Defense gets kudos for Illinois game
There have not been many occasions over the recent years when this program could puff out its chest and brag about its defense. The Wolverines had one of those days in their recent win over Illinois, and they need a couple more with Nebraska and Ohio State left on the schedule.
While their offense was stumbling and squandering multiple opportunities in the red zone against the Illini, the Wolverine defenders were limiting Illinois to 37 yards rushing on 33 carries. Michigan also sacked the Illinois quarterback four times.
"I think we've exceeded a lot of people's expectations, defensively. I think people probably counted us down and out on defense after the performance we gave previous years," senior DL Ryan Van Bergen said. "We've been motivated and we've been focused the whole time on being a defense that traditionally has been seen at Michigan -- a defense that alums would recognize."
Van Bergen said he left the Illinois game with the feeling that the Wolverines have finally figured things out on the defensive side. He said the tears that flowed from the eyes of defensive coordinator Greg Mattison following the Illinois game were brought on by the sense of accomplishment.
"I think that Coach Mattison just got emotional because he's starting to see a defense like when he used to coach here, a defense that was feared and was respected throughout the league," Van Bergen said. "That's something that we've been striving for and we're making progress towards it. I still think there's a little work that needs to be done, but the good thing is that we're still on the way up."
Michigan head coach Brady Hoke has tried to throttle back the excitement and remind his team that Nebraska has brought a tough approach to the field in its first year in the Big Ten.
"Nebraska's always been a very physical football team for numbers of years and they take great pride in their football," Hoke said. "You look at the statistical information between both teams, and there are a lot of similarities. They're a team that's going to play with great passion. It's going to be one of those games."
Although quite pleased with his defense after its showing against Illinois, Hoke brought the group back down to earth by reminding them that Nebraska and Ohio State will present even more challenges.
"We have two pretty good opponents left and Nebraska is a good football team," Hoke said. "So I don't think we're in any position to think that we're the Chicago Bears of 1985."
--Michigan has outscored the opposition 263-99 over the final three quarters in its 10 games, and by a 162-70 score in the second half of those games.
--Michigan's defense has held Big Ten opponents to 23-of-78 (29.5 percent) on third-down conversions.
--The Wolverines completed the month of October with three victories, which is more than Michigan won in the month in the three previous years (two wins total).
SERIES HISTORY: Michigan leads Nebraska 3-2-1 (last meeting, 2005, 32-28 Nebraska, in the Alamo Bowl)
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Wolverines have worked backup QB Devin Gardner into the action a number of times this season, enough so that he can be more than a fill-in for starting QB Denard Robinson. With the improved running of RB Fitzgerald Toussaint and the steady play of TE Kevin Koger, Michigan has taken some of the play-making pressure off of Robinson, trying to become a better offense in the process.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Michigan's defense had its brightest moment of the season in the win at Illinois. "I think our guys have done a tremendous job of wanting to improve every week," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "The intensity, their focus, I think they're mature enough, and the leadership of the senior class has done a really good job of moving to the next game and what can we do better as a team, and how are we going to do it better." The Wolverines will need that approach to slow Nebraska's rugged running attack and the unpredictable play of QB Taylor Martinez.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Eight wins is eight wins. I don't think anyone is wild about that in our program. Michigan has won way more than eight games on average, I would say. So, I hope everyone on the team is still focused on 'Yeah, we have the potential to win eleven games.' There's no reason to be satisfied with what we've done so far." -- Michigan senior DL Ryan Van Bergen
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Nebraska at Michigan, Nov. 19 -- The Wolverines need tight, assignment-driven defense against the Cornhuskers. "We'll stress that a ton because of what they like to do," head coach Brady Hoke said. "They'll have a wrinkle either formationally or something different that we maybe haven't seen, trying to take advantage of leverage. But it will be one of those things that we have to be highly disciplined."
KEYS TO THE GAME: Michigan's defense expects to build off its strong showing at Illinois when it faces a rugged Nebraska offense. Michigan coach Brady Hoke wants the Wolverines to stay the course. "We're winning, and we just have to go back to what we normally do, making sure you're fundamentally sound in everything you're doing," Hoke said.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--QB Denard Robinson ranks first nationally in the FBS in yards per completion with his 15.82 average.
--WR Roy Roundtree is Michigan's active leader in receiving yards with 1,660 and in receptions with 120. He has started 26 games in his career, including the past 21 straight.
--TE Kevin Koger leads the Wolverines with three touchdown catches, the most touchdown receptions by a Michigan tight end since Bennie Joppru had five in 2002.
--RB Fitzgerald Toussaint has started seven of the nine games he has played in this season. Toussaint missed the Notre Dame game due to injury.
--OL Ricky Barnum, who has played little this season due to persistent ankle problems, did not play against Illinois.
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