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October 14, 2006

Michigan overpowers Penn State

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. Ever since he took over as Michigan's defensive coordinator, Ron English has continually repeated the same four words.

Play fast.

Play physical.

Though you'd never know it from watching how the fourth-ranked Wolverines abuse opposing ball-carriers, English just might have the nation's most obedient defense.

After all, it certainly is responding to the first-year coordinator's instructions.

How fast is it?

Fast enough to deliver seven sacks and hold Penn State to minus-14 rushing yards Saturday in a 17-10 triumph at Beaver Stadium. This marked the first time in Joe Paterno's 41-year tenure that the Nittany Lions had finished a game with negative rushing yards.

And how physical is it?

Just ask Penn State quarterbacks Anthony Morelli and Daryll Clark, who both were knocked out of the game.

Morelli left for good with a concussion after getting hit by defensive tackle Alan Branch in the third quarter. Clark followed him to the sidelines early in the fourth period with a neck injury, forcing third-string quarterback Paul Cianciolo into duty.

"After the second quarterback went down, I was just wondering who they were going to put in now," said defensive end LaMarr Woodley, who forced a fumble and collected two sacks. "I'd never been in a game like that. In high school I had, but that's it."

The back-to-back quarterback knockouts represented only the latest chapter in the Michigan defense's season-long story of dominance.

Branch leads the nation's stingiest run defense. David Harris paces an aggressive linebacking corps. Leon Hall gives the Wolverines one of the nation's top cornerbacks.

Michigan has allowed more than 17 points only once all year, and that came in a 47-21 demolition of Notre Dame. And it all starts with a front seven that features Branch, Woodley and defensive end Rondell Biggs.

"They're talented, they're unselfish and they love to win," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said of the terrific trio. "They're all solid leaders, every one of them."

Nobody expected Michigan's defense to play so well this season. After all, many of these same players struggled last season as the Wolverines limped to a 7-5 finish.

It's virtually the same old defense with a whole new attitude.

"I use the word confidence," said Biggs, who also had two sacks Saturday. "We're playing with a lot more confidence and a lot of swagger. We've got a silent confidence. We're not cocky or anything, but we know what we can do."

And they've gone out and done it every single week.

All year long, some of the top players in the nation have considered a meeting with the Wolverines about as appealing as a trip to the dentist's office.

Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn virtually eliminated himself from Heisman Trophy contention last month by throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble against Michigan last month.

One week later, the Wolverines became the only team to hold Wisconsin redshirt freshman running back P.J. Hill below the 100-yard mark.

The Wolverines wasted no time Saturday showing they once again would make extraordinary players look downright ordinary.

Penn State's Tony Hunt entered the night as one of the nation's hottest tailbacks. Hunt had rushed for at least 135 yards in each of his last four games.

He didn't come close to extending that streak Saturday.

"Their front guys are so physical and active," Hunt said. "They are really tough, played real hard and played really well."

Hunt finished with 33 yards on 13 carries, though he did get the Nittany Lions' lone touchdown when he turned a screen pass into a 43-yard score with 3:18 remaining.

One year ago, that sort of big play late in a game might have caused the Wolverines to collapse down the stretch.

Not this year.

Penn State got the ball back one more time at its own 24 with 1:44 to play. Four plays later, the Nittany Lions had ended their comeback hopes by losing the ball on downs.

"It's attitude and experience," Woodley said. "We've got a lot of guys with a lot of game experience who know what to do in certain situations. We've got guys who aren't going to go in there and panic. They're going to go in there and do their job."

The Wolverines have proved you can learn from bad experiences as well as good ones.

Carr believes the weakness of last year's team made this year's defense that much stronger.

"All those guys played a year ago," Carr said. "A lot of them were hurt. A lot of them missed time. A lot of them suffered through the disappointment that comes with a season where you lose five games at Michigan. I think that motivated them. All the experiences they've had have proved to be invaluable.

"They didn't want to be disappointed again. I think that's why they've been great leaders. I think that's why they've had such great motivation."

They're motivated to live up to their new coordinator's motto.

Every week, they get more and more physical.

And for opposing offenses, the end of the game can't come fast enough.

For more coverage of Michigan, visit TheWolverine.com; for more on Penn State, visit BlueWhiteIllustrated.com.

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