No coach taking part in Saturday’s game understands the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry better than Greg Mattison. The Wolverines’ defensive coordinators, one of the highest-paid assistants in college football, has been on both sides of the game, spending eight years in South Bend before eventually returning to Michigan to join his friend Brady Hoke.
Every year, Mattison has brought something different against Notre Dame. And with the chess match likely continuing Saturday night against Brian Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Everett Golson, Kelly understands that the Irish need to be ready for anything.
“There is a bit of unpredictability with Greg. I think he keeps you off balance,” Kelly said. “I think you have to be prepared for, in certain situations, you’re going to see a little bit of everything from loaded bear fronts to exotic pressures.
“So I think you’re spending time in making sure that you have answers to a lot of different pressure situations. He makes you stay up late wondering about where those pressures may come from.”
No stranger to those late nights is former Irish quarterback Tommy Rees.
The former Irish quarterback is now ready for life after quarterbacking, getting set to embark on a coaching career that’ll likely start this January as a Graduate Assistant. Set to be back on campus for an experience that’ll likely be “very weird,” Rees was kind enough to spend some time talking Xs and Os before the big game.
“I don’t want to give away too much stuff,” Rees told me, seconds after describing a defensive look that featured terminology like “seven up,” “three down,” and “double overhangs.”
So while many of the particulars about the game inside the game were off the record (Rees still sounds like a coach, even though that journey won’t start for a few months), he was able to help clarify what it was that makes Mattison so difficult to deal with.
“It’s deception,” Rees explained. “He has a mantra of being a pressure guy and when he shows you a pressure look, it can be even on each side and you can’t really tell where it’s coming from.
“He is really good on situations and where to pressure, where to show it. I remember watching his old Ravens tape from when he was there. I couldn’t tell where any of this stuff was coming from at all.
“But then as the week went on we slowly got it, but it was tough. The second and third year we really understood it and we had a couple wrinkles in that worked out… For me personally, I always loved going into that game because it was a chance for me to really have a chess match with the defensive coordinator.”
That chess match didn’t always end up going Notre Dame’s way. But that accumulated knowledge, and play calls and downs that still seem burned to memory are now Golson’s responsibility.
It’s worth noting that Notre Dame didn’t struggle to move the ball against the Wolverines. In their two losses, Rees threw for over 300 yards in both, with the Irish offense averaging roughly 460 yards in the two defeats. But the ability for Mattison to bring a new look in a critical moment, and to cause game-changing turnovers put the Irish in circumstances not conducive to winning.
Golson’s first matchup with Mattison was a one-sided defeat. Pulled in the second quarter, the young quarterback showed a rare time where he didn’t seem up for the moment. That fact has been lost in the glowing memories from that magical season, but Golson likely played the worst game of his football career that evening.
He threw an interception on his first attempt of the game, burying the Irish deep in their own territory. And he finished 3 of 8 for 30 yards and two interceptions, with a mind-boggling end zone interception getting him the hook.
“I’ve been there,” Rees said.
But Golson is a different quarterback than the young player he was in 2012. And armed with a solid running game and some explosive receiving threats, Saturday night will be the biggest mental challenge Golson’s faced as the leader of the Irish offense.
“Handling the different looks you’re going to get,” Rees explained. “A lot of those looks come in critical situations, whether it be a 3rd down or down in the red zone. Handling those and handling the pressure and the exotic (looks) that he’s going to give you.”
It’s hard to gather too much from one game against an opponent like Rice. But Rees saw an improved quarterback on Saturday. While most point to the highlight reel plays that produced five touchdowns, Rees focused on some of the other facets of his game that looked significantly cleaner.
“I think he was way more polished on the throws that are in the rhythm of the offense,” Rees said. “He threw a good skinny post to Corey and he was on rhythm and on time. You can tell that he’s much more comfortable and that he knows the offense, knows the defense and that he was able to make those completions.”
Golson’s going to need to be. Because even with a Michigan defense battling injuries at multiple positions, the senior quarterback is going to need to expect the unexpected from Mattison.
“He’ll have something in for Notre Dame. He has something that they’ve been working on that they didn’t show,” Rees said. “I promise you they have a look that they didn’t show App State that they’ll have ready for Notre Dame. When that comes, handling that, learning that and adjusting to that will be key.”