May 1, 2013

Borton's Blog: Dream revisited

The touchstone for a Michigan defense remains 1997. Opponents scored with the frequency of the corpulent craving salad over donuts, and the result made U-M fans' eyes glaze over.

The national championship in '97 had everything to do with playing incredible defense, from the wizardry of Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson to the trench warfare of players such as Glen Steele and Rob Renes, and linebackers who could cut like a Sword (Sam, that is).

The '97 crew surrendered 9.5 points per game. Three teams cashed in a single field goal against the Wolverines, while one settled for a mere touchdown. Another didn't score at all.

Nobody hit for 20-plus, except Iowa, which took advantage of quarterback Brian Griese's worst half of the year and turned turnovers into points. Michigan pulled that one out anyway, 28-24.

Defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann deservedly gets huge credit for that effort, introducing the zone blitzes that overwhelmed opponents at times and taking full advantage of a host of NFL-caliber talent. At the same time, Greg Mattison was no stranger to the Boys of '97.

He'd been their DC the two years prior to their season of perfection. He laughs now, about his brilliant timing in leaving Michigan the year before a national championship.

More importantly, he knows what it takes to play that kind of defense. So does head coach Brady Hoke, the U-M defensive line boss that year. From the moment they arrived back in Ann Arbor, they've been looking for every way possible to reproduce the elixir that delivered one of Michigan's finest falls ever.

They won't rest until they've done so. Of course, they won't rest then, either. Hoke and then-head coach Lloyd Carr went recruiting in California the day after the Rose Bowl victory over Washington State that secured the national title, so it never really ends.

With regard to the Hoke/Mattison combo, it's really just beginning.

They supplied the dramatic turnaround in 2011, delivering a defense that allowed 17.4 points per game, less than half of what the Wolverines yielded the previous year under a different regime. Along the way, they won a BCS bowl game, beating Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl after taking down Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State along the way.

That effort marked the lowest Michigan defensive average since 2006, when the Wolverines won 11 games and reached the Rose Bowl, giving up just 15.9 per contest. U-M took a slight step back last year, numbers wise, losing its defensive front and succumbing to increased turnovers in surrendering 19.8 on average.

But all along the way, Mattison, Hoke, and the rest of Michigan's recruiters have been stocking up on the type of defenders they know they need to succeed. They want linemen who are not only big, but can move, smart, tough linebackers, taller corners, rugged-hitting safeties that can run.

They'd like to do better than 2011 … or 2006, for that matter. But it's obviously easier said than done. Here's a look at all the years including and after the one to remember:

1997 - 9.5
1998 - 18.1
1999 - 20.6
2000 - 19.1
2001 - 19.8
2002 - 20.4
2003 - 16.8
2004 - 23.2
2005 - 20.3
2006 - 15.9
2007 - 21.4
2008 - 28.9
2009 - 27.5
2010 - 35.2
2011 - 17.4
2012 - 19.8

Mattison speaks in nearly reverential tones about being a "Michigan defense," much the way a drill instructor might bark about becoming a Marine. At this time of year, they'll all tell you: "We aren't even close."

They know they're getting closer, though - in personnel, understanding, off-season habits, grasped expectations. They won't talk a whole lot about the touchstone, because this time belongs to their present players.

Hoke has been there, though. He's seen it. He knows what he longs to see again.

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