also duty-free guys falling over and grabbing their shins
So. I went to the Rose Parade January 1st and nothing else. All times are approximate; I may have vastly misjudged when these things actually went by.
6:00 AM. Boy, I'm glad that it's 9 AM to my internal clock, or I'd be horribly cranky.
7:45 AM. We reach the parade route and start to stroll along it. It's mobbed with people, as you might expect, but the prevalence of heavy jackets, blankets, and finally sleeping bags reveals the horrible truth: the people camped out along the road, the ones in the good seats, have been here all night. And unless my conception of the Pasadena area's demographics is wrong, the vast majority of them are inexplicably Hispanic.
7:52 AM. So you're walking down this parade route in front of people who have been dourly camped out waiting for something to watch for hours, possibly days. They watch you, and if they're USC fans they shout something like "WOOOO USC" and since it's really early in the morning and you feel silly because you thought California was much warmer at 6AM and you've spent the first hour of your day trudging from Rose Bowl to Rose Parade, your mood is black black black. The prospect of doing all this to sit down and watch a parade conjures up memories of boredoms past and generally ruins your day.
8:00 AM. People are turning and pointing and looking. I ignore the pointing and looking for a while -- I've seen parades and know how fast they travel, the chances we're being overtaken by it are zero -- until I begin to fear something coming up behind me. I turn and look where the pointing indicates.
Holy crap! It's a Stealth bomber flanked by what my brother says are new F-something Raptors. They fly over, and though military flyovers are sort of creepy indoctrination, they're also just plain badass. I feel much better. San Dimas Miltary Industrial Complex RULES!
8:10 AM. I forget that I'm wearing my Zoltan For Space Emperor Shirt, which makes the quizzical looks from cops unsettling, until a few Michigan fans along the route scream "ZOLTAN!" and give the Z signal. Ohhhhhh. That's why. We reach seats -- only 40 dollars -- and sit.
8:30 AM. Finally, parade. First up are motorcycle tricks from a set of policemen. Since it is mildly interesting, it vastly outstrips my expectations from moment one.
8:32 AM. Float. Very tall. Mother Nature. Woo.
8:33 AM. Horses.
8:36 AM. More float. Butterflies or something. I have quickly come to the conclusion that the Rose Parade isn't all bad, but I can never really love it as long as the yearly themes are things like "Our Good Nature," which spurs an incredible array of boring hummingbirds. (Some floatmakers ignore the theme: dragons and dinosaurs may technically be classified as animals, but don't really get across the intricate wonders of the natural world like a hummingbird evidently does, especially when the dinosaurs are in a rock band.) I spend much of the downtime in the next two hours thinking up kickass parade themes like "Cartoons of the 80s" and "Mythological Disembowelments." Or you can combine the two and feature things like Brainy Smurf removing Prometheus' liver over and over again.
8:40 AM. Llamas! Official Brother of MGoBlog is excited!
More floats with hummingbirds. Floats are either sponsored by corporations or various local cities. There's a vaguely parade-affiliated man with a megaphone who's exhorting us to shout "happy new year" at various personages as they roll (or horse) past us; we find him deeply irritating after a while. He's a card with all of the creaky borscht belt connotations of the term.
8:43 AM. Horses. There's a guy with a lasso that becomes very large, so that's cool.
8:45 AM. Band from Wisconsin rolls by playing something unmistakably from the Ohio State University catalog. The end of it has that little thing that goes O-HI-O. I make a mental note: "kill state of Wisconsin."
8:50 AM. Horses. They're drawing Wells-Fargo carriages; as they roll past us someone nearby exclaims "hey, that's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar!" And it is, by god! Kareem is lounging on one of the Wells-Fargo carriages, being seven feet tall. I'm astounded. This seems a horrible misallocation of celebrity. Where is the 50-foot float of Kareem dunking a rose? Where is the adulation for parade aficionado Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Why has he been stuck on some random stagecoach and why have we not been alerted to his presence except for the efforts of one particularly eagle-eyed parade-goer?
9:15 AM. Song Girls. Hot. Mental process:
- Song Girls. Hot.
- Not a fair comparison with Michigan cheerleaders since Song Girls don't actually do anything except dance around and be hot. Cheerleaders have to do stunts and flips and stuff, which naturally narrows the pool. A fairer comparison is to the Michigan dance team.
- Song Girls. Hot.
- The Song Girls still win by a huge margin.
- Song Girls. Hot.
