Mattison's defense just has to 'chase the rabbit' to stop Minnesota

Tom Olmscheid/AP
Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray may be hampered by a foot injury this Saturday against Michigan. Buy this photo

By Tim Rohan, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 28, 2011

The quarterback’s dreadlocks flapped against his jersey, hanging out the back of his helmet as he sprinted down field. He ran the read option play out of the shotgun with his tailback all day long, finishing with 163 passing yards with a touchdown and 171 yards on the ground in a 29-23 win two weeks ago.

Minnesota at Michigan

Matchup: Minnesota 1-3; Michigan 4-0

When: Saturday 12 p.m.

Where: Michigan Stadium

TV/Radio: BTN

No, it wasn’t Denard Robinson.

This signal caller’s strides were longer. He galloped. And he took on contact full steam.

The 6-foot-4, 240-pound former wide receiver proved he could run with the best of them.

And now junior quarterback MarQueis Gray may be the only fear-inducing member of a 1-3 Minnesota team, which has already lost one game to a FCS opponent and another to New Mexico State.

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is on notice. Recent history says the Wolverines can’t stop mobile quarterbacks — there was Appalciahian State’s Armanti Edwards, Texas’s Vince Young, Oregon’s Dennis Dixon, Illinois’s Juice Williams and Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor. This will be Mattison’s first true test.

“Gray is a very dangerous quarterback,” Mattison said. “I’m not going to say he’s Denard, but the guy has the same kind of mentality where he’s going to run the football. He’s a big strong kid as well as having pretty good speed. If there’s nothing open, and if there’s a rushing lane, he’s going to take off scrambling. That always puts pressure on a defense.

“At any time he could break it, just like (Denard).”

For two seasons, Gray was stuck behind former Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber, so the coaches decided to best utilize his talent at wide receiver. In 2010, Gray caught 42 passes for nearly 600 yards.

Once Jerry Kill was hired as the new coach, Weber had graduated and Gray ascended to become the centerpiece of the offense. Still, Gray hasn’t lit the world on fire with his passing numbers early on. In the season opener against USC, Gray couldn’t exceed the 100-yard passing mark in three quarters before he left the game due to cramps.

Freshman quarterback Max Shortell entered the game and nearly orchestrated an upset over the Trojans.

A week ago in Minnesota’s loss to North Dakota State, both Shortell, the pocket passer, and Gray rotated and the Golden Gophers threw for just 124 yards.

So what’s Kill to do?

Perhaps follow Michigan’s formula and rely on the legs of your dynamic quarterback: Gray’s 351 rushing yards are 40th best in the country and fourth-best among quarterbacks.

Already this season, Mattison’s defense has had trouble maintaining running lanes for quarterbacks and late-developing running plays. On multiple occasions, Western Michigan’s Alex Carder found a hole in the Wolverines’ containment.

“We can’t allow those kinds of runs,” Mattison said. “But at the same time you can’t sit back either. We can’t play a defense of what-ifs. We want to be the attacker, and then some of those things we can tweak and we can help ourselves to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Mattison’s playerss have experienced most of their success this season when dialing up blitzes at the right time, forcing key turnovers — a whole 13 of them in four games — because they are the aggressor, and they don’t sit back.

At first, his defensive line couldn’t generate enough pressure by itself. But in the past two games, junior defensive end Craig Roh — Mattison’s rush end — has recorded three tackles for losses, including two sacks and a forced fumble. Defensive tackles Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen have also worked well — Martin disrupting the pocket, and Van Bergen taking on double teams to free up Roh and Martin.

Those three, as well as a handful of other linemen rotating in, will have to maintain their gaps while rushing Gray, Mattison said. Because if Roh or Martin or Van Bergen leave a void, Gray can sprint right through it.

In the first four games, Mattison’s defense has been caught not playing every gap tight and teams have burned the defense on it, especially when Mattison sends extra defenders on “overload” blitzes from either side. With Gray, Mattison won’t stop sending extra defenders to get after him, he'll just make sure they know to take the right angles, leaving little space to improvise.

“That’s where this kind of quarterback makes it harder on you,” Mattison said. “If a guy’s not mobile, then you just say, ‘Go get him. We’ll run him down.’ This guy here’s like Denard in a way where, all of a sudden, if a guy rushes too high up the field he’s going to break it up the inside. You can lose contain outside and inside.”

But just how fast is Gray?

At Big Ten Media days in August, Gray made a comparison:

“I can say I’m nowhere as fast as Shoelace,” he said. “But I’ve got a good amount of speed to me.”

But he may be a bit hobbled. A foot injury kept Gray from practicing early in the week, and his status was still uncertain as of Thursday evening.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke wouldn’t tell his linemen to play Gray any differently than any other quarterback.

As Hoke said, they just have to, “chase the rabbit.”