They are known familiarly as explosion plays and, just like a truck full of TNT, they can dramatically alter the landscape. They can swing momentum, they can turn the tide, they can inflate an offense that had been sterile and struggling and spay a defense that had been so staunch and steadfast. They can, quite simply, determine the outcome of a game, which is exactly what happened last Saturday in the showdown between the 'Cats and Illinois. "For 95 percent of the game they played well," is what Pat Fitzgerald would say of his defense, recognizing this fact. "The five percent that they didn't cost us the football game..."
There were, in fact, three explosion plays that mortally wounded the 'Cats that afternoon; two of them went for Illini touchdowns (on passes of 33 and 50 yards within four minutes of each other, turning the momentum) and the third setting up their game winner with just 13 seconds remaining. "Communication. We had a lapse of communication," Fitzgerald would say in explanation. "We had, I thought, the game in hand (when they led 28-10 midway through the third quarter) and we lost momentum in three plays. We had the breakdown in communication. . .(but) we've got some young, inexperienced guys out there learning and growing. They're a work in progress, but we're going to keep grinding, keep staying on them to understand concepts and to just play better. That group's talented. They just have to keep growing and getting better."
Corner Jordan Mabin is a fifth-year senior and in his fourth season as a full-time starter. Safety Brian Peters is a fifth-year senior and in his second season as a full-time starter. But true senior Jeravin Matthews, the other corner, and redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell, the other safety, are both starting for the first time, which is why Fitzgerald is correct in describing them as works in progress. "There's the old saying, 'There's no substitute for experience,'" explains defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. "You just can't learn everything watching and practicing. It's got to happen to you, and sometimes it happens to you in a game and it hurts."
"It's all learning experience," echoes Peters. "I try to relate to them the best that I can because my redshirt freshman year and my redshirt sophomore year, when I was still learning, I was still making technical errors and stuff, and I had Brad (Phillips) and Smitty (Brendan Smith) to help correct me. But you've got to be baptized by fire. In order to learn how not to get beat, you've got to get beat."
On one of those explosion plays, explains Peters, the secondary "Got out of a coverage when we shouldn't have, so we were in the process of changing coverages where jobs switch. It was just a perfect storm and he slipped through and caught the post." Another, he goes on, resulted from "Lack of technique, not lack of communication. So the big thing is trusting your technique and doing your job and you'll be fine." Another issue with inexperience, chips in Hankwitz, is that "In the heat of battle sometimes we didn't communicate properly, so we didn't have everybody playing the same coverage."
But moments later -- and this is not insignificant, since he himself is an experienced and hardened realist -- Hankwitz will conclude his remarks by saying, "It's frustrating, but we're making so much progress. We're getting a lot better and we're so damn close. It didn't show on the scoreboard, but. . . our players see it. We're getting better. We are. We've just got to stay the course and keep improving, then good things are going to happen."
HERE COMES THE TRUCK:
This brings us to Michigan, which visits Ryan Field on Saturday night. The Wolverines, of course, are choreographed by Mr. TNT himself, the explosive quarterback Denard Robinson. "He's a pretty special athlete," 'Cat defensive end Tyler Scott says of him. "It's going to take a lot of focus and game planning to keep him contained. It's going to happen. But we've got to do the best we can to keep him contained."
But that isn't all when it come to the Wolverines. They also have, in their first five games, produced 26 plays from scrimmage that have gone for 20 or more yards. "You wish it was jut him, but he's got weapons all around him," says Fitzgerald with a nod to that reality. "They've got dynamic receivers on the outside (notably Junior Hemingway, who had receptions of 43, 45 and 77 yards against Notre Dame) and a stable of running backs (which is why they are leading the Big Ten with an average of 272.6 rushing yards per game).
"Denard makes a lot of great plays. There's no doubt about that. Everytime he touches the ball he can score a touchdown. But he's got a great supporting cast around him and they're putting them all in positions to make plays. So you just can't key on one guy. If you load up on one guy, you're going to put a bunch of DBs and linebackers in one-on-one matchups. You know. You live by the sword, you die by the sword. It's hit and miss. So it's going to be a great challenge. It's going to be a lot of fun."
TIMES HAVE CHANGED:
The Wolverines are surrendering an average of just 10.2 points per game, which brings us to their defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. He was a 'Cat assistant from 1978 through 1980, a stretch in which NU won but one game. That experience, he told an Ann Arbor reporter earlier this week, "Drove me out of coaching for a year. I actually went into the sporting goods business, and I lost every penny I ever had doing that, and I begged to get back into coaching. But Northwestern was a great place, it really was. That was a long time ago, but it was a good place -- except on Saturdays."
Mattison is in his first season as the Wolverines' defensive coordinator. In the previous two he held that same position with the bellicose Baltimore Ravens, which gives some idea of his preferred style. . . So too does the background of their first-year head coach, Brady Hoke. "He's a D line guy and I'm a linebacker guy," says Fitzgerald. "So there's that air of toughness, you can see the physicality they're playing with especially up front on both sides.". . . Another key to the Wolverines' offensive explosiveness is the experience of their line, which is anchored by All Big Ten senior center David Molk. "We recruited David out of high school. Liked him a ton," Fitzgerald says of him. . . Of their defensive front, says Fitzgerald, "They're running a wave out there, they're running about 10 guys." Adds running back Jacob Schmidt: "They're big up front. They're a little bigger than Illinois was, but maybe not quite as athletic. If we can execute and go fast like we do, I think we can gas them a little bit."
Since no post is complete without one, a note on 'Cat quarterback Dan Persa: Back in June, during his rehab, he planted his foot wrong, slightly strained his Achilles and set back his recovery time by a month. Not wanting to suffer another significant set back like that, that is the reason he sat out the final seven minutes of the Illini game. "I just felt a weird pull in the bottom of my leg and then it got tight," he would explain. "So I knew nothing was torn, nothing was strained too bad, so I wasn't too worried. It was just a matter of getting it loose again. Right after the game, the doctor talked to me. It was like, 'Yeah, this is normal. You're going to have some tweaks with it. You've just got to fight through it.'"