The Mattison Factor

The most often discussed non-NU assistant coach in this community is Michigan defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison. The one-year wonder turned the Wolverines laughable defense in to a top 20 product and was a key reason why Michigan went to a 11-2 Sugar Bowl winning season. I reached out to noted Michigan blogger, Brian Cook, of MGoBlog to get his take on how it happened in hopes that we could somehow glean some insights. Clearly there has been quite a bit of buzz, speculation and even hope that there would be some coaching changes on the defensive side of the ball, but Fitz put that notion to rest when Teddy reported early this year there would be no changes. So, hopes are tempered for vast improvement in 2012, but perhaps you’ll enjoy the anatomy of a transformation from one of our competitors.

LTP: Greg Mattison may very well be the most discussed coordinator in Northwestern circles. To paraphrase conventional wisdom among LTP readers, Mattison took a defense ranked 110th (total) and 108th scoring) and promptly turned the same unit with the same players he inherited in to a top ten scoring defense and top 20 overall defensive unit in 2011. How much of this turnaround do you credit to right talent, wrong previous DC vs magical pixie dust the former Ravens coach brought back to Ann Arbor?

MGoBlog: I think this is going to be bad news for the people who bring this up all the time in Northwestern circles, but you have to understand the epic clusterf— that was the Rodriguez-GERG (ed note: “GERG” seems to be a frustration moniker in honor of former DC Greg Robinson) regime before putting Mattison in context.

GERG was an idiot here coming off a decade of near-total failure* and Michigan was historically short on talent because of some dodgy recruiting in the late Carr era and bad luck. That’s a bad start. Now tell this snowy-haired hand model to deploy an exotic defense that doesn’t fit the personnel available and he doesn’t have the faintest idea how to run. That is a recipe for awful play unprecedented in the history of Michigan football.

Get rid of all that, bring in a highly-respected college and NFL coordinator, find yourself playing the worst Big Ten in a long time, and then weight the dice of the gods such that you recover 80% of available fumbles and you get Michigan’s amazing year one transition. I highly recommend it as long as you can get those pieces.

*[He did a decent job in his single year as Texas DC. Since his D was as good as the guy who preceded him and the guy who followed him, that doesn’t seem like anything other than momentum.]

LTP: Most of us saw a few Michigan games, but likely didn’t pay enough attention to the “D” from a schematic standpoint and definitely did not compare it to 2010. Help us understand the strategic changes that were made.

MGoBlog: As mentioned above, Michigan transitioned from a not-good, but not-that-terrible 4-3 under in GERG’s first year to the amazingly bad 3-3-5 in his second back to a 4-3 under with Mattison. So not only was Michigan’s defense better suited for the D Mattison likes to run but most of them had already had experience in the system.

The other bit of Mattison’s system is an acknowledgement of the realities of college football: the nickelback is as much of a starter as the fourth defensive lineman and Michigan has a dedicated package for the spread. This represented major progress over not only Rodriguez coordinators but Carr-era spread flailings you are intimately familiar with*. You probably have children’s books about them.

*[Here it’s worth noting that Northwestern shredded Michigan pretty good in Evanston. The D’s recovery in the second half was mostly fortuitous turnovers and lack of opportunity resulting from those turnovers and Michigan’s offense marching down the field. With the poor performance against OSU, the new D’s efficacy against the spread is still uncertain. At least they’re not doing transparently dumb things like previous regimes have.]

LTP: Now that Brady Hoke and Mattison have turned things back to “normal” in Ann Arbor and the talent level is back to top 20 level, how do you expect the defense to change in 2012 or stay the same?

MGoBlog: I don’t think the talent is back to top 20 level, honestly, and expect a regression as the defensive line makes a painful transition to youth that DL are not often prepared for. Also they are not going to recover ALL OF THE FUMBLES again. I’d be delighted if they ended up treading water this year.

As far as scheme, Michigan should remain consistent for the first time in a half-decade (seriously). This will help mitigate what promises to be a fierce regression to the mean.

