On paper, Michigan's rebuilt defense appears headed in the right direction. The Wolverine defenders actually looked dominant at times during its 13-6 loss to Notre Dame. They held the undefeated Irish to just 254 total yards, 16 first downs and only 10 points in its first nine possessions.
Other than a few plays down the stretch, the defense looked ready to start the Big Ten season. In fact, Greg Mattison's troops may be called on to bail out Michigan's floundering offense when the Wolverines meet the surprising Purdue Boilermakers (3-1, 0-0) this afternoon in West Lafayette.
Offensively, Michigan (2-2, 0-0) has been a major disappointment. Denard Robinson has thrown eight interceptions to six touchdown passes. Featured running back Fitz Toussaint is averaging just 50 yards per game. In fairness, Toussaint had a solid second half against the Irish (56 yards) but has been basically invisible, otherwise.
The offensive line, which lost center David Molk, right tackle Mark Huyge and tight end Kevin Koger from the 2011 team, has been inconsistent at best. The line, too, had a pretty good second half at Notre Dame, but don't expect the offense's problems to be corrected overnight.
So that leaves it up to a defensive unit that surprised Michigan fans throughout 2011, allowing just 17.4 points per game, less than half of the 2010 total.
But, coming into the season, Michigan had to replace three of its defensive line starters. Then the Wolverines lost starting cornerback Blake Countess for the season early in the Alabama defeat.
The defense was often confused by Air Force the following week, then was rarely tested in the Massachusetts victory. Its identity began to surface at Notre Dame.
And with it came added confidence.
"We feel comfortable with one another," said sophomore linebacker Desmond Morgan during the players' press conference for mgoblue.com. "I don't think we're all the way there by any means...I don't think we can be satisfied or hang our hats on that one game (Notre Dame)."
The 2012 defense is becoming a solid collection of both veterans and freshmen. Jordan Kovacs, Jake Ryan and Frank Clark have picked up where they left off a season ago. Morgan, Thomas Gordon, Raymon Taylor, Will Campbell and Quinton Washington have all shown improvement, while five freshmen are providing solid depth.
Mattison, who's been the architect of several good defenses—both college and pro—likes how his forces are playing as a unit (per mgoblue.com)
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 (Notre Dame) that stood out to me...We really had a lot of helmets to the football, and that’s the only way we can play here.
Starting middle linebacker Kenny Demens, who's lost some of his minutes to freshman Joe Bolden, knows this is the last chance for his fellow seniors to win the Big Ten crown. "We have a bunch of guys who are hungry," he told mgoblue.com.
And carrying the offense on their backs should be no problem, for as long as it's necessary.
Michigan Football: 2012 Results
Alabama 41-14 (L)
Air Force 31-25 (W)
UMass 63-13 (W)
N. Dame 13-6 (L)