- ...but the presence of a superhot babe elite probably has few practical applications for anyone who's not A) rich or B) Matt Leinart or equivalent. They're just there to taunt you with their hotness.
- Song Girls. Hot.
- I'm sure one of them would find a piquant sarcasm just charming.
- Song Girls. Hot.
- The best way to make an introduction is to charge wildly from the stands, leap onto the float, and tackle one pelvis-first. Here we go!
- Song Girls. Hot.
- Dammit, I shouldn't have spent so much time thinking "Song Girls, Hot." I've missed my chance.
9:20 AM. Horrifying racism! The guy sitting next to me is an odd Michigan fan who's from Tennessee and doesn't know the fight song. He's a nice enough guy, but when an all-black marching band starts rounding into view, he evaluates the twirler vanguard, notes that they're escorted by a state trooper, and wonders aloud if they're all on parole(!!!). Um... wow. Did he...? Did I...? What just happened?
Aforementioned dinosaur float. They do indeed play The Rock Music. This is the best point to discuss the other strange Michigan fans from SEC country sitting directly behind us. One is a middle-aged woman of the sort that reads the banners as they go by, repeating everything she finds funny -- and she finds everything funny -- before deploying her unintelligent-sounding laugh.
So. She reads the banner: "humor trophy." The dinosaurs clear the building to our left and pop into view. She acknowledges the input of her eyes: "they're dinosaurs in a band." She laughs.
10:30 AM. Horses.
10:35 AM. Stormtroopers!
Except they kind of suck. They're Stormtroopers all right, and there are Empire guys blowing whistles and trying to be all task-mastery at the guys in suits who haven't left their basement since Episode III came out, but
- the marching ability of the typical Star Wars nerd hovers near zero
- they don't even have guns, let alone the ability to do sweet marine-style drills with them,
- there should not be a bank of them carrying flags from US states and various countries, and
- look... when you put a certain kind of person in a certain kind of suit and ask them to walk a lot
more than they're used to, the result can only be described as a waddle.
I do wish I had a two-year-old to whom I could give a plastic lightsaber and a push but I don't, probably because I'm the kind of person who prefers mayhem to safety when dealing with two-year-olds.
10:38 AM. Grambling State's band is up next. I cringe, anticipating more Horrible Racism from the nice enough guy to my right, but their twirler vanguard is... um... green.
So by the time it's clear that these are Not White People, the band is upon us. And no comments are made.
10:40 AM. Horses... except awesome ones. They're miniature. These are the sorts of horses I can get behind, especially when the Rose Bowl website reveals that they're called the "Petite Elite Miniature Horse Precision Drill Team," which is the best name for anything ever.
10:48 AM. There is a float with dragons.
It's fairly cool -- the dragons are animated and sort of goggle at each other -- until it stops dead in front of us. A hatch leaps open, emitting a panicked float technician who runs around to the back of the thing to fiddle with intricate float technologies for a while. Then he runs around, closes the hatch, and the float trundles off to scattered, possibly sarcastic applause.
10:51 AM. Horses. I don't get it. This parade is about 20% too long and the 20% consists entirely of horses. (We would like to stress that this 20% does NOT encompass either the Petite Elite Miniature Horse Drill Teams or llamas, which are welcome in any parade anywhere.) All they do is poop and remind me of Sarah Jessica Parker. The latter is unwelcome and the entertainment provided by the former is base. Down with horses.
10:54 AM. There is a Mexico-themed band with a flag and dancing girls and hats. The crowd goes NUTS.
11:00 AM. Boring float section. Dogs promoting various local pissant universities. A mobile Christmas tree shop. THE FLOAT OF SPACE. A float I mentally file under "Mass Hysteria":
11:15 PM. During the period of black hatred of all things, I mentally wrote this paragraph:
"Please, please, please be a high school band! YESSSSSSSSSSS!" It was! They marched! Then I thought "OMG, it would be the best of they played Stars And Stripes Forever just like the rest of the high school bands!!!" Then... then! Then. Then... through the discordant blorping and tweeting came a melody faintly reminiscent of Sousa. It was! It was Stars and Stripes forever! My mind dissolved in an explosion of ecstasy. Downed by a paroxysm of glee, I collapsed to the ground, twitching in the wonder of it all. Thank you, high school band. Thank you, John Phillips Sousa. Thank you, Rose Parade.
