A unit that gave up 280 yards per game through the air in 2004 is allowing only 220 yards a contest this year. After facing two supposedly explosive offenses, Notre Dame is allowing 15.5 PPG. The defense was mainly responsible for the victory last weekend in Ann Arbor as they made stud sophomore quarterback Chad Henne look below average. Weis allows Minter free reign to run the group as he sees fit and it has been golden so far.
"First of all, with very few exceptions I allow Rick and their staff to run the defense," Weis said. "I'll say my couple of things that are big picture items. But he's a great leader, he's a great teacher, and he has total confidence in the scheme that he knows. He's really no different than me running an offense. He's had head coaching experience, so it's not like he's not used to running half the team. He's used to running a whole team. You add that combination of knowledge and experience and actually having a good scheme on top of it gives you a good chance to be successful."
A closer look at the stats paints a broad picture for the success of this defense. Michigan and Pittsburgh were a combined 9-of-32 on third-down conversions. This 28% conversion rate is nine points lower than in 2004 and critical to a team who hungers to give the ball back to their own offense.
The secondary has locked down the opponent's best receiving threat. Against Pitt, Greg Lee did catch a 39-yard touchdown pass in the opening possession of the game but for the remaining 55 minutes, was held to 3 catches for 24 yards. Steve Breaston, maybe not Michigan's best pass catcher but definitely their most explosive threat, caught only one pass for nine yards.
"We got a lot of confidence," junior safety Tom Zbikowski said. "We've been swarming around. We're really playing for each other. When we're playing for each other, we're going to make sure not to mess up or give up the big play. We've helped each other out and picked each other up. Like Ambrose (Wooden) going down there and making that play on the one-yard line, it gives us another chance. And then we shut them down. It's a bad play but it's a statement play of how we play."
Weis, always the most confident man in the room, expected a good effort from his defensive backfield but has their work cut out this weekend.
"We expected them to be solid," Weis said of his secondary. "Our expectation wasn't the same necessarily as everyone else's. They're going to be challenged. This kid (Drew) Stanton, he's something special now. He's not just a drop back quarterback. He can run. He's elusive. He's got an arm. He's got touch. He's got a lot going for him.
"They're going to be challenged week in and week out. I think what happens is when you start growing in both experience and confidence, some good things have a potential to happen."
Maybe the biggest reason for the success of the defense has been the linebacker core. Led by captain Brandon Hoyte, the unit has come up with big plays and big hits. Fifth-year senior middle linebacker Cory Mays seems to blitz at just the right time and sophomore Apache linebacker Maurice Crum, Jr. can run down any opposing quarterback. The heart and soul of the defense, though, is Hoyte. Through two games, he has as many sacks as he did all of last season (3) and has registered 5.5 tackles for loss. In 2004, he had eight TFL. The senior also has the game-changing potential to knock quarterbacks out of the game, as he did last year versus in the upset win over Tennessee when a big stick ended the day of Volunteer quarterback Eric Ainge. Together, the three have been a big reason for the defensive turnaround.
"I'm really pleased at this point of the season with how our senior leadership has stepped up front," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "I do have two of the three seniors at my position group. I've been overall pleased with how they been playing. Of course, the youngsters fit right in their with those guys of good leadership and fitting right in their with those guys.
"I think I have those three guys places properly in what we do in terms of the assets they bring to the table. It's been a group that's meshed well together."