Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, here speaking with head coach Brady Hoke, believes the 572 yards yielded to Indiana in Michigan's last game was an aberration. (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)
Ann Arbor — It does not take a defensive coordinator to appreciate a terrific defense.
But Greg Mattison, Michigan’s defensive coordinator, probably understands better than most how good Michigan State’s defense is.
Michigan, ranked No. 23 and coming off a bye, will play at rival Michigan State, now ranked No. 24, on Saturday at Spartan Stadium in an important Legends Division game.
The Spartans have the nation’s top-ranked defense, yielding an average 215.5 yards a game, and also lead the nation in rush defense, allowing an average 54.9 yards. They are third in scoring defense, giving up an average 12.3 points.
Michigan State dismantled Illinois Saturday, and the Illini were able to muster only 25 rushing yards — 1.2 yards per carry — and were 3-of-10 on third down.
Michigan, meanwhile, is coming off its worst defensive performance, allowing Indiana 572 yards and five big pass plays of more than 20 yards.
“I know we’ll have Michigan defense back on that field the way it’s supposed to be when we play that game (at MSU),” Mattison said. “Especially coming off (that) kind of performance, we’ve got a lot to prove.”
Mattison said last week he planned to use every minute possible to prepare for the Spartans, despite a four-game stretch after that game that includes back-to-back road games, not to mention Ohio State.
The game against the Spartans looms large.
And trying to find a hole in the MSU defense looms even larger for the Wolverines. Mattison knows what kind of challenge Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges will face as he prepares for the MSU defense.
“They play very physical, they play very, very aggressive, they run to the football — there’s no question I respect their defense,” he said. “What they’ve done as far as not giving up points, to me, that’s the No. 1 thing. They’ve done a great job. They’re a very good defense.”
Two years ago when Michigan lost at Michigan State, the MSU defense imposed its physical nature, not only in terms of personal fouls — the Spartans had six of the game’s seven — but they held Michigan to 82 rushing yards and allowed the Wolverines only three third-down conversions in 15 attempts.
Borges knows his offense the last two games against MSU hasn’t been convincing. Maybe the Wolverines have some confidence coming out of the Indiana game with record-setting offensive performances of 751 total yards, seven rushing touchdowns and Jeremy Gallon’s 369 receiving yards, but Indiana’s defense is worlds away from Michigan State’s.
“They’re stopping a lot of people,” Borges said. “We can’t concern ourselves with how good we think they are, with how much we have to concern ourselves with execution. If we go into the game and don’t turn the ball over and play solid, you’re not going to roll up 700 yards every week and certainly not on (MSU), but you have to do things that help you win the football game.
“That means convert on third down, running the football efficiently, take your shots, hit them when you need to and be able to move the chains. It will result in different gains based on who you’re playing, but a lot of it is how you’re playing. That’s the big thing. We look at this game much like we look at every game. We’re very respectful of what they do defensively, but a lot of it is our ability to execute.”
The Wolverines have not entirely cleaned up their issue with turnovers that plagued them the first half of the season, but they have improved since their first bye after the first month of the season. Michigan was minus-five in turnover margin at that point, but in the last three games, including a turnover-free game for the Wolverines, Michigan is plus-three.
Michigan State, however, is plus-six in turnover margin this season and has made nine interceptions and six fumble recoveries.
Aside from playing error-free on offense, Borges knows the Wolverines can’t afford to get in long down-and distance situations against Michigan State.
“When you’re in bad down-and-distance all the time, and you’re playing against the chains and constantly trying to pull plays out of your comfort zone,” Borges said. “I don’t play golf anymore, but when I played golf, it was like my golf game. It was a drive and a series of recoveries. That’s the way those (games against UConn and Penn State) were. You’re trying to recover from second-and-10.”
Borges liked the timing of Michigan’s bye. The Wolverines have had some uneven offensive performances and tweaked the offensive line combination three times since the start of the season. The Indiana game allowed the offense to gain some confidence and lead back Fitz Toussaint the opportunity to gain 151 yards.
“It’s always good to stop and take a breath and look to see what we’re doing,” he said. “Coaching-wise, personnel-wise, gives us a chance to say, ‘We don’t have a game, we have some time to think about this.”