Monday, November 14, 2011

Illinois 2011: A reason to love Greg Mattison

Before the season, I was bullish on Greg Mattison and the Michigan defense, but ultimately thought the unit wouldn't rise above 60th in the country in most statistical categories. "Ten" games into the season (the NCAA doesn't recognize the shortened WMU game), Michigan is 41st in rushing defense, 39th in pass efficiency defense, 17th in total defense, and 7th (!) in scoring defense. As the season progressed, there were always caveats: the Big Ten is awful, the defense is recovering an inordinate amount of fumbles, mediocre performances against Iowa and MSU. But after dismantling a 6-3 Illinois team, those caveats get thrown out the window. This is a good defense.

Sure, there's not very much depth on the defensive line. After this year, Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen graduate and the front seven looks less terrifying, but the one thing that won't change is Greg Mattison, whose schemes are some of the best in college football and who can find ways to generate QB pressure regardless of who is on the field. Last week, Mattison debuted the alignment above on third and very long against Iowa. Despite seven men crowding the line of scrimmage, only four would rush while the rest dropped off into coverage, confusing both the offensive line and quarterback. On Saturday, any time the defense forced the Illini into a third and long situation, Mattison dialed up this formation, each time rushing different players from different positions on the field. The Illinois offensive line was ill equipped to handle the attack.

Mattison is installing this defense a lot like Rodriguez or Borges installed their offense. Week by week, Mattison introduces a new formation or coverage scheme to the defense--usually only one. Early in the season, it was a basic stunt move intended to overwhelm one side of the offensive line. Against MSU, he debuted an A-gap zone blitz. Purdue: nickel blitz. Iowa: crowding the line of scrimmage. Michigan's base defense is a 4-3 under, man-coverage look that Mattison can slowly and effectively build upon. While he doesn't go back to the cookie jar in later weeks, the hope (and my expectation) is that when Michigan plays Ohio State, they'll have an arsenal of blitzing plays that can be deployed in unison, creating a defense that is as unpredictable and consistently effective as the constantly tweaked offense under Rodriguez.

Saturday was about more than blitzes though. That was the best defensive performance from a Michigan squad in four years. Though Illinois doesn't have a great offense, they do have an above average one, and Michigan was able to completely shut them down despite the offense affording the Illini 13 real drives. Illinois earned only 20 yards in the first half and didn't score until the end of the third quarter. The defense forced seven 3 and outs during the game and JT Floyd made the best play a Michigan cornerback has made since Donovan Warren ripped the ball away from an Indiana receiver to seal a Michigan victory in 2009. Were the offense able to move the ball at all, this game would've gotten out of hand earlier. Instead, it took the aforementioned Floyd interception to set the Wolverines up with good enough field position to capitalize.

With two games left against obviously flawed teams, Michigan can, against all odds, win 10 games this season. With a defense that appears to be getting better as the season progresses and an offense that's functional (with occasional flashes of brilliance), this is the most complete team wearing the Maize and Blue since 2006. And though making it to the Big Ten title game is probably out of reach (barring an epic collapse from Sparty), Michigan really only has one thing left to play for this season: ending Ohio State's seemingly endless win streak against the Wolverines. After Saturday's game, that seems more like a likelihood than a possibility.

  • I'm really glad I have a "Reasons to love Greg Mattison" tag already.
  • Al Borges' refusal to throw a screen pass makes me so angry. After Michigan took a 14-0 lead, Illinois started almost exclusively run blitzing, and rightfully so: Michigan only threw the ball 15 times throughout the game.  Borges' answer to these run blitzes was to... run. It obviously didn't work and Michigan's offense bogged down when they had a chance to blow the game open.
  • However, Borges' decision to play almost exclusively from the shotgun paid dividends. Though it seems like he's come to this conclusion before, Michigan still had the offensive debacle against Iowa, which was dominated by I formation runs. The hope is that Borges has finally learned his lesson and Michigan will forgo the I formation for the majority of the remaining games.
  • Great to see Martavious Odoms get a touchdown catch in this game. His lack of playing time is the most depressing aspect of the season.
  • My other gripe about the offensive playcalling: rollouts. They're awful. Michigan doesn't run them well and defenses are consistently defeating them by shooting a linebacker/defensive end straight upfield to play contain. Denard and Devin never have a run/pass option on those plays because of how they're defended. Instead, Borges is asking the team's mediocre passers to throw on the run. This is sub-optimal.
  • Illinois' offensive line is Swiss cheese. Though much of the pressure on Scheelhaase was created by Mattison's schemes, the offensive line provided little-to-no resistance.
Next week
Michigan welcomes 8-2 Nebraska to the Big House. The Cornhuskers are coming off a 17-14 win against Penn State. They've been relatively shaky all season, losing to Northwestern and being annihilated by Wisconsin. They also had a narrow escape against Ohio State. This is going to be a tight game that will probably come down to who turns the ball over less.


Christian A. Robinson said...

When Floyd broke on that ball, i think a tear came to my seems as if in the last few games he has really turned a corner. Our secondary next year could possibly be the strength of the defense *gasp*

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