When the Michigan football team walked off the turf at Cowboys Stadium following a 41-14 drubbing from Alabama, the defensive unit was dejected. Star sophomore cornerback Blake Countess was on crutches, already done for the season. Senior defensive tackle Will Campbell hung his head in disappointment.
Fast forward nearly two months and you see a defense that has found its mojo.
The Wolverines haven’t given up more than 13 points in a game since playing Air Force week two, and Michigan suddenly has the third-best scoring defense (16.4 points per game) and the second-best total defense (285.3 yards per game) in the Big Ten.
Still, the rhetoric in the locker room has not changed. Coaches are looking for improvements this week leading up to a primetime matchup at Nebraska.
“We won’t get complacent, believe me. That won’t happen,” said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. “We’ve got so far to go, you know. I mean, again, I’m proud of the way they have played hard. … But there’s so many things we have to get better at, and they see that on the film, and they believe it just as much as we as coaches do.”
A major focus this week will be outside contain and funneling the run toward the middle of the field. When playing against teams that run the football well, it’s critical that the offense can’t get to the edge and turn upfield.
The Cornhusker backs, sophomore Ameer Abdullah and senior Rex Burkhead — who is questionable for the game, nursing a left knee injury — and junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, are shifty and all have the ability to get to the sideline quickly, so outside containment will be an emphasis this week.
“You can watch any defense, you can watch anyone on Sunday, you can watch anyone on Saturday,” Mattison said. “If you let the ball outside your defense, then you don’t have a chance.”
Against Michigan State on Saturday, the Michigan defense contained star running back Le’Veon Bell very well. Bell, who leads all Big Ten running backs with an average of 123 yards per game, was limited to a mere 68 yards on 26 carries. But Bell is more of a downhill runner who prefers banging bodies up the gut, rather than bouncing to the outside.
“I think it’s every play, you kind of work on what we call ‘cupping the football,’ ” said senior safety Jordan Kovacs. “You keep the safeties over the top and the corners on the outside, making sure the ball doesn’t get outside or behind the defense.”
Another area the defense is always looking to improve is its ability to get off the field on third down. Michigan State converted just six of its 17 third-down opportunities last Saturday, but Nebraska has fared much better than the Spartans this season on third down, successfully converting just over 45 percent of the time.
In this instance, though, the players try to motivate each other to improve.
“I think back to the Illinois game,” said sophomore linebacker Desmond Morgan. “I had two bonehead offsides penalties on two third downs. … (Redshirt sophomore linebacker) Jake (Ryan) came up to me after the second one and said, ‘You know what, you’re playing aggressive, you’re playing fast, and that’s what we want. Don’t even think about it, we got your back.’ ”
For Ryan, correcting mistakes has become a bit more enjoyable than it was earlier in the season. He admitted Tuesday that sometimes Mattison, who coaches the outside linebackers personally, would get in his face whenever he does something wrong.
But for the past few weeks, Ryan and the rest of the defense has been doing much more right than wrong.
“Watching film has become more fun, and knowing what they’re doing before the snap is great,” Ryan said. “I think with Coach Mattison, he’s just taught me where the back is (before the snap), like he’s going to go there. It’s ridiculous how much he knows about football.”
Next week, we’ll see if Ryan still finds film study fun after defending against a Nebraska offense that ranks first in the conference in both scoring and total yards.