As Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring and play-caller Mike O’Cain sat down to formulate a game plan against Michigan’s much-improved defense for the Sugar Bowl, the two were confronted with a dilemma. Under new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, the Wolverines ran so many different blitz packages over the course of the season, the Hokies’ two coaches weren’t sure where to start.
“It’s almost like they’ve got a different playbook for second-and-long and third down,” Stinespring said last week. “That’s the thing about the bowl game is you go back and you start looking at blitz cut-ups, well, there’s a million of them. And in several different packages. And you know that not all of them could come in every single game. There’s a 20-hour rule being broken somewhere.”
That last comment was a joking nod to the Rich Rodriguez era in Ann Arbor, when the NCAA ruled that Michigan exceeded practice time limits. But this year’s Wolverines defense is a far cry from the sieve-like units that played a big role in Rodriguez’s demise after last season.
A year after giving up more than 450 yards and 35.2 points per game to finish 109th overall in total defense (third-worst among BCS-conference schools), Michigan has seen its fortunes improve drastically without significant personnel changes. The Wolverines are No. 17 in the country in total defense and scoring defense, tied with Virginia Tech having given up an average of 17.2 points per game this season.
For answers look no further than Mattison, a Broyles Award finalist who came to back to Ann Arbor with good friend Brady Hoke after spending three seasons as the Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator. Mattison previously was the defensive coordinator at Michigan (1995-96), Notre Dame (1997-2001) and Florida (2005-07), where he served as Tim Tebow’s primary recruiter.
What Mattison has brought with him is a bend-but-don’t-break scheme that uses some advanced coverage schemes and opportunistic blitzing. Though the Wolverines aren’t an overly aggressive unit – they rank 76th in the country in terms of tackles for a loss – their front seven is the strength of the defense.
Led by NFL prospect Mike Martin at defensive tackle and defensive end Ryan Van Bergen (team-high five sacks), three of Michigan’s four defensive linemen are seniors. Middle linebacker Kenny Demens leads the team with 86 tackles, but more significantly six of the Wolverines’ eight leading tacklers this season were significant contributors a year ago, another indication of just what sort of difference Mattison has made.
Recently Mattison praised his defense’s turnaround to reporters, revealing that the unit often met his weekly goals of 17 or less points, a scoreless fourth quarter, 33 percent or better on third down, 50 percent in the red zone and no more than two long passes or runs by the opponent per game.
There are some holes, though. The Wolverines are giving up more than four yards per rush and teams are completing 58 percent of their passes. Michigan is also using two freshmen at outside linebacker — Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan — and another at cornerback in Blake Countess, who was a second-team All-Met at Good Counsel.
But this improved unit also ranks fourth nationally in red zone defense, one spot below Virginia Tech, and the Hokies aren’t exactly sure what tricks Mattison has up his sleeve for this game.
“They’re not gonna throw them all. We know that,” O’Cain said of Michigan’s blitzes. “What you have to do early in the ballgame is figure out what they’re doing. They’ll have their one or two they’re gonna run against us. . . . That’s about the only way you can do it. They’re not terrible. We’ve played some blitzing teams before but they’re a little bit different. Their package is a little different from what we’ve seen.”
Virginia Tech struggled against Clemson when the Tigers brought blitzes up the middle in the ACC championship game, a development running back David Wilson complained about in the immediate aftermath of the Hokies’ 38-10 loss. The Wolverines are likely to follow a similar template, which will put pressure on quarterback Logan Thomas and his wide receivers to make Michigan pay with downfield throws.
Just like Virginia Tech, though, Michigan’s defense had a hiccup in its last outing, getting gashed by mobile Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller despite pulling out a win over the Buckeyes for the first time since 2003. Ohio State put up 34 points as Miller rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown and had touchdown throws of 54 and 43 yards.
But the Hokies’ coaches are well aware that by next Tuesday, Mattison will have had 38 days to prepare for Virginia Tech. And if he has proven anything this season, it’s that he can quickly mold any unit into a good defense.
“You’ve got to give it to those guys who have come in there and coached them up,” Stinespring said. “They’ve put them in a great situation. They’ve got a lot of confidence in what they’re doing. They play in a defense that fits their strengths to me.”