- Marissa McClain/Daily
By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 29, 2011
It’s hard to overstate the difference defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has made on the Michigan football team through eight games.
In the past 10 months, the Wolverines evolved from one of the worst defenses into a dependable, sometimes dominant corps. In Saturday’s 36-14 victory over Purdue, the defense caused a red-zone turnover, a safety and a turnover on downs.
After the defense allowed a swift opening-drive touchdown, capped by a 48-yard touchdown reception — the longest play allowed by Michigan all season — fifth-year senior defensive tackle Mike Martin took control of the game.
Lined up at his own five-yard line, Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush took a snap from under center. Before TerBush dropped back three steps, Martin had brushed past Boilermaker guard Peters Drey ready for the kill shot.
It’s a sight no quarterback wants to see.
Martin powered through Drey’s last attempt to block him and dropped TerBush two yards deep in the end zone for a safety, giving Michigan a 9-7 lead early in the second quarter.
“(The safety) was a great momentum (boost),” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “When you score defensively it always brings great momentum and morale for your team.”
Nine minutes later, Martin added another sack, giving him a career-high two sacks for the afternoon — matching his season-long totals for his freshman and sophomore seasons.
“That guy is a physical beast,” said junior defensive end Craig Roh of Martin. “He’s a physically dominating player.”
Martin and the defensive line needed the bounce-back performance after No. 17 Michigan’s last test, a 28-14 loss to then-No. 23 Michigan State. In that game, the Spartans exposed gaping holes at the line of scrimmage and rushed for 213 rushing yards.
Against the Boilermakers, the Wolverines collected four sacks and held the running backs to 89 yards.
And three Michigan linemen finished in the top five for tackles. It was a game won up front.
“They’re real big, and they’re real strong and they do a great job of penetrating the line of scrimmage,” said Purdue coach Danny Hope. “We knew coming into the game they were a big strong defensive front. There’s no question about that. You can look at them and see.”
After allowing the opening-drive touchdown, the defense held Purdue scoreless for the next 58 minutes.
According to Hoke and his players, it was all about getting back to good old-fashioned Michigan football.
“Michigan football as I know it is playing defense,” Hoke said.
Holding Purdue scoreless for nine consecutive drives certainly looked like textbook Michigan defense, but what exactly does that look like?
“Michigan defense is dominating in every aspect of life,” Roh said with a smile. “That’s a rough definition.”
Speaking a little less tongue-in-cheek, Martin pointed to stopping the run as the staple of a Michigan defense he expects to see every Saturday.
Hoke holds the belief that there are between six and eight individual plays that determine the outcome of each game. The safety was one. Sophomore cornerback Courtney Avery’s red-zone interception was another.
But another crucial play occurred late in the game, when Purdue quarterback Robert Marve hit a short screen pass. Martin was on the pass rush, but instead of stopping his pursuit of the play when Marve let the pass fly, Martin went on the hunt.
Martin caught his man 16 yards downfield.
Did that play determine the outcome of the game? Maybe not. But the effort was all that mattered.
“I think it sets the tone for the defense,” Hoke said. “When you see a guy who’s lining up over the football and rushing the passer ... and 16 yards down the field he’s making the tackle — that means somethig’.”
Martin ended the game with a season-high seven tackles.
Even with the win and a 7-1 record firmly in check, Mattison and Hoke won’t let up.
“I don’t know if the defense is getting better,” Hoke said.
From 110th-best defense in the nation a year ago to a top-25 spot today? It’s clear this defense is improving. The players just use Hoke’s words as motivation.
“There’s always going to be people saying different things about our defense, but the most important things are the guys in the locker room,” Martin said.
“Every week’s going to be a test for us.”