The Michigan defense was dangerously close to losing its shutout.
Facing the 19th-ranked Wolverines’ second-team defense, Minnesota had the ball at the Michigan 20-yard line with about five minutes left in the game.
Up 51-0, all the defense had left to accomplish was to finish the game and the shutout. That had been all the players heard. During winter conditioning, it was finishing their workouts. When practice started, it was finishing a play. Then it was finishing the games. They’ve said they want the fourth quarter to be their quarter.
It’s all about finishing.
So with Minnesota knocking on the door, Michigan penetrated the backfield and disrupted the handoff. The ball popped loose and sophomore cornerback Courtney Avery knew what to do with it.
“I just saw the ball and I saw the open field and I said, ‘No way I’m falling on this one,’ ” Avery said.
He had to finish.
“We’re not allowed not to swarm to the ball — ever,” said junior defensive end Craig Roh. “It’s just natural in the games that … if one guy misses a tackle, there’ll be five more guys there.”
“It’s second nature now,” Avery added.
Four other defenders sprinted the whole way with Avery on his 83-yard touchdown return, to finish the play and celebrate with him in the endzone.
Michigan’s first shutout since 2007 was safe, and so was the new reputation of defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s defense that has now allowed just 10 points over the past three games.
On Saturday, the dominance started up front where the defensive line, led by Roh and seniors Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin, disrupted plenty of Minnesota’s plays before they could start.
Minnesota’s first drive of the game went like this: Roh made a tackle for loss, then a swarm of defenders swallowed an outside-run play, then Van Bergen sacked the Golden Gophers’ true freshman quarterback Max Shortell.
Minnesota didn’t get a first down until the second quarter, and while Michigan scored touchdowns on each of its first four possessions, the Golden Gophers punted four times, going three-and-out three times.
Shortell was a deer the Wolverine defense feasted on. He was sacked three times and the running backs didn’t find much room until the second half.
When Minnesota finally moved the ball into Michigan territory in the second quarter, freshman cornerback Blake Countess forced a fumble — the ball didn’t come into the Wolverines side of the field again until late in the third quarter.
The Golden Gophers’ starting quarterback, MarQueis Gray, was out with a toe injury, but Michigan’s impact was undeniable — with 69 yards allowed in the first half, pitching a perfect 0-for-11 on third-down conversions.
“We always believe we can — we do have the ability to do that,” Roh said. “And we just have to play our techniques right. The more we listen to our coaches, the more we can dominate like that.”
All Michigan had to do was line up the right way, stick to its gameplan and watch the results, Roh said, adding it didn’t matter who was in at quarterback. The coaches are giving the players the “keys” they need to succeed. Then it’s up to the players to execute, to finish.
In most weeks, Mattison’s unit started slow before he made in-game adjustments. Then the unit typically played better in the second half. Finally, the defense showed it was capable of playing a complete game, against a Big Ten team no less.
Mattison now has an experienced line to work with, a trio of athletic linebackers that dropped back and helped stuff the running game, and a secondary that suddenly has a glutton of viable players, especially with Countess again impressing in coverage.
Mix the coaching with personnel, and you get a defense that has allowed just 10 points per game this season, which is the only defensive statistic Mattison said he cared about. And the Wolverines are No. 2 in the country in scoring defense. Even so, it isn’t yet enough.
“I just feel like, we still have so far to go before we’re at that Michigan level,” Roh said. “Today was a good day, but it was a step — a step toward becoming a great Michigan defense.
“The emphasis all the coaches have had on just finishing, even the second half of the season. We’re going to have that at the forefront of our mind as we go into more Big Ten play. I think we will be improving every game.”
After a 5-0 start to the season, finishing strong may be the defense’s toughest task yet. Michigan coach Brady Hoke foreshadowed trouble ahead when the Wolverines play more stout offensive lines that may give his front-four more trouble than Minnesota did.
Though, manhandling the Golden Gophers was a good start.
“As a defense, a shutout is a pinnacle,” Roh said. “There was not for a second there that we were going to let up.”