- Marissa McClain/Daily
By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 12, 2011
CHAMPAIGN — J.T. Floyd took one last look around Memorial Stadium.
The stands were quickly emptying. Michigan center David Molk was standing at the midfield block ‘I,’ posing with Illinois center Graham Pocic, a former high school teammate.
As Floyd started crossing the turf toward the tunnel to the visitor’s locker room, he saw Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins approaching him. The receiver-cornerback duo had battled all game long.
Floyd pulled up at the goal line.
“Heck of a game, man,” Floyd told the All-American wideout. “I think you’re a heck of a talent.”
Jenkins, in his orange No. 8 jersey, gave a big smile and tossed the same compliment back at Floyd — Michigan’s No. 8.
“Make sure you go get the rest of the (defensive backs) and give them some trouble the rest of the season,” Floyd said as he stepped away.
He tucked the winged helmet under his left arm and trotted through the north endzone and into the tunnel.
Beneath the dreadlocks, just below the eye black, Floyd couldn’t contain his smile. He was still beaming as he climbed onto the team bus a half hour later.
He went man-to-man against the best receiver in the Big Ten on the road and won. Not only did No. 22 Michigan beat Illinois, 31-14, but Floyd sealed the victory with a fourth-quarter interception.
“Coming into the game and into this week, I knew A.J. Jenkins was a great receiver,” Floyd said. “His stats speak for his skills. He’s top-10 in almost every category in the nation. So I knew it was a big week for me."
He gave another grin.
“And he’s number 8, too, so took that kind of personal.”
Floyd was up late on Friday night. Inside the team hotel, he kept the reel rolling, watching Jenkins torch cornerback after cornerback. To a man, he’ll admit he’s no match for Jenkins. But he caught something in the film — a split, a tendency.
There were certain situations, depending on the score, down and spot of the ball, that Jenkins and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase got predictable. Third down on Michigan’s 40-yard line was one of those situations.
When the pass went up, so did Floyd.
“The coaches were talking to me telling me, ‘Just trust your instincts,’ ” Floyd said. “I just read it. I seen the receiver raise up in his break, and I just went for it.”
He returned the interception 43 yards to set up the Wolverines’ final score.
Jenkins finished with eight catches for 103 yards, but Floyd was resilient. He kept Jenkins out of the endzone.
A year removed from Michigan’s 67-65 triple-overtime thriller against Illinois, the Fighting Illini didn’t cross midfield until the end of the third quarter. It was the Wolverines’ defense that commanded the flow of the game from start to finish.
The 2010 Michigan team got punched and fell flat. These Wolverines get punched and they punch back.
Last season, with 110th-ranked defense in the nation, Michigan couldn’t stop a nosebleed. That defense just wasn’t good enough to win.
“That’s all you heard about when I took the job here,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke.
This season, using the same cogs and a few well-oiled additions, Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison have a defensive machine on their hands.
So what happened? How is Michigan winning on defense?
Floyd knows the answer and doesn’t mind sharing. Twice, he credited the coaching staff for putting him in the right position to make a play. Twice more, he admitted his newfound dedication to film.
That difference comes from Hoke and his staff — they have the Wolverines prepared to play every Saturday.
It’s the toughness Hoke preaches. It’s demanding every week that nobody’s job is certain. It’s accountability.
And it has Michigan back on the map.
“The past is something that’s always going to be in the back of your head,” said senior captain Mike Martin. “We don’t focus on it because we’re so much different as a team, as a defense. Guys are so much better, our mentality is just so much better, and I’m sure that it showed on the field today.”
Allowing just over two touchdowns a game — at sixth in the nation in scoring defense — these players finally know the feeling of a job well done.
But the transition in the past season hasn't been easy. Ask Floyd. Hoke and Mattison admit they've been hard on Floyd all season. He's not just No. 8, he's the team's No. 1 cornerback.
“Coaches are always tough on me, but that’s why I came here,” Floyd said. “I came in to win and win big. The coaches did a good job to get me prepared each week, make sure I’m focused, making sure I’m keying in on what I need to key in on.”
So when Floyd turned away from Jenkins at the goal line and looked around again. He was the last Michigan player off the field. He’d done his job, he'd made his statement.
— Nesbitt can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.