Usual post-disaster measures have been implemented: you need to be a "basic user" (100 points) to comment and "trusted" to start yet another redundant thread. Kitten:
Happy New Year!
Liveblog Chaos Mitigation Post taco taco taco. Also apparently six Mississippi State starters have a "stomach virus" important enough to mention on ESPN.
Michigan has the worst field goal kickers in the country and will use them only when facing preposterous situations like fourth and goal from the fifteen. One of MSU's kickers is basically a Michigan kicker but he was replaced and the new guy is 9 of 11. [shakes fist at sky.]
The punt games are a wash. MSU is 28th in net punting; Will Hagerup and co are a couple yards off of that but it's not a big enough difference to expect it will matter. MSU was decent at punt returns but Bumphis has all but one on the year so that's a question mark for them; Michigan will just fair catch it. Kickoffs are also a wash, though Michigan gave up a KR touchdown against OSU in their last game.
Key Matchup: DON'T ALLOW A DAMN TOUCHDOWN
- The first triple option pitch is so open it's not like there's anyone to blame.
- No one knows how to run a 3-3-5 still.
- Someone calls a halftime press conference.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- We're all like "oh, right, Mike Martin is a beast, I forgot."
- A healthy Denard is zinging accurate balls hither and thither.
- Greg Robinson's beaver makes frequent appearances for whatever reason.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 5 (Baseline 5; +1 for We're Playing The Illinois Offense Again, –1 for But Denard Is Healthy And So Is Odoms And So Isn't MSU's Best WR, +1 for Mississippi State's Defense Will Not Be As Accommodating As Illinois, +1 for Burn The Gardner Shirt Or Run Wildcat If—When—Robinson Gets His Ding, –1 for Chris Relf's Erratic Throwing Is Defense-Invariant, –1 for Healthy Mike Martin, +1 for Mad Cowbell Disease)
Desperate need to win level: 8 (Baseline 5; +1 8-5 Is Undeniable Progress, –1 for That Might Not Matter One Whit Anyway, +1 for The Faint Memory Of January Happy Events Is Like Motes Of Dust In A Room Half-Remembered, +1 for The Slight Chance It Might Impact Our Ability To Watch Denard Finish His Career Here, +1 for I Just Want To Win A Damn Game, –1 for I Know It's Over And Oh It Never Really Began But In My Heart It Was So Real, +1 for Seriously, Win.)
Loss will cause me to... sigh and brace for a press conference.
Win will cause me to... smile and brace for a press conference.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
I hate this section because predictions are stupid. I always have. That's why the bolded text is whining. I want Michigan to win so I think Michigan will win. I fear Michigan will lose so I think Michigan will lose. You see that behavior in the BlogPoll: the most irrationally exuberant voters are always from some team doing well at that second with caviar dreams and the most irrationally negative voters have just watched their puppy run over and loathe everything. I'm caught between the two, and don't really know what to expect in a game that seems like a replay of the Illinois game. The Illinois game turned out to be rather close.
A couple other blogospheric predictions have dispensed with the idea that predictions are anything other than hopes, with Blue Seoul declaring…
I hate making predictions, especially when the two teams are close. So instead I'll just put what I hope happens.
…and BWS saying…
This is probably a homer's prediction, but I don't like picking against Michigan when a game looks not only winnable but more or less like a coin flip
…and I'm here to tell you that I don't know what's going on, man. I want Michigan to win, so I'll predict them to win because I can, in defiance of Vegas and the vague hope it matters. I'll spare people the talking myself into it bit.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Demens is still aligned like an idiot would align him and MSU counters are highly effective, but Martin's presence makes the interior inverted stuff mostly ineffective.
- Michigan has two fifty-yard-plus touchdowns.
- Michigan gives up two fifty-yard-plus touchdowns.
- Michigan, 31-28, with Justin Meram erupting from the locker room with ten seconds left to boot a 200 yard field goal.
