FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Michigan’s players often insisted they didn’t know. Last year, when the Wolverines shut out three straight opponents early in the season, vaulting themselves to the top of the national rankings in almost every defensive statistic, they didn’t check the numbers to see where they stood. The next game was their focus, and it generated a terrific season.
But in looking back on an even better one Wednesday at a media session for the Orange Bowl, fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow recalled another thought. As the 2015 season went on, the defensive players would look up the rankings and find their team hovering around the top five. Meanwhile, one team was locked in the No. 1 spot.
“We’d always see Boston College at the top and be like, ‘Who are these guys? How do they have the number one total defense? No way,’ ” Glasgow said. “ ‘OK, they’re definitely not going to stay up there.’ And then another four games passes, and they’re still number one, like, how is this happening? It’s Boston College.
“And then toward the end of the season, you’re like, this defensive coordinator must be insane.”
And then Michigan hired him. It replaced departed coordinator D.J. Durkin with the architect of that Boston College unit, Don Brown.
Brown’s defense last year led the nation by allowing just 254.3 yards per game, while the Wolverines finished fourth with 280.7. When Brown then came to Ann Arbor, his new players had already seen his old team in the statistics many times. But they had never watched film on those dominant teams until this year.
“Those guys were animals last year,” Glasgow said. “They were a really good team, really good defensive unit. We always kind of knew his product. We never really knew who Coach Brown was before he got introduced, but I thought it was a pretty funny coincidence.”
A few major breaks did not go Michigan’s way this season, namely the final plays against Iowa and Ohio State, both of whom beat the Wolverines in November and dashed Michigan’s College Football Playoff hopes. But over the course of the season, many of those coincidences came together as well as the Wolverines could have hoped, helping them finish the regular season with 10 wins for the first time since 2011.
Brown arrived and installed his defense with no hiccups, as Michigan now ranks second in total defense with 252.7 yards allowed per game. The Wolverines didn’t stop rolling from their 41-7 rout of Florida in last year’s Citrus Bowl until November. For that, Michigan’s players call this season a successful one.
Brown credits the maturity of his players and each of his assistant coaches for that success. Specifically, defensive line coach Greg Mattison — who has been at Michigan for the past five seasons, including 2011 to 2014 as the defensive coordinator — helped smooth the transition.
“One, he’s a great football coach,” Brown said. “Two, I can lean on him because he knows Michigan really well. So here I am, I don’t even know … beyond State Street, I’m not really sure where the heck I am. So he’s just been helpful in so many ways.”
The offense, while not on the same level statistically, answered more questions that lingered from the offseason, most notably at quarterback, where redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight stepped in as the starter. The offensive line, while replacing third-round NFL Draft pick Graham Glasgow and later-injured left tackle Grant Newsome, took another step forward.
As disappointed as the Wolverines were to miss out on the College Football Playoff, each of those changes combined for a double-digit win total. And as a 43-player senior class prepares for its final game, the team doesn’t take that for granted.
“I get very sentimental,” said head coach Jim Harbaugh on Thursday. “(We) understand that the team won’t be the same when this game is over. It’ll exist. It’ll exist in the record books. It’ll exist in our memories. But the ball team as we know it won’t be the same after this game. Very nostalgic about that.”
Harbaugh left the team with that message one day after practice this week, and a couple of the players, both seniors and returning players, spoke about how it struck them.
Even Brown, the newest component of that elite defense, has connected with the players who admired him before he even arrived. He, too, knows Friday is his last chance to coach them.
“I’m trying not to get there, and to be honest, I haven’t even touched it with them, but it’s coming,” Brown said. “It really is. It’s coming. And that’ll be a tough moment.”