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November 22, 2013
Wolverines substituting much more in secondary
Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison learned a valuable lesson in the Wolverines' blistering 63-47 win over Indiana Oct. 19.
The Hoosiers sliced up the Michigan secondary, completing 24-of-43 passes for 410 yards (9.5 yards per attempt) and went over top for long touchdowns of 67, 59 and 33 yards.
"Whenever you play a team like that with how fast they go and the number of snaps you play, of course you're going to get winded," fifth-year senior safety Thomas Gordon said. "Anybody is going to get winded, no matter what kind of shape you're in."
Since then, Mattison has rethought his stance on substitution in the secondary.
This summer, Mattison made depth an emphasis along the front seven, making sure as many players were developed as possible along the defensive line and the linebacking corps to create a solid rotation at those positions.
The Wolverines have substituted liberally at those spots all season, with 8-10 players regularly playing along the defensive line in a given game and five getting in the mix at the three linebacker spots.
But, until the Indiana game, Mattison preferred to roll the dice on the secondary starters, while bringing in a third cornerback in the nickel package.
"We substitute everyone else, but we don't substitute the back end," Mattison said. "In today's football, covering the passes you have to cover, the deep balls and all that, those guys need a little bit of a break also. When you ask the safeties to help you on the run, the days of a safety playing every play - and he's the only guy that does that - are gone. I think we have guys that can rotate."
After the wake-up call of the Indiana game, the Wolverines have worked more and more players into the rotation in the back end.
Nine different defensive backs played in Michigan's 17-13 loss to Nebraska - and that's not including Gordon, who was limited to just special teams play because an ankle injury was slowing him down.
During last weekend's 27-19 triple-overtime win at Northwestern, the Wolverines played eight defensive backs, with freshmen cornerbacks Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis, sophomore safety Jarrod Wilson and redshirt junior safety Josh Furman all coming off the bench.
"For the first time, Raymon covered a guy way down the field and he signaled to the sideline, 'Give me a blow,'" Mattison said. "We could have done that before. All of a sudden, Raymon isn't out there not playing the technique that we want him to, because he's a little tired. That is a lot of running. I think our philosophy in the back end is the same way now, that we want to try and get guys that have earned it in there at times."
The results speak for themselves. The Cornhuskers and Wildcats combined to complete 35-of-57 passes (61.4 percent) for 324 yards (162 yards per game), averaging just 5.7 yards per attempt. The Wolverines' season average for yards per attempt allowed is 6.5.
"That is a lot of help," Gordon said. "When we can have guys come in there and the defense doesn't miss a beat, that allows us to catch a breath and play faster and longer. That is going to play to our advantage."
Furman, who got his second-career start vs. Nebraska, has seen the field much more in the last three games than at any other in his career.
"He is practicing like we demand that the practice and staying true to the course, with the ups and downs and the things this year," Mattison said. "Believing. Doing what you're supposed to do every day on the practice field allows you to keep improving. There are a lot of teams, with some of the misfortune that has happened, that would say, 'Oh, that's it.' These guys didn't. They came out and played as hard as they did the week before. The big emphasis was, 'Finish It!' I think they all bought into that."