LTP: You know Northwestern as well as any opposing team blog out there. We had a horrendous year on “D” and were flat-out confused at times in the secondary. Our secondary appears to be the weak link heading in to 2012 and questions abound on the other units. What would Greg Mattison do if he magically got traded to Northwestern as the DC?

MGoBlog: I don’t mean to be rude, but probably sigh expansively and recoil in horror. Even as Northwestern has transformed itself from punching bag to quality opponent the secondary has remained a huge weak link because there is no scheme you can run that turns the kind of athletes Northwestern has back there into playmakers. You can get away with a couple guys like Sash/Kovacs/Leonard here and there but at some point you have to be able to cover guys one on one.

It is possible Northwestern could be better organized back there. Michigan fans *hated* former DB coach Tony Gibson for presumed incompetence and their POV seems validated after the secondary got absurdly better in a single offseason. We kind of think that’s a position coach issue, though.

LTP: Fans have turned the heat up on DC Mike Hankwitz and long-time DB coach Jerry Brown in Wildcat Nation. What’s the coaching perception among Michigan fans. I find it hard to believe your demanding fans are actually content with every coach.

MGoBlog: We are still in our honeymoon phase after an 11-2 debut season that exceeded expectations just about everywhere. In general you are correct in that there are always a couple assistants on staff that the fanbase is discontent with. Right now Michigan is limited to longtime RB coach Fred Jackson, who seems to have no eye for talent.

But the thing is… it seems like the guys Michigan fans didn’t like haven’t gone on to do much and the ones they did are moving up in the world. So it may not be that the complainers are totally wrong. Two-time Michigan offensive coordinator Mike DeBord is assistant (to the) offensive line coach in the NFL. This is not an accident.

LTP: Any other nuggets of hope you can throw our way from a once horrific defensive team to a team that is mired in a pretty bad run on that side of the ball?

MGoBlog: I truly believe that the offensive system Northwestern implements is the best one you can implement. Given the rest of the conference’s renewed dedication to MANBALL (save OSU–don’t talk to me about that), it’s one that will allow Northwestern to play over their talent level for the foreseeable future.

As far as defense goes… I don’t know, man. The Mathlete did a great study on our site suggesting that you can overcome guru-disapproved talent on offense with chemistry and scheme (see: Northwestern) but that you have to have the talent on D or you’re not going to be very good.

Northwestern’s managed to find hidden gems on the line with regularity and has done decently at linebacker. Unfortunately for them, that secondary seems like the one place smarts and clever coaching can do little about.

LTP: Thanks for the time Brian. We have envy of your turnaround. Let’s hope we’re not having the same dialogue on our end next year at this time.

  • Mark

    Agree w/ mgoblog – you have to have the talent in the back end on defense. Hankwitz started his senior year at Michigan – Bo’s first year in 1969 – when Bo went to a two tight end set because Hankwitz ran the fastest mile on the team and showed no one was more dedicated and would work more than him. (Mandich, the returning starter at TE, was All Big Ten and All American and later played with the great Dolphins teams.) So don’t believe that anyone on the NU coaching staff can’t think and try to determine the best position to put the D in. (Aside – mgoblog is the funniest college football blog although sometimes I don’t understand the allusions.)

  • DT

    Much to be learned and earnest wisdom from this Michigan Man… Much to be learned from Hoke and Mattison as well…

    Good interview, LTP…

  • JImgocats93

    Do LTP Folks realize Coach Hank is a Michigan Man?

    Glad to see the poll results evening out on the recruiting class. Everyone knows you cannot predict the future of a 17 or 18 year old. But that should not stop you from being happy/encouraged to see continued improvement in the quality of the classes as measured by the only metric out there – “stars”.


    (beat Iowa!)

    • Jimgocats93


      My screen was slow to update – did not see your post before putting mine up.
      Not attempting to answer or argue – peace, brother.


