in town for free camps
9/5/2009 – Michigan 31, Western Michigan 7 – 1-0
Melanie Maxwell, AnnArbor.com
Towards the end of the third quarter, a guy in the row behind me started grumbling about Michigan's offense being boringly ground-based. By the fourth, cramped quarters had given way to roominess. After it was over, I was disappointed that Michigan's first-half outburst gave way to a near-scoreless second half and thought Michigan should have given the kids a little more rope via which to test their skills.
In short, it was a typical game against a MAC opponent. At least it was for a given, thoroughly inaccurate definition of "typical." Michigan's seldom had an easy time of it against anyone since the Carr era started flagging. MAC or MAC-ish opponents since 2004:
|2008||Miami Of Ohio(NTMOO)||W 16-6|
|2006||Ball State||W 34-26|
|2005||Northern Illinois||W 31-17|
|2004||Miami Of Ohio(NTMOO)||W 43-10|
Over last five years, Michigan has been just as likely to be in an actual game (6) with a supposed tomato can as the expected blowout (6). (I am counting the '07 EMU game as an actual one, as it was 16-14 halfway through the third; the others need no justification.) Hell, even in 2006—when Michigan was a Crable helmet hit away from driving to the national championship game—Ball State had first and goal with an opportunity to tie late in the fourth quarter. In no way is a 31-0 halftime lead typical in the recent history of Michigan football except against Notre Dame.
It was just a MAC team, but think of how good those words sound rolling off your lips. Just a MAC team. Couldn't be expected to cope with our freakishly accurate quarterback or our freakishly speedy quarterback or the zippy skill position players who seemed bountiful and endless. Couldn't be expected to cope with Brandon Graham or Craig Roh or Mike Martin. No chance. Just a MAC team with a quarterback who might go in the first-round of the NFL draft and four-fifths of its offensive line back. No chance.
Yes, okay, there remain plenty of concerns. There were folks that the MAC team could cope with. These were the backup quarterback—and think about how good it sounds to have the identity of that person be utterly uncontroversial, no offense to said backup—and any cornerback not named Cissoko or Warren. Oh and any defensive end not named Graham or Roh. Or… well, you get the idea. The defense is paper-thin and can fall off a cliff with a single injury. So can the quarterback position until such time as Denard Robinson develops into something a more than a beautiful freakshow.
But today there is a thread about Michigan on every opponent message board across the internet where some guy says "looks like all that extra practice paid off lol."
Last year, the Utah game was an opportunity to radically reassess Michigan's immediate future. It was far uglier than the final score, and I remember going on WCBN—which BTW I will be on at around 5 today—and telling the assembled folk there that the Notre Dame game would be "critical for bowl eligibility," whereupon we mused ruefully about how far Michigan had fallen in such a short period of time without anyone coming close to realizing how optimistic we still were.
The one piece of good fortune coming from that game was the handy metaphor:
Every rational thought in your head suggests that the whole walk-on or freshman-the-coaches-are-panicked-about at quarterback, the line of baling wire and the occasional confused chicken, and freshmen everywhere at the skill positions will combine to yield an offense worthy of Yakety Sax, but until you actual see the damn thing in action you can hold out hope it will be otherwise.
We have seen it in action. It could have gone better. At least we have an incredibly direct metaphor all around us:
This program is under construction with a completion date around 2010.
This program is still under construction, and the completion date is still 2010. But those shabby exposed girders are now sheathed in brick and lightning, shiny in the afternoon sun. As the season goes on we'll undoubtedly see the unfinished parts within brought to the surface. There's no insulation, and if you peer into the windows you can still see the girders that were plain to all last year.
For now, for right now, it's reassuring to look up and see a modern version of Yost on the way. Through controversy and people with ill-considered protests Michigan comes, echoing the past with a back-to-the-future offense and West Virginians in charge and beautiful brick arcs and, Angry Michigan BLANK-Hating God willing, a point per minute.