Run Defense vs. Mississippi State
The most terrifying bit of the game lies in here. You've heard it before but: this offense is Illinois part II. Chris Relf is a big, stocky runner with some talented sidekicks in a system that runs a ton of option until you freak out about it, then nails you for freaking out about it. They also effectively deploy the new hot thing in college football:
This isn't a veer of any sort but it is inverted,—the quarterback is the upfield threat—power-ish,—backside tackle(!) pulls around—and effective. Their running game is as diverse and almost as hard to stop as Michigan's. Michigan finished the year 11th, MSU 16th. The "almost" comes with a deeper look at the numbers: MSU runs a freaking ton, with 561 carries on the year against just 265 passes. That's a hefty 68% run rate reminiscent of Pat White's days at West Virginia. The Bulldogs average a full yard less per carry than Michigan, and that's a large chunk of the reason FEI has Michigan the #2 offense in the country and Mississippi State #72.
You can chalk that up to a distinct lack of Denard Robinson. Chris Relf is more Cam Newton than Robinson, albeit a version of Cam Newton without the ability to run away from Patrick Peterson. He's a tough inside runner with good vision and the occasional sweet move downfield but he's not a bolt of lightning. The reason MSU runs so much inverted stuff is to take advantage of his interior power.
On the outside the answer was a combination of Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins. Ballard is the team's leading rusher with around 900 yards, with Relf at 700 and Perkins at 500 and guys down the list picking up spare yards here and there. Michigan won't see slot receiver extraordinaire Chad Bumphis due to injury, so his role taking end-arounds, reverses, and jet sweeps figures to fall to Perkins. He's he fastest guy they've got left. Blue Seoul:
He's extremely dangerous on edge running plays. Especially the sweep. Expect him to carry the ball 5-10 times. But they'll probably have another 5-10 plays designed to go to him on either screens, wheel routes, or some other trickery.
With the extra practices, expect him to line up in the slot and then motion around, possibly to the backfield or to get the ball on a jet sweep.
Ballard is more of a north-south guy with good top end speed but not a whole lot of wiggle. Watch if MSU tips their option plays by tailback—Blue Seoul says Ballard was de-emphasized as the pitch guy as the season went along because he had a tough time maintaining the proper relationship with the QB.
Michigan will also have to watch for the shovel. While technically a pass play it's more like a different twist on the triple option. Remember that TE Gonzalez getting guaranteed first downs for Florida by pulling across the formation and taking a shovel pitch from Tim Tebow? Yeah, that has migrated over to Mississippi State. MSU lacks a TE with ridiculous athleticism so they will align in a wing set with one of the tailbacks as an H-back and then run the shovel away from the strength of the formation.
The MSU offensive line seems pretty mediocre to me but as he got deeper into the Bulldog season Blue Seoul came away with a certain appreciation for the tackles and center. Not so much the guards or the depth:
The only weak spot is #62. He is a good run blocker, but has made several mistakes in pass protection. I suggest running a lot of two man stunts or blitzes on his side making him choose who to block and who to let go.
There seems to be a significant talent/experience dropoff when the backups come in. In the one game where they had to shuffle linemen around because of injuries, Ballard was held in check and things were not pretty.
As far as Michigan goes, who knows what the hell we'll see. Everyone's pulling for a four-man line and whatnot but this actually seems like a game the 3-3-5 was built for—a matchup against a dedicated spread rushing attack. Expect to see Jordan Kovacs in the box 90% of the time on running downs as Michigan deploys an extra man on the edge in an attempt to slow down the option they couldn't against Illinois. Kovacs made some critical mistakes in that game that were compounded by the youth of a freshly-inserted Ray Vinopal and an odd scheme that saw Jonas Mouton rendered mostly useless.
Michigan's best hope for a surprisingly good performance rests in the ankles of Mike Martin, which have been pronounced 100%. If he can go full bore we'll see the combination of Actual Mike Martin and Kenny Demens we never really got in the regular season. Greg Robinson will line Demens up two feet from the guard and get him obliterated but I'm saying there's a chance of usefulness.
Key Matchup: Jordan Kovacs and Cam Gordon against the option. The edge safeties will be key players against a play Michigan struggled badly against in the Illinois game. They've got to correct their mistakes.
Pass Defense vs. Mississippi State
I don't think you're supposed to hold it like that.
