The D-League as petri dish for weird basketball concepts.
Anyone not wishing to wade through the Wisconsin preview but in desperate need of Badger news -- and what a strange, finicky person you are -- should know they've lost two players, incoming freshman WR Daven Jones and third-string LB Jammar Crane. Badger Sports characterizes the losses as "one pinprick, one stab wound," with Jones being the stab wound.
Warning: above link contains an awful pun. You have been warned.
More season preview than you can shake a stick at, unless you're like a professional stick-shaker or something. I'm pretty sure I saw the PSSL on ESPN2 some night they could have been broadcasting hockey. Er... digression... what?
Oh. Maize 'n' Brew's Michigan season preview consists of twelve opponent previews of copious length. Vanderbilt is up first.
Dr. Z is indeed a god who strides amongst us. He's crotchety and has no time for any of the things I have no time for; he also was so incensed by the World Cup Final that he wrote a cranky column defending Zidane. At its end:
I'll tell you another thing. I just about had a bellyful of this Balboa guy. First he complains about all the flopping. Then, when France gets away with one to set up Zidane's penalty kick in the first half, he tells us that the guy "did a great job of selling it." Yeah, a great acting job. Accent on great.It's like hearing Balboa congratulate a pickpocket for the deft way he lifted a guy's wallet.
Sweet, sweet validation.
FYQ. An interesting article from the Star-Tribune on the extensive TCF-Minnesota deal that will result in an on-campus, open-air "TCF Stadium" for the university contains what is possibly the understatement of the year:
With few new college football stadiums being built, TCF's pact with the university is likely to remain rare.
"I don't think you'll see a big rush to it," said Jay Lenhardt, manager of sports practices at CSL International, a sports facilities consulting firm with an office in the Twin Cities. Because of traditions at older college football stadiums, Lenhardt added, "it's going to be difficult ... to change the name, for example, from Michigan Stadium to a corporate name."
This is what I think he meant:
"It's going to require wading through a sea of axe-wielding maniacs to change the name of Michigan Stadium."
There's also this weird proviso:
If the school erects a lighted sign on the stadium exterior that says "Home of the Golden Gophers," any nearby sign with the words TCF Bank Stadium must be illuminated "with the same or greater lighting quality and intensity."
Ugh. Anything's better than the Metrodome, but if I was a Minnesota fan the omnipresence of TCF would irritate me to no end. The corporate naming of stadium has always been a mystery to me, as whenever I hear something like "Comerica Park" I make a little note to myself to never, ever bank with Comerica. I can't be alone in this, can I?
Etc.: A Michigan grad wins the Deadspin World Cup pool; mentions EDSBS in victory post; does not mention MGoBlog; sobbing lasts hours.
Sorry for the late timing... this took longer than expected.
My angle! My precious angle!
Thousands of Wisconsin previews written by hacks across the country had to be hastily re-edited when Pat Fitzgerald became Northwestern's coach. Brett Bielema was the youngest head coach in D-I for all of six months; now he's not even the youngest in the Big Ten. Whither our angle? Tragedy!
It's probably too much to hope for sportwriters to focus on what will be one of the league's most interesting teams. Blessed with a shameful non-conference schedule and the absence of Ohio State and Michigan State from the conference portion, Wisconsin has the schedule to make a long run but must replace nearly the entire offense save suddenly-great QB John Stocco and a pair of offensive linemen. The receivers are unproven but one is a 6'4" track star and the other one is named "Randel El," the offensive line is prone to launching into doggerel about eating nosy guys with magic beans, and there are supposed to be five running backs. The defense looks strong on paper with eight returning starters and a couple of legit stars in DT Nick Hayden and FS Roderick Rogers, but that paper was good for 92nd in the country a year ago. And, yes, someone who is not Barry Alvarez is coaching the team.
So what will happen? I abdicate. I've spent hours combing stories, previews, player profiles, statistics, tarot cards, &c and have come up with nothing definitive. The OL could be great! It could be awful. The WRs could be great! They could be awful. The defense should rebound! Or maybe not. You'll get nothing definitive out of me on this team ready for mocking at season's end. Wisconsin will either be good or bad. If they are not, they will be average. Bold!
Last Year: Out-of-nowhere great. Brian Calhoun was a one-year revelation, torching Big Ten defenses by ground and air on his way to the NFL. John Stocco went from terrible to damn good seemingly overnight. The offensive line blocked, the receivers caught, and all was well.
Too bad they're all gone now.
Rating: 4. Nowhere was MGoBlog's remarkable power to transform crappy quarterbacks into John Elway via criticism more evident than in the personage of John Stocco. Witness last year's preview:
John Stocco was a mess last year and it would be surprising to see him make it through this year without getting in a serious quarterback controversy. ... I can't understand how he's the starting quarterback of a program with a pulse.
