The Michigan football team’s Thursday practice always consists of the offense and defense going up against each other to close out the week.

Earlier this season, the defense would falter in the red zone against the offense and often missed assignments.

So defensive coordinator Greg Mattison coined a simple phrase during practice, one he constantly repeated to remind the defense of the mindset it needed.

“Finish it.”

And last Saturday against Northwestern, the offense could be heard shouting that motto to its defensive counterparts on the field in a way that reminded Michigan coach Brady Hoke of the cheering on the sideline of a high-school game.

The result was what Mattison called the best defensive performance he’s seen all season, and the phrase has become emblematic of the defense Mattison wants to see game in and game out.

“Northwestern was a very good offense, a hard offense for the guys to defend because they could do so many things,” Mattison said. “When you play against a quarterback like (Kain) Colter, you make one mistake and you aren’t where you’re supposed to be, it’s a 20-yard gain, at least. Overall, for 60 minutes, I think that was the best we’ve played to date.”

Sophomore linebacker James Ross III — who led Michigan with 13 tackles against the Wildcats — said on Monday that the defense took responsibility for the four-overtime loss to Penn State last month. So when the Northwestern game was thrust into overtime, it saw it as a shot at redemption.

“We felt that the game was on our shoulders, and we wanted the game on our shoulders to prove to ourselves,” Ross said. “It’s great that we got the opportunity.”

In the losses to Michigan State and Nebraska, the Wolverines notoriously gave up two game-changing touchdowns near the end of the second and fourth quarters, respectively. They managed to avoid that against the Wildcats, sacking Colter in the third overtime period before picking off his pass to end the game. Not only did Michigan finish, but it also didn’t allow a touchdown until the first overtime.

“We all know that to be the kind of defense we need to be here, you’ve got to finish,” Mattison said. “It doesn’t matter what happens in three-and-a-half quarters. That’s what being part of a defense is.”

Mattison said that fifth-year senior defensive tackle Quinton Washington was the underrated star of the defensive show, and that the physicality of the defensive line as a whole also helped.

“(Washington’s) why our linebackers were able to run to the football so well,” Mattison said. “There are times in that game where he has two guys on him, and he’s holding the line of scrimmage. That kind of goes unnoticed.”

The other thing that made Michigan’s defense so effective, Mattison said, was the rotation of personnel at the free and strong safety positions, which allowed the Wolverines to keep fresh legs in the backfield.

But for as much as Mattison talked about linebackers and safeties, the one thing he kept returning to was that new team motto.

“When you start (finishing), then good things happen,” he said. “You’re never going to stop everybody every play. I thought our guys did a really good job. You saw tremendous effort every day (in practice).”

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