Michigan Football: Why Greg Mattison Will Lean on 3-4 Defense at Outback Bowl

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Michigan Football: Why Greg Mattison Will Lean on 3-4 Defense at Outback Bowl
USA TODAY Sports
Michigan Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison

In two short seasons, Michigan's defense has evolved from one of the nation's worst to one that's respected throughout college football.

The Wolverines are currently ranked second nationally in pass defense (155.2 yards per game), and 10th nationally in total defense (311.17 yards per game).

But for the Wolverines to achieve their goal of a Big Ten championship, they must continue their improvement, especially against the multiple offenses of Ohio State, Nebraska and even Northwestern.

When Brady Hoke hired Greg Mattison away from the NFL's Baltimore Ravens, it was first thought that he would install the same 3-4 scheme that made the Ravens one of the best teams in pro football.

Instead, the defensive-minded Hoke and new coordinator Mattison decided to install the 4-3 under a defense Mattison ran previously at Michigan (1995-96), Notre Dame (1997-2001) and Florida (2005-07). In fact, his 2006 Gators defeated Ohio State 41-14 for the BCS National Championship.

3-4 variation defense against Northwestern (mgovideo.com via youtube.com)

"We will be a four-man front," Mattison told Rivals.com. when he took the job,  "And I always believed a strong defense begins with the guys up front. You have to have a great defensive line to win in any league."

Pete Carroll, who won a pair of national titles with Southern Cal (2003-04) and is the current head coach of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, is another advocate of the 4-3 under. He describes the defense as one which pressures the passer and stops the run.

Ironically, Michigan's 2013 defense is currently a disappointing 10th in the Big Ten at sacking the quarterback and just sixth in stopping the run.

In Mattison's two seasons, the Wolverines' weakest link has been the defensive line. The only real pressure on the quarterback has come from blitzing linebackers.

Mattison has already toyed with the 3-4 defense in hopes of correcting the situation. And because the two defenses are so similar, they can be employed by basically using the same personnel.

In an attempt to stop Northwestern's varied attack, Mattison actually ran several plays out of the 3-4, including the final one in overtime which sealed the Michigan victory.

The advantage of the 3-4? Michigan would have an extra man in pass coverage along with a better variety of blitz packages. 

Logistically, both defenses employ a nose tackle, two cornerbacks and two safeties.

Final Defensive Play vs. Northwestern (mgovideo.com via youtube.com)

There are four down linemen in the 4-3 under, and three down linemen in the 3-4. An easy switch can be made by having the weakside end in the 4-3 under become the fourth linebacker in the 3-4.  

Even though South Carolina (10-2, 6-2)  will be without star running back Marcus Lattimore, Michigan (8-4, 6-2) is listed by USA Today as 6-point underdogs. 

While starting quarterback Connor Shaw could miss Tuesday's Outback Bowl due to an injured foot, backup Dylan Thompson should be able to step right in. Thompson threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns in the 27-17 season-ending win over Clemson.

If Michigan is serious about incorporating the 3-4 into next season's plans, it would make sense to use it against an offense designed by the legendary "Ol' Ball Coach" Steve Spurrier.

There's no question the Wolverines will be tested by Spurrier, who won the Heisman Trophy as a Florida quarterback in 1966. As a coach,  Spurrier has a 207-77-2 record in 23 years of college coaching. 

If that's not enough, the Outback Bowl is Mattison's last chance to see how the use of both schemes could affect next season's plans. After all, eight starters return to the defense which may be expected to carry the offense.

Here's how Michigan's starting lineup should look in the normal 4-3 under:

WDE-Frank Clark, NT-Quinton Washington, DT-Will Campbell, SDE-Craig Roh, SLB-Jake Ryan, MLB-Kenny Demens, WLB-Desmond Morgan, CB-Raymon Taylor, CB-Courtney Avery, FS-Thomas Gordon, SS-Jordan Kovacs. 

Here's how Michigan's lineup might look in the 3-4:  

DE-Jibreel Black, NT-Quinton Washington, DE-Craig Roh, OLB-James Ross III, ILB-Kenny Demens, ILB-Desmond Morgan, OLB-Jake Ryan, CB-Raymon Taylor, CB-Courtney Avery, FS-Thomas Gordon, SS-Jordan Kovacs.

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