Coach Mattison and players Joe Cohen and Ray McDonald spoke with the media this morning at the Tostitos BCS National Championship game in Phoenix. Here’s their quotes:
Q. Good morning, guys. Can you talk about—there has been a lot of people writing about you are the underdog in this game. Can you talk about that and what you think about that and how that will affect you? Let’s start with Joe?
JOE COHEN: You know, all year—throughout the year we have been written off as the underdog and we always rise to the occasion. Once again we have to come out and prove everybody wrong. We have to bring our A game. It is going to be a great atmosphere and a great game.
RAY MCDONALD: We are really not worried about that, not worried about what people say about us. We just have to come out and practice hard all week, prepare to beat Ohio State. You know. We really don’t worry about what people really say about us. We just have to play hard and get ready to beat Ohio State.
Q. Ray, the way your defense has played, you talk about unity and true team, it is kind of a thing that has grown as the season has gone along and it began with the LSU effort. By the end of the season, people know about this defense. Is that how it played out this year to you guys?
RAY MCDONALD: Yeah. Going into the off season, you know, we were wanting to improve on defense a lot. You know, we did that this season. We have great coaching and we have great players. We really want to show the nation we can play defense. That’s what we did this year. People have no choice but to trust our respect and what we do.
Q. Coach Mattison, would you talk about Troy Smith and his ability to escape the pass rush what you have to do to contain him?
COACH MATTISON: We are facing by far the best quarterback we have played against because he has got a great arm. He can throw it anywhere, and at the same time he has the ability to get away from any kind of rush.
You know, I think he is very, very fast. But I don’t think that’s his biggest asset. I think he has that, what a lot of great quarterbacks have, he is strong. You don’t—if you don’t do a great job when you get a great shot on him, he gets away from the rush. He poses a real threat to us.
Q. Joe, you are one of Reggie’s closest friends and obviously he is the springboard of this defense emotionally, physically, on the field. We saw him at the ICC championship game. He was talking about “this one is for my mom.” Wondering how he is holding up under the circumstances and how much he is confiding in you, one of his best friends?
JOE COHEN: Between Reggie and the rest of our team, we would just like toe keep that to ourselves. Reggie is holding up good. He loves the support, but that’s kind of just personal. That’s a little too personal. He kind of just want to keep that to himself.
Q. Ray, I just want to get a quick update on the situation with your arm. Are you full go? Any limits right now?
RAY MCDONALD: I have no limits. My coaches did a great job of keeping me rested and taking care of me these past few weeks. I will be ready to go by Saturday. I should be 100% by Saturday—not by Saturday, but on January 8.
Q. Ray, so much has been made about speed against speed as far as their receivers and your secondary. Their receivers saying what they have seen on tape of you guys just like to challenge people and go man-to-man?
RAY MCDONALD: Yeah, that’s what we do. We like to be aggressive. We like for go after teams. That’s our style of football, just being aggressive and going after players. They said it right. We just like to challenge our cornerbacks defense and we like to challenge the offense. That’s basically what we have to do, come out and challenge their receivers, their running line and their quarterback.
Q. Joe, Brandon Siler came out with the idea of wearing a chain representing everyone on the D line. Is that something you have rallied around or is that something he came up with on his own?
JOE COHEN: That chain represents unity amongst the whole team. That’s how we got through the year, hard times when our backs are against the wall. That chain represents how we fight and how we overcame everything and just how we worked all year on the off-season and up to now.
Q. Joe and Ray, I was going to ask what has made the secondary so successful with all the interceptions and stuff? Is it part of the pass rush? Or just having great athletes and secondary?
RAY MCDONALD: Yeah, that’s what it is. I think it all comes down to the way we prepare. We practice during the week and our cornerbacks, they work hard on pass skill. When you see what they are doing with pass skill, it transfers to the game. That’s what it takes to win and that’s what they have been doing all season. It has something to do with us getting good pass rush up front and getting good pressure on the quarterback. All of that plays into the part of having a good secondary.
Q. Considering the offensive struggles you guys have had, do you feel any additional pressure to perform each and every game considering those factors?
JOE COHEN: If you look at it, I don’t—our offense plays some great defenses and it is just part of the game. I wouldn’t say they struggled, but, you know, it is part of the game. We just are going to come out and play our game and nothing more, nothing less.
Q. Joe and Ray, the debate has been whether you guys deserve to be here. First it was Michigan. Now it is Boise State. I see Joe like shaking his head, which is good. How much has that irritated you guys and how much has it maybe even motivated you?
