Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck noticed something familiar when he broke down film on Michigan's defense.
"You can see that they're learning their system, just as we're learning our system," he said.
The Huskers and Wolverines meet in Ann Arbor this week in the 11th game of their seasons. Both teams have new coordinators who have made arguably the most dramatic differences on their units in the entire Big Ten.
The improvement on Michigan's defense is the more obvious one. Opponents continually shredded the Wolverines in the three years Rich Rodriguez was head coach. Last season, they ranked 110th nationally in total defense and 108th in points allowed at 35.2 per game.
Out went Rodriguez and in came a defensive-minded head coach in Brady Hoke. He hired veteran assistant Greg Mattison away from the NFL's Baltimore Ravens to serve as defensive coordinator. Despite all the struggles the Michigan defense had gone through, Mattison said the players' confidence wasn't shaken when he arrived.
"Surprisingly, their attitude was as if they were the greatest defense in the world," Mattison said. "They were like, 'Hey, let's go.' Then I'd see them hit the sleds and do some things, and I went, 'Oh my god, we've got to get a lot better and a lot faster.'"
Mattison describes his defense as "just a long way away" from where he wants it and "not talent rich." Yet you wouldn't know it by the stats. The Wolverines are 17th nationally in total defense and seventh in scoring defense at just 16.1 points allowed per game. In a stunning turnaround, they are now winning games with their defense.
The new staff had some talent to work with, especially on the defensive line where guys like Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen stand out. Hoke and Mattison are defensive line coaches by heart, and so it's little wonder that area has developed into the defense's main strength, especially in short-yardage situations.
Mattison credits the players for being willing to accept coaching and not hanging their heads when he criticizes them in the film room. Early in the season, the defense was playing hard but not always properly. But the missed assignments have gone way down.
"The things I tried to put in early on might have been too much, and the players might not have understood that getting it down perfect is what it takes to be successful," Mattison said. "So I cut the game plan down a little bit, and they became smarter football players. Now you can hear them start to chatter and talk out there, where before they were just kind of fighting to do their jobs. One of the biggest reasons we have gotten better is because guys are starting to communicate more out there."
Nebraska's offensive improvement is harder to gauge with statistics. The Huskers' scoring average of 32.9 is up two points per game from last year, while the total yardage is about the same. But the offensive production has stayed much more consistent throughout this season, unlike last year when the team struggled to score against Texas, Texas A&M and in the Holiday Bowl against Washington. And Nebraska has faced tougher defenses in the grind-it-out Big Ten than it saw in the wide-open Big 12.
This is Beck's first year of calling plays at the major college level, and he has attacked it like a kid given the keys to a Toys 'R' Us. Nebraska is just as likely to run the option as it is to spread the defense out with multiple receivers or line up in an power I-formation. Beck is always tinkering with formations, wrinkles and differing tempos, and last week against Penn State he unveiled his latest trick: putting running back Rex Burkhead under center with quarterback Taylor Martinez in Burkhead's spot several times. No wonder head coach Bo Pelini described Beck this week as "like a witch doctor. You don't know what he is going to do."
"It's just all about finding vulnerable spots on the defense and trying to keep them off balance," Beck said.
Beck said he has grown as a playcaller throughout the year, learning when to be creative and when to go conservative. That showed early in the year, as the Huskers would either spring huge plays or get bogged down with almost no in-between. The offense has become more consistent, and the sophomore Martinez has improved as a game manager.
Beck has a lot of options at his disposal, especially with a pair of dangerous running threats in the backfield. Mixing things up helps keep the players engaged.
"We're playing so many people that they can't lull around in practice and think, 'Eh, we're just going to throw it this whole period,'" he said. "We practice 100 m.p.h., and it's been good for all our guys."
Mattison and Beck have played key roles in helping each of their teams to an 8-2 record. This week's showdown will be an interesting chess match between the two as each team looks to stay alive in the Legends Division.
Beck says this about Mattison's defense: "They're physical, with a really good defensive line. Early on, they may have been in the wrong gaps. But they've learned the system, so their guys can make their adjustments. They're playing faster and with more confidence."
Says Mattison about Beck's offense: "He changes tempo and tries to get you off guard or get a player out of position. And we're not good enough to play like that. It forces you to communicate."
May the man with the better plan win on Saturday.