Michigan defensive turnaround starts up front
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP)
When Brady Hoke took over the Michigan football program in January, fixing a defense that ranked among the nation's worst was a top priority.
For Hoke, a former Michigan defensive line coach, the Wolverines had always been defined by their toughness - not by their inability to keep opponents from reaching the end zone.
Eight games into his first season, Hoke has a defense that ranked 110th nationally all the way up to 35th, thanks in part to a veteran defensive front led by senior nose tackle Mike Martin, who sets the tone for everything No. 13 Michigan does defensively.
''It seems the buzz around Michigan is that the defense is back,'' senior defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen said Monday.
Michigan (7-1, 3-1 Big Ten) made an impressive showing in Saturday's 36-14 win over Purdue. The defense helped shift momentum with a second-quarter safety when Martin sacked Caleb TerBush, leading a defensive charge that yielded only 89 yards rushing and seven points before Purdue scored with 15 seconds remaining.
Surrendering the late touchdown while only forcing one turnover left the performance short of what Hoke expects. But overall, the unit has made enough strides to make the failings of the past three seasons a distant memory.
That's exactly what Hoke wants.
''Michigan football - as I know it - is playing defense, first and foremost,'' Hoke said Saturday. ''I think nationally, people think about Michigan football playing defense.''
This year's defensive performance is a far cry from last year, when the Wolverines gave up 35.2 points a game. Michigan is allowing 14.6 points per game this season.
The defense remains a work in progress. But eight games in, Martin and his linemates have seen daily improvement carry over to Saturdays.
More importantly, the Wolverines begin November in three-way tie for the Big Ten's Legends Division lead.
But the roughest stretch remains ahead, starting Saturday at Iowa. But even with stiff tests remaining, including two weeks from Saturday against No. 10 Nebraska, the defense has silenced its critics.
''Every week is going to be a test for us,'' Martin said Saturday. ''We know people are going to keep saying things about our defense. But we responded well (Saturday), period.''
Michigan did so without starting safety Jordan Kovacs, who missed the game with a knee injury. Hoke said Monday that Kovacs, who ranks third on the team in tackles, is day to day and practiced Sunday.
Troy Woolfolk shifted to safety in the absence of Kovacs, who has become a key part of Michigan's improving defense.
''There's some leadership there that he brings,'' Hoke said. ''I think there's some football instinctiveness that he brings and that's something I'm not sure you ever make up for.''
Defense will factor into Michigan's championship chances as November begins. That starts Saturday at Iowa when the Wolverines will, Hoke said Monday, face their most physical challenge of the season.
It's the kind of challenge, though, that Hoke relishes, understanding that the game will be won up front - right where Hoke likes the attention to remain.
Iowa also will be a challenge for a running game that produced 339 rushing yards against Purdue.
Hoke announced Monday that Fitz Toussaint, who ran for a career-best 170 yards Saturday, will start at tailback against the Hawkeyes.
Toussaint had 20 carries against the Boilermakers and will take charge of a running game that ranks eighth in the Big Ten (163.6 yards a game).
Toussaint's emergence as the feature back comes after the Wolverines struggled to establish productivity out of the running game outside of quarterback Denard Robinson.
But now, Hoke has his man.
''I think it's Fitz right now - I don't think there's any doubt,'' Hoke said. ''He's earned that opportunity.''