Mike Martin had no time to second-guess what Ryan Van Bergen was calling on the field. Any hesitation would’ve foiled the new plan. Van Bergen had gone rogue, calling an audible a second or two before the ball was snapped.
The fifth-year defensive end knew what Illinois was going to do, so he wanted to run a stunt pass-rush move with Martin, confident in his preparation.
Before the game, they had agreed that if the senior defensive tackle Martin had a one-on-one, he’d win it — and if Van Bergen had a one-on-one, he’d win it too.
Martin didn’t hesitate.
“It’s something where there has to be absolutely no doubt,” Martin said. “You can’t (go), ‘Oh, (should I?)’ No, you’ve got to go — and it worked.”
When they got to the sidelines, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison wasn’t angry, he just listened. It kept working, so he said, “You know what, just call them when you feel like calling them.”
Facing an obvious passing down on 3rd-and-10, with Michigan up 17 points and less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter, Van Bergen dialed up another stunt. On the outside, defensive ends Craig Roh and Frank Clark sprinted upfield. Lined up inside with Van Bergen, Martin crashed toward the center. Van Bergen whipped around him, shooting through the hole Martin created.
The Fighting Illini tackles were quickly on the ground, and the inside trio of offensive linemen watched helplessly as Martin and Van Bergen crushed the quarterback.
“I’ve always done this when you have guys that have earned the respect and earned the trust,” Mattison said. “Trust to know that they’re not going to put themselves ahead of the team and that they’re very, very intelligent.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Van Bergen is one of the better players he has coached when it comes to preparation and watching film.
Roh looks up to Van Bergen — they call each other “big brother” and “little brother” — and he said Van Bergen is one of the smartest defensive linemen he’s ever known. After the Illinois game, Roh even thanked big brother after he had called out run and pass plays.
“I think we’re getting to another level with that film study,” Roh said. “And it’s so visible with (Van Bergen) because he’s so vocal and telling everyone what’s going on out there.”
But Michigan defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery wasn’t surprised by the success of the stunts. He knows Van Bergen watches two hours of film with the coaches during the week, and another 45 minutes or so after practice with Martin and fifth-year senior defensive tackle Will Heininger — he knows Van Bergen has all the tools to make that decision routinely.
The secrets sat in a 100-page scouting report on Montgomery’s desk. Each week, the defensive coaches work from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. on Sundays and all day Monday putting together the report for each team.
Everything you could ever want or need to know is in there: tendencies, film study, what plays teams run in certain down-and-distances and what pass protections they use.
This week, Montgomery drew every single running play Nebraska has run this season. He knows how Nebraska will block his defensive line, depending on Michigan’s formation.
Montgomery’s guys are ready to punch and counter-punch.
Every Tuesday, the coaches hand out the scouting reports. Van Bergen usually finds the tendencies and play consistencies watching film on his own. Sometimes he’s right, and sometimes Montgomery has to straighten him out. The answers are always in the binder. In practice, the scout team gives the defense simulations of what they’ll see in the game.
“It goes from there to the game,” Montgomery said. “ ‘Hey Coach, this holds up. Every time they do this, it’s accurate.’ Then they start to believe.”
One of Montgomery’s first disciples was Van Bergen. He bought in early on, took the time to study and took it upon himself to know where everyone else was on the field and what his role was in the grand scheme. Montgomery calls it knowing where he “fits” in the defense.
Van Bergen knew Iowa was going to sneak its quarterback when it hurried up to the line on a fourth-and-1 two weeks ago — he and Martin snuffed it out.
The past three weeks in particular, Montgomery said, Van Bergen has been well versed in the opponent’s “meat and potatoes” (Hoke’s term for tendencies and key plays). No wonder they’ve been his best three weeks of the season — 13 tackles, five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
He knew what play Purdue was going to run in the shadow of its own endzone, based on a tip — alignment, personnel, formation or all the above. He told Martin, who then ripped through the line for a safety because he knew what was coming.
Van Bergen didn’t know if the free-wheeling audibles would continue, but it wouldn’t be surprising, considering how comfortable everyone is with the defense now. As Martin put it, “It’s something that, it’ll come with time. And the time has come.”
It was time well spent. The technique drilled during fall camp is used to beat opponent’s specific strategies. Film study was emphasized, and Van Bergen’s now yelling out opposing team’s plays. The engine is humming.
“Sometimes, you’ve got teams and they’ve got to be thinking, ‘Man, how do they know what we’re going to do before we even do it,’ ” Martin said. “And I can’t imagine as an offense how that would even feel. If the defense knows what you’re doing and they’re able to execute it, that’s got to be disheartening.
“We can do that because we put in the time.”