Though the Michigan offense might be coming off its best performance of the season going into the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, the Michigan defense might be coming off its worst.
Greg Mattison’s group gave up 8.6 yards per play against Ohio State after having given up just 4.9 yards per play during the first 11 games of the season. Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller carved up the secondary, averaging 22.2 yards per completion, which is just about double what the Wolverines had given up to any other signal-caller. And on the ground, Ohio State averaged 8.5 yards per carry. The closest performance to that was in week two when Notre Dame averaged 5.1 yards per carry.
All of those statistics could have some worried considering Kansas State boasts a two-quarterback system, a 1,000-yard receiver and a 1,000-yard rusher. Mattison, however, feels confident because of how the team has responded to its Ohio State performance and how it’s practicing for the bowl.
“It seems like we’re freer, like we’re flying around and the guys are kind of communicating better,” Mattison said. “They’re kind of talking before every drill, ‘Let’s do this, let’s do that’ -- the things you’re looking for all the time for a young defense that grows up. It’s like they really have a sense of urgency.”
Mattison played freshmen like Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling, and though they earned the right to see the field, they might not have the same urgency to be perfect or attention to detail all the time as a fifth-year senior like Cam Gordon or Quinton Washington.
Mattison thought that maybe the end of the season, especially the grind from Michigan State until Ohio State, began to get to the younger players. In those games, opponents averaged 5.5 yards per play against the Michigan defense and not once did the defense hold its opponents to under 2.5 yards per rush attempt (in the first seven games of the season it did three times).
Though the competition level obviously increases from the nonconference schedule to the grind of November, the hope is that the level of play from the defense does as well and keeps up with that trend.
“When you play a lot of real young guys and you go through a month of November, you’ve got to make every play perfect, every time and you’ve got to do everything right and they’re being coached on ever little step that they take,” Mattison said. “That has to wear on a young guy.”
But the natural growth curve is for those younger guys to begin to mature a lot near the end of their first year playing and these players seem to be right on track for that, according to Mattison.
With extra prep time and more reps for players like Stribling and Lewis as well as linebacker Ben Gedeon or defensive linemen Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley, that maturity will get more time to take hold during bowl practice. And it could be the defense that really diagnoses itself and its struggles against Ohio State and makes the corrections going into the bowl game.
“Sometimes you don’t have that time or you don’t have that period where you can go, ‘Come on in here, let’s talk about this.’ It’s gotta be, ‘Hey, you gotta play your best game today, you better really play good,’ ” Mattison said. “They’re starting to feel more like veterans, I think a lot of them. They’re more comfortable.”