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Defense shows dramatic improvement

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On a day Michigan posted its first shutout since 2007 and its first blanking of a Big Ten team in a decade, the players walked into a meeting with defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and heard the same thing. Again.

Not good enough. Not yet.

Yes, Mattison lauded the shutout and applauded how Michigan handled Minnesota on third downs. But there were still complaints, even in a 58-0 win. There were still points to teach, things to improve.

For instance, senior defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen said, they gave up first downs they shouldn't have, and there were some missed assignments. So they proceeded to watch film -- as all teams around the country do -- to better one of the most improved defenses in the nation.

The way Michigan has defended is the most dramatic difference from the Wolverines coached by Rich Rodriguez to the Wolverines coached by Brady Hoke. It is why, in a week when Michigan can become bowl eligible for the second consecutive season, not a single question was asked about bowl eligibility.

The aura around Michigan's defense gives more confidence than Greg Robinson's unit did in 2010 -- when a month into the season it was among the worst 20 defenses in the FBS. Now, Michigan is tied for second nationally in scoring defense, allowing 10.2 points a game. A year ago, the Wolverines allowed 35.23 points a game.

"The thing that kind of hit home for us as veterans is that there were criticisms, we weren't getting our effort, we weren't preparing the way a Michigan defense should, we weren't physical like a Michigan defense should be," Van Bergen said. "It wasn't because we didn't want to be. The guys who are on defense now and were on defense last year, we're hungry to be great. We wanted to do everything we could, and things just didn't pan out for us last year.

"When we got the new coaches in, we had the new scheme come in, which was great, but we also had unbelievable hunger and a great attitude of, 'Yeah, we accepted that we were not where we needed to be last year. We'll do anything and everything to be good this year.' "

Some of that meant changes on a larger scale.

Michigan ditched Rodriguez's beloved 3-3-5 scheme run by Robinson in favor of a 4-3. Michigan hits more in practice throughout the week and has harder workouts on Fridays than it did with Rodriguez.

In those practices, Michigan's defense started running toward the ball every time it hit the ground, whether it was a fumble or incomplete pass. Then they'd pick it up and run to the end zone.

Not having done this with Robinson, it was initially met with some skepticism from the players.

"He wants us to get into that habit of going to the ball, picking it up because you never know when a fumble is going to be," linebacker Kenny Demens said of Mattison earlier this season. "At first, we were all like, 'Why?'

"But it's for a good cause."

The "cause" has been three defensive touchdowns so far this year, including two off fumble recoveries. The cause has been 15 forced turnovers, including 11 recovered fumbles in five games.

Seeing the drill in practice turn into Saturday successes helped Michigan's players believe even more.

Then there is the reason Michigan is able to stay productive. The Wolverines are using more players on the defensive line and at linebacker -- a move Mattison preached in the preseason as a way to keep Michigan's front seven fresh. At first, Van Bergen questioned it because as a senior he had waited for extended playing time.

Then he found himself fresher -- a far cry from the 80-plus snaps he played in some games a season ago. For example, Van Bergen said he participated in 28 plays against Minnesota. Now, what seemed like a loss in playing time has turned into "a godsend."

"When you're only playing a limited amount of reps, you can sell out and have the gas all the way down through the game," Van Bergen said. "I think that's something everyone has been able to do and been more productive because of the less reps.

"Guys aren't winded. At the end of the game, we're still fresh and ready to go."

By the end of games with Robinson, Michigan's defense would be a sieve. In a comeback against Iowa a year ago, the Wolverines couldn't get a third-down stop to give the offense one more chance to win. They just ran out of energy.

What used to be a defense in which third-and-long wasn't a chore for opposing offenses is now an almost guaranteed punt. Michigan is allowing opponents to convert 39.4 percent of third downs and only 50 percent of red zone chances. Last season, Michigan allowed a 43.3 percent third-down conversion rate, and opponents scored on 86 percent of their red zone chances.

Hoke and Mattison, though, say they aren't enamored with statistics.

"It's like anything else, it doesn't mean anything right now," Hoke said. "I mean, none of those things matter."

Well, that's not entirely true. They care about one. The record -- one that for the third consecutive year is perfect entering the second week of the Big Ten season.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.