Sam Webb: Coach, two weeks in, before we talk specifically about Notre Dame, just your overall impressions of your defense thus far.
Greg Mattison: “I think they’re playing real hard, and they have a great attitude as far as trying to do it right and trying to learn what we’re doing, but we have a lot of work to do on our technique. We have a lot of work to do on making sure we take care of every little technique and every little responsibility, and if you don’t, that will come back and bite a young team like this.”
Sam Webb: So let’s go back to Notre Dame. You won that game. Your defense only surrendered 23 points against an offense that’s pretty potent. Let’s start out with the positive things. When you went back over the film and looked at it with the guys, what were the things you liked about that performance?
Greg Mattison: “First of all, I liked how hard we played. I don’t think there were any situations where guys weren’t running to the football as hard as they could. The next thing that was really pleasing to us is that we didn’t give up big plays. We kept the ball inside and in front. And then the last thing, and probably the most important thing, is red zone defense. We’ve preached that so much, and if you – you know, sometimes, you don’t want them moving the ball down the field, but this is big boy football, and they’re a very good team, and when we got in the red zone we did what we had to do most of the time, and that allowed us to be in the game.”
Sam Webb: Was that the philosophy that they call ‘bend but don’t break’? Is that kind of what you were looking at when you went into the game?
Greg Mattison: “No. I don’t ever believe in ‘bend but don’t break’, because that means you’re giving up yards that you shouldn't have given up. We were giving up some gaps sometimes with our linebackers and our defensive line, and that’s why they were getting some yardage on the run, but the thing we kept saying to them is just ‘keep playing, keep playing’, and when we got in the red zone, they stepped up. That’s what it was.”
Sam Webb: Brady, he talked about keeping the ball inside and in front, and maybe it wasn’t as noticeable, that strategy, when watching from the stands, but he said ‘hey, we were going to give the seven yard hitch up there… but no offensive coordinator is going to seven yard hitch all the way down the football field. They’re going to take some shots.’ That required some discipline on the part of your guys, though, and tackling well.
Greg Mattison: “Definitely, and for the most part, we did tackle well, because we got to the football. There were a number of plays where you saw the whole defense around the football, or hitting the football. We did have three missed tackles in the secondary that we’ve had to address, because one missed tackle back there will kill you, and our players have been so good about that, they’ve worked hard on it. But you’re exactly right; I mean, we knew what was open. When you call a defense, sometimes it looks like somebody didn’t do their job, but that defense, you can’t have everything covered, and those guys stepped up and played.”
Sam Webb: You’ve stressed all summer heading into this season, fall camp, that you wanted to be a front that could get pressure with four, so it wasn’t a game where we’ve seen you bring in other games. How were you with the pass rush in that game?
Greg Mattison: “I wasn’t overly pleased with the rush, because there were a number of times where we were five on four, and we have to beat guys. But looking at the film, there were a lot of times, probably a lot more times, where the ball came out real quick, and they kept the tight end in to block, and then I judge it by ‘did you get off the man, and were you headed to the quarterback?’ And I wouldn’t grade us very high on that. I think we have to do a better job. Give credit to Notre Dame; they have a very good offensive line, and they mixed it up. They passed it on run downs, and ran it on passing downs, so you know, that always makes it harder for you to get after the quarterback.”
Sam Webb: When we talk about upfront, a guy who looks like he’s emerged as a guy that you can look to to bring some rushes, is Brennan Beyer, for a couple of games now. There were a few guys in game one that performed well in that capacity, but he did so in two games thus far.
Greg Mattison: “Well, he’s done that ever since he’s been here. He was a rush end at one point, and a Sam backer early in his career; but Brennan Beyer is a Michigan man, I mean, he just comes out every day and tries to work on technique, and he’s been getting sacks because of his technique and his effort, and we’re looking for him to get more.”
Sam Webb: Talk to me about the way Notre Dame was able to run the football, particularly up the middle. What did it come down to?
Greg Mattison: “We weren’t getting – we didn’t fit our gaps correctly, and it was really on the same play about three times, where the end had the C-gap, and the tackle was getting double teamed, and the backer needed to send the ball out to the C-gap, and he was over scraping it, and the ball was coming right between him and the three technique; and our backside linebacker didn’t get over, and that was really exactly what was happening to us, is we just didn’t fit our gaps correctly.”
Sam Webb: So it was a matter of technique, and reading keys, as opposed to getting beat physically?
Greg Mattison: “No question. I mean, I don’t think there were many times when that young unit got beat physically. I think they battled; they were very tough-minded. But this is the kind of team that you can’t – you can’t do that in a game because we aren’t old enough or mature enough yet for somebody to make up for that, and everybody has to fit perfectly and do their job, and that’s when they (ran on) us a little bit.”
Sam Webb: Do you feel like your rotation that you wanted upfront, two to three deep, are you pretty much settled in on the guys that are going to be in there, or are there kind of some guys pushing to be a part of that mix?