...so when a high school band actually finished blorping out "Stars And Stripes Forever" just as it reached us, I had a moment of ironic pleasure that didn't quite cause a twitching seizure but was nice nonetheless.
11:30 AM. Parade over. Enter the Jesus freak. I wonder if they tour around, looking for people to troll in various areas of the country. In the littered aftermath, it's clear that my imagination did not lead me astray in re: Hispanics. Discarded tortillas line the route next to "Ugly Betty" -- a show based on "La Fea Mas Bella," for anyone who caught a lot of Univision commercials during the World Cup, and heavily marketed to Hispanics -- masks that exhort the wearer to BE TRUE TO YOURSELF in 2007. I note an odd thing: businesses along the route have boarded their windows. Local ordinance? No. As we reach the hoity-toity ticketed area around the TV cameras, a Hispanic-free zone, the boarding abruptly stops. The overall impression left is one of panicked Pasadena businessmen fearing that parade-mad Latinos will riot and loot them from house and home at the first hint of a rose, funny and sad all at once.
Run Offense vs. USC
You may have surmised that I don't like this matchup, and I don't. Against UCLA the Trojans often featured two things that are bad for the old zone running game: linebackers comfortable in a stand-up role and a penetrating nose tackle. The end result is a 5-2 look that's perfect for combating a zone rushing game. It's no fluke that USC's run defense is 16th in the country. Their front seven is so ridiculously athletic their jerseys should say "OMG shirtless," especially because that would be some wicked irony.
There is the suggestion that a Michigan-caliber rushing game can slog ahead, though. Marshawn Lynch had a decent, if uninspiring, day in the Cal game, finishing with 88 yards at 4.4 per carry. Oregon State's Clinton Polk had 100 yards on 22 carries. Arkansas' bizarre multifaceted attack picked up 130 yards on 27 carries. If you believe Mike Hart is closer to those teams than, say, UCLA or Oregon, then you believe he's likely to have a typical Mike Hart day. The worst case scenario here is a game similar to Iowa or Wisconsin where Hart is forced to turn zero yards into four with irritating regularity.
Is there upside outside of that? Doubtful unless he minor injuries to Sartz and Cushing are serious enough to affect their play. I expect a number of plays where Hart is forced to dodge in the backfield, a few where he cuts back for good yardage, and an array of fairly successful draws, but it'll be a tough 30 carries an
Key Matchup: USC NT Sedrick Ellis versus Mark Bihl. UCLA's offense was almost singlehandedly disrupted by Ellis; Bihl's good but not that good.
Pass Offense vs. USC
USC cornerback Terrell Thomas is questionable with a dislocated shoulder. No one knows if he'll play or how functional he'll be if he does.
USC's defensive philosophy is bend, don't break. The Trojans rely on their pass rush and running defense to force a series of third downs, banking that an offense that has to convert three or four times on every long drive won't end up with many touchdowns. That's been the case much of the year. Precious few USC opponents have gotten past twenty points without aid from turnovers, special teams breakdowns, or -- in the case of Oregon State -- both. 13th in scoring defense, 20th in total defense, and 19th in pass efficiency defense, the Trojans have completed a remarkable turnaround from last year's glaring deficiency in The Greatest Team Of All Time Ever Ever (Ever!!!). Expect more of the same tomorrow.
That will put the onus on Henne's accuracy and Michigan's pass protection to keep Michigan rolling down the field. Watch for the post-wheel combination that got Adrian Arrington wide open a couple times against Ohio State (one was a 40-yard touchdown, the other overthrown) if USC tips cover-2 too often. Though I can never get this to work in NCAA 2007, the dual routes are designed to get the safeties biting on the threat of a Manningham post as Arrington inserts himself into the gap created 25 yards along the sideline. Henne's comfortable enough with firing posts and seams to Arrington -- remember the dart between three zone defenders against Penn State -- that if given time, he will find open receivers. With the Trojans intent on preventing the deep ball at all costs, hitting Ecker, Butler, and Arrington behind the linebackers will be key.
There's that time thing, though.
Key Matchup: Rueben Riley versus Cushing/Jackson. Henne on the move is Booty on the move: bad.