Here's the other bit of why FEI is so down on the MSU offense relative to Michigan's:
That is a UFR chart of Relf's performance against Kentucky and it's basically on par with Denard Robinson… as a freshman. You remember what that was like. It wasn't very good. Massive caveat: that was by far the worst game of the season for Relf. I did the Arkansas game, too, and here it is:
That's better but still pretty ugly. Relf ended up 20 of 30 for 224 yards, which is a decent 7.4 YPA. His receivers dropped no easy ones—they could have bailed him out on two or three bad throws—and his deep balls were wildly off target. His successes came mostly on plays where he had all day in the pocket and could zing darts across the middle of the field, and on several plays he was reduced to ineffective scrambling after holding the ball a long, long time.
His two key deficiencies as a passer are that tendency and his total inability to hit deep balls. Blue Seoul suggests putting the corners in all inside leverage all the time and blitzing like Manny Diaz is in charge and I agree—in third and long situations Michigan should drop eight only as a changeup and send waves of blitzers, playing the percentages when it comes to Relf and tough throws.
At receiver, with Bumphis out the main guys are Chris Smith and Arceto Clark, with Brandon Heavens a third option. All are sophomores that seem pedestrian, though it's hard to tell given the limited opportunities they receive. They don't get much downfield separation but seem sure-handed.
Pass protection has not been good. Despite passing only 32% of the time Mississippi State gives up almost two sacks a game. They're 53rd in the NCAA's raw stats but would be well down the list if the NCAA ranked by sacks per pass attempt; against Arkansas there were a lot of blitz pickup breakdowns. Bizarrely, though, Arkansas is 6th nationally in sacks and still left Relf back in the pocket for ages for most of that game.
Mississippi State will attack the level between the linebackers and safeties on play action, attempting to hit chunk plays on digs and seams and whatnot; Relf's limitations and their lack of a go-to receiver makes deep balls futile unless the opponent massively busts a coverage, which Michigan will do twice. Relf's likely to miss it when it happens or miss the throw anyway.
On the other hand, the Michigan secondary.
Oh all right, the Michigan secondary: Jebus. What is it? Does it exist? We could ram them through a particle accelerator to find out if not for "laws" that you should keep off my body, kthx, and by body I mean joke physics experiment. Keep your laws off my joke physics experiment.
But seriously folks, Michigan cornerbacks should force guys outside and deep and hope Relf's accuracy is as advertised, with the linebackers getting appropriate depth on play action drops and the deep safety coming up into that middle range where Mississippi State makes its hay. Will they do this without getting burned? Probably not.
Key Matchup: Martin, Roh, and Van Bergen getting to Relf against (hopefully) single blocking afforded by a lack of stupid three man rushes I hate so very much.
In multiple parts due to length.
|WHAT||Michigan vs Mississippi State|
|WHERE||Gator Bowl, Jacksonville, FL|
|WHEN||1:30 Eastern, January 1st 2010|
|THE LINE||Mississippi State –4.5|
|WEATHER||Partly cloudy, 76 degrees
20% chance of rain
If you haven't gotten the basic outline by now you're to be commended on your remarkable ability to avoid information. The internet now possesses a frame-by-frame breakdown of a long run by I-AA Alcorn State in their body-bag game against the Bulldogs along with dozens of other bits less manic. Truly, no team has ever met the level of amateur scouting that Mississippi State just did from the Michigan blogosphere.
But here we go anyway…
Run Offense vs. Mississippi State
The maniacal maniacs of Manny Diaz will make this tough sledding for the Michigan ground game except in instances where someone gets caught out of position and Denard Robinson's sledding will have a new non-caloric silicon-based kitchen lubricant applied to it. MSU's hoping this won't happen, what with articles being written that quote "discipline" in the headline and stress tackling:
"Tackling is the other big concern with bowls because we haven't tackled a guy in five weeks," Diaz said. "So those will be the things we will all unfortunately find out together, whether we'll be ready to tackle in one-on-one situations. They're going to spread you out and make that a one-on-one game."
And other articles in which Diaz invokes "gap control":
“It’s all about gap control,” Diaz said. “They do some pretty good things with their run game. They’re going to ask you the questions and you have to have the answer for it. The issue with them is that if there’s a play when you miss the answer, he has a chance to go 80 yards because he’s so fast.