Ha. Ha. Ha. I am the funny guy: Stocco finished last year 13th in passing efficiency. Despite only throwing seven more times in '05 than '04, Stocco added 28 completions, nearly 1,000 yards, and 12 touchdowns to his totals. There were a multitude of reasons for this -- RB Brian Calhoun was a brilliant receiver, the offensive line was at its experience apex, the receivers were veteran an deep -- but primary amongst them was the addition of offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who brought an innovative set of throws that took advantage of the unique abilities of TE Owen Daniels and Calhoun without unduly testing Stocco's middling arm. The pair combined for 75 catches. When Stocco wasn't making high-percentage throws to those two, he was bombing it deep to Brandon Williams and Jonathan Orr. He made good decisions, made good throws, and then got a lot of YAC help from a set of athletic receivers. The catch, of course, is that none of those receivers return. Stocco has established himself, but still seems to lack that certain something the greats have. He's not the kind of guy to drive a team by himself and last year's engine is now in the clutches of Matt Millen.
Should Stocco go down, however, Wisconsin is in a heap of trouble. Backups Tyler Donovan and Justin Sherer have not impressed. Witness coach Paul Chryst's response to a question about the two:
"Luckily, we've got John."
Rating: 2. Wisconsin's irritatingly endless supply of yard-hoarding backs will be put to the test after Brian Calhoun transferred, pwned the Big Ten, and jumped to the NFL draft. He's now a Lion, so mutual regret is projected to kick in by September. Also gone is Booker Stanley, who was both awful and prone to beating the hell out of civilians. He made one wrong move too many and was dismissed over the offseason. Returning are a grand total of 31 collegiate carries and nothing resembling the hype generated by Calhoun's transfer-imposed redshirt year.
More disturbing than the tolerance shown for Stanley's behavior was that shown his totally inept running -- please don't pay attention to his approximately five yards a carry last year, as almost all of his carries were against the BGSUs and Hawaiis of the schedule -- as it indicates that his plodding, fall-over-at-slight-contact style was the best option left the Badgers when the ball didn't go to Calhoun. You can probably write off junior Jamil Walker and senior Dywon Rowan as a result. That leaves redshirt freshman PJ Hill as your projected starter. Hill seems to have Stanley's temper -- in February he was arrested for wielding a bat outside of a Wisconsin dorm -- and size at 235 pounds, but Wisconsin has to hope that he has something other than his talent-like substance. I have my doubts despite the puff-job coming from the coaches and media, as Bielema is talking about having four or five guys who are in competition for the job. Running backs are sort of like quarterbacks with greater amplitude: if you say you have five, you don't really have any.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Rating: 3. Gone are Jonathan Orr, Brandon Williams, Owen Daniels, and their 121 catches. Back are Marcus Randle-El, Paul Hubbard and their, er, two catches. Obviously, question marks abound.
Deadspin, just in case you didn't get the reference. In
which case you should be ashamed.
Randle-El proves the old maxim "Mothers, don't name your younger son 'Marcus' when your older son is a ridiculously exciting mobile quarterback because he is guaranteed to be a knucklehead if you do." He's holding on to his spot on the Wisconsin team by the thinnest of margins after a pair of arrests in under a year. As a result, his playing time to date has been sparse. This year he's thrust into the spotlight more by default than anything else. Will he live up to the Randle El name? In some way, probably. He's physically reminiscent of his brother as a 5'10" slot receiver-type, but no one will confuse him with Antwaan. He's not explosive but has good hands. Hubbard is another near unknown, a 6'4" track star who sounds tantalizing but only played in five games a year ago. Over the offseason he finally made a decision to pursue football foremost and emerged as a starter in the spring. He's obviously athletic -- national champion in the triple jump -- but is just as obviously raw.
Wisconsin will be relying heavily on one or two of the four freshmen they bring in this year, but the recruit Badger fans had highest hopes for, Daven Jones, didn't qualify and won't make it to campus. The best bet to see a lot of time is Lance Kendricks, a 6'4" vertical threat who ESPN ranked #106 last year and got four stars from both Scout and Rivals.
This group, neither o
bviously bad or obviously good, are the biggest swing vote on the team. If they excel the offense will hum along like it did last year; if they fall all over themselves Hill isn't going to be able to carry the team by himself.
Rating: 3. Much like Penn State, Wisconsin has an All-American-level left tackle and a lot of worries. Seniors Donovan Raiola, Jason Palermo, and Matt Lawrence are gone; redshirt sophomore Kraig Urbik moves from right tackle to guard. Only Joe Thomas, the aforementioned badass LT, is sure bet to excel. Or at least he would be if not for offseason surgery to repair a torn ACL suffered in the Citrus Bowl. Two true sophomores step into starting roles, RT Eric Vandenheuvel and LG Andy Kemp. Center goes to junior Marcus Coleman, the smallest man on the line at a mere 6'5".
