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Posted on Fri, Sep 23, 2011 : 4:28 p.m.

Turnovers, safeties' playmaking ability helps Michigan defense bend but not break

By Kyle Meinke


Michigan strong safety Jordan Kovacs, shown sacking Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder, is one reason the Wolverines have forced 10 turnovers this season.

Angela J. Cesere |

The Michigan football team's defense has showed measured gains in total defense through three games, checking in at 53rd after finishing 110th last season.

Its shown significant gains in scoring defense, currently ranking 24th after finishing 107th last year.

Why the discrepancy between scoring and total defense this year? Its ability to force turnovers and limit big plays, two problems from past years the Wolverines (3-0) seemingly have addressed on a bend-but-don't-break defense.

They'll look for that trend to continue Saturday when they take on San Diego State's 26th-ranked scoring offense at the Michigan Stadium (Noon, BTN).

"We talk every day about creating turnovers," safety Thomas Gordon said. "We all want to be playmakers. That's one thing this program's been missing the last couple years, is people on the back end making plays and turn the ball back over to the offense, and that's what we're trying to do."

According to coaches, Michigan's defense will face its biggest test to date against San Diego State, which features an NFL prospect in Ryan Lindley at quarterback and the nation's second-leading rusher in Ronnie Hillman at tailback.

The Aztecs also hang onto the ball, having lost only one interception and one fumble this year. Michigan, meanwhile, has forced 10 turnovers, fifth most in the country. Its plus-six turnover margin is fourth (when counting the Western Michigan game, which the NCAA does not do statistically).

The Wolverines wouldn't have beaten Notre Dame without turnovers (they forced five), turned around the Western Michigan game with an interception (which Brandon Herron returned for a touchdown) and stayed close to Eastern Michigan early with a pick and fumble recovery.

Michigan's safeties have been paramount to the defense's bend-but-don't-break attitude, and are playmakers on a defense largely devoid of them.

Gordon came up with both of the Wolverines' turnovers last week against Eastern Michigan, first recovering a fumble forced by defensive end Jibreel Black on the Eagles' first drive.

In the second quarter, the sophomore read a "funky formation" by the Eagles, on which the backup quarterback also was on the field, and wasn't fooled by a double-pass in his direction. He intercepted the pass with a one-handed, over-the-shoulder catch at the goal line.

Gordon said much of his success stems from the position change he was asked to make by coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, which moved Gordon back to free safety, where he feels most comfortable.

Former coach Rich Rodriguez had moved Gordon from safety to hybrid linebacker.

"I feel like I'm back at my natural position now," said Gordon, who earlier this year said he enjoys being a "ball-hawk" at free safety. "But wherever the coaches put me, i just try to do my best to do what they want me to do."

The safeties also have been pivotal to limiting the big plays that plagued the team last year. Michigan is one of 12 teams that have not allowed multiple plays of 30 yards or longer.

Last year, it allowed 29.

The turnaround is a confluence of Jordan Kovacs' sure tackling (he's first on the team and eighth in the Big Ten with 26 tackles), Gordon's explosive playmaking and the pair's ability to keep plays in front of them.

"Coach Mattison talks about keeping the ball inside and in front to give our lineman a chance to get to the football, and that proved key in the (EMU) game. We kept it inside, and Jibreel Black got to the ball and popped it out," Gordon said of the first-quarter fumble he recovered.

"That's just something we have to work on. We work it in practice. We reppin' and reppin' every day, so it's just instilled in us when we go to the game, we keep the ball inside and in front — and that will stop the big plays."

Kovacs has been explosive, too. He had a fourth-down tackle against the Eagles to stall a 72-yard drive at the goal line, an interception in the previous game against Notre Dame and forced a fumble in the opener with a crushing blow to Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder.

What is the next step Hoke would like to make defensively before the Big Ten opener next week against Minnesota?

"That’s a good question," Hoke said this week. "I would say our front seven, defensively, we’ve got to play better.”

If Michigan can do that, it just might all come together.

