Greg Mattison had a specific message for the group of players who lived by his word. When he walked into the team meeting room last Sunday, one day after the Michigan defense posted its most dominant showing since 2007, Mattison began:
“You guys played good. You guys got a shutout. You guys were good on third down. But you guys gave up first downs that you normally wouldn’t give up. So we’ve got to watch this film and get this corrected.”
Win 58-0? Not good enough.
Mattison’s defense is ranked second in scoring defense, 16th in passing defense — allowing 177 passing yards per game — and sixth in turnovers forced. To the untrained eye, Mattison’s defense is doing just fine.
But it’s not his defense.
“It’s the Michigan defense,” Mattison said Tuesday. “It’s Ryan Van Bergen’s defense. It’s Mike Martin’s defense. It’s the (line)backers’ defense. It’s the secondary’s defense.”
“We’re just taking pride,” added junior linebacker Kenny Demens, as he explained what it meant to make it their defense. “Coach Hoke told us that it’s our defense — they give us a scheme, they coach us, but it’s our job to go out there and perform.”
A year ago, the Michigan defense finished 107th in scoring defense, 110th in total defense — 112th in passing defense, allowing 261 yards per game — and 76th in turnovers forced.
How did Mattison and Michigan coach Brady Hoke turn around a defense in five games? Maybe they don’t believe anything’s turned around just yet.
Maybe the turnaround started when the Wolverines took their lumps a year ago.
“We (have) an unbelievable hunger and the attitude that, ‘Yeah, we accept the fact that we were not where we need to be last year. We’ll do everything and anything to be good this year,’ ” Van Bergen said.
Demens said the secondary plays with an attitude that they were better than it played last season. Perhaps more than any unit, it plays with a personal pride.
“They understand totally that giving up big plays is not acceptable in the back end,” Mattison said.
Now, Michigan’s allowed just 10 plays of 20-plus yards and Mattison commended their positioning in run defense. Last season, the unit allowed 46 passing plays of 20-plus yards. And missed tackles at all three levels led to long runs.
Pride as a unit is stronger than that of one individual.
When Mattison said he was going to rotate waves of defensive linemen through, cutting down Van Bergen’s playing time, the fifth-year senior was skeptical at first. Then he saw how fresh he was in the fourth quarter, and how he and senior defensive tackle Mike Martin, who played upwards of 90 snaps a year ago, had enough energy to go 100 percent when they were in the game. On Saturday, Van Bergen played 28 snaps and got his first sack of the season.
“With so many things that have gone right with coach Mattison and all these coaches, we’ve all bought into everything they’ve told us,” Van Bergen said.
“Anything that they say, goes.”
Maybe the turnaround started when Mattison came to his defense with a new rule — whenever the ball was on the ground, in any drill, whether it was an incompletion or thrown out of bounds, or whenever the ball was on the ground, the whole defense had to sprint to the ball and rally to the endzone.
“Everybody rolled their eyes at this rule,” Van Bergen said. “We thought, ‘Man, this is nuts, we’re going to be tired. We’re wasting time. This is stupid.’ Shame on us because it’s been great for us. It’s taught us great habits.
“The things that happened last year is, the ball would be on the ground, and we’d not come up with it as much. This year, when the ball’s on the ground, it’s ours.”
Four players have interceptions. Seven players have forced fumbles. Three players have scored defensive touchdowns. Everyone’s buying in.
Hoke says the turnaround starts up front with his defensive linemen — once Van Bergen, Martin and junior defensive end Craig Roh started being “disruptive” by themselves, it opened up the world to Mattison. The linebackers could do their job. And the secondary could disguise coverages and double team players if they needed to.
At one point, Mattison challenged his front-four, saying, “We’re going to start rushing just you four, you have to hit home.”
“(It) allows us to go back and forth: pressure, no-pressure,” Mattison said Tuesday. “Or make it look like pressure, when it’s really not pressure.”
Roh, in particular, has four tackles for loss and two sacks the past three games. But on Tuesday, Mattison challenged him to be even better — to be the impact player Mattison needs his rush end to be.
In the past, it would’ve been enough if Roh just worried about himself.
“I think individuals have probably tapped into confidence (in the past),” Van Bergen said. “There have been guys that have played well. But as far as confidence in the unit, that’s more of a new thing.”
Together they’re No. 2. Divided they’re No. 107.
Mattison threw out schemes and variations that didn’t fit this version of the Michigan defense. He’ll only use what they know and are comfortable with, and only bring in new schemes when they’re ready.
Maybe, just maybe, the turnaround started when they all started having fun. Mattison prepares them so they know what plays are going to be run, where they’re going to go and what the opponents’ tendencies are. Demens said the game preparation this season is well ahead of what the defense was doing last season. And Van Bergen called Mattison’s in-game adjustments, “always correct.”
“When an offense hears the defense calling out their plays, that’s kind of intimidating,” Demens said.
Really, though, at this point, the turnaround could be attributed to all of the above.
“I think it’s schemes,” Van Bergen said. “I think it’s guys buying in. I think it’s experience — we’ve got a lot of guys who have played a lot of football. I think it’s just confidence. There’s a swagger about our defense. When you’re playing the way we’re playing, it’s a lot more fun to play.”