As stated before, projecting offensive linemen is futile business, but Vandenhuevel and Kemp leapt onto the two-deep immediately upon arrival, saw time as true freshmen, and are now starters. Either Wisconsin is in deep trouble or they're about to have two anchors for the foreseeable future. I lean towards the latter. The silver lining in the Thomas injury was some reassurance that Vandenheuvel is marked for stardom. Coming off the bench cold and facing one of the SEC's best defensive lines, Vandenheuvel held his ground:
The Badgers received a boost when Eric Vandenheuvel, a 6-7, 340- pound freshman from Hudson, stepped in at left tackle and played well against an excellent Auburn defense in his college debut.
"He sure looks the part," Alvarez said of Vandenheuvel. "I didn't see any breakdown. I don't think anyone came over him. It's magnificent for him, a freshman who can step in and perform like that."
In high school he played next to Urbik, albeit on the left side of the line, which should ease his transition into starting. Chalk it up to excessive Badger-related optimism, but this line seems like it'll transition smoothly enough to a new generation of impossibly huge guys paving the way for oft-overrated running backs. It will be rough at the start -- it has to, especially with the Thomas injury -- and thus the "3" rating, but I would look at it more as a 2-progressing-to-4 by year's end.
Besides, how can you go wrong when you've got this guy...
Bob Dole. Bob Dole! BOB DOLE! ... is apparently UW's new offensive line coach. In yet another article about recruiting and text messaging, this passage made my day:
[Text messaging is] bad news for coaches like Bob Palcic, the newest hire on Bielema's first staff. Palcic, who was hired Monday to coach the Badgers' offensive line, said he barely knows how to use a cell phone, much less text messaging.
"If they do eliminate text messaging, that will be a positive for Bob Palcic," he said, "because I'm still just a guy who likes to talk to people on the telephone."
Bob Palcic's teaching the offensive linemen. Bob Palcic's going to the store. Bob Palcic's trying to mash the tiny buttons on a cell phone to tell some punk kid to have a good time tonight. Bob Palcic fought in 'Nam! Bob Palcic has a purple heart... Bob Palcic doesn't need this bullshit!
...as your offensive line coach? Bob Palcic fought in 'Nam!
Last Year: Ugly. Unable to decide if what they were bad at was defending the pass (458 yards to Omar Jacobs, 361 to Brett Basanez) or defending the run (a whopping 411 yards to Minnesota, and 282 to Penn State), Wisconsin decided to go with "both" and finished 92nd in total defense. A spate of injuries I would have sympathy for if I didn't spend all of last year watching shots of Mike Hart on the sideline mitigates those numbers somewhat. At times last year Wisconsin was missing 3/4ths of its starting defensive line.
That injury run may turn into a blessing in disguise, as a ton of experience returns but there is still a lot of reason for concern: the cornerbacks are still under suspicion and the linebackers are almost entirely raw.
Hayden: much tougher than this photo implies.
Returns a ton of experience despite the dismissal of two players but no dominant stars. Defensive tackle Nick Hayden is the closest thing to one and may reach that level this year, however. He was a big-time recruit two years ago (Michigan finished second for him) who saw time immediately upon arrival and started his entire sophomore year, finishing with outstanding numbers: 56 tackles, 9 TFL, and 5.5 sacks. If he plateaus at that level he'll still be an All-Big Ten type. If he makes a further jump he'll be pushing for All-American honors.
Next to Hayden will be joined by Jason Chapman, who was downright respectable as a true freshman, and Justin Ostrowski, who was going to be Hayden's running mate before suffering a slew of injuries. Both should be at least competent and will probably be better.
Unfortunately for UW, the defensive end spot is still injury-wracked. Jamal Cooper and Matt Shaughnessy both were both hampered in the spring with knee injuries, Shaughnessy out entirely. In their absence Kurt Ware, Joe Monty, and Brian Kelly all got positive reviews. Expect the Badgers to rotate their defensive ends extensively based on down and distance. Cooper, Kelly, and Shaughnessy are all undersized edge-rushing types -- though Cooper may be less so now with a few years in the weight room -- whereas Ware and Monty are bigger and stiffer against the run. Starting may be a ceremonial duty, but in the case of defensive ends if you have five you really do have five.
Rating: 3. TFL leader MLB Mark Zalewski returns but there is no experience anywhere else on the unit. Sophomores DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas step into starting roles; behind them is not much other than redshirt freshman Elijah Hodge, Abdul's brother. Both projected OLB starters did see time a year ago (Levy had 18 tackles, Casillas 10) but it will be different when they're relied upon to play against teams not named "Temple" or "Indiana."
Zalewski is a good middle linebacker who should have impressive numbers this year operating behind Hayden, Chapman, and Ostrowski. He's not much for cutting through chaff but that particular weakness is not likely to come to the forefront this year, which should allow the three linebackers -- reputed to have great speed, all -- to flow to the point of attack without too much disturbance. The OLBs will no doubt have their share of growing pains, though.
