CHAMPAIGN — Greg Mattison, the man who had said his defense would never play good enough for him — the man who said perfection was what he strived for — he was near tears.
He was also the same man who always said he’d admired how eager his guys were to learn. Now, his brow furrowed and his heart poured out of his mouth.
“That was a Michigan defense,” Mattison said like a proud father figure, admitting it for the first time all season. “They played as hard as they could, they did whatever they had to do. Without a doubt, that was a Michigan defense.”
The Michigan football team had just won the game on defense, holding Illinois to 30 yards, including minus-14 first-half rushing yards, before ultimately allowing 14 points and just 214 yards of offense en route to a 31-14 victory on the road.
“They’re Michigan Men,” said an emotional Mattison. “We talk about it all the time, that there’s a standard at Michigan and you’ve got to live up to that, and you’re judged by it. We haven’t come to that final point where you win the game on defense, and we said, ‘This is your last away trip to do it.’ I couldn’t be more proud of this group of guys.”
Fifth-year senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen heard the rumblings around campus that No. 22 Michigan couldn’t play on the road after losses at Michigan State and Iowa. He and the rest of the defense didn’t want to leave a legacy that they couldn’t win on the road. Michigan coach Brady Hoke said they just had to get back to playing “Michigan football.”
They knew what that meant.
In the first three days of fall camp, Mattison put on a clinic about what it meant to play Michigan defense. He installed just two defenses in three days, making sure he had time to set his expectations.
“All we talked about was defensive philosophy — ‘This is what we do. This is who we are,’ ” Van Bergen said. “’We haven’t been that, we will be that.’ So far, it’s held true. We’ve been as dominant as he’s said we could be.”
The defense has improved in every way possible this season, and the road win in Champaign served as the crowning achievement in Mattison’s turnaround effort. The numbers say they allow 20 fewer points per game (15.5) and 132 fewer yards (317) than last season.
And as the offense sputtered and turned the ball over three times against Illinois, the defense was dominant. The goals they set for themselves during camp became more than just expectations. They became reality.
“We wanted to hold our offensive opponent to 33 percent or less on third downs, which we’ve done a pretty good job of that,” Van Bergen said.
Michigan stopped the Fighting Illini on their first eight third down attempts, and Illinois finished 5-of-17 — or 29 percent.
“Short yardage situations, we wanted to win all those — we do that,” Van Bergen continued.
Illinois was 1-for-5 on short yardage situations on third or fourth down. And the Wolverines forced seven three-and-outs, including three straight to start the game.
“Red-zone defense has to be great,” Van Bergen said. “We’ve been good at that. Turnovers (too).”
Illinois converted both of its red-zone trips into touchdowns, but that was after the game was well in hand. And the defense picked off Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to ice the game and forced running back Jason Ford to fumble, only one play after Michigan’s offense failed to score in the red zone itself.
“Pretty much, the defense bailed me out,” said Hoke, who had called for his offense to go for it on 4th-and-1. But failed.
Those five words — “the defense bailed me out” — were laughable a year ago when Michigan played Illinois in a 67-65 triple-overtime shootout win. Van Bergen remembered it hurt most that the defense wasn’t considered “reliable.” The offense had to bail the defense out.
On Saturday, Michigan’s defense proved it could play well on the road. It proved it could win a game its offense couldn’t put away. It proved that it could prevent a team from crossing midfield for an entire half.
“You should think we’re a dominant defense that can be relied on,” Van Bergen said after the game. “You should think that the defense is a staple of Michigan right now and that’s what’s going to continue at Michigan. Michigan will always be able to rely on its defense. It always has been and it always will be that way.”
And the defensive line will always lead the defense, Hoke has decreed. Van Bergen had 2.5 sacks. His friend, senior defensive tackle Mike Martin, had a half sack and nine tackles, disrupting any and all of Illinois’s intentions of running the football all game.
Illinois averages nearly 200 yards rushing per game. It finished with 37.
It may be come as no surprise about 80 percent of Michigan’s practice time is focused on stopping the run. That’s another staple of the “Michigan defense.” It’s hard to argue with results as the buzzwords that Mattison and Hoke preached have become the group’s identity.
“I think when you stop the run, it starts there,” Hoke said. “I think when you play with a physicalness. I think when you see those maize helmets hitting the ball carrier multiple times. I think that’s Michigan defense.”
It sounds like the stuff of fairy tales, but the sight of it nearly reduced a grown man, Mattison, to tears.
“For a lot of years, Michigan was known for Michigan’s defense,” Hoke said. “They really want to represent that.”