Michigan defense shuts down Illini

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Greg Mattison stood outside the Michigan locker room early Saturday evening, surrounded by reporters, and started to get emotional.

From the moment the defensive coordinator arrived in Ann Arbor, Mich., he heard about how he needed to fix a defense that had been one of the worst in the nation last season.

And in his ninth game of his second stint running the Michigan defense, his unit finally looked like what he had wanted and pushed for. What he had preached and pulled for.

He has used the phrase "Michigan defense" before -- meaning a level of toughness and capability, a level of being able to force turnovers and instinctually knowing what an offense will do.

And having the ability to completely take an offense out of a game.

On Saturday, on the road against Illinois dual-threat quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, a dynamic receiver in A.J. Jenkins and a running game averaging 198.4 yards a game, he saw it.

Michigan beat Illinois 31-14, securing the Wolverines' best record since 2007, but it was the flashes of the past, of his first tenure at Michigan, that left Mattison excited and emotional.

"That was a Michigan defense," Mattison said. "That was, without a doubt, a Michigan defense. Because they played as hard as they could, did whatever they had to do.

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

A year after defense was a laughable word during Michigan's 67-65 triple-overtime win over the Illini, it was the Michigan defense that beat Illinois.

It was this group, beaten up physically on the field and verbally off of it by almost every opponent, that had its best game in at least two years.

It was Mattison who turned the Michigan defense from a laughingstock -- one hampered by youth, questionable decision-making and some talent issues last season under Greg Robinson -- into one of the Big Ten's better units.

It took a coaching change and less than a season.

"They've put up with a lot," Mattison said. "And they've had a tough road. 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 have tried in every game, it says a lot about them."

Michigan held Illinois to 37 yards rushing on 33 attempts -- 1.1 yards a carry -- and negative-12 yards on the ground in the first half. An Illini offense that averaged 402.6 yards a game gained 214 -- most of them trying frantically to come back in the fourth quarter.

This after Illinois had two weeks to prepare for Michigan. Didn't matter. The Wolverines snuffed them out anyway.

"It's frustrating," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "We went back in the open date, went against each other, thought we made some progress. I thought we had those guys going.

"For some reason we're not staying on blocks and we're shooting ourselves in the foot."

Michigan had a lot to do with that.

As the Michigan offense struggled Saturday, the defense became stronger. It started with the game's first series, when defensive linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen pushed Scheelhaase out of the pocket and forced him to throw on the run.

That was the goal. Michigan barely could have played it any better.

"First drive, first snap," said Martin, who had a team-high nine tackles. "And when we came out in the second half, we came out on the field first and made a statement after that.

"Momentum was big for us. We knew we'd have to come out, start fast and finish the game."

It was that momentum that often carried Michigan the other way the past two seasons. It would be the third-down stop the Wolverines couldn't complete or the big-play let up. This season, that all has changed.

Michigan held Illinois to 14 points -- the sixth time this season the Wolverines have held an opponent to two or fewer touchdowns. It also didn't allow the Illini into Michigan territory until the third quarter.

The defensive line, which is the specialty of Mattison and head coach Brady Hoke, harassed Scheelhaase, forcing him to try to make plays on the run.

Michigan had four sacks. It also intercepted Scheelhaase once when J.T. Floyd read the route, jumped in front of it and returned the ball 43 yards into Illinois territory.

That led to a Devin Gardner touchdown pass to Martavious Odoms that sealed the game.

"At times. We really showed signs of growth and really showing that we can be a true Michigan defense," Floyd said. "But I think at times we still had lapses. We had a lot of things we can clean up and get better at.

"Tomorrow we get on it, watch the film, and get ready for next week."

On Sunday, Michigan will do that. But for one day, the Wolverines reveled in how they played. This was something they'd been waiting for.

For a long time.

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