Langford. There's a joke in here somewhere.
This was a horror show on par with anything the Northwestern or Illinois defenses could throw out there. Stripped of talismanic Jim Leonhard and underrated Scott Starks, the Badger secondary established that they were available for torching early on in a crazy Playstation opener against Bowling Green that the Badgers won 56-42. Falcon quarterback Omar "Predator" Jacobs went whatever the Predator-equivalent of buckwild is, going 30-51 for 458 yards and five touchdowns. Brett Basanez had a similar day (361 yards, 3 TD) and Drew Tate was similarly efficient if less spectacular. The only thing that saved Wisconsin's secondary was yeoman work from the defensive line and a rich procession of teams with bad quarterbacks. As a Michigan fan, I wake up every T
uesday screaming about the Wisconsin game after seeing another wide open Michigan flailing ineffectually at a Henne rocket six yards over his head. (Tuesday is Wisconsin horror day; Wednesday Notre Dame; Thursday Minnesota, etc., etc., etc.) Wisconsin was very fortunate to miss Troy Smith and Drew Stanton a year ago or things may have gotten ugly.
Things will be touch and go again this year. Cornerback Brett Bell graduates, leaving the position in the hands of two true sophomores, Allen Langford and Jack Ikegwuonu, who struggled a year ago. There is no depth to speak of. Senior Zach Hampton, a career special teamer who "could be moved to safety" (read: "is slow") is the nickel back going into the fall. Behind him is redshirt freshman Aubrey Pleasant, who Wisconsin stole from Michigan State late in the 2004 recruiting year and is also constantly accused of being slow. If either starter gets injured the consequences will be severe; even if they stay healthy there will be trouble in nickel and dime packages.
The safeties are in somewhat better shape as both starters return. SS Joe Stellmacher, a former walkon, was the team's second leading tackler and honorable mention all-Big Ten a year ago, but is limited in coverage at 220 pounds and only exacerbates the nickel-package issue. FS Roderick Rogers was quite good, however, displaying great range and breaking up 11 passes. One play against Michigan stands out: RB Max Martin ran a wheel route down the sideline and Henne managed to hit him right in stride except for the small matter of Rogers managing to get all the way over from a deep middle zone to break up the pass. It was an excellent play and one that made a difference in the Wisconsin win.
Kickers & Coverage
Rating: 4. All Big Ten punter Ken Debauche returns. He finished eight in the country in gross punting average with almost 45 yards a kick a year ago. Even more impressively he managed to get most of those kicks high and limited opponent return opportunities. Wisconsin finsished the year 12th in net punting. Kicker Taylor Melhalf was good a year ago, kicking 14 of 20.
Non-Conference: Embarassing. A odd-but-charming trip to Cleveland to play Bowling Green opens the year and is the only game Wisconsin shouldn't allow fans to watch for free. Home games against Western Illinois and San Diego State follow; the season finishes up with what should be a thriller against Buffalo. Bielema is taking the bull by the plane ticket to anywhere without bulls. Except those of Buffalo.
Conference: Wisconsin misses Ohio State and Michigan State, which will come as a relief to the beleaguered secondary, but has a nasty opener @ Michigan. Coming off the weak non-conference schedule, Lamarr Woodley & Co will be a nasty shock to a young offensive line. If Thomas is still gimpy the task gets even tougher.
We're Sure About
Nothing. Okay, okay...
The Defensive Line. Outstanding depth and a couple of players who can disrupt plays in the backfield. The surest bet on the team since Stocco's performance will hinge dramatically on the performance of the players around him.
We Have An Idea About
The Offensive Line. Admittedly speculative tea-leaf reading indicates that Bob Palcic will have these guys ready to go. If Bob Palcic sees any loafing, Bob Palcic's going to kick some ass. They can't possibly start off very well -- youth everywhere and Thomas probably won't be 100% to start -- but should steadily improve throughout the season and end up as one of the Big Ten's better units.
We Have No Clue About
Bielema. Alvarez made a calculated gamble by naming Bielema his heir a year ago. He's never been a head coach anywhere, though his pedigree as a defensive coordinator at Kansas State is an excellent one. Now he gets to impose his philosophy on a football team for the first time. Wisconsin has been a good program for a decade now, but doesn't have the recruiting base a Michigan or Ohio State does and is thus in a precarious spot. Only time will tell whether Bielema can continue the legacy left by Colonel Kurtz.
The Wide Receivers. Both Hubbard and Randle-El could be great. They could also be useless.
An Embarassing Prediction, No Doubt
Everything is wonderful everywhere except cornerback and running back -- no one will replace Calhoun this year -- and Wisconsin misses nothing in the transition from Alvarez to Bielema. At Michigan early in the year will be an uphill battle as will that secondary versus Drew Tate, assuming Iowa finds some receivers, but Wisconsin can split those and sweep the rest of the schedule to go 11-1.
