There are schemes and slogans and all sorts of ways to piece together a winning season. But generally, there’s one time-tested way to sustain it.
Michigan State learned the hard way. Michigan is learning the same way.
The Spartans are a behemoth because of their relentless devotion to defense. It starts with Mark Dantonio, is stirred by Pat Narduzzi and stoked with tough players who fit the system.
The Wolverines are a puzzle because once you lose your identity, it’s difficult to get it back. To catch up and stay up, it has to be about defense again in Ann Arbor, and it has to be legitimate devotion. Brady Hoke is under scrutiny, but so is defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. When Hoke made a big change after the 7-6 season, it was on offense, and Al Borges was fired.
Now in his fourth season — his second stint here — Mattison is under pressure to make a difference, as Narduzzi has. Gradually, the Wolverines have gathered enough talent to field a defense that might be pretty good, and must be more attacking. They finally have depth, with nine starters returning. Mistakes of youth and tentativeness should not be tolerated because Mattison actually has enough players to sit those who don’t perform.
I’m not suggesting Michigan’s defense can possibly be as stifling as Michigan State’s right now, but it should be good enough to win in the Big Ten. It should be good enough to control games until the questionable offensive line displays some semblance of continuity. It should be resilient enough to not give up 47 points to Indiana.
“We are really, really excited about this defense,” Mattison said as Michigan prepared for its opener against (gulp) Appalachian State. “I would think you’d see a lot freer, a lot more aggressive defense.”
Well, you’d hope so. To say the Wolverines have been timid would be an understatement. They allowed 349 points last season, second-most in school history, and showed little of the blitzing and tenacity that were Mattison staples when he was part of a national title at Florida, or when he coordinated the Ravens defense.
Lots of ‘shoulds’
The narrative says it was all about inexperience and protecting the secondary with passive zones. It’s been a rough transition for many reasons, but now Mattison needs to justify his considerable pay and stellar reputation.
Senior Frank Clark should be consistently disruptive at defensive end. Sophomore Willie Henry should make an impact at defensive tackle. The linebackers — Jake Ryan, Joe Bolden, Desmond Morgan, Royce Jenkins-Stone, James Ross III — should be among the best in the conference.
At cornerback, Michigan has skill in Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor, as well as the freshman everyone is talking about, Jabrill Peppers. If Peppers is as good as touted, and Clark, Ryan and quarterback Devin Gardner bring senior leadership, the Wolverines could be a sleeper in the Big Ten, with obvious templates to follow.
“I think we’re tougher and more aggressive, not just physically, but mentally, too,” Clark said. “More like the team in Lansing and the team in Columbus.”
There you go, for those who wonder whether the Wolverines have dropped their hubris and acknowledged how their rivals have won. You lose five of six to Michigan State and 10 of 12 to Ohio State, there’s no pretense anymore. The Wolverines tried a different way with Rich Rodriguez’s offensive obsession and defensive indifference, and it didn’t work.
Now, outside Michigan’s locker room are countdown clocks for Michigan State and Ohio (minus the State), an admission of who the Wolverines are chasing. It takes time and commitment, and while time has waned, defensive commitment has grown.
I truly think Michigan was shaken so badly by its 34-32 loss in 2007 to Appalachian State’s speedy spread offense, it felt it had to make a drastic change. In retrospect, the Wolverines needed to get better at what they knew, and that includes better coaching. Mattison completely shuffled his staff in the offseason, and at least for now, there’s an undercurrent of renewed confidence in Schembechler Hall.
If it was just about recruiting, Michigan would be back already. But it’s also about evaluation and development, where Michigan State has excelled. Dantonio and Narduzzi are masterful motivators, as well. Remember, the Spartans were coming off a 7-6 stumble a year ago and got off to a rocky start, but didn’t waver. Their defense carried the offense early on, a formula the Wolverines wouldn’t mind replicating.
The Spartans went 13-1, won the Rose Bowl and are Big Ten favorites again. They probably should have been favored even before the Buckeyes lost Braxton Miller, based on an established system that allows them to lose six starters and still have a potentially fearsome defense.
Michigan State has led the conference in total defense three years in a row, and was second nationally last season. Junior end Shilique Calhoun is the star and the symbol, an under-recruited athlete who flourishes in the Spartans pass-rushing mayhem. It seems impossible for this defense to top last year’s, but it could be a faster group.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people saying Michigan State has one good year, then they drop off,” Calhoun said. “The biggest thing (Dantonio) stresses is, don’t be complacent. We got a lot of athletes and young guys, but our mindset is, we’re determined to be better.”
Part of it is a mindset, part of it is talent, a big part is coaching. Michigan State rose by maniacally committing to defense, something Michigan used to do, and is compelled to do again.