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Mattison holds keys to Wolverine defense

Brady Hoke, Greg Mattison

Michigan head coach Brady Hoke, left, and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison react to a replay in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game against Northwestern, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, in Ann Arbor, Mich. Michigan won 38-31 in overtime. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)


If there’s a benefit of Notre Dame and Michigan taking a break after next season, it’s that Greg Mattison doesn’t have to answer the same questions year after year. The Michigan defensive coordinator, who held the same position at Notre Dame for a portion of his eight-year run in South Bend, clearly understands what this rivalry is all about.

“I probably know this game better than most people, having been on both sides of it. This is a rivalry game. This is a big game. We’re looking forward to it,” Mattison said in his opening comments during his weekly press conference.

“There are some big games, and Michigan-Notre Dame in my eyes has always been a big rivalry game.”

Mattison’s comments aside, the defensive coordinator has his hands full on Saturday night, getting a young front seven up to speed to play against the Irish’s veteran front. Last year, Mattison called an excellent game, holding the Irish to just 13 points and a paltry 239 yards, clearly confusing young quarterback Everett Golson, who was pulled early after throwing two bad interceptions.

(How bad was Golson? Consider that his QB Rating (1.6) was almost 30 points lower than Denard Robinson’s, who went 13 of 24 with four interceptions.)

With Golson out, Tommy Rees safely piloted the Irish to the victory, scoring a late touchdown on a two yard run while completing an efficient 8 of 11 passes for 115 yards, including a game-clinching connection with Tyler Eifert on third down to ice the game.

While many Michigan fans feel more confident heading into Saturday with Golson exiled for academic reasons, Mattison has a healthy respect for Rees.

“Tommy Rees, we respect him. He’s a very very good quarterback, as you know what you did last year to us at the end of the game,” Mattison said.

That respect for Rees is likely a product of the two games he’s played against the Wolverines. While most only remember the last second touchdown heave by Denard Robinson to Roy Roundtree, it was Rees that marched the Irish down the field to what could have been a game winning touchdown drive with thirty seconds left. It’s lost in the shuffle now, but Rees’ sophomore stat line was an impressive 27 of 39 for 315 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Nobody is forgetting about the redzone fumble and the turnovers that helped Michigan get back into the football game, but the narrative that Mattison has Notre Dame’s number as a coordinator hasn’t been necessarily true when Rees was behind center.

The Wolverines held Central Michigan to just 210 yards last weekend, feasting on the Chippewas after starting quarterback Cody Kater and starting running back Zurlon Tipton both were injured in the first half. But Mattison knows he’s in for a tougher opponent Saturday night.

“Notre Dame has a lot of talent. They’re a very good football team. Now it’s the next step,” Mattison said. “In the second game, did you correct the mistakes? Do you play harder or do you improve? Every time you’re a young team, you must improve every game. If you don’t, then you’re taking a step back. We’re looking forward to improving.”

Follow @KeithArnoldNBC