The offense has no bottom if Wisconsin finally comes up empty when it goes to its endless pile of running backs and the line plays like a bunch of sophomores the entire year, but there are four to six automatic wins on the schedule and they won't be bad enough to lose the rest of their games no matter what happens. 7-5 is the likely minimum.
The pain of losing Calhoun will be immense, especially when you consider the loss of not on his rushing but his 53 receptions out of the backfield. People are pumping up PJ Hill as a good receiver, but Calhoun's diminuitive stature allowed him to make the quick shifts that got him open and moving in the right direction before the defense could react. Hill is 235 pounds. He might be able to catch, but defenses will be on him much quicker than they were Calhoun. Stocco will have to look elsewhere. The line will steadily improve but will probably cost the team a game or perhaps two early in the season.
The defense should improve from last year's ugly performance but teams with a tendency to spread the ball around and force extra defensive backs into the game will cause problems. The linebackers are unproven, too, but a good, deep defensive line will shield them from many problems and help shut down the run. Fortunately for Wisconsin, only Michigan and Iowa are threatening teams with experienced quarterbacks.
Wins: Buffalo, SDSU, Western Illinois, Illinois,
Probable Wins: @ BG, @ Northwestern, Minnesota, @ Indiana
Tossups: Penn State, @ Purdue
Probable Losses: @ Michigan, @ Iowa
No Chance: None
I withdraw my previous Wisconsin-pumping. They'll get to 9-3, but a weak schedule will be one of the main reasons.
Football has picked up a surprising commitment from tight end Steve Watson from Denver, CO, who was not even on the recruiting board. He seems underrated by Rivals -- three stars -- given his offer list, which consists of most of the Pac-10. USC was interested and pursuing, but whether or not they offered is not clear. Scout did give him a fourth star.
Watson is the son of former Denver Broncos receiver Steve Watson, who apparently ordered some sort of Internets blackout on the young man. There isn't much out there save for this rambling post on a Husker board that you are urged to take FWIW:
During the testing I saw coach Gilmore and he said right away, "I got your email!" I had emailed him after the spring game and told him thanks for spending so much time with the boys and that they had raved about NU to their tight end, Steve Watson, (who Coach G said he had as the number one rated TE) and that Steve plans to visit. I told him him and coach Blake about the Notre Dame assistant getting kicked out of Mullen and they cracked up and wanted me to find out which coach it was. During the testing Coach G came over to us to ask if we were familiar with another Colorado athlete from Arvada West HS. Jonny, my husband and I were all like YES! Ryan Hill is a total stud and Jonny has played lots of baseball against his little brother. He wondered what our opinion was about him compared to Watson!
I said well, Watson is very developed and at velocity every nite and works with the Broncos etc, and that Hill is very raw (not rocket science) but Gilmore said EXACTLY my take and makes me feel like a million bucks! unbelievable!
always inspires confidence in a scouting report.
The bigger picture: I think Martell Webb is still a tight end since Michigan didn't recruit any except maybe Quintin Woods last year. That means that all the in-state TEs (Rooks, Joplin, Weaver) are probably SOL.
In related news, the ESPN150 is out and has been roundly criticized for being horrible in all possible ways. In general I consider offers to be the most credible barometer of a kid's talent, so when there is a vast disagreement between offers for, say, Joseph Barksdale (everyone) and his ranking (not ranked), I revise my estimate of the scouting service's competency more than that of the player. Is Marcelo Balboa doing this list?
Meet Corperrayle "Manny" Harris, who is sort of like Reed Baker except tall and exciting and from Detroit and not seriously considering life at the Citadel. An '07 shooting guard ranked #45 in his class by Rivals, he committed to Michigan yesterday. He plans on decommitting in August or September.
I keed, I keed. Mostly.
The Internet has copious information on the rapidly rising Harris. Here is a Scout profile. If you would like something more saccharine, the Detroit News has you covered; there is also a recap of Harris' second straight PSL championship with Detroit Redford.
More to the heavy-breathing point, he's #45 with a bullet and may not be done moving up the charts. His performance at this summer's shoe camps generated serious buzz. He was cited as the #2 "riser" coming out of the recent Nike camp by both Rivals and SchoolSports.com via SI:
2. Corperryale Harris, Redford (Detroit)
Harris had a great day at both ends of the court. The 6-foot-4 guard was a pest on the defensive end, getting numerous deflections and steals, which often led to easy baskets for his team. But he was even better on the offensive end, scoring in transition, from 3-point range and on hard drives to the basket. In his first game of the day, Harris dropped 19 points, including two 3-pointers and a monster dunk over 7-foot Solomon Alabi of Montverde Academy (Montverde, Fla.).
