After Saturday”s victory over Illinois, there weren”t too many questions left unanswered by the Wolverines. So here”s one: When was the game really over?
You could say that it ended when quarterback Jermaine Gonzales caught a pass from wide receiver Marquise Walker and ran 51 yards which was followed up two plays later by tailback Walter Cross” 21-yard touchdown pass to Walker.
Or you could say that the game was over when the Wolverines stopped Illini quarterback Kurt Kittner on fourth-and-one from his own 33-yard line. Up 14-10 at the time, Michigan scored a touchdown on its next play.
Personally, I feel that the game was really over when with just over nine minutes to go in the third quarter, the Illini got called for personal fouls on two consecutive plays. They had just cut Michigan”s lead to 15, but their sloppy and thuggish play sure made it seem like they had packed it in.
Obviously, exactly when the game was over means nothing. It”s water-cooler banter. What matters is the final score Michigan 45, Illinois 20.
But maybe I”m not being fair maybe the questions do say something about Michigan”s defense and how much it has improved in one year.
Anyone who looks back to last year will remember that games were never over until the final whistle sounded.
This year, though, leads seem more safe. And that”s because Michigan has, to date, shown an ability to hold them. Even against Washington, the only team to beat Michigan this season, the defense gave up just nine of the Huskies” 23 points.
“I thought our defense was absolutely outstanding against an offense that has a lot of weapons,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. He”s right it was outstanding. It was dominating and it was intense, something that you didn”t see often last year.
Saturday, Michigan went into half time with a 28-10 lead. Likewise, Michigan went into halftime at Purdue last year with a 28-10 lead. But in that Purdue game, Michigan fell 32-31.
This year, Michigan held it out not so much in the fact that the offense scored 17 more points, but look at it this way: Michigan gave up just 10 points in the second half. If all things were equal (which they”re often not, but it”s still worth mentioning) that”s still a 28-20 win.
“We were pumped up for this game all week,” inside linebacker Larry Foote said. “We were reading stuff, what they were talking about and that just fueled our tank. We just came out ready to have a great game.
“We were talking about the Purdue game but this is a different team, a different defense. We mentioned it in the lockerroom.”
Defenses are often measured in points given up and turnovers. The reason for these arbitrary statistics is that fans need means of measurement. The stats are important it”s good to know that the Michigan defense has given up just seven touchdowns this season, an average of 1.75 per game (two of those came in garbage time, so the first-string defense has really only given up five touchdowns.)
The team is also giving up 19.3 points per game.
So here”s where the problem comes in last year”s defense gave up 2.3 touchdowns a game, and just 19.1 points per contest.
Sure, this season is only four games old, but is anyone ready to compare this year”s defense to last season”s group?
No. And the reason is confidence. It”s not a measurable statistic by any stretch of the imagination, but this year, fans are willing to place the games in the hands of the defense.
There”s a reason that Michigan fans were optimistic when Illinois was going for it on fourth and one.
Michigan has shown an ability to control the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball this year, an ability that was non-existent last season.
Michigan is giving up 88 fewer rushing yards per game than a year ago, holding opponents to just 59 yards on the ground per contest.
Also, through four games last year, the Wolverines had tallied the same 36 tackles for loss as it has so far this year. But last year, the losses totaled 93 yards. This year, the Michigan defense has set offenses back 153.
“The guys up front are bigger, stronger, faster, so we”re just trying to stop the run,” Foote said. “You can do some things after you stop the run.”
The truest test of defense is confidence. This year, Michigan fans have confidence in the defense. This year, the Michigan defense has yet to blow a game.
The defense is shutting teams down. And more importantly, it”s keeping them down.
Jon Schwartz can be reached