RAY MCDONALD: It was a little irritating but, you know, like I said before, we can’t worry about what people say. We just have to go out there and play the best that week. And you know, there are always going to be critics. There are always going to be people who say they shouldn’t be here or this team should be here. You can’t really worry about that. You have to come at it every week and prepare the way you can prepare and just get ready to play the team that you play.
Q. Joe’s comment?
JOE COHEN: I am with him on that one. Same thing, we fought all season. I believe we had a great season and I just—me personally, I believe we should be here. Everybody has their own opinion and that’s that. We just have to come out and play our game and nothing more. Hopefully we show everybody at the end that we deserve to be here.
Q. Coach, the Ohio State team has been here several times in the last four or five years. They are familiar with playing Bowl games here in Arizona. Does that give them any sort of advantage in your mind?
COACH MATTISON: I think any time a team is defending national champion and in the same time they have been back and they have been here and have been around the surroundings, there is a little bit after comfort factor. I think some of those guys, this is the second time around. This is good for them. But there is also a real plus for having a team that has a great deal of excitement and a great deal of hunger.
This defense and this football team has really, really worked for this day. And every time we play the game, it was always that at the end, Let’s see if we can get there. Let’s see how good we can get. That’s our deal. Our deal is that this is new. This is what you play for. This is why you go to Florida. We are using that as an advantage for us.
Q. Coach, when Steven Harris took over at nose tackle, obviously there had been so many questions because of Marcus Thomas’s ability and so forth. In the last two games Steven Harris really stepped it up. Can you talk about his development as a nose tackle and is that more or less a natural position for him? He seems to have stepped up his production so much?
COACH MATTISON: We have great, great pride in our front. These guys have come really from nowhere. Two years ago they had all played at a very young age and didn’t really have a lot of credit. In fact, we were kind of put down a little bit. They played a lot of football and played a lot of really good football in the SEC. Steve Harris was a young man who played defensive end three years ago. Last year he was a starting three technique the entire season. And all that was for him was to move in one more spot.
It shows a lot about Steve Harris, though, that he could move from a natural position inside and play as well as he has. That’s a credit to the whole front, that they all work together and everybody kind of said, okay, you are the best player for this position, move in, and let’s see what you can do. You owe this to the rest of the guys. And that’s really what he has done.
Q. Question for Joe and Ray. Bowl games are supposed to be a reward for you guys after a long, hard season. How much fun are you guys going to be allowed to have this week in terms of balancing that with preparation? And is it different when you are playing for a national championship as opposed to maybe another lesser Bowl?
RAY MCDONALD: You know, coming into a game like this as a team, you really don’t think about trying to have too much fun because you don’t really want to get distracted. We really don’t care about going out and partying and stuff like that every night. We came here for business. We are on a business trip.
We got to come here and take care of business. And I think we can do all of our partying afterwards.
Q. Joe and Ray, in your personal opinion, what makes you guys better than Ohio State?
JOE COHEN: We are not here to say we are better than anybody, but we are just going to go out there and show you can’t say that you are better in this game. You can’t say that you are better than anybody because anybody could lose. So we just come in here on Monday to prove ourselves.
RAY MCDONALD: Like Joe said, I mean, you can’t really say you are better than a team because both teams are the top two teams in the country and we are playing for a national championship. You can’t say who is better. What’s going to determine who is better will be the team that prepares the most and the team that shows up to play on January 8th. That will be the better team on that day.
Q. For Coach and both players. Much has been made of the lay off, particularly Ohio State’s lengthy lay off. Is there any advantage or disadvantage or is way too much being made of this?
COACH MATTISON: I think if you had a real long lay off, there would be some concern because you are going against your guys all the time and that gets really old.
We probably had an advantage playing the SEC championship ball game. We played a game a little bit closer to this national championship game. All of us have the same amount of practices and we have to practice against each other. Like the guys have said and what we have emphasized so much, the team that prepares the most is going to have the best opportunity to win this football game and we have really focused on preparing each and every practice.
Q. Coach, with your son playing defensive tackle at Iowa, how much insight has he been able to give you into Ohio State?
COACH MATTISON: He is a defensive end. If you ever said he was a defensive tackle, he would really be upset with you (smiling). None, other than it is great to have him be here with us. He has gotten to know our players really well. He really respects our guys.
They, in turn, have had a chance to watch him on some of the cut-ups. He is a 21-year-old guy. And to think that you are going to say, how did this guy play, what should we do against this guy and all that, I would never ask him to do that. He would never want to do that.
But there is a kind of a neat deal because he really is kind of part of us, even though he is an Iowa football player. He has unbelievable pride in our defensive line because he has been in our meetings. He has watched us practice. And he has played against them.
So I think there is a little bit of that where he knows exactly what we can do and what we should do.