PrepSpotlight is speculating that Harris may end up in the top 25 soon ($); interest from UCLA and Kansas certainly implies that is a possibility. Erstwhile MSU Rivals guy Steve Bell describes Harris' game like so:
Harris' game is similar to that of a young Latrell Sprewell, not aesthetically pleasing or fundamentally sound, but full of energy and hustle. He is one of those "sticky" players who is always around the ball, whether loose, off the glass, or from an opponent's dribble. Harris is the type of die-hard that U-M's roster has sorely lacked.
What, doesn't Courtney Sims count?
"Speedy" Walker, Harris' AAU coach, gets the last word:
This buzz wasn't always the case for the wiry Harris. Not until last summer's growth spurt, actually. That's when, according to Walker, "a 5-11 scrappy player became a 6-4 scrappy player." All of a sudden the defensive stalwart and superb point guard became a threat at two more positions -- the 2 and 3. And, all of a sudden, an unranked prospect catapulted to the top 50 by season's end. "Defense is the best part of his game," Flowers said. "He's a ball-hawk, 94-50. He can take it to the basket with the best of them. And his floor game is getting even better. He's a great point guard (already)."
A good get and one that doesn't seem likely to end up in the always-burgeoning pile of decommits. However, the excitement over Harris' commitment is dampened somewhat by Amaker's questionable decisions to accept Rutgers transfer Zach Gibson -- though presumably Michigan's actually seen Gibson in action -- and Baker, leaving only one scholarship remaining in the '07 class. Another Michigan guard, Laval Lucas-Perry, is in the process of blowing up. He has an offer from Arizona but not one from Michigan, and he may not get one at all if Amaker decides that he needs an '07 post. Que lastima.
SMQB has previewed Michigan. Run, don't walk. His numbers-based defense of Henne...
Michigan fans know now what Henne can do (throw hard) and what he can't (run; throw accurately short-to-medium balls with a high rate of predictability), and if he's not Matt Leinart, or even Brady Quinn, he is at least slightly ahead of John Navarre's pace - 5,800 yards and 48 touchdowns in two years, with a 59 percent completion rate and an improving TD-INT ratio (23-8 in '05, compared to 25-12 as a freshman), should invalidate, or quiet, much of his "Hennebriated" reputation. Though it probably won't.
...doesn't take Michigan's WR screen bonanza into account, but that's nitpicking. SMQB does highlight a particular deficiency of last year's Michigan offense -- long passing -- that is emblematic of the offense's struggles, encompassing the turnstile offensive line, erratic quarterback, and limited WR corps in one ugly number. Which is 15.
IBFC has crunched the 4th quarter numbers and his findings are as terrifying as you might expect:
Up less than ten
1995-1999: 13-1 (93%)
2000-2005: 8-10 (44%)
That's right ... in the last 6 years, we are more likely to lose a game than to win it if we go into the 4th quarter with a small lead.
Why? Vijay says it's the turnovers, stupid:
We have won the turnover battle in the 4th quarter only 3 times. We have lost the turnover battle 10 times.
We have caused 10 turnovers and committed 20 in the 4th quarters of such games.
We have committed at least one 4th quarter turnover in 14 of the 18 games and forced turnovers in 8 of the 18.
Not surprisingly, when we win the turnover battle we are 3-0 and when we lose it we are 3-7.
Michigan, a conservative team that is +32 over the past eight years -- the second-best number in the Big Ten -- somehow turns into Michigan State with a late lead despite getting even more conservative. At least a small part of that is Michigan running bad; in poker parlance they've had a lot of games lately in which they've been sucked out upon. Another part of it is the scaredy-cat zone Michigan usually runs late in games which is not conducive to forcing turnovers or anything except extra points. Bleah. English will make it all better?
(Vijay has also posted the Woodson interception.)
One of the obscurer pleasures of previewing teams like Illinois is chuckling at the wide-eyed optimism of party-organ websites. Sure, sure, Illinois is on the way up. Orange is feared by all far and wide. I would like to tell you about the rabbits. Already mentioned in the preview were the babies, but did you know that Zook and the Illini taped encouraging Christmas messages for US military personnel stationed abroad? The mind boggles. What could Ron Zook and his 2-9 Illini have to say to some guy in Afghanistan? Some theories:
- "You'll overrun the enemy like six-year olds against our defense."
- "Remember: failure is an option."
- "If at first you don't succeed, try a bubble screen."
- "I just want you to remember what you're fighting for: Illinois football."
- "Anyone 5'6" or taller is hereby offered a scholarship."
Also, the existence of this cock-rockin' video reaffirms my faith in humanity. Featuring jump-cuts between Illinois highlights -- hey, we got past the line of scrimmage! slap that in the video! -- interspersed with shots of Zook looking fierce like Siberian bear, it's the perfect gift for anyone looking to give Orson Swindle a seizure.
Etc.: Smart Football has followed up the game-theory post with a couple additional ones. I noticed some scoffing at the notion of Texas Tech being "balanced" according to this metric on EDSBS, so I'd like to clarify my position: the balance we're talking about is a proper distribution of run and pass plays to maximize yardage. Given that your team has a particular offense and a particular set of personnel, there's an optimum run-pass ratio that keeps defenses guessing and takes advantage of what you're good at. Tech's doing this.
