No doubt: Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is Big Ten's coach of the year
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
Greg Mattison is the Big Ten's coach of the year.
What's that you say? Assistants aren't eligible? Oh.
Still, I implore you to find a single coach — head or otherwise — who's had more of an impact on a Big Ten team this season than the Michigan football team's defensive coordinator.
Which is good, since his $750,000 salary is more than at least 39 FBS head coaches — including each of this state's head men except his boss and the one in East Lansing. He actually makes roughly the same as what Brady Hoke would have made this year at San Diego State.
Mattison is paid almost as much as Purdue head coach Danny Hope and ousted Penn State head coach Joe Paterno. And who would you rather have on your sideline?
In other words: He's worth every dime.
The Wolverines' defense is playing its best football heading into its game Saturday against No. 17 Nebraska (Noon, ESPN). It is coming off its most impressive effort in years — more impressive than a 58-0 shutout of Minnesota earlier this year.
When was the last time a Michigan offense could play poorly and commit mistakes on the road, yet still win 31-17, as it did against Illinois last week? That's the work of a dominant Michigan defense.
Mattison makes it clear this is Hoke's team, but which of them has been more instrumental to Michigan's success this season? It's a circular argument, since Mattison wouldn't be here at all if it weren't for Hoke.
But the point stands: Mattison has been the most valuable coach in the Big Ten this season. Is it even close?
Michigan has jumped 102 spots in scoring defense, going from 107th last year (at 35.2 points per game) to fifth this year (15.5). It trails only Penn State among Big Ten teams in scoring defense.
It's coming off a game against Illinois — not a great team, but also not Indiana — in which it did not allow a third-down conversion until late in the third quarter. It allowed minus-12 rushing yards in the first half.
That is to say, the Wolverines gained 1.2 yards of field position every team the Illini rushed in the first half. Let's see last year's defense, with these players, do that.
That's the thing. The Wolverines have doing what they're doing with largely the same personnel as last year. And, sure, there's some improvement inherent to players getting a year older.
But 19.7 points per game better? Or 132.9 yards per game better?
No. Not even close.
Why is this happening? How is this happening?
Better scheme, better preparation and, most of all, better players — each of which come back to Mattison.
Survey the defensive contributors, and you'll find markedly better performances almost across the board from last year to this year, and even over the course of this season.
J.T. Floyd, an OK player last year until injury cut his season short, is coming off one of the best coverage games by a Michigan corner in years. His work on A.J. Jenkins — the Big Ten's leading receiver, mind you — was truly impressive.
Blake Countess has gone from true freshman corner to shut down corner.
Craig Roh has gone from not even registering in the box score the first two games to becoming one of the most forceful rush ends in the Big Ten.
Ryan Van Bergen has gone from relative unknown, to fine player early this year, to one of the Big Ten's most impactful interior lineman.
It led him this week to say this: "We think our starting four is better than any starting four in the country. That’s our opinion. You don’t have to believe it, but that’s what we think and we expect to play that way."
Cocky? Sure, a little bit. But that's not so bad in sport.
Confident? Absolutely, and it's necessary in sport. Michigan's defense, for the first time in a long time, is oozing in it.
But they're not done yet.
"We have two pretty good opponents left," Hoke said. "Nebraska is a good football team. I don’t think we’re in any position to think that we’re the Chicago Bears of ’86. ... Is that the year?”
No, coach, it's 1985.
"’85? I was close.”
Hoke's not so good with numbers. He doesn't like numbers.
But the numbers like his defense.
These two teams are remarkably similar. They'll both try to establish the run, which they're pretty good at because of their quarterbacks. They each feature two of the Big Ten's top-10 rushers (Michigan's Denard Robinson and Fitz Toussaint, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead). They'll both be physical, especially up front. There are two big differences, though.
Michigan's defense is better, and Michigan commits more turnovers.
The Wolverines' defense has been dominant in recent weeks, particularly last week against Illinois. The unit certainly has been better than Nebraska's defense.
Conversely, Michigan also has been plagued by turnovers. That is especially true of its quarterback, Robinson, who has committed six turnovers in the past three weeks and has thrown the fourth-most interceptions in the country.
In a game this close, turnovers have a strong correlation to outcome. That will be especially true this week, because both teams emphasize the run, which will shorten the game.
If the Wolverines take care of the football, they win. But that just won't happen.
Nebraska 28, Michigan 24