LINCOLN — Tim Beck likes to weave baseball analogies into his chats about football. The Nebraska offensive coordinator settled on an appropriate one to describe a Big Ten defense that baffled the Huskers last year.
“It’s like facing a knuckleball pitcher,” Beck said of Michigan, which held NU to 260 yards and three third-down conversions in the Huskers’ 45-17 loss last season. “It’s weird because you haven’t seen it.”
“It” is defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s creative, sometimes-exotic scheme that he brought from the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens to Ann Arbor last year. The Wolverines went from 108th nationally in scoring defense in 2010 to sixth in 2011. This year, they’re ranked 16th while giving up one less point per game than last year.
Mattison, who co-coordinated Florida’s defense in its 2006 national title season, will use defensive fronts of three, four and five players. Like Nebraska uses Eric Martin, he’ll place his strongside linebacker, Jake Ryan, at defensive end and let him rush the passer. He’ll show six-man blitzes, only to bail all the linebackers back into coverage.
“They have quite of few things they throw at you,” Beck said.
Michigan pays Mattison $750,000 — tops for a Big Ten coordinator and more than twice what Beck makes — and he’ll get a $150,000 bonus if the Wolverines win the Big Ten. Beck said he sees a unit as athletic as any in the league — and gaining steam.
“They know how people are trying to attack them,” Beck said. “Their defensive package has grown. They’re doing more things out of it. And they’re veteran players. They seem to have found a gear.”
Michigan certainly had an extra gear against Nebraska last year. The Huskers ran 54 plays and repeatedly found themselves in third-and-long.
Nebraska had wanted to run outside zone reads and a good dose of option football around the strength of the Wolverines’ interior defensive line. Mattison countered by placing his ends outside the offensive tackles and angling them toward the backfield. Quarterback Taylor Martinez sometimes had to run around those ends, which bought UM’s faster linebackers and safeties more time to make the tackle.
“We got out of sync,” I-back Ameer Abdullah said. “They did some things to stop the option early. That’s something we tried to do last year, but it wasn’t working. We just lost our tops.”
On third down, Michigan’s ends and linebackers often forced Martinez into quick throws by faking blitzes, then bailing hard into coverage. Martinez completed 9 of 23 passes.
Though tight end Ben Cotton watched last year’s game from the sideline because of an injury, he could see the Wolverines’ defense employed fronts and techniques his team hadn’t seen much in the Big Ten. Most of Nebraska’s toughest league foes — Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa — had their own wrinkles, but often ran them out of a 4-3 look.
So the Huskers allotted time in the offseason to review odd fronts and come up with strategies.
“We saw it here and there over the past few years, and it’s been growing a lot in college football,” Cotton said. “I think our coaches have done a great job of giving us those looks all through the offseason, the winter and the summer, and fall camp.”
Now, Beck said, Nebraska has to match Michigan’s intensity. On Tuesday, the Huskers conducted a long, sweat-inducing practice that defensive tackle Kevin Williams said was “as physical as ever.” While Michigan’s specialty is a fourth-ranked pass defense, it’s the run defense that has improved since Alabama and Air Force gashed it for 522 combined rushing yards in the first two games.
A linchpin to the Wolverines’ improvement has been the play of the defensive line. Anchored by 6-foot-5, 302-pound defensive tackle William Campbell — a five-star recruit who finally earned a starting job — Michigan often rotates seven linemen for four spots.
“They’re getting a lot of good production from their big dudes inside, eating up space,” Beck said. “Their defensive ends are real athletic. Quick, get off blocks, use their hands well.”
Beck praised Ryan, who leads the team with 52 tackles, 8-1/2 tackles for loss and 3-1/2 sacks. Ryan’s size — 6-3, 245 pounds — and versatility allow him to play down on the line of scrimmage or roam behind the tackles. He’s a key cog in Mattison’s plan.
But Nebraska’s believes it’s ready for the wrinkles this year. The Huskers have half of a season on tape, and memories of mistakes in the Big House last year to build on.
“We have a better game plan this year,” tight end Kyler Reed said. “Just talking to Coach Beck, we’ve kind of got them down, kind of understanding what they want to do on defense.”
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