At Slate, Robert Weintraub defends Dave O'Brien... but does not defend Marcelo Balboa.
This one isn't quite as extensive. I'm sure you understand.
The Ron Zook era started out well enough with a thrilling overtime victory over Rutgers, but whenever the phrases "thrilling overtime victory" and "over Rutgers" find themselves in the same sentence their buddy "harsh reality check" cannot be far behind. Illinois' did not arrive until the Big Ten opener, but when it did it took the form on an unholy beating at the hands of Michigan State that did not let up until Northwestern handed the Illini their ninth straight loss in the season finale. Over that stretch of eight games, Illinois allowed every team they played at least 35 points, lost by at least 17 points every week, and were obliterated 36-13... by Indiana(!). By the midpoint of the season the only people watching Illinois games were pissed-off Florida fans, who traded tapes of the debacles and watched them intently in pitch-dark rooms full of unpleasant, familiar noises best left unspeculated upon.
Yea, and woe followed him wherever he was suffered to lay his head.
Started on both sides of the ball last year.
It is likely things will improve during Year 2 of the Zook Epoch. One of the reasons the Illini were so bad at... well... everything is that this totally weird "tribute to the seniors" featuring picture after picture of cute babies serves as a fairly accurate assessement of the average age of the team. Illinois returns every starter from last year save fullback Jason Davis, defensive tackle Ryan Matha, and exhausted punter Steve Weatherford. A fair number of those starters were wet-behind-everything freshmen in way over their heads. Strides towards competency are probable, but there's a long, long way from last year's Travelling Bye Week extravaganza and respectability.
Last Year: Not good, but not the defense, either. Illinois managed to finish 47th in rushing yards -- the only stat tracked on the NCAA's team page that the Illini were better than 71st in -- and 72nd in total offense, but how many of those yards were pity yards gained against third-string walkons? Survey says "lots".
Courtesy of The State Journal-Register, Springfield, IL
Rating: 2. Senior Tim Brasic's numbers from last year are surprisingly tolerable on the surface -- a 61 percent completion rate and 424 yards rushing -- but with only 5.9 yards per attempt and 11 interceptions, Brasic didn't generate enough positives to justify the chance of a turnover or drive-killing sack. Some of the blame has to be placed on the offensive line, who yielded a massive 32 sacks last year, but Brasic's just another guy. The bubble-screen orgasm that is the Zook offense has a lot of dead simple throws that tend to drive up yardage and completion percentage metrics without requiring any actual skill on behalf of the quarterback (something Chad Henne benefited from extensively last year). When Brasic attempted something so daring as an actual downfield pass the results were often disastrous.
If things go poorly with Brasic, Zook might say "to hell with it" and insert true freshman Isiah Williams, the jewel of this year's recruiting class. Williams' implausible senior-year stats: 1,441 rushing yards at 21.8 yards per carry and 1,841 passing yards on only 128 attempts with 22 touchdowns and three interceptions. He's guru-approved and potentially the kind of guy who can lift the downtrodden into a state slightly less so a la Antwaan Randle-El. One caution: Williams only completed 56% of his passes as a senior, but it's not like Zook's going to have anything to lose after September.
Rating: 4. Bizarrely deep. Pierre Thomas and EJ Halsey return for their senior seasons but will have to hold off a challenge from sophomore Rashard Mendenhall, who -- get this -- was in the Rivals 100 two years ago. Between the three of them they had 1231 yards on 259 carries (4.7 each) and a fairly astounding 79 catches for only 492 yards (6.2 each). If you needed any further proof of the screen-y hell that is the Zook offense, there it is. Thomas, who got about half of the rushing yards last year, is the proverbial thunder to Halsey's lightning and Mendenhall is a combination of both.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Sophomore Kyle Hudson led Illinois with 31 catches and actually managed to get 15 yards per catch -- there is downfield passing! -- but I'd be lying if I told you I had any idea who he is. Receivers on terrible teams don't often get attention since it's usually focused on whatever grotesque injury is being inflicted on the quarterback this time. Hudson did have a 10-catch, 114-yard performance against Wisconsin but that's probably less impressive than it sounds given the way everyone with a half-functional quarterback diced the Badger secondary a year ago. Still, a freshman Hudson had more catches and more yards than Mario Manningham, Derrick Williams, and their hype entourages. He's one to keep an eye on, especially because you can count the inaccurate references to his valuable role as a possession receiver from their inception.
A rotating cast of other minor contributors has one name of note: sophomore Derrick McPhearson, who ended up at Illinois after an academic sojourn that took him to Virginia's Fork Union Military Academy. The year before McPhearson committed to Florida and then-head coach Ron Zook -- evidence of both considerable talent and questionable judgement. McPhearson missed a few games with a broken leg and finished the year with only 13 catches, but his role should expand greatly as a sophomore.
