Amidst the back-slapping, high-fiving and wild cheering that could be seen all over the Michigan Stadium field after Michigan’s 12-10 win over Michigan State on Saturday evening, one gesture in particular stood out.
It happened in the postgame interview room, about an hour after all the commotion and bodies had cleared the turf. Perched before reporters, fifth-year senior wide receiver Roy Roundtree was asked how confident he was in his team’s defense. While answering in the affirmative, Roundtree turned to senior defensive end Craig Roh and patted him lightly on the shoulder, just above Roh’s back.
Roundtree’s action was simple enough, but it carried plenty of symbolic weight, for it stands to reason that in any game where an offense can’t score a touchdown, the defense bears the brunt of the burden. That was the case on Saturday, and the defense more than came through.
While the ever-improving unit was solid almost all afternoon in holding the Spartans to 10 points and star running back Le’Veon Bell to just 68 yards on 26 attempts, it was even better when it most needed to be.
In the most critical situation of them all, with time dwindling in the fourth quarter and Michigan needing a stop to give its offense one final chance to win the game, the defense responded by forcing a three-and-out deep in Michigan State territory — it did give the offense that chance, and the offense turned it into a victory.
Junior wide receiver Drew Dileo had all the confidence in the world that his teammates on the other side of the ball would answer the bell.
“I don’t really see a whole lot of (the defense) because I’m on offense obviously, but I have trust in our coaches, and I think that’s kind of where it starts, and I have trust in our players,” Dileo said. “They got it done.”
The leader of the defense, fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs, said that Michigan coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison want and expect improvement every week. That momentous stop was evidence that the defense is doing just that.
When the Wolverines last lost a game, which happened four weeks ago at Notre Dame, they faced the exact same situation. The Fighting Irish were trying to grind out the clock to preserve their lead and clinch a victory, and Michigan needed to prevent that.
It didn’t then. Notre Dame got a first down, and the Wolverines lost.
Given another shot, the Kovacs-led defense made good on the chance.
“That’s what I was thinking as we took the field, it’s our opportunity to redeem ourselves and get our offense the ball back,” Kovacs said. “Same situation as Notre Dame, and today we executed. We stopped them when we needed to, made some big plays and got the offense the ball back and let Denard take over.”
The other test came after the most trying play all day for the Wolverines. Leading 9-7 in the fourth quarter, they had just forced Michigan State to punt and had all of the momentum.
The Spartans seized it from them with one play, faking the punt and acquiring the first down to extend the drive.
No doubt it was demoralizing for the defense, which had just done its job and suddenly found itself needing to do it again, but with more pressure on its shoulders. And that kind of letdown can easily lead to a lessened performance, which wasn’t acceptable in such an undetermined game.
Hoke, who accepted blame for the fake punt breakdown, told his defense to just keep Michigan State to a field goal because “good things” could then still happen. The defense did as its coach requested, holding firm on the goal line and keeping the deficit within more reasonable reach by only yielding three points.
“I think with any good defense, they’re going to thrive in quick-change situations, and I think our defense thrives in those types of situations,” Roh said. “We almost want those quick-change situations, because we can show how good we are. That’s something that’s always exciting for us.”
Because Hoke is a perfectionist, he said the defense still has a long way to go to get where it needs to be. When asked about the unit’s performance, his first mention was of dissatisfaction with it for allowing Michigan State’s touchdown drive in the opening minutes of the second half.
And because his players repeat Hoke’s mantras unfailingly, Kovacs agreed with his coach’s sentiments about his unit needing plenty of improvement, as he says every week.
But the whole body of work of Saturday’s game — and especially the play in the most critical situations — speaks to a defense that has already developed a pretty solid foundation.
“Just watching them guys, going against them every day in practice, you see how competitive they are,” Roundtree said. “I rarely sit down when they’re on the field, because I actually like to watch them. (I like) to see how all them guys work together, see them motivate each other to get the offense back out.”
What Roundtree saw on Saturday was certainly worth a pat on the back.