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November 16, 2013

Defense Answers The Call With Victory On The Line

It looked all too familiar. Or really, just like last week. A Michigan offense that couldn't string together enough plays to score, and a defense that did everything in its power to keep the Wolverines in the game.

Then, the offense strikes, with a field goal to tie the score at the end of regulation, and a touchdown to take its first lead of the game since 8:45 of the first quarter.

All the defense has to do is what it had been all game - keep the Northwestern offense out of the end zone. One. More. Time.

Instead, six plays, 25 yards, culminating in a one-yard quarterback sneak and a Wildcat touchdown, tying the game 16-16.

A week earlier, in a loss to Nebraska, the Maize and Blue had taken a 13-10 lead only to watch the Cornhuskers march 75 yards on 14 plays, in 6:05, to take a 17-13 lead with 2:03 remaining in the game. No wonder then that many Michigan fans began tweeting, 'Here we go again' after the Wildcats' offense came alive and the U-M defense suddenly turned vulnerable.

The Wolverines, however, weren't panicking on the sideline. NU's success, they felt, was an aberration. The defense would be ready on the very next possession, and any other series after that.

"We have a lot of pride," said senior defensive tackle Jibreel Black, who had a 14-yard sack on Northwestern's third-overtime drive. "We put a lot of work in, in the offseason, in winter conditioning, in spring ball. We put in too much work to quit. That's why we won't quit."

The defense held the Wildcats to a field goal in the second overtime and then, after Michigan's offense scored a touchdown, the defense swarmed, forcing a one-yard loss, then Black's sack, an incomplete pass and senior Thomas Gordon's end-zone interception.

"The defense was out there playing hard, playing together," head coach Brady Hoke said.

The play of the defense, which held Northwestern to 304 yards of total offense, 2.9 yards per carry, and 5 of 19 third downs, was the reason Hoke chose to go for it on 4th-and-2 late in the fourth quarter while at the NU five-yard line and time dwindling. He was confident that the Wolverines' defenders would rise up if the offense did not convert, and he was proved right.

"We knew going into that play, if the offense doesn't get the first down, it's on us," Black said. "That's team.
"If they don't get it, the defense has to go out there and get the ball back. That's what we did."

A week ago, Michigan held Nebraska to a season-low 128 yards rushing, finding a rush defense that had been hit or miss the first eight weeks. On Saturday, they discovered a pass rush that had been MIA for all but a handful of moments; he Wolverines would only finish with two sacks, but they put consistent pressure on Northwestern's QBs.

"Taco Charlton, Frank Clark, Jibreel Black, Cam Gordon and Jake Ryan are pretty athletic guys," Hoke said, explaining U-M's success. "Taco has got that wingspan. He's a long bodied guy, has really started to get it in the 3.5, last four weeks. He's earned the time and the right to get out there.

"They're getting up the field and doing some things."

While young guys like Charlton are starting to play a bigger role, it is Black, in his senior season, that has raised his game and represents the gains this defense has made.

"We work every week," he said. "I feel like we're really starting to jell together and do what we need to do."


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