Everybody do it together. One. Two. Three. Exhale.
The Michigan football team is done with two-thirds of its season. Its sample size is big enough. The team on the field is the team that’s going to show up for the remaining four games. And after holding Purdue to 14 points, we know what the defense is.
Well, kind of good.
Other than against Notre Dame. (Stop for a second and reminisce on the end of that game one more time, I’ll see you on the other side of the sentence) the defense hasn’t allowed more than 24 points in a game. Michigan ranks eighth in the country in scoring defense.
Whenever the Wolverines need a turnover or a stop, the defense has the uncanny ability to deliver — like defensive end Craig Roh stuffing Purdue on 3rd and 2 in a tie game early in the first quarter, or sophomore cornerback Courtney Avery intercepting the Boilermakers on Michigan’s 16-yard line to hold onto a five-point lead.
So stop holding your breath. The point Michigan fans have been waiting for all season, when the defense reverts back into its historic ineptitude, won’t happen. Saturday proved it.
The past two years indicated that this game, the one after the Michigan State game, was when everything was supposed to go wrong. The Wolverines were supposed to lose a game they shouldn’t have. Instead, the defense gave up just 192 yards through three quarters and less than 100 rushing for the third time this season.
Michigan’s defense has had plenty of chances to regress. If it hasn’t happened by now, it’s not happening. Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s caveman-like, “DEFENSE BE PHYSICAL,” mentality has worked.
“Michigan football, as I know it, is playing defense,” Hoke said. “First and foremost.”
This isn’t exactly Michigan football as Hoke remembers from his previous stint in Ann Arbor. He and his trained robots that come to the press conferences will be the first to tell you that. The defense isn’t at that level.
And no, it hasn’t proven itself against the best competition. But it doesn’t need to. Michigan plays just one ranked team the rest of the season. That’s Nebraska, who has to come to Ann Arbor.
Hoke wants to build a team that has its defense win games. And, to a large extent, it did so on Saturday. Senior defensive tackle Mike Martin’s second-quarter safety provided the turning point of the game. The play made up for the defense giving up a first-drive touchdown, and it redeemed the offense after it had thrown an interception at Purdue’s five-yard line.
In the third, Michigan was stuffed at Purdue’s goal line on 4th-and-1. It was a play that could have derailed a season in a game that traditionally did so. (Do you want to be reminded of the 2009 Illinois game when Michigan was stopped on the goal line in a similar fashion? Oops, too late.) But the defense forced the Boilermakers to punt on the next drive. Michigan scored one drive later to go up 22 and put the game away.
“This defense is great with responding to adversity, whether it’s a sudden change, whatever it might be or we get scored on which we never want that to happen,” Martin said. “But we did a great job of coming to the sideline and re-gathering (after giving up the touchdown) and knowing that we had to play better defense. That’s what we did.”
Eight games into his tenure, Hoke knows he has a defense that can do what he needs it to do.
That won’t make his opponents breathe any easier.
—Florek can be reached at Florekmi@umich.edu