- Man, JT Floyd looked like he'd have no chance of ever being a legit Big Ten corner on that bomb. I watched him go from two steps ahead to two steps behind the Western WR and immediately shivered at the safety depth. Maybe I'm leaping to too many conclusions from one play, but I see a safety move in his future.
- Also, and you are going to hear this thought a half-dozen times in this space over the next week, but: man, that Western touchdown was a bummer for a lot of reasons but none more foreboding than its extreme resemblance to the one-man-route Golden Tate touchdown from last year's Notre Dame game. Cissoko's health and Michigan's ability to ignore the Notre Dame ground game will be key.
- Brandon Graham must be livid he doesn't have a sack. Or three.
- How dumb does last year's "Rodriguez refuses to adjust his offense" meme look now? Michigan used a thousand different formations, including intermittent deployments of the I-form and a heavy dose of 2 TE ace sets. He's been presented with solutions and has gone in search of the problem.
- You know, if Michigan compliance is right and they can release a detailed report about offseason activities that results in zero and Michigan does pull out of its steep dive, it's possible the Free Press will be directly responsible for dissolving the gap between Michigan fans and Rich Rodriguez, which would have to go in the Alanis Morrissette Ironic Hall Of Fame. (Note on the linked article: claims that students chanted "keep united" after the game, which would have been awesome if it was true. It wasn't, though: it was "beat the Irish.")
- No, none of the things in that song are ironic, which makes the fact that the hall of fame is named after her ironic. Obvs.
- I think everyone needs to go back into that thread posted by that guy who said Craig Roh would start and posbang him like whoah. Also, I was backing two recruits out of proportion to all reason this year: Roh and Vincent Smith. Remember this when the predictions I make in the future are all hilariously off base.
- Wait just one more before we return to your regularly-scheduled wrongness: I'm telling you about Drew Tate, man. That first touchdown, where Forcier moxied his way away from a defender and then signaled Hemingway to go deep, was vintage Tate. Hopefully it will be vintage Tate again.
- Similarly, Sheridan's interception was a perfect demonstration of the difference between the two QBs. With the safety pulled up, Sheridan actually had plenty of room to hit Mathews in the back of the endzone if he floated it a bit; instead he attempted to rifle it and the ball was undercut.
- I twittered this but if you weren't around: I saw someone carrying around a sign that said "In Rich And Staff We Trust." This is banner fail.
This this was interesting from Touch the Banner:
In the second half, WMU quarterback Tim Hiller started getting rid of the ball quicker. He found a rhythm and started hitting underneath passes to his receivers. Greg Robinson might be served well by disguising coverages on the outside, changing the look from cover 2 man to a cover 2 zone. Suddenly, instead of driving the cornerback off with his initial burst, that cornerback is sitting underneath the quick hitch to the outside. A couple well orchestrated disguised coverages might be just enough to make Hiller think twice, which would give Brandon Graham, Mike Martin, and the rest of the defensive line enough time to get to the quarterback.
Michigan's defense in the opener seemed very simple. There was little rotation down-to-down. Michigan went the whole way in the same 3-4/4-3/4-2-5 hybrid thingy, occasionally rotating in a backup on the defensive line (this was done per series, so the series Graham was out he was just out except for a couple of third downs, IIRC) and yanking Cissoko for Floyd once things got out of hand. Everyone else played almost every snap. So it seemed like Michigan wanted to get their guys doing a limited number of things well; I assume they'll expand on that as the season goes on.
Also, by the time Hiller got going the game was out of hand and I can understand the impulse to shelve the exotics with Notre Dame coming in next week.
The Diag asks if Kelvin Grady has stolen Odoms' job, which probably not but he seems a viable option. I was surprised Roundtree was invisible—only came in with the Conescrubs at the end—after his spring game; even Laterryal Savoy and James Rogers got more run.
If you follow me on Twitter (@varsityblue), you probably got most of the info yesterday, but for those who don't, or who want it in a convenient format, here are the notes from yesterday's postgame press conference.
- The drama of the week heading into the game brought the team together as a family more than they already had been.
