Shutout first, Spartans next

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- They said they had not thought about it yet, about how they weren't going to get to it until tomorrow, until the pleasure of Michigan's 45-0 win over Illinois dissipates into an endless amount of re-watching the game to find their own mistakes.

Yet there will always be those constant reminders Michigan can't avoid no matter how hard it tries. The countdown clock in the team's offices at Schembechler Hall for one. The albatross of a four-game losing streak for another.

The it, of course, is Michigan State and the logical fear entering Saturday for Michigan was looking past a hapless Illini team, which now has had all five of their losses by at least 17 points, to the rival no Michigan player had beaten.

That, maybe more than anything, impressed Michigan coach Brady Hoke on Saturday afternoon after his team put together its first shutout since the Wolverines beat Minnesota 58-0 on Oct. 1, 2011. He said he didn't bring up Michigan State once last week, and then his team played what he deemed their most complete game of the season.

But with Illinois now over and another win secured, there is part of Hoke that will always look to Michigan State and Ohio State.

"I hope these guys enjoy this right now, but I don't know if you ever don't think about rivalry games," Hoke said. "I think that's always part of what makes us special being Michigan."

Hoke has stressed Michigan being "special" since he arrived in Ann Arbor in January 2011 with the Wolverines reeling and looking for their place in a Big Ten with new teams emerging as powers.

It looked like it would be a rebuilding job then, that it could take a while for Hoke and his staff to implement their own path for the program. It looked like it would take a while to revamp a defense that had struggled over and over in 2009 and 2010.

Except the rebuild never happened like that. It became a resurrection instead, nowhere more so than on the defensive side of the ball. A season ago, Michigan was among the most improved defensive teams in the country.

Now, they are the first group to produce shutouts in two consecutive seasons since the 2000 and 2001 campaigns, when the Wolverines had three shutouts in two years. And it is the defense which has carried them this season, a defense that hasn't allowed a second-half touchdown since Sept. 8 against Air Force and six second-half points over the past four games.

"I think we're at a good point right now," redshirt sophomore linebacker Jake Ryan said. "We're definitely communicating as a defense and definitely getting to the ball as hard as we can.

"A shutout is always a great deal from a defensive perspective."

Michigan has done a lot of that in the second halves of games, in part due to Ryan, who tied a career-high with 11 tackles, had 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and forced a fumble against Illinois.

It is a defense which is more confident than it has been at any point this season;, which will face Michigan State in less than seven days, the same Spartans team which has scored 20 or more points on the Wolverines in eight of the past nine seasons. The same Spartans team that has confounded Denard Robinson the past two seasons, turning an electrifying playmaker into a below-average quarterback.

Yet Michigan isn't thinking about Michigan State. Or so the Wolverines say.

"Right now I'm not even thinking about it," Robinson said. "It's a big win for us and it's a championship game we just won. We feel good."

Championship game? Against Illinois? Not really. Not this year. Not even close. Next week, however, will have that feel for Michigan. Four straight losses will do that to a team.

So will being able to have control of a Legends Division race where the chance to go to the Big Ten championship game -- even if it is still October -- is very much within Michigan's grasp.

To continue to think that way, it still goes through Michigan State for the Wolverines -- for many reasons.

"It's in the back of our heads because, you know, it's State," middle linebacker Kenny Demens said. "But tomorrow, we'll focus on Michigan State."