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Michigan defense an underrated story in Big Ten’s first month

We know all about Rusell Wilson and Wisconsin, but don't overlook what is happening in Ann Arbor early on. Getty Images.

Michigan’s defense has Wolverines thinking Big Ten championship

We know all about Rusell Wilson and Wisconsin, but don't overlook what is happening in Ann Arbor early on. Getty Images.

Don’t look now, but Michigan is playing defense, and it has helped make them become a team to be considered seriously in the Big Ten championship picture this season.

Michigan is coming off their first shutout since blanking Notre Dame on September 15, 2007. The Wolverines blasted Legends Division rival Minnesota 58-0 in the battle for the Little Brown Jug. When Brady Hoke took over it was clear that improving the defense was going to be the biggest task in revamping Michigan and steering the team in a new direction after a tumultuous regime under Rich Rodriguez.

“I think our preparation is part of it,” Hoke said Monday. “I think the front, the aggression that they’re playing with, disruptiveness, fundamentals, techniques. I think our support system, whether it be from an outside backer or a nickel or strong safety or free safety, I think it’s a little better.”

The addition of Greg Mattison as defensive coordinator has paid off in a big way so far, turning out some big results with recruits largely brought in under the former coaching staff lead by Rodriguez and maligned defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. After just five weeks the Wolverines are already well on their way to decreasing last season’s defensive numbers in a significant way. Mattison is currently ranked as the eighth best defensive coordinator by Coaches By the Numbers, a site that takes an analytical approach to grading head and assistant coaches based on a number of factors.

“Mattison is a master of his craft and has numbers to prove it,” said Stephen Prather of Coaches By The Numbers. “Michigan hiring Hoke was a good hire. Hoke hiring Mattison was a great hire.”

“Guys are playing together,” Hoke said. “I think they’re understanding their roles. I think the defensive staff has done a very good job in preparation. The guys are doing a good job of preparing themselves.”

Michigan’s defense had gotten progressively worse over the previous three seasons, one of the primary reasons the university opted to cut ties with Rodriguez. Mattison has instilled faith and confidence in the defensive players this season and it has helped to change the way everybody looks at the Wolverines. After starting the season outside of the top 25 polls, Michigan is now inching in to the top ten in the USA Today Coaches Poll and the AP Top 25.

“It gives us confidence, obviously,” Michigan defensive end Craig Roh said following Saturday’s win against Minnesota. “We know how we can play. Going further and further into Big Ten, it’ll gain us even more confidence, but we’re still miles and miles away from where we need to be.”

Michigan has put together some very solid defensive numbers against some opponents that usually will not raise an eyebrow by many, but wins against Western Michigan (21st ranked passing offense), Notre Dame (29th total offense) and San Diego State (33rd total offense) should be appreciated.

“It’s like anything else, it doesn’t mean anything right now,” Hoke said Monday in response to a question about Michigan being ranked second in the nation in scoring defense (Michigan is tied with Wisconsin and Michigan State with an average of 10.2 points scored against. “None of those things matter. We’re 1-0 right now (in the Big Ten). I think when you look at our (defensive) front the last two weeks, I think they’ve been a little more disruptive. I think we put a little more pressure at times on the quarterback. We still don’t blitz worth a dog, period. That’s going to improve.”

Michigan has two key games coming up now on the road. The Wolverines take on Dan Persa and Northwestern this weekend and the Wildcats know that as long as Persa is healthy they have an offense that can be tough to keep down. Next week the Wolverines travel to East Lansing to take on rival Michigan State, with Big Ten championship hopes of their own following a win at Ohio State. If Michigan can pick up two wins on the road, then all eyes will be fixated on the final two weeks of the season, with home games against Nebraska and Ohio State. The Cornhuskers, despite being shelled by Wisconsin over the weekend, still figure to be a top contender in the Legends Division. And this may be the best chance Michigan has had in a while to knock off a reeling Ohio State program.

Michigan fans have every reason to start contemplating about making a trip to Indianapolis, but don’t book those tickets just yet. Michigan still has something to prove, but things are certainly look good right now in Ann Arbor.

This column was originally posted on Examiner.com.

About the Author

Kevin McGuire
Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Also a contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.
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