- Rodriguez told Tate that he didn't need to do too much himself. He's surrounded by athletes on the team, just get them the ball and let them make the plays.
- Tate's never gotten nervous for a game - "and I don't think I ever will."
- Tate has no Denard jealousy - in fact, playing two QBs substantially makes the Michigan team much harder for opponents to defend.
- Tate wasn't impressed by Denard's touchdown run - "I've seen him do it so many times in practice... it's typical for him to do that."
- Tate was surprised by the offense's big plays. He thought the offense would move it down the field - not get it all in one play.
- The first game against D-1 athletes didn't faze Denard. He's practiced against the guys on his own team, and knew what to expect
- Denard's athleticism makes it much harder for the opposing teams to prepare. There's even the potential to get both QBs on the field at the same time for some crazy stuff (see: Denard lined up at slot in second drive).
- Denard said college is a lot different from high school. On top of actual gameplay, the crowd was really loud.
- There's velcro on the inside of Denard's shoes to keep them on despite the lack of laces.
- As far as the QB competition, Robinson isn't too worried about who starts. He came here to compete for playing time at quarterback, and he'll continue to compete for playing time at quarterback.
- The coaches try to put a lot of pressure on the kids in practice, so that they won't get overwhelmed in games. (Hmm, sounds a bit like one Glenn Schembechler).
- There were a couple execution errors offensively, as well as too many penalties. Once those get worked out, hopefully the offensive will be able to move more consistently.
- The biggest key for Michigan's coaches in preparing for the season was to eliminate negative-yardage plays and turnovers. They did that for the most part, and they'll try to work on the penalties (which they aren't happy with, either).
- Rodriguez is still concerned with defensive depth. However, the defense looked pretty good in the first half.
- Rodriguez thanked the fans for supporting the team. In true Michigan coach fashion, he dropped the word "tremendous" about 5 times. As far as fans chanting his name, "They can say my name, but really, they're cheering for Michigan."
- Brandon Minor looked OK in warmups. He hopes Brandon can play next week, and he's confident that Junior Hemingway and Boubacar Cissoko will also be fine for next week. (Notes: From the sounds of it, Minor could have gone if the team really needed him. I think he was held out mostly as a precaution. If Cissoko isn't healthy for next week, God Help Us against Notre Dame).
- Craig Roh has a lot of talent, and should really contribute to the team this year.
- All 3 quarterbacks will continue to play (Note: I would say it's pretty clear who 1a, 1b, and 2 are at this point, though).
- The coaches knew Junior Hemingway could be this good. He showed it last year, but then got hurt and couldn't play most of the year.
- It was tough giving up the shutout in the fourth quarter. It would have sent a big statement in week 1.
- The team's been hungry all off-season to erase the bad taste from last year. The drama of the past week didn't change that, it only amplified it.
- Obi has seen Denard making crazy runs in practice, and it's good to see him do it against actual opposition. "It's not just me" that Denard can make look foolish.
- Notre Dame has a good QB and good offensive threats. Though most of the focus in practice to this point has been on Western, they'll jump straight into Notre Dame prep. The coaches will have a good gameplan against the Irish.
- It feels good to be healthy. It almost feels weird, like he's starting over again. It feels good to be out there with the team.
- It feels good to start the year putting the team's best foot forward.
- The offense is much better this year, because everyone is on the same page, and everyone knows what to do now.
- Hemingway himself says he could have played in the second half if needed. Sitting in the second frame was precautionary, and he'll be fine to go against Notre Dame.
Alright. We are going to try this despite not organizing it well at all.
