Sunday, January 01, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Coach restores Michigan's tradition

"Everybody is saying, 'Well, they're all young, they're all coming back.' Well, yeah, they're all coming back. It's the worst defense in the NCAA that they're all coming back [to]. Is that so exciting for you? It's bad." - ESPN analyst Chris Spielman, November of 2010

NEW ORLEANS - Spielman is an Ohio State grad. We might want to mention that.

But when he made that statement about Michigan's defense late last season, there weren't many outside of the Wolverines locker room who could disagree with him.

Technically, the Wolverines were not the worst defense in the nation in 2010. They were the 110th-best. They gave up 450 yards and 35 points per game. They couldn't tackle. They couldn't defend the pass. They couldn't rush the quarterback.

No wonder Spielman, in a particularly trenchant jab, called them "Mike Martin and a bunch of guys who would be nice little subs at Indiana."

Not anymore. This week, as the Wolverines get set to face Virginia Tech in Tuesday's Sugar Bowl, you'll hear a lot of Michigan players using their school's name as an adjective that symbolizes pride, tradition and a certain standard of performance.

"We play Michigan football," they'll say.

"We've got a Michigan defense," they'll say.

Ask them to describe a teammate, they'll assume you understand when they say, simply: "He's a Michigan player."

But that identity had been missing the previous three seasons, as the winningest program in major college football stumbled to a 16-21 record under former coach Rich Rodriguez.

"It's tough going through any type of losing season, because the expectations are so high at Michigan," Wolverines defensive end Craig Roh said Saturday. "If you're not winning, you're basically not Michigan."

The transformation to a 10-2 this season has been remarkable, largely because of Spielman's point: These are mostly the same players on defense that they had last year.

Yet here they are, ranked 17th in total defense and seventh in scoring defense -- one spot ahead of the Hokies.

"I think our struggles the previous three seasons have really made this season all the more sweet," Michigan strong safety Jordan Covacs said.

Ryan Van Bergen has been at Michigan even longer than that. The fifth-year defensive end has persevered through two coaching overhauls and one form of adversity after another.

"We've been through pretty much that a player can go through in a career," Van Bergen said of his fellow seniors. "We had a 3-9 season [in 2008]. We broke every record you didn't want to break as a team. We were the team that snapped our bowl streak. We had seven [straight] losses against Ohio State. We had done pretty much everything incorrectly."

Now they're doing almost everything right. It starts, the players say, with first-year Michigan head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who restored the pride of the Maize and Blue.

"These coaches really understand the Michigan tradition," Roh said. "And they've brought it to life, through practice, through camp, through all that stuff. It's alive in all of us right now. I think that's why you see a change in the environment."

There's also been a major change in defensive scheme under Mattison, a former Michigan assistant who spent the previous three seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.

The system was more complex than anything these players were accustomed to, but they had no problems implementing it. The Wolverines gave up 10 or fewer points in four of their first five games this year.

"I don't think it had anything to do with buying in," Van Bergen said. "I think it was more about staying in. When things started going wrong before, you could see the team kind of falling apart a little bit. Guys didn't want to be too committed, because if you're too committed and things start going wrong, then you take a lot of the blame."

There's little blame to be handed out these days.

Michigan is Michigan again, and Indiana will have to look elsewhere to find some nice little subs.

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