"With such a small margin of error, it might be our death.”
Can the Bulldogs do this? They've got a shot. Diaz points out they won't be intimidated since their scheduled was littered with Heisman finalists, including the 6-6 controversy robot that won the thing. MSU held him to 70 yards rushing on 18 attempts and 136 yards passing in a 17-14 loss; if they do the same to Michigan and give up 17 points they won't be losing.
The basic philosophy of the MSU defense is evident in their first drive against LSU. It's evident everywhere all the time but this is a particularly emblematic bit:
Blitz, blitz, blitz from everywhere. Eight guys on the LOS on first down run blitzing like nuts. On passing downs heavy doses of zone blitz, and on third and two there's a specific rollout contain blitz from a linebacker. MSU doesn't blitz like Michigan blitzes: as the changeup.
This has been highly effective no matter what metric you grab. MSU is 19th in rushing defense against a fairly tough schedule—they didn't play anyone in the nonconference but got stuck in a brutal SEC West (or "Legends," whatever)—and obliterated a few actual teams along the way:
The problems usually came in the form of big gains, like a 56-yard Julio Jones run by Alabama, a 64-yard Knile Davis run by Arkansas, and even the aforementioned long touchdown by the Alcorn State Acorns.
The ruthless math of blitzing is that when you're wrong, you're really wrong. Mississippi State has not found a way to defy this, but they're good enough that you're going to be in second and long lots and unless you rip off a long one you're not cracking 5 YPC even if you've got Cam Newton. They also managed to give up 24 points to a 4-8 Conference USA team a week after holding Florida to seven—unpredictability is inherent in the system.
This begins to be old hat but the numbers above indicate a certain difficulty with spread systems—Florida, Auburn, and Arkansas had three of the top four rushing days against the Ole Miss defense. As you can see above and Georgia found out in their loss to MSU early in the year, the question you're asking when you line up under center and run pro-style at this thing is "do you know how much I like second and long?" Michigan's spread will pull linebackers outside and ask questions of the safeties, who I liked in the Georgia game but Alcorn State (and everything else) analyst Blue Seoul has consistently dogged for things like that still above, wherein #5 is in the midst of pulling a Random Michigan Safety Since Marcus Ray With The Exception Of Jamar Adams-level boner.
As far as individual Mississippi State players, the defensive line is a who's-who of reasons Jay Hopson was a bad idea. He tried and failed to acquire three fourths of their starting DL. One was longshot JUCO Pernell McPhee; the others were high school kids Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd. Neither could escape Mississippi's immense gravitational field, and even trying has seen Hopson move to Memphis. Within two years he'll be in the event horizon.
Anyway, on tape none of these guys are great. McPhee is the best, a fairly disruptive (9.5 TFLs) DT who leads the line in tackles with a respectable 32 and can penetrate if given a one-on-one matchup. Boyd is also a guy who can beat a block and make a play. No one really gets to the QB but that's another show.
Key Matchup: Denard Robinson and possibly others in space against Mississippi State safeties. The very nature of this defense and this offense demands that this matchup happens several times. Sometimes it will be behind the LOS and bad for Michigan. Sometimes it will be downfield with one guy between Denard, paydirt, and 5 YPC. Note that the situation with Alcorn State victim above got bad at the end of the year. He was replaced for the Arkansas game, not that it mattered as Mallett went ham.
Pass Offense vs. Mississippi State
Chris White is white. Also he sacks people sometimes.
Here's a spot the Bulldogs might be vulnerable thanks to that blitz-mad philosophy. MSU's 89th in pass defense and while they're considerably better in efficiency terms at 50th, Michigan rolls into the game with the 24th ranked pass efficiency offense thanks to a wide variety of long gains that happen when people freak out about Denard Robinson and forget about 'Tree and company.
Michigan's got a reputation as a run-mad team where receivers go to die but if you flip over to the actual stats you'll see Roy Roundtree behind only a trio of Indiana receivers in receptions per game. He's 37 yards short of Jeremy Ebert's conference-leading 919 receiving yards, and most of those were not screens—teams have been taking away the bubble just about the whole year. If he hadn't gotten a severe case of the dropsies late in the season Roundtree would have led the conference in yards.
