Ask any Michigan fan about 1997 and you will immediately regret your question. Most likely you will have to sit there for an hour as they babble on about how special that season was how ferocious that defense was and of course Charles Woodson. Eventually the bubbly talk will go beyond football and they will begin making absurd statements about things that were happening in their real life that most certainly can not be true.
I know this because anytime anyone asks me about the 1997 season I just start rambling on and come out of my happiness blackout as I am telling that person that in ‘97 I had a six pack, multiple girlfriends and a pet Giraffe named “Sir Charles.” I was in sixth grade at the time and I don’t think any of those things are true but I can’t be certain because I can’t remember anything from my childhood that isn’t Michigan football related.
Like most championship seasons everything about that year just seems more special because of what happened on the field. For example I hold the 2009 summer up as the summer of all summers as the Pens won the Cup and it was my first full summer living in Chicago. I assume you have a similar special season in mind as well. (Unless you are from Cleveland.)
Since 1997 all other Michigan teams are held against that standard and with Michigan bringing on Greg Mattison as its DC two years ago the hope is that it can get back to that elite level of defense. Lets dive in to see if that is a dream or something that may actually happen…
Before we get into the defense I must say that the offense that year was very simple. Like they only ran four plays simple. Power, screens, waggle and the four wide set that went to Charles Woodson every time. (EVERYTIME!) They were able to be so simple for two reasons; first is they had NFL talent at every position and were just better than the majority of opponents. The other reason is they were just there to compliment the defense.
Jim Herrmann was the new DC in 1997 taking over for Greg Mattison who left for Notre Dame. (Weird, I know.) Herrmann installed at the time was considered an innovative zone blitzing scheme. Michigan would have three down lineman in a 3-4 look with James Hall as rush end/backer.
From the second Woodson picked off a pass in the opener against Colorado you could just sense the coaching/scheme change had an influence on an already talented group. The defense spent the rest of the afternoon chasing that poor Colorado QB around and continue to do so to opposing offenses all season.
The front four was lead by undersized Nose man Rob Renes alongside Glenn Steele and pass rusher James Hall. (They were coached by this man.) The linebackers were a deep group that lost their senior leader Eric Mayes early in the year but had other names such as Sam Sword, Ian Gold and Dahani Jones ready to step up.
The secondary was led by Woodson obviously but had two very good safeties that allowed the rest of the defense to function. Marcus Ray is still the best safety I ever saw play at Michigan and I think it says something that Jordan Kovacs is one of the other ones.
The defense would only give up an absurd 9.5 ppg and would be the backbone of an undefeated season and a share of the National Championship.
Mattison’s Scheme and Recruiting Prowess
Since then Michigan has had some good defenses with only the 2006 unit being able to come close statistically to that ‘97 unit. (The secondary would be exposed by OSU and USC unfortunately.)
Under Rich Rod the defense became a laughing stock and when Mattison took over in 2011 it was expected to take time to get back to a reasonable level of defense. It actually only took a half a season as Michigan fielded a statistically decent group in 2011 and in 2012 as well.
Mattison base defense is a 4-3 under scheme that is common in all levels of college football. Its nothing complicated but is effective when you have position coaches who can coach and a coordinator who knows how to draw up a gameplan.
The X and O’s are nice but you can’t be elite without elite talent on defense. For all of Mattison’s coaching skill his best asset might be his recruiting ability. Michigan has had consensus back to back top 10 classes and a lot of the standouts have been on the defensive side of the ball including Ondre Pipkins and Jabrill Peppers.
The only problem is that is takes time to develop a defense and all of those recruits are either underclassmen or have yet to get to campus yet. So as I have mentioned in all of my defensive position previews I don’t expect a dominant defensive performance this season. The depth chart still has a few Rich Rod leftovers and last year’s best player, Jake Ryan, may not be back until October and even then who knows how effective he might be.
Still, I can’t help but get my hopes up that they will show up on Aug 31 and tear Central Michigan to pieces and start something special. Hopefully in fifteen years I will be telling people that my 27 year old self had a six pack, three girlfriends and a pet pig named “Dr Hamlet III.”
Meaningless Prediction– It’s not 1997. Frank Clark has a nice year but can’t match the hype. The linebackers are solid as Cam Gordon fills in well for Jake Ryan. The DBs are all solid except for Free Safety. This position will piss Mattison and I off all year. Michigan rolls in to 2014 with much hype and one glaring hole at that safety position.