The newly dominant Michigan defense would say that the transformation didn’t happen on Saturday. Saturday’s bullying of Illinois was just the evidence, the proof that this defense can dominate like it did for the second half of last season.
Sure, the plays are the end product — plays like a fourth-down stop or a gang tackle for a seven-yard loss or a Jake Ryan sack and strip. But those are just the things that can be observed. On this defense, the progress comes from things that cannot be seen but heard, and as Michigan coach Brady Hoke likes to say, felt.
In two years, this has become a trend.
“We sort of hit that game where we finally knew that we could be a great defense,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Kenny Demens. “And it was a lot earlier this year. I remember last year it was later in the season.”
Senior quarterback Denard Robinson said a great team starts with a great defense. A great defense, his teammates would say, starts with communication. Sophomore linebacker Desmond Morgan referenced it after Saturday’s 45-0 shutout of Illinois. So did Demens, as did Ryan, the redshirt sophomore linebacker.
“Communication is the key to this defense,” Ryan had said. “Without that, it’s nothing.”
As the defense has improved each game as it has become more comfortable as a unit. The Wolverines have allowed fewer yards each week, from 431 yards against Alabama (to 417 the next week, then 259, then 239, then 213) culminating with 134 yards surrendered against Illinois. The points allowed has followed the same pattern.
Last year’s team followed the same path: as the year advances, the defensive chemistry improves. As the chemistry improves, so does the defensive performance.
Saturday was, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said, “the most complete we’ve played.”
The replay would show that the stop on fourth-and-one in the second quarter was an aggressive read by Demens. Demens swam around the offensive line and dropped Illinois running back Donovonn Young behind the line of scrimmage.
The Michigan defense would say that Demens was confident. They would say he knew how his lineman would attack the offensive front, and he reacted accordingly. It was Michigan’s sixth fourth-down stop on nine tries this year
In the third quarter, the box score would show that redshirt junior defensive tackle Quinton Washington smothered Illinois running back Josh Ferguson for a seven-yard loss, tied for the biggest loss for Illinois all of Saturday. His teammates would say that the entire front seven exploded the play from the start. That Ryan and Demens slashed through Ferguson’s intended hole and that they hounded him the other way, funneling him into a charging Washington.
Morgan explained that earlier in the season, “We weren’t really sure about where each other were going to be exactly, things like that. But I think we’re really comfortable right now, starting to really come together knowing where the guy in front of you is going to be every play, how you’re going to be able to play off him playing off the offensive line.
“I think everyone’s starting to mesh together and just know each other’s responsibilities on top of their own.”
Later in the third period, Ryan’s responsibility was to blitz, to get to the quarterback deep in Illinois’ own territory. Ryan over-pursued and slipped when he tried to cut. On the ground, he said, he looked up and saw that the quarterback, Reilly O’Toole, still had the ball. He recovered and hit O’Toole before he released; the ball popped out and freshman lineman Mario Ojemudia fell on it. Ryan finished with 11 tackles, three and a half for a loss, and one and a half sacks.
Anyone could see the sack and strip was built on hustle. The Michigan coaches could see why. They would say the team finishes each play in practice, whether you get tackled or whether you fall down. They would talk about the pursuit drills they run each day.
Overall, Michigan’s defense allowed just eight plays in Michigan territory, all in the first half. In the second half, without Scheelhaase, the Illini exceeded their own 40-yard line just once.
The most impressive part wasn’t Jake Ryan’s spectacular sack and strip, though that was the flashiest. It wasn’t Washington’s tackle for the seven-yard loss, though that was the most productive, nor was it Demens’ stop on fourth-down, even if it was the most crushing.
The Michigan defense would say those plays were just the culmination of communication and chemistry. They’d say the real transformation has been ongoing all year, and that it will continue tomorrow.