Following an underwhelming 2-2 start for the Michigan football team this fall, the team’s rhetoric has not changed: The goal for the season is to win the Big Ten Championship.
“Why not?” asked fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs on Tuesday. “I’m not discouraged at all by the way things have started. We’re undefeated in the Big Ten right now, right? Aren’t we undefeated?”
Reporters chuckled. The Wolverines are the only team in the Legends division of the Big Ten to not play a conference opponent. So, yes — they have statistically as good a chance of winning the Big Ten title as any other team.
“That’s what I thought,” Kovacs said.
That glass-half-full mentality was apparent from most of the personnel that spoke with the media on Tuesday, especially from the defensive players. Even defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who is never satisfied with his defense’s performance, seemed proud of how his unit played against Notre Dame before the bye week.
To be clear, no Wolverine left South Bend two Saturdays ago feeling content with the 13-6 loss to the Fighting Irish. But Mattison still recognizes good defense when he sees it. The offense turned the ball over six times at Notre Dame Stadium, and his players still surrendered just 13 points. That’s impressive, regardless of the outcome.
“Well, I’m encouraged that it re-emphasized that if we play really hard, if we run to the football — and that was the thing in that game that stood out to me, that we really had a lot of helmets to the football — that’s the only way we can play here,” Mattison said. “And I told the players this before the game: I felt they were going to play well because they really prepared. They really worked at understanding the game plan, understanding what they had to do.”
The defense is confident that its success at Notre Dame will translate into more high-effort games in Big Ten play.
Kovacs agrees with Mattison. The biggest factor of success against the Fighting Irish was the team’s collective effort to get to the ball, and he mentioned that the coaches ran a number of pursuit drills leading up to the Notre Dame game. He also had the opportunity to get to the ball more often because coaches had him lining up in the box more than usual.
How much time Kovacs spends with the front seven is dependent on a given week’s game plan, but with his nose for the ball, he fully embraces the role.
“If you’re down there you don’t have to worry about getting beat deep,” Kovacs said. “You can just play football once you’re down in the box. That’s like backyard football.
“I’m a football player. Who doesn’t like it in the trenches?”
Kovacs’ presence in the trenches may have been why Michigan defended the run particularly well against Notre Dame. The unit gave up 94 yards on the ground, but it took the Fighting Irish 31 carries to get there.
That’s a vast improvement compared to the cumulative 721 rushing yards the Michigan defense allowed over the first three weeks of the season.
“I think that we’re starting to get better,” Kovacs said. “We’re starting to stop the run, starting to keep the ball inside and in front of the defense. I’m excited about the way we’re headed.”
At this point, the secondary seems to be playing exceedingly well, as Michigan’s pass defense ranks first in the Big Ten, allowing opponents just 155 passing yards per game. But players have taken that statistic with a grain of salt.
Alabama didn’t really need to pass — its stable of running backs effectively ran all over Michigan’s front seven. Passing is rarely a part of Air Force’s game plan. And Massachusetts just wasn’t talented enough to truly challenge the Wolverine defensive backs.
But there’s no denying that the Michigan secondary completely befuddled Notre Dame starting quarterback Everett Golson, who was replaced by Tommy Rees.
Ultimately, the Notre Dame game has appeared to give confidence to a defensive unit that severely needed some.
“Obviously the last game wasn’t exactly what we wanted,” Kovacs said. “But we did make some steps. And this is a new season.”