ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- "Inside and in front."
It's what defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has preached to Michigan's secondary all season. And so far, it has worked.
"They understand that giving up big plays is unacceptable," Mattison said. "I think they've totally bought into that."
The longest play the secondary has given up this season was a 38-yard run to Notre Dame in the second week, helping Michigan to become a stalwart defensive unit.
The Wolverines rank first in the Big Ten in red zone defense and fifth in the country in turnover margin. In the past three games, Michigan has given up only 10 points.
Michigan finished 110th in the country in defense last season, and the secondary was a big part of that, giving up huge plays throughout the season. On eight separate occasions, Michigan gave up 60 or more yards on a single play. It gave up 93 plays of 20 or more yards.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald pointed to Mattison for the strides the Michigan defense has made through the past year.
"Mattison is a tremendous football coach," Fitzgerald said. "I think what's most important for a coach is that you have to get your young men to believe in and buy into what you're teaching them, and there's no question, you can see on tape, that the young men at Michigan are buying into what Greg Mattison is teaching them."
Mattison isn't giving too much praise to any of his defensive backs, making sure he tells players that they're only as good as their next game because each player is only a pass away from looking like he shouldn't look.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke pointed to several areas of improvement he is looking for in his team's secondary. He wants better communication and better coverage in both zone and man defenses, and he wants the secondary to play with its eyes.
Fitzgerald said he is impressed with the depth in the secondary and how Michigan is rotating players as the game goes on.
The depth in the secondary has allowed Michigan to hold teams from getting those home-run plays that Mattison always talks about.
He and Hoke have been able to rely on sophomore Thomas Gordon and junior Jordan Kovacs at each safety position. Both have five starts, and they rank second and third, respectively, on the team in tackles. Mattison also has been able to throw in sophomore Marvin Robinson for reps at safety.
At cornerback, Mattison has even more depth to choose from among junior J.T. Floyd, sophomore Courtney Avery, senior Troy Woolfolk and freshman Blake Countess.
The secondary will undoubtedly face a big test Saturday at Northwestern. Hoke has said his defense is a long way from being as good as he wants it to be. But other coaches in the Big Ten are beginning to take notice of Michigan's backfield and its success in stopping several teams already this season.
"They've developed some confidence. They've developed a swagger," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "I think Coach Mattison has a lot to do with it."
Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.