The reason a slot receiver has gone ham this year is because of the guy throwing it to him. Teams bring up a safety, then they bring up another safety, then they watch Roundtree fly down the field behind those guys. Opponents that have played it safe have held him in check, however. Conservative Big Ten cover two archetypes Iowa and Michigan State held him to a total of 58 yards, but both had the luxury of doing so because Michigan's offense rolled down the field only to turn the ball over in the redzone in both games.
It's not like Michigan is going up against a defense anything like that anyway. MSU is aggressive to the extreme. Their results to date show a vulnerability…
…but unfortunately for Michigan it appears it's a vulnerability to good pro-style quarterbacks who either have the protection to slice apart the defense or the arm and devil-may-care attitude to zing it into tough places MSU gives up by design. You'll note that Auburn has the best performance outside of the pro-style slingers. Auburn was wildly run-biased in that game, especially since two of the throws were trick plays for former QB Kodi Burns and a few more were screens, and it got them their worst scoring output of the year. Michigan should learn the lesson from that game and move first-down playcalling much closer to a 50-50 split unless they have some indefensible magic rushing gameplan.
When Michigan does pass, pickups will be key. The Diaz philosophy is evident in the numbers. His leading sack guy is linebacker Chris White with six. Number two is linebacker KJ Wright. Five different defensive backs have tackled the quarterback in the backfield when he attempts to throw the ball. Since no MSU defensive lineman has more than two and a half sacks and Michigan's offensive line has combined with Denard's legs to provide mostly fantastic pass protection, most pressure on Denard will come via unblocked rushers. On the one hand, that's a Diaz specialty. On the other, pickups equal time equal trouble for MSU because…
The Mississippi State secondary is shaky. They did not impress in the Georgia game and Blue Seoul's comprehensive evaluation of the Bulldogs hammers this point time and again:
Ark. #7 takes it to the house on a 60+ yarder on a student body left type play. Again, these DBs will give up big plays against real speed. Thankfully we've got a lot of that at WR. (not so much at RB, this would be a great team for Carlos Brown to play against). MSU's #7 let himself get blocked on the play when he didn't need to and could've saved the TD (14 yards downfield, but that's still better than a TD)
All the blitzing covers up for that, but it'll be interesting to see who wins that back-and-forth battle. Michigan opponents have been terrified to get after Robinson in the pocket since a missed tackle (or even a poor choice of rushing lane) is a big gain waiting to happen, especially if you have the cajones/stupidity to put man coverage behind your blitz. Robinson is going to see a ton of zone blitzes.
On conventional downs this game cries out for a heavy does of QB Draw Oh Noes. The thing that leaps off the tape about the LSU game above is just how aggressively the Bulldog defense reads run. Mallett also nailed one of the MSU safeties for an 88-yard TD on play action in the Arkansas game—these guys scream downhill. Michigan has gashed opponent after opponent with Denard's one-man play action and there probably isn't a team on the schedule more naturally vulnerable to the play than MSU. The Bulldogs will be trying to coach their players up on it but when your entire philosophy is built around maniacal aggression it's tough to beat that now well-worn instinct out of players.
Key Matchup: Magee versus Diaz, and in the event of a favorable outcome there Denard versus His Shoulder. There will be opportunities for explosive plays if Magee catches Diaz in the wrong call.
Let's make a deal.
Saturday Michigan takes on Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl and Sunday something may or may not happen involving the throttling of an infant Denard Robinson in his cradle and the tears and lamentation that may or may not result. That would hypothetically also mean the reign of terror Greg Robinson's hair and the zombie minion that goes by the name of Greg Robinson would be over. The city of Ann Arbor emerging from its cocoon of upper middle class ennui to shoot AK47s in the air would at least partially offset the tragic, still hypothetical loss of baby Denard. I have taken too long on this bit.
Two days later Jim Harbaugh and his Stanford Cardinal take on Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. After he may or may not be destined for Michigan or the 49ers or the moon. The latest from Harbaugh is reminiscent of one Brian Kelly last year:
"I only talk about the job I have now," Harbaugh said when asked if he or his representatives had spoken to the 49ers about their coaching vacancy.
