Seniors regroup, restore defense

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- This is more like it, preparing for the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans while ranked 12th in the country. This is what Michigan's senior leaders figured their whole careers would be like.

But on Jan. 6, 2011, David Molk and Ryan Van Bergen sat in their apartment in silence. Their coach, Rich Rodriguez, had been fired the day before, and they felt the Michigan football program was in more turmoil than it had been all season -- if that were even possible.

Coaching rumors were circulating. Players were considering transferring. The memorabilia from the Gator Bowl sat in their rooms unopened -- it was only a reminder of the embarrassment.

Both Molk and Van Bergen had experienced the destruction that came when players didn't embrace a new coach. Van Bergen had been a member of Lloyd Carr's final recruiting class, and Molk had entered Michigan with Rodriguez. Since then, they felt the team had failed itself and the Michigan tradition.

"We can do this differently," Van Bergen finally said to Molk. "It starts with the seniors. Let's buy in."

But Van Bergen knew where Michigan needed to improve most -- on defense. And he knew the other senior that had to be on the same page -- Mike Martin.

The two had discussed how they would become defensive leaders the following season. Neither had played well in the Gator Bowl. Mississippi State, which came in ranked 48th nationally in scoring offense with 29 points per game, rang up 52. It was worse than the 65 the defense had yielded to Illinois earlier that season, because the Illini scored 20 of those across the three overtimes (and Michigan still won, 67-65).

They recognized their defense had good chemistry, despite the fact they were touted as "historically awful."

Van Bergen called Martin and told him the plan -- the seniors would step up, it would be different from the last time this had happened to them. They would buy in to whichever coach and scheme came to Michigan next.

At that point, they didn't know it would be Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison, they just knew it would be a new beginning for the Michigan defense.

Van Bergen's career at Michigan reads like a bad joke: three head coaches, four defensive coordinators, five defensive schemes, three position coaches, three strength coaches.

Martin's is better only in comparison.

In 2008, the turnover in the program had created dissension among players and coaches. Players and coaches fought during practices. Carr's players didn't want to accept what Rodriguez was bringing to the program. No seniors tried to change anything.

Later, Van Bergen would describe that year as a blueprint of how not to deal with a transition.

"I'm young, but I know this stuff isn't supposed to happen," Martin would think to himself as he went through practices. "I played on a good team in high school, so I know how you win. Not on the same level, but it is the same traits."

But those traits weren't apparent, and suddenly Michigan didn't look like Michigan to anyone. In Rodriguez's three years, the Wolverines went 15-22 overall, 6-18 in conference play. There were no championships. There was one bowl game, the Gator Bowl drubbing.

They were destroyed by opponents and booed by their own fan base. Each season it got worse. In 2008, the Wolverines gave up 4,403 yards. In 2009, it was 4,720 yards. And in Rodriguez's final season, the Michigan defense gave up 5,860 yards.

Martin and Van Bergen were members of all three defenses. And in those three years, opponents averaged nearly 31 points per game.

"We weren't doing what we wanted to do on defense, and we had an idea of dominating defenses on Michigan," Martin said. "We all watched it when we were younger, and we weren't producing it."

During Hoke's first fall camp, he announced that the team would vote for two captains. When voting came around, Van Bergen fell three votes short of Martin. Hoke agreed to name both Molk and senior tight end Kevin Koger as captains only because they came within a vote of each other.

Van Bergen, the defensive end who had helped spearhead the initiative, wouldn't be a captain.

"It was kind of tough," Van Bergen said. "I never said anything. I didn't want to shake things up or upset the team. Just because my name wasn't on the captain board doesn't mean I wasn't a captain for the team. I felt as though [Martin] and I were in charge of defensive leadership."

And they were. They both spoke during defensive meetings and represented the team at news conferences and media events. They earned the respect of their teammates on and off the field.

But it was on the field that they earned back the right to call themselves a Michigan defense.

Van Bergen was named the honorary captain for the season opener. And on the first possession of that game, Michigan was scored on. Western Michigan marched 74 yards and scored on fourth-and-goal.

Van Bergen looked over at Martin as the two ran off the field.

"This isn't good," Van Bergen thought.

The entire off-season, Mattison had chewed out players for missteps and mistakes. He demanded the Wolverines be strong on third downs. He had emphasized red zone defense.

And on the first drive of the game, Michigan failed on all levels.

Martin and Van Bergen stood on the sideline as Mattison marched down past the rest of the team. Van Bergen dropped his head in anticipation.

"I thought he would go down the line saying, 'You messed this up, you ruined this,' " Van Bergen said. "But Mattison comes down and in this calm tone says, 'All right, they ran and used this formation, and we haven't seen it before. Don't worry about it. Go back out there and keep doing what you were doing.' Then he just walks away."

The Wolverines went on to hold Western Michigan to just three more points.

Hoke said after the game that he was disappointed they had allowed the Broncos to score on the opening drive but that his guys "started getting it together a little bit more defensively."

It was a small, but necessary step. To Martin and Van Bergen, it was hugely important. They knew that if they improved every game, they'd put themselves in position to make it a memorable season.

After the Illinois game Mattison had to hold back tears.

"Nobody knows what went on inside of these guys, and for them to stick together, and to play like they played tonight, and like they've tried in every game, that says a lot about them," he said. "That was, without a doubt, a Michigan defense, because they played as hard as they could, they did whatever they had to do.

"Without a doubt, that was a Michigan defense."

They had throttled Illinois, 31-14, holding the Illini to just 214 yards, including only 37 on the ground.

It had taken 10 games, but the foundation had been set and the name had returned.

Heading into the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Martin and Van Bergen have turned around a defense that was one of the most disappointing in the nation to a unit ranked seventh nationally in scoring.

People have begun referring to the defense -- Martin and Van Bergen's defense -- as a Michigan defense. They had bought in blindly, the underclassmen followed suit, and the Wolverines earned a bid to a BCS bowl in Hoke's first year.

Fans will remember this season as the most successful in recent history. Perhaps Van Bergen and Martin will as well. But they also want to remember the previous seasons.

"We started great, and we put Coach Carr on our shoulders and sent him into retirement," Van Bergen said. "Then we stumbled, we stumbled hugely. We had probably the hardest, most difficult letdown that I think any group has ever been through. We've been up, we've been down. The fact that we've been able to put it together this year, I don't want to ever forget any of it, because it shows you how much hard work can go into something and how it can get results eventually.

"That's why I want to remember all of this. I need to remember all of this."

Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at jenningsespn@gmail.com or or on Twitter @chanteljennings.