Sam Webb: Coach let’s go back to the last game you played against Penn State. Watching you guys in the game, it seemed like it was a tale of two halves. They got some things early, Penn State, and you guys made some great halftime adjustments to really clamp things down. What did you do differently in the second half versus the first half?
Greg Mattison: “Really didn’t do that much differently and what happened in the first half on a couple of those runs was that we were pressuring. People everywhere, ‘god I want to be a pressure defense, I want to see people blitz more… you’ve got to blitz more.’ The thing you’ve got to understand is that if you blitz and somebody hits you with a run, there is a chance that they could gain some yardage. They hit us twice on runs when we were bringing some people and we didn’t fit our gaps exactly like you had to or didn’t make the play. That’s why it looked like we were having some problems with it. Our kids just decided, okay we’ve got to play the right way, fit the right gaps and that’s what they did.”
Sam Webb: We’ve seen the defense look really good in some stretches, I thought Utah was an outstanding performance. Then there were games, it was a breakdown, maybe in technique, I’m thinking of Minnesota. That wasn’t a game where you guys got blown off the football. It seemed like that was a game where guys were just missing tackles.
Greg Mattison: “Yeah it was. I think the thing that you have to look at also is we always pride ourselves on being the best that we can be, but people don’t want to give Minnesota credit and didn’t want to give Utah credit. They wanted to say, you’re going to come in there and just roll over them. We knew that watching them that Minnesota was a very, very good football team. They’ve got a pro running back. There is no question that he’ll be playing on Sundays and you have to do a great job of tackling him. The later in that game, the more times we were out there, we didn’t. Utah, I knew, I knew that was a really, really good team and still believe we should have won that game. We’re very close. I know you don’t ever want to hear that, but I believe we’re very close to being the kind of defense that I envisioned us being this year. You’re right, it is that deep pass that we don’t make the play on. It is keeping the ball inside like we’ve always taken pride in, which we don’t do every time. We’ve got to get that corrected.”
Sam Webb: Seeing you after games and your reaction after the Rutgers game was different. What did you learn about your team, about your defense with what you can do and what you can’t do in that Rutgers game that you can apply moving forward?
Greg Mattison: “The Rutgers game, I was really, really disappointed, probably the most disappointed I’ve been since I’ve been here. We did in that game what you can’t do and we’ve always prided ourselves on never doing and that’s giving up big plays. When you can’t get a team off the field on third down on long yardage because of one person breaking down… that really bothers you. We haven’t ever had that and that’s the first time it happened. That’s why we ad to correct it and that’s why them coming back and understanding that and playing the way they did in the Penn State game, they do believe and they are doing what we’re asking them to do.”
Sam Webb: I’ve heard you talk a lot about as a coach too, alright, you’re going to make a call and then it’s time for you to be a player. It is time for you not to always have to think but just to know. Do you feel like your guys at this point in the season can maybe see you make a call and they see something, and know, ‘alright I’ve got to do something… I’ve got to make adjustments.’ Are your guys to that point?
Greg Mattison: “Some of them are. Joe Bolden has done a tremendous job of doing that. I think Frank has done that a lot. We’ve got a couple or three guys that will do that. I don’t think everybody has. I think there is still a lot of youth. People don’t realize that if you add up the years of the guys, and how many years that they’ve got coming back yet, this defense is loaded with guys coming back. That’s not an excuse, that’s when you start making the correct calls and correct adjustments is when you get that playing time a lot and that’s why Joe has done what he has done.”
Sam Webb: You guys as coaches talk about feeling football players. In that Penn State game, I felt James Ross, I wonder if you did as well.
Greg Mattison: “James has really, really stepped up. I wasn’t very excited about James a year ago to be honest with you and I’ve talked to him about it. I didn’t think he played physical. I didn’t think he played with the ability that he has. The last two games, James Ross has played very, very well and I’m really looking forward to seeing him play in this game and seeing him progress as he goes forward.”