Jared is the only guy around but CIL now allows you to add moderators on the fly. If you'd like to help out, and help will be needed, type it in the box below. Approximate dispersion of people:
- PBP guy/scoreboard updater
- News item guy
- 2-3 comment moderator guys
I'll be at the game, but I wish you luck. For people new to this thing check out the Live Blog Chaos Mitigation Post.
|WHAT||Michigan vs Western Michigan|
|WHERE||Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mi|
|WHEN||3:30 Eastern, September 5th 2009|
|THE LINE||Michigan -13|
|TELEVISION||Nationwide on ABC|
Run Offense vs. Western
If Michigan wants to win football games this year, especially starting a freshman quarterback, they are going to have to run the ball well. As detailed extensively here and at Varsity Blue, they went from a horrible running team at the beginning of last year to an average-to-good one after the Penn State game. Returning every contributor from the offensive line with another year in the offensive system and the weight training program can only help.
The Broncos weren't particularly adept at stopping the run last year, ranking 62nd in the nation despite facing buzzsaw offenses like Idaho (#74 in rushing), Tennessee Tech (#95 - in Division 1-AA), Temple (#109), Ohio (#79), Buffalo (#75), Central Michigan (#72(!)), and Rice (#62). The Broncos did also face a couple top-30 teams, and some that were vaguely around the 50th percentile. Still, they gave up some serious rushing yardage to some bad teams. Michigan should have the talent advantage over every single one of those moribund teams and everyone the Broncos played against last year except Illinois (who the Broncos took down) and Nebraska. I say "should" because of last year.
That brings us to the horror show that is Western's front seven. The top two defensive ends and the 2nd and 3rd defensive tackles are gone. Cody Cielenski—all 274 pounds of him—is the only returning starter. That much turnover on a line that wasn't very good last year, could spell trouble for the Broncos' ability to defend the run.
The linebackers aren't quite as inexperienced, with 5th-year senior Austin Pritchard returning. He was second on the team in tackles last year, and was named first-team all-MAC. He'll be joined by Mitch Zajac and Justin Braska. Braska is a classic linebacker, while Zajac is the new-model converted-safety-type who can play in space, and will likely be a bigger hindrance to a spread team like the Wolverines.
Key Matchup: Michigan's Interior Offensive Linemen v. The Second Level. With an inexperienced defensive line facing Michigan's now-seasoned OL, the Wolverines in the trenches should be able to execute their initial double-teams and move up to the second level. If their athleticism is such that they can get blocks on linebackers and even secondary players, it could be Big Play City for the Michigan offense. Otherwise, it could be a grind-it-out kind of day, which might not be the best-case scenario for Michigan with Brandon Minor dinged up.
Still, Carlos Brown and Co. should be able to move the ball on the ground with, no matter what.
Pass Offense vs. Western
If Western's run defense was pretty bad last year, their pass defense was downright terrible. Facing the same motley crew of offenses, they finished #102 in the nation in pass defense. 9They were a more respectable #62 in pass efficiency defense.) That indicates they were in lots of shootouts last year (a couple) and games in which the opponent was trying to mount a comeback (a couple more).
The Bronco defense soared to those heights despite two players selected in the NFL Draft in Louis Delmas (2nd Round to the Lions, still technically in the NFL) and EJ Biggers (7th Round to the Buccaneers). I think it's safe to say that you can't expect WMU to replace two NFL-caliber players at one position group. Ohio State they are not. The lone returning starter is strong safety Mario Armstrong.
For Michigan's part, they're trying to erase the memory of a horrible passing game last year (#108 in the country). It's not like we'll be sending out a juggernaut against the Broncos' depleted corps. However, their must must must be an upgrade at quarterback, if only because there was no place to go but up. Tate Forcier will hopefully justify his reputation as a robo-QB, and all will be well as Junior Hemingway, Greg Mathews, and Martavious Odoms can stride from one end of the field to the other with ease.
Key Matchup: Michigan Freshman/Sheridan QBs v. Their Inherent Freshman/Sheridan Qualities. Western's secondary isn't going to be all that good. Their defensive line will only be able to provide a little bit of pressure. The main thing that can stop the Wolverine offense here is shooting itself in the foot. First-game jitters for the freshmen may lead to a little bit of that, and we all know what Sheridan can (or more accurately, can't) do.
The runner up in this category was Michigan Receivers v. The Dropsies. There have been some reports of mild problems in this category, and there are few things more frustrating than a wide open receiver droping a pass.