Q. In the SEC championship, the big challenge was stopping the top rushing offense in the SEC. Now you are facing one of the top offenses overall, particularly in rushing. Talk about the challenge insofar as stopping Pittman and their running game?
COACH MATTISON: Who is that for?
Q. Anybody up there?
COACH MATTISON: The first thing our defense is built on, stopping the run. I think the very first day we all got together, I think that was the very first thing we said, you cannot be a great defense unless you can stop the run. Every time we have faced that kind of a challenge, our kids have really stepped up to that and they know if you really want to say that you are a really, really good defense or even a great defense, then you have got to be able to stop the run first. And then the rest of it will happen.
So when we face challenges like the SEC championship, McFadden was a great running back but our kids really took pride in saying, All right, we are going to play our gap control. We are going to run to the football and play great fundamentals. And we were fortunate to stop him. That was a big thing for us. That’s what we talk about every day, you must stop the run to be a great defense.
Q. Joe and Ray, along with that, Troy Smith hasn’t necessarily run a lot this year. But he certainly has the capability of running and he is pretty good about buying time in the pocket and alluding the rush and making plays that way. How much pressure does it put on your defensive line in terms of putting enough pressure on him to force him to make mistakes?
JOE COHEN: That puts a lot of pressure on us. We have to come out focused and run the plays and defense that’s called and try our best to contain him. He is a great quarterback, as everybody knows, he won the Heisman and he definitely deserved it.
It is just going to be a great challenge once again for our defense.
Q. For Ray, I know a few days before that game with Arkansas you guys had a pretty hard-hitting practice, focusing on the fundamentals of tackling. Kind of a risk Coach Meyer took to prepare you for that game. Are you doing something similar this week or are you toning it down at practice?
RAY MCDONALD: I don’t think it was a risk. Our coaches know what they are doing. When they send us out to practice, they have the best intentions for us. You saw us play one of our best games of the season probably because of that practice. I mean, going into this game, I wouldn’t doubt if we do go out and have, you know, a tackling or a similar practice to that.
So, I mean, it just all comes down to us preparing. We just have to prepare it. Whatever our coaches want us to do, we just have to do it because they have best intentions at heart.
Q. Joe, can you just tell us about Reggie Nelson, what he means to this defense especially back there in the secondary? How comforting it is to have somebody back there and how big of a role he will have in stopping the Ohio State passing attack?
JOE COHEN: I believe Reggie Nelson is the heart of this defense. He brings excitement to the game and he’s the last man standing when it is time to stop the pass or the run. I am just glad that we have him back there. He is a great player. I think he is probably the best—he has to be the best safety I ever seen in my life.
But, you know, it is just one of the players that everybody wants on their team and I am glad the Florida Gators have him.
Q. Coach, I apologize for getting away from this game for a little bit. Topical question for you. Coach Saban reported he is getting 40 to 50 million dollars to coach Alabama. What’s your reaction just in terms of the money now and the pressure on college coaches? Does the money bring more pressure and just your reaction for having Coach Saban back in the SEC?
COACH MATTISON: I really don’t want to talk about that. You were right, this isn’t about what Coach Saban is going to make or what any coach makes. It is really about these young men right here. I am not trying to be a—whatever. This is big. This is what you dream of as a football player. This is what you dream of as a football coach, and I think you could do this for nothing. They could pay you nothing and you would come out here and say, I would love to coach in this football game.
It doesn’t matter to me what anybody makes. It is about these guys and it is about our football team and what we have got ahead of us.
Q. Coach, I know at the next level, the NFL, the concern seems to be about Smith’s height. How do you quantify between a mobile quarterback and a quarterback with size? Would he be most vulnerable when he is under center, I would assume?
COACH MATTISON: Their offense, he doesn’t take very deep drops. And a lot of their passes and everything come out very, very quick. So obviously his size and everything, that is not a factor to them or they would try to get him back a little farther. He is throwing a lot of times from three yards behind that center. So I don’t think that’s really been a problem with him.
Like I said earlier, he is a great quarterback. I don’t know if you would say, man, what a great arm compared to a thrower, but it is.
He is mobile. He gets the job done. You think you have him sacked and he is out there. He runs the option. What else could a quarterback do but what he does? And that’s, I think, why he’s the Heisman trophy winner. I don’t think there is any doubt that he is the best there is.
Q. Joe, if I remember reading this correctly, I think you wear your number in memory of a friend who passed?
JOE COHEN: Yes, ma’am.
Q. I am wondering if that is still today a motivation for you in some way?
JOE COHEN: Yeah. It is a lot of motivation to me. It always has been and it always will be. He was a great friend, a mentor. I looked at him as my big brother. Every time I put it on I feel like I am representing him and where I am from.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks, guys.