Sam Webb: What about Jake Ryan, seven games into him being in the middle. Some games again, I look at the Utah game and I thought Jake, you could really feel him in that contest and then maybe not in other games. Where is he at in his maturation process at that position?
Greg Mattison: “I think he’s moving forward every game. You don’t just become a linebacker and say, boy you’re going to be really, really good. I still think it was the correct decision all the way because all the spread teams that we’ve played, you’d have seen him out there on the island doing nothing. So playing him in the middle has allowed us to have a stronger linebacker in there. He gets better and better every game and we’ve got a lot of season left that I expect him to finish with a great year.”
Sam Webb: I remember talking to you and you were saying, hey I’m going to start playing more base defense versus more nickel. Have you gotten into a rhythm about what situation, one scheme or one situation a base defense works best against versus when you are going to go to your nickel.
Greg Mattison: “We base that mainly on ability level. It doesn’t do any good to say you’re putting nickel in the game if the nickel that’s going in doesn’t give you what you want or if adding another corner is not as good as keeping James Ross on the field. That always goes week to week on what the team has and how we match up. I’ve always been a believer that you don’t want to put something in just to say, hey I’ve got this package, where you want to have your best players on the field at all times.”
Sam Webb: Coach you are facing a team in a rivalry game, you look at their offense and they are really, really clicking. I wonder if you could for a moment think back to last year’s Michigan State offense and tell me, is it the same offense, is it more explosive. How would you compare the Michigan State attack from year to year?
Greg Mattison: “They’re very, very good offense. Obviously, you can see by the numbers that they’re putting up. The difference in them this year from last year in my opinion is that they have an element of spread offense in there that they didn’t have. Last year, you kind of say this is a power team that is going to play action pass at times. Now, you see them running jet sweeps and you see them doing reverses, things that spread teams do that is just one more element that makes it…you have to dot your I’s to be ready to play it and that’s what they’ve done.”
Sam Webb: I remember last year and let me know if you remember it the same. You’re 6-6 headed late into the second quarter and then they get that touchdown right there at end of the second quarter, I don’t know if you can take me through that play, but your team for a half that game wasn’t a blowout the full game.
Greg Mattison: “There is no question and in fact this morning when I’m working on the call sheet and everything, I went back through that game. We started with a 50 yard field in that game probably six times in that first half and to be 6-6 with a minute left was unbelievable. That last play, that play they scored on, we got beat deep. That’s never just the corner or just the safety, we didn’t get pressure, we didn’t do what we had to do. That game you saw a Michigan defense that will never be reflected by the score, but you saw a Michigan defense that really played hard and played well for a long time in that game.”
Sam Webb: Coach, I remember at the beginning of the season you saying, I want to be more of a man-to-man team. I’ve seen that at times. Are you doing that as much as you wanted to and can you do that as much as you wanted to?
Greg Mattison: “We’re doing it more than last year, but again it comes back to do we have a nickel that can come in and cover a great wide receiver. Is that guy coming in better than having James Ross in the game? That’s what we’ve been going back and forth with.”
Sam Webb: Narrowing it down to the keys of the game, you’ve got a team that you said is more spread, but you know they can run the football too. That ultimately is what their makeup, their mentality is. The keys to slowing down a high powered attack up there in East Lansing.
Greg Mattison: “We can’t give them big plays. That’s not a cliché, but it is true. With our defense, any defense, you’ve got to make them earn everything. We’ve got to make sure we do that in this game and then we’ve got to be able to get after the quarterback. I don’t think he has been sacked hardly at all this year. I think when it is time, we have to get after him and make sure that we can get pressure on them.”
Sam Webb: If this is giving away too much just say so, but are you a believer that if you have a top receiver on the other side and you have a corner that is playing unbelievably well on your side that you have your guy follow that guy all around or is it just dictated by the side of the field that receiver is on?
Greg Mattison: “It is dictated by the side of the field. When a team does have spread elements and all that kind of thing, you can get yourself trouble trying to match guys up and you’re giving away what you’re doing when that happens also. I don’t think you’ll see that much from us.”