Ryan Van Bergen: Michigan's defensive line 'is better than any starting 4 in the country'
Melanie Maxwell I AnnArbor.com
The Michigan football team's defensive turnaround is impossible to miss -- it's becoming one of the great national stories of the year -- but coaches and players have been slow to acknowledge they had arrived.
That's not the case anymore.
Two days after defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said the unit had returned to being a Michigan defense -- the highest honor he gives a unit -- Ryan Van Bergen took it a step further Monday in regards to the defensive line.
"We think our starting four is better than any starting four in the country," the senior defensive lineman said. "That’s our opinion. You don’t have to believe it, but that’s what we think and we expect to play that way."
Against Illinois, they did.
The No. 20 Wolverines held the Illini to minus-12 yards rushing in the first half, 37 for the game and kept the Illini out of their territory until late in the third quarter. Needless to say, they also won the game 31-14.
Van Bergen finished with a career-high seven tackles and an impressive 2.5 sacks of running quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. For those efforts, he was named the Big Ten's co-defensive player of the week on Monday with Purdue's Kawann Short.
Fellow defensive tackle Mike Martin led Michigan with nine tackles, and the pair of interior lineman took over the game. They did so by calling an audible without their coaches' consent.
"(They) gave me some freedom to call some stunts up front that coaches wouldn’t typically do, but they trust that I’m smart enough to make the right calls," Van Bergen said. "We didn’t actually get the green light, we just started doing it. Take a risk. Why not?
"It worked the first two or three times, and the coaches were just like, ‘Call ‘em when you feel like calling ‘em.’"
That kind of improvisation exemplifies the defense's surging confidence — something that at one point never seemed possible for a group that was so humbled by their struggles the past three years.
But after allowing 35.2 points per game last year — players have acknowledged they were embarrassed by that last year — Michigan now is holding teams to 15.5 points per game, fifth best in the country.
That means the Wolverines are on pace to go from historically bad to their best defensive season since the 1997 national championship year (9.5 points allowed per game) in one season.
They are allowing 116 fewer yards per game, holding opponents to a 37-percent conversion rate on third down and have forced 23 turnovers.
Ten games into the new regime, and defensive players have gone from embarrassed to hubris.
"I’ve been with (this defense) so long, and we’ve been through so many struggles defensively, especially when it comes to rushing the ball," Van Bergen said. "So, when it comes to making that kind of statement, saying, ‘You’re not going to run the ball, you’re going to be one-dimensional,' that’s huge. It’s been a long time coming.
"We’re finally making statements that the ball won’t be run against Michigan, and it’s because of what the front seven has been doing."
That rush defense will be put to the test again this week as Michigan takes on Nebraska (Noon, ESPN). It will be the teams' first meeting since 2005, and their first ever as Big Ten rivals.
The Cornhuskers (8-2, 4-2), much like Michigan, are a running team. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is seventh in the conference in rushing and running back Rex Burkhead is third. They also run the option together.
That could test the Wolverines' perimeter defense, which has been an issue this year against teams such as Michigan State and Northwestern.
Van Bergen, though, is confident his team can handle the test.
Confidence. Van Bergen is just oozing with it these days.
"We have the potential to win 11 games," he said. "There’s no reason to be satisfied with what we’ve done so far. If we sit on what we’ve done so far, our legacy won’t be anything special.
"But if you win 10 games at Michigan, win your bowl game, you’re going to be remembered for a long time."