The continued vitality of the defense under Greg Mattison was to be assumed, but the level to which the defense was able to perform this year outstretched the otherwise modest expectations for the unit. The losses up front seemed to be too great a shift in personnel to keep Michigan's defense in its lofty place in the top 25 defenses nationally. Gone was defensive tackle Mike Martin, the center of Michigan's defensive effort. The kind of athletic nose tackle that can simultaneously take on two blocks and still slash into the backfield to make a play (that kind being very rare). Gone too was Ryan Van Bergen, a three year starter and Michigan's strongside defensive end, a good pass rusher and excellent run defender. Last but not least, Michigan also had to replace former walk-on and three-tech DT Will Heininger, who under Mattison's tutelage turned into an above average Big Ten defensive tackle after bouncing between positions and injury under the previous staff.
It was Michigan's defensive line that led the charge in 2011. The line worked to stymie the run game and bring pressure on passes. The line opened up lanes for linebackers to fill their gap unimpeded, and forced opposing quarterbacks into throws well before receivers could break down coverage. Michigan's defensive line was the heart of the defense, and with the heart gone it seemed growing pains were on the way.
That Michigan's defense recovered from that is a testament to how well Mattison can coach, as should the play of the rest of a defense that came into its own as the stars all left campus.
The biggest story of the year defensively is of course the emergence of Jake Ryan as a defensive terror and Michigan's best player on the defensive side of the ball. There had been flashes back in 2011. Ryan's athleticism and knack for getting to the ball were apparent in the Sugar Bowl where he took up residence in the Hokie backfield on the way to seven tackles, four TFLs, and a sack. However, the leap forward in his game would be so great over the off season that his is perhaps the biggest snub from the all-Big Ten team that was decided on recently.
Most of the year Ryan was Michigan's only pass rush threat. He tied for the team lead in sacks with Craig Roh, but that doesn't begin to include how much his influence was felt in opposing backfields. Ryan's speed off the edge, and his sometimes awkward looking ability to change directions made him a very good pass rusher and aided him in tracking down mobile quarterbacks before they could escape. Besides that, Ryan also showed a Kovacs-ian ability to make tremendous plays in space. The totality of Purdue's short passing offense was swallowed up by Ryan playing in the flat and taking on blockers to blow up bubble screens. Perhaps no play sums up the genius of Jake Ryan more than a fourth quarter pass rush against Illinois. Lined up on the strongside, Ryan stunted behind the defensive tackles and attacked the B gap to the right, narrowly missing a sack on Illini quarterback Riley O'Toole and instead flying well out of the play. Somehow, Ryan regained his footing, quickly backtracked, and forced a fumble on the play by hitting O'Toole before he could get rid of the ball. It was all energy and hustle and ridiculous athleticism. It was all Jake Ryan.
Ryan's brilliance this year is yet another sign of the diabolical machinations of Greg Mattison. Ryan is a superb athlete that operates well in space, changes direction on a dime, and has closing speed that doesn't seem physically possible for a player of his size. He is the ultimate tool in Mattison's toolbox in much the same way that Mattison has used Jordan Kovacs in a jack-of-all-trades role. A player like a queen on the chess board; a threat to make a play from every spot on the field. One that Mattison is able to free up on pass rushes and isolate on the edge. Most importantly, Ryan is a coherent piece within the overall defensive scheme. He is the x-factor that the other ten players feed off of.
While Ryan often scored the highlight reel plays, there were few players more responsible for Michigan's strong defensive year than the two men in the center, Quinton Washington and Will Campbell. Michigan's two new defensive tackles, neither of whom had played much more than spot duty in the previous seasons, quickly rounded into form as fundamentally sound lane cloggers that made the rest of Michigan's defense run smoother.
The first month of the season was shaky defensively as Michigan faced some of the tougher tasks asked of any defense. First Alabama's offensive line -- one of the better units in all of college football -- bludgeoned the Wolverine defense, then the small, quick Falcons of Air Force slashed through it with a myriad of cut blocks and speed plays to the edge.
By week three the worries that this defense would struggle were apparent, and focused mainly on a defensive line that had yet to make a positive play. Of course once Michigan's defense settled in, the strength of the defensive line became known. Gone were the days of a slashing Mike Martin forcing a pitch on a speed option from the one-tech position. Instead, Michigan would move forward with its two defensive tackles eating up blocks and freeing linebackers to flow to the ball. While the numbers don't show up for Campbell or Washington -- the yeoman's work is never rewarded with glory in the form of stats -- it does in two statistics. First, tackles. Namely, number of tackles by linebackers. Michigan's three starting linebackers led the team in tackles, a far cry from the days when safeties and corners sat prominently near the top of the list. Second, Michigan was in the top-25 in rush plays of 20-, 30-, and 40-yards allowed. The Wolverines bottled things up quickly, thanks to freeing linebackers to make stops.
Michigan's success against the run was in large part due to the defensive line holding up at the point of attack and making life easier for everyone in the back seven. While Michigan never mustered much of a pass rush with the defensive line -- especially the WDE spot that is supposed to take the lion's share of pass rush duties -- the Wolverines did a very good job all year of keeping plays contained and collapsing the pocket.
In the end, the fact that Michigan's revival as a top-25 defense was sustained through 2012 might be the more impressive feat than the turnaround itself. If nothing else, Michigan's defensive success this year speaks to something that should have Michigan fans smiling for a long time to come. Greg Mattison not only knows how to get the most out of great players (Ryan), but he knows how to build reserves into the types of strong defensive pieces that help the rest of the team (Campbell and Washington). Greg Mattison has built a singular unit from disparate parts, and like a fine watch-maker, Mattison has even the smallest gears turning smoothly and without fail. It isn't just a defense. It is a Michigan Defense, and it is something to behold.
What we saw this year from Michigan's defense should continue to be true as long as Mattison is the coordinator. Michigan's defense will be strong against the run. In Big Ten games Michigan allowed the lowest yards per carry average (3.61) and the fewest rushing touchdowns of any league team. Michigan will force teams off the field. In conference games the Wolverines were second in third down conversions allowed, with a 32 percent conversion rate for opposing offenses. Finally, Michigan won't get beat on big plays. In conference games Michigan was the only team to allow less than 20 plays of 20-plus yards.
All of this is possible because of Greg Mattison and a team wide emphasis on playing fundamentally sound, physical defense. His coaching has turned the Wolverine defense into a fearsome unit that plays together, tackles well, and stays one step ahead of the offense. It was a defense that kept Michigan in the game against Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State despite offensive collapses in each game, and the unit that helped Michigan beat Michigan State for the first time in four years.
I know Thanksgiving was a couple weeks ago, but it is never too late to give thanks for Greg Mattison and the tremendous job he has done building Michigan's defense into one of the better defenses in the country.