ANN ARBOR, Michigan — Michigan is back in the Top 25 largely because of a defense that is steadily improving under coach Jim Harbaugh.
The Wolverines beat then-No. 22 BYU 31-0 on Saturday, holding the Cougars to 105 total yards. No. 22 Michigan now ranks second in the nation in average yards allowed at just 204 per game heading into Saturday's game at Maryland to open Big Ten play.
"We saw (BYU's) tendencies and what they like to do, and the way (defensive coordinator D.J.) Durkin orchestrated a game plan, it kind of took away what they like to do," said freshman safety Jabrill Peppers.
Michigan has been taking away its opponents strengths ever since its season-opening loss to Utah on Sept. 3.
Against Oregon State, the Wolverines limited Seth Collins, a capable runner at the quarterback position. Collins gained just 28 rush yards against Michigan. On Saturday, big-armed quarterback Tanner Mangum threw for just 55 yards for the Cougars.
Michigan's pass defense, which ranks fifth in the nation in allowing 121.8 pass yards per game, has stiffened greatly from past seasons.
In 2014, Michigan gave up 193.7 yards per game through the air, somewhat better than the 231.3 the previous season. Players say that change is at least partially due to a more aggressive approach from defensive backs coaches Mike Zordich and Greg Jackson.
"They always want us to stamp our impression on how we play," said senior safety Jarrod Wilson. "They just want us to play aggressive, physical, and they don't mind aggressive penalties. So pass interference calls, we obviously don't want them, but if you were playing aggressive and playing hard, you can always accept those."
The Wolverines' secondary has been crucial to the defense's success, wiping out big gains with their physical style.
Through four games, Michigan has broken up 13 passes and intercepted three more, all while giving up just two passing touchdowns this season.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines rush defense has held up as expected. Michigan's defensive line has been a strong suit in recent seasons, and that has continued with Greg Mattison taking over as defensive line coach. Led by junior Chris Wormley and senior Mario Ojemudia, the Wolverines have 32 tackles for loss, which puts them on track to surpass last season's total of 82.
Most important, Michigan has given up just 38 points this season, 24 of which came at Utah in the first game of the season.
Some of the defense's workload has been alleviated thanks to longer, sustained drives by the Michigan offense. Even when the Wolverines' drives don't result in points, they usually have been able to pin opponents deep in their own territory.
"A lot of rest on the sidelines as compared to years in the past," Wilson said. "It just feels good when you go out there and the opposing offense has a long field to drive. It's pretty tough."
And with a signature win over a ranked opponent now in its pocket, Michigan and its defense are in a position to keep on rolling.
"We definitely played way better than anybody expected (against BYU), but right now, we're just trying to keep the momentum going," Peppers said. "Keep getting better week to week."