Since being revamped by Greg Mattison, the accomplishments of the Michigan Wolverines defense have been trumpeted from mountain top to mountain top.
Now in his third year as the defensive coordinator, Mattison has more than resumed the post vacated by Greg Robinson. He has completely resurrected a defense that ranked No. 101 of 125 FBS programs in 2010, per Yahoo! Sports.
Defense was indeed optional under the former regime, but that didn’t stop Mattison’s Baltimore Ravens pedigree from shoving the Wolverines in the opposite direction. In 2011, his first year, Mattison’s four-man-front philosophy catapulted the Wolverines back near the top in total yards and points against.
Similar improvements were witnessed in 2012, making the incredible leap, perhaps, one of the greatest achievements in the history of Michigan defenses.
Blame for the 7-5 finish in 2013—which was compounded by losing five of the past six—has been, for the most part, placed on the shoulders of the offense. While at its best, the Devin Gardner-led scoring attack was entertaining, but far from reliable.
At its worst, it was painfully ineffective and weak. Look no further than the 29-6 loss to Michigan State for a mental image of a group on crutches. Anger brewed among fans as offensive coordinator Al Borges seemingly failed his system and personnel with lethargic efforts each weekend.
Borges didn’t execute flawless game plans with a No. 9-ranked conference tilt, but Mattison’s slouching defense shouldn’t fly under the radar—it deserves to be dissected and critiqued, too.
After two years of beyond-steady improvement, the defense sank to No. 39 overall in 2013, per NCAAFootball.com.
|A Decline Follows the Climb|
|Year||YPG (nat'l rank)||PPG (nat'l rank)|
|2011||317 (No. 19)||17.2 (No. 8)|
|2012||311 (No. 11)||18.8 (No. 17)|
The coaching staff dodged the axe, as it was recently announced that Brady Hoke and his group of merry men would return for another go next year. Losing a handful of seniors won’t help the offense—and that means the pressure is on Mattison to align his former defense with Team 135 or watch Michigan suffer through another blunder-filled stumble toward the season finale.
Get Back, Get Defensive
Blake Countess’ stock is on the rise, despite the finicky nature of the Wolverines secondary. Other than his league-leading six picks, there wasn’t much for the redshirt sophomore and the defensive backs to celebrate this fall.
Raymon Taylor, a junior, emerged as a one of the Big Ten’s better pass-disrupters with nine pass deflections and four interceptions. That’s one of few positives for Curt Mallory’s crew.
Collectively, however, the defensive backs allowed 12 red-zone touchdowns, the second-most in the conference. That’s not a positive. But they came away with two interceptions inside the 20-yard line and finished with 17 on the year, second to Northwestern’s 19.
There goes another promising sign. Michigan’s pass-defense efficiency, believe it or not, was among the best in the conference, coming in at No. 4.
|Tracking the DBs in 2013|
|YPC||Total Yards||INT||TD||Efficiency Rating|
A lukewarm secondary didn't help the hobbling Wolverines. Manned by a shutdown-corner-in-training who was flanked by senior Courtney Avery and Taylor, the secondary should have been stingy through the air.
The opposite was the case. Michigan's pass defense was ranked No. 7 in the Big Ten, and it went from leading the nation with 1,832 in 2012 to giving up 2,736 yards this year. Put that into perspective: This year's average would have ranked in the 80s in 2012.
Talk about a drop.
As freshmen, Dymonte Thomas and Jourdan Lewis each received valuable reps this fall. Paired with Taylor and Countess, their youth and game experience should only strengthen the secondary.
They'll have to, because Team 135 won't make it through 2014 by replicating the 2013 effort. Mattison is more of a line specialist, but he'll have to address issues with Mallory sooner than later.
Watch the Run
Other than losing yet another game to the Ohio State Buckeyes, this time 42-41, Mattison’s defense earned the dubious distinction of being the one that allowed Carlos Hyde’s record-setting 226 yards during “The Game.”
It certainly didn’t help that Michigan had just three series wins this millennium and lost at The Big House, but quarterback Braxton Miller chipped in 135 yards and two touchdowns for good measure, extending Urban Meyer’s 24-game winning streak and priming Ohio State for its Big Ten championship meeting with Michigan State.
Mark Weisman powered his way to late real estate during Iowa’s 24-21 victory. Ameer Abdullah was lethal on the run and on the pass, and Michigan didn’t have an answer for him during its 17-13 loss to Nebraska.
The Wolverines had the Big Ten's No. 5-ranked run defense, giving up 1,673 yards and nine red-zone touchdowns (13 total). They also had the league's No. 5 red-zone run stoppers.
It's time for more perspective: The elite of the elite anti-run collectives gave up 1,500 or less in 2012, a mark that should have held true this year.
Under Mattison, the Wolverines have been a few individual performances shy of holding the opposition to that milestone. Limit the Hydes, live to see another day.
|Yards Come and Go, but Hyde is Forever|
What's the Scenario?
Numbers are numbers until they're put into context. Simply judging a defense on season totals doesn't paint the whole picture. As mentioned above, the Wolverines were respectable in the red zone. Stakes are raised when inside the 20-yard line, and Mattison's men proved they could prevail during crunch time.
But stalling drives and forcing punts is an important aspect that the defense still must master. Too many extra downs were gifted to the other side this year. Believe it or not, Team 134 nearly had fourth down defense down to a science, made clear by opponents' 40 percent success rate.
But Team 134 let the chains move 38 percent of the time on third downs, which was part of its downfall, especially during late-game scenarios against Penn State, Akron, UConn...is there a need to list the rest?!
If anything, prior success motivates. It should. Despite a flat 2013, Mattison's defense has already proven that it's far from the prior scheme run by Robinson. The Wolverines have a secondary that can alter outcomes. It has linebackers, when they're all healthy, who can put the lid on any running back.
Don't solely judge Mattison,who is a phenomenal recruiter, on the recent regression. However, sliding back right here, right now, doesn't cater to the best interests when the offense appears relatively lost when it has the ball.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81