Winter Garden, Fla.— Three straight shutouts and 14 points allowed in a five-game stretch trigger all sorts of conversations about defensive greatness.
Michigan experienced that the first half of the season as it bulldozed opponents after an opening-season loss at Utah and touted one of the top-rated defenses in the country. Some even wondered if this defense could rival that of the 1997 team that helped lead the Wolverines to a national championship.
But the Michigan defense started to show holes, wear and tear, and defensive-line depth took another hit late when nose tackle Ryan Glasgow was lost for the season to injury. In those final six games, Michigan State gained 328 passing yards against Michigan, Minnesota followed two weeks later throwing for 317, Indiana gained 307 rushing in the first game Glasgow missed, and Ohio State in the final regular-season game gouged the Michigan defense for 369 rushing yards.
Still, the Wolverines, whose defense is being coordinated — again — by Greg Mattison after D.J. Durkin left following one season to coach Maryland, have the No. 4-rated defense, allowing an average 281.3 yards. They will face Florida, which has the No. 6-ranked defense, on Friday in the Citrus Bowl.
Michigan is ranked No. 18 against the run, while Florida is No. 17, and the Wolverines are No. 3 against the pass, while Florida is No. 11. The Gators are No. 9 in scoring defense, allowing an average 16.5 points, while Michigan is 11th, allowing 17.2.
The two defenses won’t face each other in the New Year’s Day bowl, but the Michigan defensive players know this is an opportunity to reclaim their position as one of the nation’s better defenses by outperforming the Florida defense.
“All you hear about is (Florida’s) defense and what they’ve done,” Michigan defensive lineman Chris Wormley said on Tuesday after practice at West Orange High. “Not too many people are talking about our defense and what we’ve done this year. We’ve put up a performance that we know we can play this year, and we can win this game and they’ll be talking about us. I’m excited about that.”
Statistically, the defenses from both programs are comparable, and for the most part have been the strengths of the teams.
Where the Gators have the advantage is in turnovers generated. They have 11 fumbles and 14 interceptions, while Michigan has only two fumbles and eight interceptions. Michigan has 30 sacks this season with Willie Henry leading the team with 6.5, while Wormley and Taco Charlton each have 5.5. Wormley leads the team with 12 tackles for loss. But Florida has 40 sacks and 98 tackles for loss.
Wormley said the lack of attention paid Michigan’s defense has been noticeable.
“They have (talked about our defense), but just not as much as I feel about Florida, especially down here only a couple hours from Gainesville,” he said. “We’re going to show the SEC what Michigan football’s all about.”
That has been the college football debate for years — the speedy SEC versus the plodding Big Ten. Wormley said that must end on Friday.
“A lot of it is stereotypes,” he said. “If you see (Michigan receiver and team MVP) Jehu Chesson running, no one’s going to catch him. If you see (cornerback) Jourdan Lewis, no one’s going to catch him. I feel like as a defense line we’re faster than their offensive line, so there’s a lot of stereotypes out there, and I guess we have to prove them wrong.”
Linebacker James Ross III said the stereotypes get old.
“You hear it all the time how the SEC has the best conference. You get a little bit fed up with that because we think our football is great also in the Big Ten,” he said. “It’s just representation of the Big Ten down here and just showing we can play with anybody and there’s no superior conference.”
Florida’s offense hasn’t been the same since the suspension Oct. 12 of quarterback Will Grier after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. He also is suspended the first six games of next season. Starting right tackle Mason Halter also will miss the Citrus Bowl because of academic issues.
The Gators have allowed 43 sacks this season. That puts the emphasis on Michigan’s defense to take advantage.
“I’m pretty sure the best defense is going to win this game,” U-M’s Royce Jenkins-Stone said. “We’re going to need to play well because that’s going to be the big difference. Getting to the quarterback, getting some hits on him. Every game that we won, we got a lot of hits on the quarterback, so that’s something we’re leaning toward.”
Michigan linebacker Desmond Morgan, like Ross playing his final game for the Wolverines, said the defensive players have talked about how the pre-game “hype” for this game has centered on how Michigan’s offense will do against Florida’s defense.
No one, it seems to them, has discussed how Florida’s offense will do against the Michigan defense.
“No discredit to them, they have a good defense, no question,” Morgan said Tuesday. “But we’re still definitely confident in our ability as a defense and the things we’ve put on the field this year and some of the performances we’ve put out there.”
Michigan vs. Florida
Kickoff: 1 p.m. Friday, Orlando, Florida, Citrus Bowl Stadium
Records: No. 14 Michigan 9-3, No. 19 Florida 10-3
Line: Michigan by 4
Series: Michigan leads 2-0