<
>

Despite offensive woes, Michigan's defense proving to be playoff-worthy

The Michigan Wolverines were down 10-7 at halftime on the road against Purdue, without their starting quarterback, but there was little panic in the visiting locker room.

Michigan's defense has shined in the second half this season. In four games, the Wolverines have given up only 14 total points after halftime and have allowed an average of 86.8 yards, so they knew they had a shot at taking over.

"We had to kind of weather the storm there in the second quarter. We didn't do a great job on one of the tunnel screens," Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown told former Wolverines captain and offensive lineman Jon Jansen on his College Sports Now radio show. "Really played extremely well in the second half. Just made it very, very difficult for them in that second half."

Michigan shut out Purdue in the second half and won 28-10. That's what the Wolverines' dominant defense has done in every game this season. And as Michigan relied on its defense in the first four games, the team might need its D even more in the next few weeks.

After a bye, the schedule gets tougher with Michigan State and a trip to Penn State. And a sluggish offense will likely be without starting QB Wilton Speight. Coach Jim Harbaugh said that if the Wolverines didn't have a bye this week, Speight would not play due to an injury that happened in the first quarter against Purdue. It's unknown how long Speight will be out, and while backup John O'Korn played his best game since joining Michigan, it only raises more questions for the offense and how it will handle the remaining teams on the schedule.

In addition, the Wolverines lost freshman receiver Tarik Black for the season with a foot injury, and receiver Kekoa Crawford and tight end Nick Eubanks were also injured in the Purdue game.

That means the defense becomes that much more important.

Such pressure is something the unit seems to relish, though. The Wolverines' defense ranks first nationally in yards per game, first in yards per play, second in rush yards per attempt, second in number of three-and-outs resulting in a punt, and second in opponent quarterback completion percentage.

And the D somehow seems to improve every game. What was once looked at as a weakness, given all the youth after replacing 10 starters from last season, is now being looked at as a positive with room to grow.

"We still have a long way to go before we come close to hitting our ceiling," Brown said. "I can assure you, each and every position coach, we're just trying to take our guys from A to B and B to C."

Second-year linebacker Devin Bush is one of those young starters leading the resurgence. Bush is tied for ninth-most sacks for FBS players with 4.5, behind his teammate, Chase Winovich, who is third with 5.5 sacks.

Bush describes his mentality as busting his opponent in the mouth and playing fast. Brown alludes to the fact that some players are fast, but don't play fast, but Bush is and does both.

"[The coaches] let us play, they let us be us," Bush said. "They don't try to restrict us with what we can do. We have a lot of versatile guys that haven't touched the field as much this year, but later down the road, there's going to be some good players on this team."

Winovich isn't necessarily young, as a redshirt junior, but after beginning at linebacker and then moving to tight end before landing at defensive end, he says he and his teammates are still learning something new every game. Watching film, he is starting to recognize certain techniques and moves from opposing offenses.

Winovich and his teammates will use the bye week to continue that progress in what Harbaugh calls an improvement week.

It's hard to imagine that this suffocating defense could continue to improve, but Brown and his defense have shown week after week, going back to last season, that there is no resting on their laurels. If the defense can continue to put up good numbers, or even improve those numbers, it will make the season a whole lot easier for the offense.

"As long as Don Brown's good, I'm good," Harbaugh said. "You want to know what my happiness is like? Don Brown's mood's good, I'm good. More Don Brown."