He acknowledged having a "dual focus"—
--on his team, which will play Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl on Monday, and on his daughter, Katherine, who was born just before Christmas.
Aw, come on, Harbaugh.
So what's going to happen? I still don't know. No one does. Last time on this show I said I didn't have anything solid and probably wouldn't because of the nature of the "search" but that the mystical aura wasn't looking so hot:
I'm not inclined to put much in the widespread chatter that had RR out the door after the OSU game and seems to be continuing since its sourcing seems to be pissed-off-you-guys folk clearly unhappy with the state of the program taking small interactions and interpreting them as they desire. However, the vibe I'm getting from other people who seem to be on the fence about what to do—or at least close to it—also makes it seem unlikely Rodriguez is back. Emphasis on all the qualifying words in the previous sentence, please. I've got nothing solid because no one does.
I also said that Brady Hoke would be named Michigan's coach over my dead body and the last semblance of sanity in the universe but that wasn't based on inside information. It was more a "has everybody gone CRAZY!?!" moment, and if the threat of Hoke didn't linger in the air I'd apologize for it. As it is I'm on the battlements with an axe* waiting to behead anyone who pops up and says "my name is Buh—." Bill Parcells is duly warned.
With less that a week left before the month of limbo is over, I haven't received anything that pushes my opinion much one way or the other. To reiterate, that's:
- There is a nonzero chance Rodriguez is fired, otherwise there would have been an announcement.
- Schools do not start coaching searches on January 2nd.
- There's only one guy out there that could plausibly be socked away or all but in time for Michigan to have a reasonable finish in recruiting and could justify yet more chaos in a program that is pointed in the right direction, even if vaguely.
So it's Rodriguez or Harbaugh and we'll probably know the day after the Orange Bowl. With all due respect to people who would argue otherwise, it makes no sense to fire Rodriguez in January if you do not have a coach lined up immediately. Since the list of people other than Harbaugh who Michigan could install within a week reads "Buh—[blood theatrically spraying from neck]" your alternatives are between rushing someone through without pause for consideration—which worked out so well last time—or dragging the search almost up to Signing Day, leaving your recruiting class a smoking crater and possibly dooming the next guy, who will forever be Not Jim Harbaugh, to repeat the cycle.
I have heard some things that push me more towards Harbaugh:
- Some connected guys at Cal email that Tedford is aiming to poach Harbaugh's OL coach since he has "agreed to go elsewhere already" as of the 17th of December. Caveat: the Cal rumor mill bears no animus towards Rodriguez but would love to see Harbaugh anywhere but Stanford, so as things get passed down the chain they get more certain.
- A player who split his career between RR/Carr years tells an emailer that Harbaugh will be installed on the fifth. Caveat: why the hell would some former player know?
- An emailer who reports things second hand but has been reliable in the past suggests that Mary Sue Coleman isn't a big fan of Rodriguez, which isn't much of anything to go on but just adds to the pile.
- Media people I talk to generally say the best thing is probably to give him one more year but that they don't expect he'll get it. Also not much of anything but vibe.
The only thing pointing the other way is the generally sunny disposition coming from within Schembechler Hall, but with recruits the coaches are saying they've got no idea what's going on but if they're still around after the bowl they'll still be around forever, or something to that effect. That's a hard sale right there.
If I was 55-45 Harbaugh a month ago I'm 65-35 Harbaugh now. I wish I could be more certain and wouldn't make the decision I think is likely if I was king of the world, but that's life. We'll know soon enough.
AWFUL BONUS: If there is a change you can go start the Denard transfer watch at DEFCON 2, since Robinson knows what he is—the Big Ten offensive player of the year as a sophomore at quarterback—and where he fits. How screwed up is a program that manages to get both Ryan Mallett and Denard Robinson to transfer away from certain starting QB jobs in the course of three years?
This hasn't happened yet. Breathe. I am talking to myself mostly.
*(To avoid a Tucker Carlson moment let me clarify: I am not going to cut Brady Hoke or anyone's head off with an axe.)