Kyle Meinke covers Michigan football for He can be reached at 734-623-2588, by email at and followed on Twitter @kmeinke.



Sat, Sep 24, 2011 : 1:31 p.m.

I thought the defensive line would be the best part of this group, but they've been pretty disappointing and detached from significant contributions. I'm pretty sure Mattison is not a big proponent of the bend don't break philosophy, because pretty soon those turnovers won't be there to bail us out.


Sat, Sep 24, 2011 : 4:39 a.m.

Win or lose, we've now got a classy coach who's going to win regularly soon enough. Don't think it's fair to be a huge pessimist in the interim, as I think they've made pretty serious strides. Anything to be rid of RichRod, who just made me nauseous. Really getting tired of the negative tone of all the articles, too. Give them a little time to get things straight, eh?


Sat, Sep 24, 2011 : 1:37 p.m.

While I agree there's no point piling on the defense, after all they're about 90% the same personnel as last year, there is no harm in discussing what's going on on the field, in fact, it's pretty much expected isn't it? They make me nervous. No one can be too confident when a lower MAC team gashes Michigan for 150 yards in the first quarter. We won't be bailed out by magical turnovers every game. The one thing this little bit into the season that's improved is seemingly getting better as the game advances, rather than getting steamrolled again and again.


Sat, Sep 24, 2011 : 12:56 a.m.

Would you prefer seeing Coach RichRod on the sidelines along with his trusty aid Coach Robinson for Michigan versus SDSU with Coach Brady Hoke leading the charge? If that were the case - I can assure you the Wolverines would lose tomorrow's game. As it stands, we have HOPE due to the leadership of Michigan coach HOKE. This game is a toss up, and could go either way. San Diego is very dangerous, but if we play extremely well we might win. In my opinion, it will be a nail biter.

mark mumford

Fri, Sep 23, 2011 : 11:17 p.m.

I've heard some scuttlebutt from the Michigan camp that the first quarter is where this game will be won or lost. My perspective is that the Wolverines better be ready to strap it up in the 4th quarter, because that is when defenders are going to be getting a lot of views of Ronnie Hillman from behind...


Sat, Sep 24, 2011 : 4:49 a.m.

You better hope your aztecs show up on D, or Denard will flat out kill you. Unfortunately for you, your Defense is nothing special.

mark mumford

Fri, Sep 23, 2011 : 11:11 p.m.

The Michigan D is going to love SDSU's Red Zone Offense. Here's how it works. AZTECS make a first down on, let's say the 17. At that point No. 14 hands off to No. 13 and he runs to paydirt...


Fri, Sep 23, 2011 : 10:06 p.m.

Colarado is gonna get there but wipped tomorow. we are the bucks and were going to beet michiggans reer end this yeer, no matter wat you walvereenes think!!!!


Sat, Sep 24, 2011 : 4:44 a.m.

Id sure hope OSU can beat Colarado.. or its gonna be a long season for the Buckeyes..


Fri, Sep 23, 2011 : 9:56 p.m.

About the defense: the upside that I see versus "before" is that, at least they're improving substantially as they go along. Last year (and the year before), it was so frustrating to see the once-legendary Michigan Defense "just standing there" while plays shot past them. Well, I may just have bought the "hype" regarding San Diego but this looks like a critical game for the Wolverines. I hope attendance bounces back from the last game: I'd hate to think that ticket holders don't think every game is worthwhile when what we're seeing is Michigan's growth and resurgence. This is Michigan, for God's sake.


Fri, Sep 23, 2011 : 9:54 p.m.

Right on, Theo!


Fri, Sep 23, 2011 : 9:49 p.m.

Even though Our King had Threetidan, he was wise to change the offense to get it into the 21st Century. The same does NOT apply to Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. They are taking a Crystal-seeking missile and turning it into a little baby squirt gun that really doesn't wanna hurt anyone. We've been down this road, unfortunately, way too many times. Those who fail to learn from past mistakes are doomed to repeat them. Go Blue. SDSU 33 UM 20