Defense rises up in red zone

NEW ORLEANS -- It wasn't a defensive performance that would draw tears from defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, like he shed after Michigan beat Illinois in November.

The way that defense played, after it had come so far from being a much-maligned unit last season, made Mattison proud that day. And while Michigan's 23-20 overtime win over Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Tuesday wasn't that -- and it certainly wasn't a pretty defensive effort -- it was just enough to accomplish Michigan's goal.


"That's not what our defense is, but when they do get first downs you can't lie down and die," Mattison said. "You just have to say you have to find a way to stop them.

"We have got to get a lot better on third down, and we will, but when it's not happening then, 'OK, it's first down. Start again.' "

It was a defensive performance -- at least on third and fourth downs -- that was more reminiscent of former Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson than one from Mattison.

For a team that had been good on third downs this season, allowing just a 36.1-percent conversion rate, the Wolverines struggled against the Hokies.

They allowed 6 of 15 third downs to be converted, but what stood out more was how Virginia Tech did it. There was a 27-yard pass from Logan Thomas to Danny Coale on a third-and-20 in the first quarter. Then, on the same drive, Thomas found D.J. Coles for a 13-yard pass on a third-and-13.

There also were two 13-yard runs from Thomas -- one on a third-and-13 and another on a fourth-and-11 -- to keep the Hokies alive on the drive that tied the game at 17-17 with 10:22 to play.

Linebacker Kenny Demens said part of the issue came from the Wolverines becoming too focused on the receivers on third downs -- especially on the game-tying drive. By the time they realized what was going on, Thomas would be in a position where Michigan couldn't do anything.

"They kind of picked up on a couple things that we were doing, and they just ran with it," junior cornerback J.T. Floyd said. "We're a resilient group. We bond together and stick with each other no matter what.

"When it came down to it, we held them to field goals, which played a big part in the win. When it came down to it, we felt like we came together and did what we needed to do."

But when it mattered for Michigan, on a third-and-6 in overtime, the Wolverines made a stop -- with an assist from an overturned touchdown catch by Virginia Tech wide receiver Danny Coale, who after the game said he caught the ball.

But it was the stop Michigan so desperately needed. It was the stop, the type of play, that Michigan had been receiving all season.

Because if there was a word to describe Michigan's defense this season, it would be this: opportunistic. This was a team that, with another recovered fumble Tuesday, recovered 20 of them this season. They also picked off nine passes, including one Tuesday by freshman defensive end Frank Clark in the open field.

They seemed to find themselves in the right time so many times this season.

"It was a big relief that it was overturned," Demens said. "I'm just glad they made the right call."

All of Michigan was. Virginia Tech kicker Justin Myer, who had four field goals, lined up for his fifth in the overtime. He missed, allowing the defense to get off the field and set up Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons for the eventual game-winner.

Michigan's third-down defense overshadowed an otherwise good defensive game for the Wolverines. They held Virginia Tech running back David Wilson to 82 yards rushing and the Hokies to 377 yards of total offense, which aren't bad numbers considering they average 413 yards a game. And they held the Hokies to just one touchdown in six red zone trips.

It wasn't how Michigan wanted to play on defense or how it expected to play on defense. But it was good enough -- just good enough -- for the Wolverines to win their first BCS bowl since 2000.

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