Rating: 3. The line, like everything else, was crap a year ago but this unit has a better excuse than most. The Illini found themselves starting two juniors, two sophomores, and a freshman and were unsurprisingly overwhelmed. This year all five starters return and the Illini can employ the services of Oklahoma transfer Akim Millington, who was projected to be a starter before his sudden departure. Millington will probably boot LT JJ Simmons to the bench and be the line's best player the day he steps onto the field.
They could be okay if things work out, but those 32 sacks in an offense that's pathologically reliant on short passing indicates extensive problems that will probably prohibit a rise to "good."
Last Year: Almost literally non-existent. Behold:
- Rush defense: last.
- Pass efficiency defense: second to last.
- Total defense: third to last.
- Sacks: second to last.
- Scoring defense: third to last.
Rating: 1. I don't care that three of four starters return; the assumption here until proven otherwise is that the Illinois defense will be a mere rumor to opposing offenses. Defensive tackle Chris Norwood's 7.5 TFLs are nice, but that's about it as far as playmaking goes. The true sophomore defensive ends were awful a year ago and will probably be slightly less awf
ul this year, but I'm saving all my miracle points for "Lloyd Carr understands probability"; "Illinois defensive line is half-decent" will have to wait.
I mean, what does it say when you're so desperate for any positive recognition that you grab a straw from freakin' College Football News and slap it up on your website? It means you're no good.
It will always be Burma to me.
See defensive line; I don't care that three starters return. This is what you need to know about the Illinois linebackers: one of them claims to be named "J Leman." No word on whether he plans on fleeing to
Rating: 1. Detroit DePorres' own Sharriff Abdullah is the top returning corner; he is 5'8" and has zero interceptions and four breakups in about two full years of starting. This neatly summarizes the experience of being an Illinois cornerback: it's nasty, brutish, and you're short.
The previous paragraph is not entirely fair, since Abdullah's partner Alan Ball -- also from DePorres -- is both tall for a corner (6'1") and clearly better than Abdullah, but I plead Too Funny To Check. Ball's one interception and five pass breakups are not the stuff of legend, however, and the safeties are reminiscent of Cato June. Cato June before he was a Pro-Bowl linebacker.
Kickers & Coverage
Steve Weatherford's punting leg has been dunked in the sauna for the last time; in his place is some guy destined to be second-team All Big Ten for three years. Looking up biographical details of the new Illinois punter crosses the line from "fun hobby" to "dangerous obsession" and inevitably leads to something like the end of Requiem For A Dream and so will be forgone here, but I can tell you that kicker Jason Reda was 13 of 20 a year ago and banged in a 52-yarder, so he's all right.
Non-Conference: One I-AA meatball (Eastern Illinois) then the thrilling rematch against the Scarlet Knights, a fascinating matchup of the Illini's Easily Movable Object defense versus Syracuse's Eminently Resistable Force offense, and a MAC game they could lose against Ohio.
Conference: Since Illinois is the worst team in the conference Big Ten bylaws mandate that they skip Michigan. Minnesota also misses out on a chance to whack the pinata.
We're Sure About
The defense. The scoreboard operators at Illinois games are going to get a nasty case of George Jetson button-pushin' finger.
We Have An Idea About
The running game. Could be... um... good with the return of all those running backs and the offensive line. It was half-decent a year ago.
We Have No Clue About
The future. As odd as this sounds, hiring Ron Zook looks sort of brilliant. Illinois is no longer recruiting MAC rejects and confused Eastern Europeans. If you believe the gurus, a meaningful number of Zook's first class of recruits could have played for anyone in the Big Ten not named Penn State, Michigan, or Ohio State and Illinois is off to a good start this year. It will take another year or two, but a respectable Illinois is a possibility in the near future.
An Embarassing Prediction, No Doubt
The schedule is wonky enough and the bowls desperate enough that the Illini could wander on to the hallowed ground of some place like Shreveport, Mobile, or Fort Worth to take on the fifth place CUSA team if things fall right. Every starter returns and if some of the Zook recruits live up to their e-clippings in their first year there are enough teams of equal hopelessness -- Syracuse, Indiana, Rutgers, Ohio -- on the schedule that with a ton of luck and a victory stolen from the likes of Minnesota or Purdue the Illini could reach 6-6. But probably not.
Remember last year? This time they lose to Rutgers. 1-11.
The good news: Illinois should improve, possibly quite a bit. The bad news: they could improve quite a bit and still win two games.
Wins: Eastern Illinois
Probable Wins: Ohio
Tossups: Syracuse, Indiana, @ Rutgers
Probable Losses: Purdue, @ Northwestern
No Chance: Iowa, Ohio State, @ Penn State, @ Wisconsin, @ Michigan State
It looks like 3-9, but an encouraging 3-9.