      • DT

        No worries! Appreciate the note…
        Hank is indeed a Michigan Man and played under Bo…. Some serious history there… Nice of Mark to point that out… I certainly respect that as well as I do the history and legacy of Michigan Football… They do it right for the most part.. I enjoyed Cook’s take and objectivity per LTP’s questions and the situational comparison and perspective on NU… Good to get an outside view… Sometimes, we all get a bit too close to the flame on this blog… Myself included…


        • Jimgocats93

          Last fall I posted on this site the Michigan tie to NU.
          Bo -McCartney- Barnett-Fitz
          Not sure of the Miami of Ohio Bo to Walker tree.
          It has been my theory as to why we have done so well against Michigan relative to the rest of the league.


          • DT


            Interesting angle no doubt… Some heavy hitters in that company… Thanks..

            Really, for my nickel, the games against Michigan between 95-00 were the apex of our program…. When I look back at the hundreds of NU games I’ve attended in person through the years, no doubt in my mind, “The Instant Classic” and birth of the spread per se in 00, was the best I’ve ever been honored to attend. For what it’s worth 1A would be at Notre Dame in 95. That said, when one thinks of the 95 game at The Big House and the dramatics of of Gowins kicking the winning field goal 2X in 96 on that pristine day in Evanston– one can understand why our visitor from Ann Arbor says of NU, ‘Went from punching bag to quality opponent”… Well said… Now we gotta figure out Ohio State on a more regular basis!

  • Greg

    It ain’t the Xs and Os, it’s the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s …

  • Watching and (mostly) Waiting

    Interesting comments about defensive backfield. I think Jordan Mabin was a solid corner, but last time NU had two decent corners was 1995. No excuses, but my theory is CB is the high school position for a player with great speed but no smarts. If they had intelligence (and/or admittedly also good hands), they’d play WR and score TD’s. I wonder what the collective SAT scores would be amongst the top-rated CB’s vs. other positions. I’ve always felt they’d be much lower, which if true would vastly limit our recruiting pool. Again, no excuses, but it suggests a litany of converted/confused WR’s, and a chronic problem for us, whoever is coaching back there. And it was never more apparent than in 2011, and particularly when Mabin went down.

    • DT


      Agreed on Jordan Mabin… Solid player and athlete… The Michigan Man sold him short to some extent in his comments… He was more than coachable as well… Gets healthy and might see an NFL roster ala Cole…

  • Lord Willie

    How do you know that a Michigan Man is the smartest person in the room?

    Wait 10 seconds and he will tell you…

  • Steve Z

    Man am I glad I get ESPNU today… We are dominating!

  • NUmanager

    One of the most well-played games of the Bill Carmody era. Let’s keep it going.

  • Icehockeycat

    Ok, my hopes are officially up again – do I dare to dream we end the drought?
    Great game all around – of course, it would have been nice to see the first 5 minutes of the second half. LTP, I know you are in the business – who do we bellyache to at ESPN for having us watch that idiotic Murray State game when it was free throw time? Could then not even give us a little picture up in the corner if the enlightened ones at ESPN thought more people cared about a minor-major conference battle just because an over-rated team was going to finally lose to a nobody? I know the sporting world was not exactly excited for NU-Iowa, but come-on, the only people watching ESPNU at that time were NU-Iowa fans. Iowa still had a chance at that point.
    Anyway, rant off. Great game by the cats and if they can do the same at PU and Indy, this could be a very very interesting March….

  • bandcat

    Sobolicious….Great win..Coach just said he needs to work Nick in a little more.

  • Eric the Horn

    Great game tonight. Can someone explain why Iowa took possession of half the court on timeouts? I’ve never seen that before.

  • vaudvillain

    So right after the post detailing why we need more than just Shurna and Crawford, we get five players in double digits, and Sobolewski leading the way with 21. I’m liking Sobo more and more every game.

  • PDXCat

    Hawkeyes were simply overmatched. Wow! When was the last time those words were uttered?

    (apologies for the split message. Misbehaving phone and fat thumbs)

    Go Cats!