ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A month ago, with Michigan down seven points to Notre Dame and 3:27 left in the game, the Wolverine defense took the field and couldn’t get back to the sideline.
The Irish churned out two first downs and burned through both remaining Michigan timeouts to hold the ball to 0:00 and secure a 13-6 victory.
On Saturday, that squeamish situation arose again.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke, with two timeouts left and his team trailing 10-9, chose to punt from the Michigan State 43 with 3:07 left. The coincidence didn’t escape UM safety Jordan Kovacs.
“It was Notre Dame all over again,” the fifth-year senior said. “That’s what I was thinking as we took the field. It was our opportunity to redeem ourselves.
“This time we executed when we needed to, made some big plays, got the offense the ball and let Denard take over.”
Michigan forced a three-and-out this time, and quarterback Denard Robinson got the offense into field-goal range for the kick with five seconds left that produced a 12-10 victory.
The different outcome is proof of the progress No. 20 Michigan (5-2, 3-0) — the opponent Saturday night at Nebraska (5-2, 2-1) — has made on defense since an open-date week after the Notre Dame loss.
Before that, the Wolverines gave up 340 yards and 23 points a game. Since then, it has been 217 yards and eight points.
Hoke isn’t buying talk that Michigan, 10th nationally in total defense, has transformed itself into a defensive powerhouse.
“We’re not near the defense that we need to be to win a championship in this conference,” he said.
What bothers the head man?
“Turnovers. We need to do a better job of creating,” Hoke said. “We need to do a better job of putting pressure on the quarterback with four guys. And at times we’re playing too far off guys in coverage. That’s a start.”
Still, Michigan defenders now greet Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s harping on such things with nods and knowing winks while parroting the company line.
“If we play like this every week, we’re going to be in trouble,” Kovacs said. “We’ve got to keep getting better. Never become complacent. That’s what we plan on.”
Michigan’s defense won’t knock your eyes out with spectacular feats of athleticism. But it will grind you down with a powerful front seven and strong scheme.
“We’ve been coached so great with our technique,” defensive end Craig Roh said. “If we do what we’re coached to do, it works. We prepare like an NFL team.”
A fuzz-faced website reporter asked Roh how he knew about NFL preparation, apparently unaware of Mattison’s three recent seasons commanding the Baltimore Ravens’ highly respected defense.
Roh paused before dryly answering:
“Coach Mattison coached in the NFL. And he said that we prepare like an NFL team. So I guess he has some idea. And he’s pretty brutally honest, mostly all the time.”
Granted, Michigan faced Michigan State’s struggling offense Saturday. Still, the Spartans had the nation’s No. 6 rusher in Le’Veon Bell, who fell to 11th after gaining 68 yards on 26 carries with no run longer than 8 yards.
MSU’s longest rush was 26 yards on a fake punt that kept a fourth-quarter drive alive. But the Wolverines eventually snuffed that drive at the 2, forcing the Spartans to settle for a field goal and a 10-9 lead instead of 14-9.
“Any good defense is going to thrive in quick-change situations,” Roh said. “Our defense does. We almost want those situations so we can show how good we are.”
Critics say the defense had better be good because Michigan’s offense has scored all of two touchdowns against its three biggest-name opponents (Alabama, Notre Dame and Michigan State).
But those opposing defenses, respectively, are ranked first, sixth and fifth nationally. Nebraska is 43rd, and saw Robinson account for 263 yards and four touchdowns against the Blackshirts last year.
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