on the field. Robinson threw two interceptions and running backs fumbled the ball away twice.
“Don’t let (turnovers) translate into points, because that’s how you get beat,” Van Bergen said.
For this new Michigan defense, there’s one way to respond.
“Get 11 hats on the ball,” Van Bergen said.
The forced turnovers came — three fumbles.
So did the stops. Michigan made three fourth-down stops and ten third-down stops.
“I thought our defense kept us in the game, because we tried to give it away,” Hoke said.
Hoke may not have recognized his former offense across the field, but the defense was as familiar as an old friend. He saw this style of defense when he coached at Michigan in the mid-1990s, and he took it with him.
Now it just might be back.