Greg Mattison: “Well, I think the ones in that game that rotated did exactly what we asked them to do – play as hard as you can for the three plays you’re in there – and I think that was the Sam backers, that was the rushers, that was the ends. I think there could be a little bit more of a different rotation with the inside guys, bringing some more younger guys along, because we have to get a little bit better play out of our front.”
Sam Webb: You look at that linebacker spot, and you have gotten really consistent play from Desmond Morgan in that game; we saw a lot more of Joe Bolden. Talk to me about the performance of your linebackers in that game. You talked about in that run play, looks like you wanted to see some improvement there.
Greg Mattison: “Well, you know, I think it was a great example of young linebackers that were so excited and so hyped to try to make the play that they weren’t patient enough or reading their keys a number of times to go fit where they were supposed to. There was not a situation of them not being physical or them not hitting it, but it was where they were supposed to hit. I think that’s something you learn when you’re a young linebacker.”
Sam Webb: Youth in the safety position as well. We saw a little bit of Courtney Avery early in the game, but for the second game in a row, you leaned heavily on Jarrod Wilson. Now that – as he battled through fall camp, and it looked like it was going to be Courtney, injury called for him to step up. What have you seen from Jarrod in these two weeks?
Greg Mattison: “I thought Jarrod played very well in this game. The thing that Jarrod has been is a student of the game, and what kept him back last year is making the checks, and knowing exactly what was going on; and I think the confidence of Thomas being back there with him helped him, and Jarrod had a very good football game.”
Sam Webb: Your nickel spot, clearly that’s going to be a very key spot in this defense. We’ve seen you utilize Blake Countess there some. That’s a position that you said you’re going to lean heavily on to do some blitzing and some rushing, so what about that? Where are you with that part of your strategy? And then what about Dymonte in that role?
Greg Mattison: “Dymonte is continuing to improve, and working hard at it every day. But Blake is a veteran, and we want to put the guy that we feel can cover that number two slot in man to man situations, and adjusting when he has to, and that’s why Blake has been there, and Blake’s done a very good job.”
Sam Webb: The battle coming off an emotional game like that, going on to a program that’s not going to be ranked as highly, is you have to guide against the letdown, particularly with a young team. So talk to me about that. How do you handle that? Do you lean on your veterans to do that? Is that something that you just assume they’re going to do? How do you handle that as a coach?
Greg Mattison: “Well, we as coaches have emphasized improving every game. You’re playing in our home; we play different in our home; we play very well in our home. We’ve told them, ‘hey, this is – they’ve got nothing to lose’, and when you watch the film, this is a good team. The thing you always see when this team is out there is that they can throw the football, they have really fast and really good wide receivers. So with where we are, age-wise and experience-wise, they have – not an advantage – but they have a chance. So we have to do the things you talked about before, and that is get a four-man rush, and we have to continue to keep it inside and in front. I mean, they may throw that thing 40-50 times in the game. The other thing we have to be ready for is a hurry pace. They like to go at a fast pace to try to get us off guard, which – young guys, if they’re not totally locked in, gets them messed up a little bit, and then they don’t play as well, so we’ve really worked on that this week.”
Sam Webb: You just kind of went into it a bit with Akron and what they bring to the table. Talk about scheme; talk about substitution. When they try to hurry you up, and having a lot of young players on the field, just talk to me about the game plan heading into this game.
Greg Mattison: “The thing you have to do, when a team is a hurry up offense, you have to treat it more like a hockey game, just like you see the hockey games when guys change their lines. You don’t ever do it when the ball is all the way to the other hash, and you have your guys ready right there so they’re ready to tag their guy when the ball gets to your hash. There’s nothing wrong with a guy playing more than his three or four snaps if the ball is over there, and there’s going to be a clock stoppage, or there’s going to be a chance to get a guy on there; so we’re not worried about that as much.”
Sam Webb: And then as far as scheme is concerned, what do they run? You said they throw the ball a lot, but are they a spread team?
Greg Mattison: “Yeah, they’re a spread team all the way. They run zone stretch and zone read, and that’s their two biggest plays. They’ll run the counter plunge out of two backs, but they’re just a typical spread offense team that will throw the bubbles, that will try to hit you down the field, and then they’ll try to get to one side and bring guys under.”
Sam Webb: The very last thing, I kind of throw this at you all the time, but how’s Jake coming along? How’s he feeling, and what does the timetable look like? I know you’re not the doctor, but how does it look to you?
Greg Mattison: “Jake’s starting this game. In our mind every time I see Jake, Jake is back! But no, it’s up to our doctors and trainers. Jake is working so hard, and he feels so good, and he’s very very confident, and it’s up to the doctors and trainers when they feel he’s ready. But I know one thing, when Jake is ready, you’re going to see a guy really hungry, and a guy that’s really into the game, and he’s been really fun to be around out there. He’s been right with us practicing now, and doing drills, and we’re excited about it.”