Numbers aside, Michigan defense intends to keep momentum going against Purdue
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
In last Saturday’s triple-overtime thriller against Illinois, the Michigan football team’s defense surrendered a school-record 65 points and 561 yards of offense.
Call him crazy, but defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen thinks the performance may have been the defense’s best performance of the Big Ten season.
“You don’t want to be the guy who says that when you give up 65 points, but the way we played, and the attitude we had,” he said.
When the scoring defense ranks as the worst in the Big Ten and the Wolverines are on pace for their worst defensive season in history, optimism is hard to come by.
But Van Bergen has a point.
Statistics aside, Michigan’s young, inexperienced and re-tooled defense perked up last week, and the Wolverines think they’ve finally found the right formula. They’ll test it again today against Purdue (12:01 p.m., Big Ten Network).
Dare he says it, but Van Bergen thinks the trodden-upon unit is ready for a big game.
“I’m more excited for this game than any game in a long time, because it feels like there’s a swagger and confidence about us,” he said. “Going into Purdue, I’m just excited to see us play again.”
It wasn’t only the way the defense turned away the Illini after they started three drives in Michigan territory in the first quarter alone or the open-field stick that true freshman Courtney Avery laid on Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaasse on a crucial 3rd and 6 to stop him one yard short.
It was the more tangible signs.
Two weeks ago against Penn State, the Wolverines allowed first-time starter Matt McGloin to riddle their defense. The Nittany Lions converted 10 of 16 third-down attempts. The Illini converted six of 16 third-down attempts.
It had been four games since the unit forced a turnover. Heck, it had been six games since the Wolverines recovered a fumble. But against the Illini, Jonas Mouton recovered one in the first quarter that atoned for a Denard Robinson interception.
And, of course, when a victory was on the line, the defense clinched it with an all-out rush of Scheelhaase, who couldn’t dodge the pressure. His flailing pass to no one in particular bounced off the turf.
“In light of some of the inexperience we’re playing I thought they competed,” Rich Rodriguez said. At times, the Wolverines had three true freshmen and one redshirt freshman playing in the secondary.
The youth influx won’t end today. The Wolverines will play without cornerback J.T. Floyd, out for the season with an injured ankle, and possibly without Mouton, who is listed as questionable with a chest muscle injury.
Michigan’s entire linebacking corps has been in flux lately. In recent weeks, Cam Gordon has moved to the hybrid position and Craig Roh has moved from the outside to defensive end.
Meanwhile, Kenny Demens took Obi Ezeh’s starting position in the middle, J.B. Fitzgerald has started on the outside, and Ezeh himself has seen more time on the outside.
Rodriguez said earlier this week that former fullback Mark Moundros has had “a few good weeks of practice” and will probably see time somewhere in the mix.
A state of constant change, combined with the eight true freshmen seeing significant time on the defense, may have contributed to this year’s struggles, but Van Bergen sees the end result.
“I think coaches are doing a good job placing guys in positions where they are comfortable,” he said. “The defense has been adapting around the personalities of these guys and on Saturday, we had an attitude about us. Now we have to keep plugging away.”