Run Defense vs. Western
Western has had a prolific offense in the Bill Cubit era, but they haven't been doing most of that work on the ground. They were 28th in total offense last year despite finishing #96 in rushing. Their lack of rushing yardage, however, wasn't always for lack of trying. They tried with little success to pound the ball against Nebraska and Illinois. It will be interesting to see if that extreme pass skew holds up this year; Western has experienced running backs and offensive linemen and a green receiving corps.
Michigan's defense, on the other hand, is a wildcard. Hell, we aren't even positive what the schemes are going to be. Brandon Graham and Mike Martin are the anchors of the DL, and Ryan Van Bergen should be decent unless he has leverage problems with his height. The Western offensive line is pretty big, however, and they could wear out Michigan's DL, especially with the lack of depth Michigan has. Oft-MGoMaligned Obi Ezeh could be vulnerable in space. Brandon West and Aaron Winchester are the type of little darters (Winchester much more so) that have given him trouble in the past of the variety "Ezeh totally overruns the play (-1)."
Contain and discipline will be key.
Key Matchup: Michigan's Defense v. Getting Off The Field. As long as the Wolverines' defensive line doesn't have to play too many snaps, especially consecutively, they should be pretty good. This was a huge issue last year, when they'd force a third and long, and then allow the offense to convert.
Pass Defense vs. Western
This is the segment of the review were Legitimate Fear strikes Michigan fans. Tim Hiller has been prolific in his career to date and is one of Mel Kiper's top five senior quarterbacks. (Don't take that to the bank: Curtis Painter was Kiper's #1 at this time last year.)
There are some reasons for optimism here;
- Hiller is coming off offseason ACL surgery and is not necessarily in peak physical form.
- Western lost most of its receiving corps. Gone are 3 of last year's top 4 options. Juan Nunez returns as the team's best deep threat, but he's one of the very few guys left. Freshman Ansel Ponder should be a top target for Western, with good hands and enough speed to possibly get deep. The Broncos do have a number of tight ends that they may use as well.
Michigan's secondary, however, is about as inexperienced as the Bronco receivers. They won't be tested as much as you'd think, because most of Western's passes are caught within a few yards of the line of scrimmage. That does mean Michigan's linebackers, notorious for their inability to defend the pass, will have to make plays. This will be an early test for Michigan's revamped, speedier linebacker corps and their underneath coverage.
Key Matchup: Brandons Graham and Herron v. Western's Tackles. If Tim Hiller has time to throw the ball, he will find an open play and make a play. That's what 5th-year seniors do, especially those who are coming off all-conference season last year. Michigan needs to make sure they don't allow Hiller that time to make passes.
Both Western's kicker (John Potter) and punter (Ben Armer) return. Potter didn't kick enough field goals and extra points to register any higher than 16th in scoring from last year's MAC ledger. He was decent in his freshman year, and should improve as a sophomore.
The punting game was not so kind to the Broncos last year. They were 97th in the nation in net punting, with Armer barely eclipsing the 40yds/punt mark. If Michigan's returners can hold onto the damn ball, there should be some pretty good opportunities to get serious field position.
For Michigan's part, there is Space Punter and the Unknown. Olesnavage has never kicked a field goal or extra point, and his first real contribution to the team may have to come in crunch time. There is the slight relief that he beat out a scholarship guy in Brendan Gibbons, but I guess Jason Gingell had beaten out Bryan Wright before The Horror, as well.
Key Matchup: Olesnavage v. Angry Michigan-Hating Upset-Minded God. The past two years, Michigan has suffered humiliating upsets because of key missed field goals. If Michigan starts giving away points in special teams, we might be headed for an unfortunate repeat.
Hey, you know what didn't work out last year? Lack of cats.
- The linebackers and secondary look inept in covering the short passing game.
- Either Michigan freshman QB gets hurt, leaving Sheridan as the only viable backup option.
- The offensive line's reported improvement isn't really really obvious.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Michigan can get to Hiller over and over again.
