AP - Michigan's defensive turnaround has been a main reason for its highest climb in the polls in more than four years. Coach Brady Hoke is curious if his 12th-ranked Wolverines can keep up the intensity away from home.
Michigan plays its first road game of the season when it faces Big Ten foe Northwestern on Saturday night.
The Wolverines (5-0, 1-0) have made tremendous strides since ranking 110th nationally in total defense in 2010. They're allowing 10.2 points per game - tied for second in the country with conference rivals Wisconsin and Michigan State - after giving up an average of 35.2 last season.
Michigan's 58-0 rout of lowly Minnesota last Saturday marked its first shutout since a 38-0 win over Notre Dame on Sept. 15, 2007, and its first against a Big Ten team since blanking Penn State 20-0 on Oct. 6, 2001.
The Wolverines now look to hold the opposition to seven points or fewer in a fourth straight game for the first time since 1993. The defense is tops in the conference and sixth nationally with 15 turnovers forced.
Still, defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen said there's room for improvement.
"We're doing OK, but right now, it's, 'Where's the ceiling, where could we potentially be if we continue to get better?'" he said. "That's what's encouraging to the coaches. We realize we haven't played as good as we could."
The Wolverines, at their highest ranking since being No. 5 to begin the 2007 season, have yet to prove they can play at the same pace on the road - something Hoke feels will help measure his team's progress.
"I'm interested to see how we react and what we're made of, our mentality, our mental toughness," Hoke said. "And if we're business like."
Michigan may get a solid test from quarterback Dan Persa and upset-minded Northwestern (2-2, 0-1), which is averaging 28.8 points and has committed only two turnovers.
The Wildcats led then-No. 24 Illinois by four with 1:15 remaining last week only to give up a touchdown with 13 seconds left, resulting in a 38-35 loss.
Persa went 10 for 14 for 123 yards and four touchdowns in his first action since suffering an Achilles' tendon injury Nov. 13. The senior, though, was held to minus-3 yards on nine carries, marking the first time he's been held to negative yardage on the ground since his first career game Sept. 13, 2008.
Persa ran for 519 yards last season and was the nation's ninth-highest rated passer.
"He's probably one of the most amazing quarterbacks in the Big Ten, if not the country," Michigan signal-caller Denard Robinson said. "He does some things that other guys can't."
That's saying a lot coming from Robinson, the Heisman Trophy candidate who has accounted for 14 touchdowns this season. The junior went 15 of 19 for 169 yards and two touchdowns while adding 51 yards and a score on the ground versus Minnesota.
Robinson isn't putting much stock in the Wolverines' lofty ranking.
"I think it's too high," he said. "We still have things to work on and still have time for improvement if we keep improving and do things right."
Robinson tops the conference with 603 rushing yards, helping Michigan lead the Big Ten with 272.6 per game and rank second in total offense (440.8 ypg).
"Every time he touches the ball he can score a touchdown. He's just a dynamic playmaker," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "The plays he's made, he's able to make with both his legs and his arm, which is nothing less than spectacular."
Robinson's multi-dimensional game may not bode well for a Wildcats defense which ranks second-to-last in the Big Ten, allowing 414.0 yards per game and 174.8 on the ground. Northwestern did force three turnovers against Illinois, however, and Robinson has thrown a conference-high six interceptions.
Michigan has won eight of the last 10 meetings, though the schools haven't met since Northwestern's 21-14 victory Nov. 15, 2008, at Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines beat the Wildcats 28-16 in the last meeting in Evanston on Sept. 29, 2007.
Michigan's defensive turnaround has been a main reason for its highest climb in the polls in more than four years. But Michigan plays its first road game of the season when it faces Big Ten foe Northwestern on Saturday night.
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