CHAMPAIGN – Entering this season, the buzz surrounding Michigan was how good its defense would be. The discussion came both from inside and outside the Michigan program. But through four games, had the Wolverines shown that they were a good defense?

Paul Wong
Jeff Phillips

There is no statistical category that proves the Michigan defense deserves to be mentioned among the elite defenses in the nation, such as Miami (Fla.), Virginia Tech or Oklahoma. Yet opposing coaches still talk about Michigan’s intimidating defense after the game.

After Illinois put up 543 yards of offense – of which about 400 yards came against Michigan’s first stringers – in its 45-28 drubbing at home, coach Ron Turner still had nothing but respect for the Wolverines’ defense.

“They have a great defense, as good as I’ve seen in a while,” Turner said.

Is Turner right? Is this really one of the best defenses that Illinois has faced?

Statistics-wise, the Wolverines are hampered by facing some of the most potent offenses in the country. Michigan allows nearly 260 yards passing per game, but Washington, Western Michigan and Illinois all have effective passing games with several talented receivers. Should a quality defense be able to shut down these air attacks?

Illinois wide receiver Brandon Lloyd knew that his team couldn’t be stopped and wasn’t as impressed as his coach.

“We beat ourselves, Michigan didn’t do anything,” Lloyd said. “They couldn’t stop us on the first drive. They couldn’t stop us any drive, but we made mistakes and that’s why they came out winning.”

Lloyd is right. Michigan couldn’t stop the Illini passing game at the beginning, but it didn’t matter because it forced Illinois turnovers, both interceptions and fumbles. By doing so the defense put the Wolverines in a position to win, just as all good defenses do.

“They were good, I’m not going to say I wasn’t impressed, but they are just like everybody else,” Lloyd said. “They put their pads on like everybody else.”

The only common opponent that Michigan shares with an extraordinary defense is Western Michigan with Virginia Tech. In the end, it makes no difference that the Hokies shut out Western Michigan last Saturday while the Wolverines gave up 12 points to the same team on Sept. 7.

There doesn’t have be a specific M.O. for a team. A defense cannot be expected to force multiple turnovers every game, but it can be expected to keep the game close.

For instance, against Washington, Michigan had trouble stopping the Huskies’ passing attack all game, but the Wolverines held strong at the end, setting up Philip Brabbs’ game winning kick. Similarly against Utah, Michigan again came up with a big fourth quarter stop when it was needed most.

In Michigan’s only loss this season, the Wolverines did an admirable job by forcing four Notre Dame turnovers in a 25-23 loss. But the offense did not capitalize the way it did against Illinois. Instead of scoring touchdowns and rewarding the defense, the offense coughed up the ball itself. But the Wolverines still had a chance to win because of the defense.

The talent is there and the team speed is good when compared to the rest of the Big Ten. And while the Illini were in agreement that the turnovers were mistakes and accepted responsibility for them, they were still caused by Michigan’s hard-hitting defense. Lloyd pointed to this as to why Michigan is more respected than other defenses.

“They play fast. Everybody is playing fast, everybody is flying around to the ball. Everybody doesn’t do that every snap and they do it every snap,” Lloyd said.

The Wolverines’ defense is not the best in the nation, but it transcends the boxscore. Statistical comparisons to other teams do not do it justice.

For the remainder of the season, the defense will continue to give Michigan the opportunity to win the game and – with the continued support of the offense – the Big Ten title.

Jeff Phillips can be reached at jpphilli@umich.edu.

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