- Tate Forcier looks as good against the Broncos as he did against backups in the spring game.
- Michigan linebackers are sniffing out the screens.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 3 (Baseline 5; –1 for You Have No Men Larger Than Minor On D, Let Alone Linemen, –1 for Still Have Pretty Decent MAC record, +1 for Sheridan Shall Be Sighted, –1 for But Not Much, +1 for Oh Lord Some Safety Is Going To Head Asplode Me.)
Desperate need to win level: 10 (Baseline 5; +5 for Duh.)
Loss will cause me to... Relive the depths of 2008, probably hear all week about how RichRod is sooo fired.
Win will cause me to... Breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to a year of potentially-competent football.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
This game looks to have the makings of an offensive shootout unless GERG Robinson is a miracle worker. Both defenses are expected to be subpar, Western's offense is good, and Michigan's offense is an unknown trending towards good. One team will probably put up decent numbers in order to win.
Offensive shootouts, of course, are typically decided by a couple key plays on defense. Be it a moment of general freshmanity for Forcier or Robinson, or a big sack by Brandon Graham to change field position, one mistake by either offense could decide this one. Considering Michigan's better overall talent level, it should be the Wolverines coming through with a big play.
Offensively, Michigan is still an unknown, mostly because of projected improvement at some positions (offensive line) and youth at another (quarterback). If Brandon Minor was fully healthy, I'd feel much better about this one, as we could probably RAGE down their throats all day. Even if he plays, though, he might be limited. That means a more diverse offense is probably necessary to find any success. That, in turn, means trusting unproven quarterbacks, which generally scares the hell out of me.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Michigan executes a running play longer than 58 yards, their long last year. (It was Threet's gallop against Wisconsin.)
- Tate frustrates the hell out of fans at least once, but excites them more times than that.
- Hiller gets sacked at least three times.
- Michigan, 31-21. [Editor's note: put me down for 34-20.]
[Aaaaand we're out.]
Part thirteen of the all-singing all-dancing season preview. Previously: The Story, 2009, quarterbacks, tailbacks, receivers, offensive line, secondary, linebackers, defensive line, special teams, offensive overview and predictions, defensive overview and predictions, and putting it on the record.
Note: Western preview upcoming with considerable assist from Tim. ETA about one hour, and then we're out.
[Update: Song is "A Better Son/Daughter" by Rilo Kiley. Album.]
A. Watch it. (If you watched it, go to D. Otherwise, go to B.)
B. I told you to watch it. This is not optional. (If you watched it, go to D. Otherwise go to C.)
C. I hate you so much. You don't win the World Series and are eaten by a dinosaur.
D. It's pretty weird being a Michigan fan right now. Winningest program, relatively recent national title, six-of-seven losing streak against Blood Rival, 40 year bowl streak just broken, some guy who tells USA Today he "grew up in a holler," by which he means a dirt road, and "is the same guy [he's] always been" in charge of the whole broken enterprise. I don't think any of us expected to ever be here.
I told Paul I wanted a hype video along the lines that you saw above—unless of course you are currently inside the digestive track of a dinosaur, in which case what sort of wifi do you have?—and he was skeptical. "I've never put highlights to a waltz," he said. I told the girlfriend I told Paul I wanted a hype video along the lines above and she was incredulous. "But it's desperate and sad," she said. I was kind of like yeah… and? And then also I was kind of like "in desperation there's that shred of hope; people who are down and not desperate are resigned. I could be ignorant or desperate." Actually I didn't say that, I said something along the lines of "hi, I'm a Michigan fan, nice to meet you."
E. By this point, I think Rich Rodriguez and the fan collective understand each other pretty good. Maybe we wanted people to conform to our idea of a "Michigan Man," but it turns out things just move towards an asymptote from opposite directions. Here we are on opposite sides of an unbridgeable gap, so close we can reach out our hands and touch.
I said earlier this week in The Story that last year was hard and apathetic. It's still hard, but goddammit I want Michigan to win.
G. I need a nap and a drink.