Nov. 14, 2011
By Leah Howard, MGoBlue.com
It's been well documented that defensive coordinator Greg Mattison got a little emotional while describing an overwhelming pride in his group of players after the Wolverines' 31-14 victory at Illinois last Saturday (Nov. 12). It was their first complete performance of the season, he said, and a throwback to a true Michigan defense.
Michigan held Illinois to 37 yards rushing on 33 attempts, including -12 yards in the first half. The Fighting Illini offense had averaged 402.6 yards entering Saturday's game but gained just 214 against the Wolverines; all but 30 came with Illinois trailing by two or more scores in the second half.
"We always have high expectations," said head coach Brady Hoke in his weekly Monday press conference, "and I think the part of it that you like is when they come off the field, whether it's good or it's bad, they banded together, stayed together, listened. And I think Greg [Mattison] and the staff on defense do a tremendous job of making the adjustments that may need to be made, and I think they do a tremendous job -- the guys do -- of keeping each other on that edge."
"I think we've exceeded a lot of people's expectations defensively," said fifth-year senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen. "I think people probably counted us down and out on defense after the performance we gave up previous years. 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. 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. 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 up."
While the Wolverines' defensive effort might have marked a complete performance, it wasn't a perfect performance. Hoke wasn't happy with Illinois' 4th-and-26 conversion in the fourth quarter or that U-M allowed seven points late in the contest.
"You don't want anybody to score their last drive down the field," said Hoke. "I think it served some purpose a little bit eating up the clock, but I'd rather have the ball with us eating up the clock. There were some third downs in there that we need to do a better job with as far as our conversions."
The Wolverines aren't willing to rest on laurels of Saturday's past, however, and Hoke has been particularly pleased this season with his team's want for weekly improvement. He credits the senior leadership for helping set the tone and expectation that Michigan will play better every week.
The next test comes this Saturday against Nebraska.
"Nebraska's always been a very physical football team," said Hoke. "They take great pride in their football. Taylor Martinez has done a tremendous job of executing when you look at what they're doing offensively. (Rex) Burkhead is a good running back. You look at the statistical information between both teams; there are a lot of similarities -- their rushing offense and scoring, defensively. They're a team that's going to play with great passion. It's going to be one of those games."
N O T E S
Hoke doesn't expect junior quarterback Denard Robinson to be limited in practice this week after leaving last Saturday's game at Illinois in the third quarter with a bruised wrist.
"He threw the ball very well last night," said Hoke. "He's fine. He just got a little sprain on his wrist. He's in good shape."
In Robinson's absence against the Fighting Illini, sophomore Devin Gardner completed 2-of-5 passes for 47 yards and a touchdown. Hoke was pleased with the sophomore quarterback's performance, saying he continues to grow with every game appearance. Gardner's teammates echoed the sentiment.
"I thought Devin stepped up when he needed to and he played well," said fifth-year senior center David Molk. "He's definitely getting more comfortable at quarterback, especially looking back to other times that he's played earlier in the season. Even within that game, the reps that he got, the more that he got, the more comfortable he got and the better we worked as an offense."
While the Wolverines have limited depth at several positions, quarterback isn't one of them. Hoke is quite happy with both options at the position.
"I think both quarterbacks have done a nice job," he said. "I think they're learning in a process and in a system, and I think they both get better every time they take the field."
The Wolverines own an all-time 3-2-1 record against Nebraska, dating back to the 1905 season. It will be Nebraska's first trip to the Big House since 1962 and its first since officially entering the Big Ten Conference this summer.
"It's kind of like going to a bowl game and playing a non-conference team," said Molk. "It's a new challenge because it also challenges our coaches since they haven't seen a lot of it. We haven't seen a lot of it; we don't really know their players. Like a lot of that teams we've played already, I really know most of their players and how to play against them, but now it's a totally new thing, like a bowl game."
Hoke seeks his first career win against Nebraska. His 2007 Ball State team nearly pulled the upset in Lincoln, Neb., falling to the Cornhuskers, 41-40, on a touchdown in the closing minutes.
"It was fun," remembered Hoke. "Games are fun. It's supposed to be fun."
Fifth-year senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen earned a share of the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Week award after registering seven tackles, including three tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks against the Fighting Illini. All three stats either surpassed or tied his career highs.
"I think Ryan's done a really good job of improving each week," said Hoke. "I think he's improved. When I say that, I'm talking about from a technique side and the visual keys that he has, and he's always wanting to do the extra so that he can be as good as he can be for his teammates."
And while Van Bergen is not an official team captain, Hoke said he has earned his status among the Wolverines' leaders, praising his offseason work ethic and stating that his teammates see how he prepares every week.
Junior/sophomore running back Fitzgerald Toussaint registered his second 100-yard rushing effort in three games against the Fighting Illini, setting career highs for rushing yards (192) and carries (27) and posting one touchdown. His increased workload has helped ease the burden and number of hits on Robinson, while the ever-present threat of Robinson comes as an added benefit for Toussaint.
"It's different every week how people want to defend because of Denard," said Hoke, "so he's part of the formula for Fitz. People have a base defense you may see all week, but when they get to how they feel with Denard, the 192 yards that Fitz got, he didn't just do on his own. He had some pretty good blocking, and the threat of Denard still is a threat."