- Erin Kirkland/Daily
By Tim Rohan, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 15, 2011
Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison says the best way to judge a Michigan defense is not by its statistics, but by looking former players in the eye and seeing how proud they are.
Since Mattison completed crafting this defense, former Wolverine defenders Jarrett Irons and Josh Williams — who played at Michigan under Mattison in the 1990s — approached him. They recognized the expectations. They knew the goals were the same. And they told Mattison how excited they were.
“It was neat,” Mattison said. “If you coach at Michigan, you want guys that were Michigan defensive players to be proud of what your guys are doing now.”
“All you have to do is look at the guys that played here before. They’ll let you know if they think you’re a Michigan defense or not.”
Mattison wouldn’t admit this season was his most satisfying coaching job. But it seemed like it was. He built another Michigan defense, but satisfying wasn’t the right word. Instead, he fittingly said this was probably the most proud he’s ever been.
That may be the best compliment Mattison can give.
He reminisced Tuesday — speaking with the media for the first time since Michigan beat Ohio State, 40-34, on Nov. 26 — remembering this defense’s humble beginnings with a smile.
Mattison remembered the first time he saw the Wolverines go through drills in the indoor practice facility after he was hired. He remembered strength coach Aaron Wellman’s yells — “Do it again, do it again, do it again” — booming throughout Al Glick Field House.
Then in spring ball, he remembered the coaches bellowing, “That’s not good enough, you have to do it again.”
At some point before he started, Mattison peeked at the numbers to see what he was inheriting.
“I felt there’s no way we’re going to be that way — there’s no way,” Mattison admitted. “I’m not going to say ‘that bad,’ because I’m not going to judge what it was. I know what we have as a measuring stick for what a successful Michigan defense is.
“If you’re looking at numbers, if you said you we’re going to be the 100th defense or the 99th defense — that’s never been a goal of mine. That’s never been a Michigan goal. You figure that out. To me, I don’t go into a season and say, ‘I want to be the 50th defense, or I want to be the 20th defense.’
“I want a defense that plays extremely hard, I want a defense that runs to the football, I want a defense that plays as a team, I want a defense that’s good on third down, and then all of those things are Michigan defenses.”
That was the goal all along — to become a Michigan defense — and it cast a shadow all season.
When Mattison first arrived, they were nowhere close. Then, he said, they showed signs.
They started meeting more of their goals, which were set each game. They wanted to allow 17 points or less. They wanted to hold opponents scoreless in the fourth quarter. On third downs, they wanted a 33-percent opponent conversion rate, or better. No more than two long runs or two big pass plays were acceptable. In total, Mattison had about eight or nine goals. Not all were met every week.
“But more and more the ones that decide winning or losing, we’re getting a lot closer,” Mattison said. “There’s a day I think every coach looks for, but there’s a day I’m going to say every one of these goals were met. That’s what you look for.”
After a 17-point road win over Illinois, Mattison addressed the media with a heavy heart. He looked as if he would cry when he said the unit finally looked like a Michigan defense. He attributed it to old age, but also to getting “caught up” with this group of players.
The next week, Michigan stuffed a potent Nebraska running game, and Mattison started seeing more of the things they talked about all year. And even though the defense regressed against Ohio State, allowing 34 points, its body of work is one of the main reasons that Michigan is heading to the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3.
The Wolverines will bring the No. 7 scoring defense (17.2 points allowed per game), the No. 18 total defense (317 yards per game) and one proud coach.
“It makes you proud, I guess is the word, to see them, to look in their eye and (see) how they feel about their defense,” Mattison said. “Again, it’s their defense.
“They’re going to leave someday and they’re going to be coming back, and now they can say, ‘Okay, coach, what’s this defense look like?’ ”
Then, Mattison will consider them worthy judges.