Run Defense vs. USC
But for the Ohio State game, this section would be a prophecy of doom for foolish Trojan running backs. Two ARRRRGH RYAN MUNDYs later, things are murkier. This is what we know: USC's rushing game, plagued by injury and youth, was mediocre this year. Nearly the definition of mediocre, actually, finishing 57th of 119 teams. In recent games against Cal, Notre Dame, Oregon, and Oregon State USC featured a merely functional run game. Gable or Washington would finish with 18 or 20 carries and around 80 yards; Washington broke a long one against Oregon to prop up his YPC; all told USC would usually end up with around 120 yards on 25 or 30 carries and they'd average about 4 YPC. All of this is average.
The outlier against UCLA may be instructive. UCLA held the Trojans to 55 rushing yards. Nominal starer CJ Gable averaged 2.7 YPC and nominal short yardage back Chauncey Washington got stuffed on a series of third downs before USC gave up and started finessing itself a few third down conversions. Perhaps it isn't fair to look solely at one performance against one of the top twenty rushing defenses in the country, but even after the dual Ohio State debacles Michigan is more than one of the top twenty rush defenses in the country: it's number one. Can USC replicate the spread-'em and misdirect-'em that got Pittman and Wells loose for long touchdowns? No. USC's limited itself to a fairly conventional set of formations this year -- ace 3-wide was their most common formation in the UCLA game -- more reminiscent of the Wisconsin and Iowa and Penn State offenses that Michigan swallowed alive than OSU's. (Not that the talent level is equal.)
If USC can spring Gable into a secondary featuring Ryan Mundy he's virtually guaranteed to take a terrible angle, but that's a chore and Willis Barringer is healthy again. Michigan should dominate.
Key Matchup: Branch and Taylor versus Short Yardage. USC was forced to throw, pitch, an finesse its way to what third and short conversions it could pick up because when they tried to line up and plow ahead they got stuffed. Along the way USC turned the ball over on downs twice. A duplicate performance would equal a Trojan loss.
Pass Defense vs. USC
Projected Michigan dominance against the USC running game won't mean that much because USC uses the run to supplement its potent passing game even when they aren't playing a team that just got torn to bits by Troy Smith. The $64,000 question: what the hell was that? Spread and destroyed, the Michigan secondary limps into the Rose Bowl befuddled and suddenly shaky-looking. They face giant, sticky-fingered Dwayne Jarrett and yappy, meh Steve Smith. Alarm! Loud noises! Ack!
Michigan's best defense against the pass will come before Booty ever lets the ball go. Second in the country in sacks and featuring the Lombardi award winner, the Michigan pass rush plays Jarrett/Smith to USC's suddenly alarming offensive line, who decided that blocking UCLA defensive ends was strictly optional. Booty was forced to step up time and again; when he did the result was invariably negative for the Trojans: checkdowns on third and eleven, errant passes, and punts. This is not a situation like Michigan faced against Smith, where he can wander outside of the pocket and casually toss 25-yard daggers downfield. Ohio State's great weapon against the Michigan D was their ability to neutralize the Michigan pass rush with one player, Smith. USC does not have that, and they do have their own "Ack!" in this department: flaky RT Kyle Williams. Mr. Williams: Mr. Woodley. Dance.
In response, USC should go to a short passing game. Jarrett's a slant machine, a physical wideout who gets position on virtually everyone and uses his huge body to shield the defender from the ball. It's difficult to defend; the key will be getting USC in situations where the slant is not an option.
Key Matchup: Woodley, Biggs, Jamison, and Crable versus Booty, Stationary. The recipe spelled out by the UCLA game is simple: make Booty uncomfortable in the pocket. When he's forced to deal with pass rush he has eyes only for his checkdown.
These have been a surprising negative for the Trojans. Bush-less, they've averaged less than seven yards a punt return. They're 75th in net punting and have ceded a couple game-changing returns in losses to Oregon State and UCLA. Michigan has the advantage he
re, though it's a small one since Steve Breaston is constantly under siege from unblocked gunners.
USC does have a capable kicker in Mario Danelo, who was 13 of 14 on the season.
Key Matchup: Breaston versus Argh Gunners. USC's been susceptible to big punt returns at times this year, but aside from a touchdown against Indiana and an anomalously big game against Wisconsin, he's been quiet on returns because more often than not he's getting run over as soon as he catches the ball. But you knew that already.
Anyone notice that there was a fair bit of slipping around in he UCLA-USC game? Anyone notice the site of that game? Apparently, the Rose Bowl replaced its turf around the same time Ohio State did and the problems were similar, though of lesser severity. More than once Booty dropped back to pass and lost his plant foot when he tried to move up in the pocket. Apparently grass like, sets and stuff -- don't ask me -- but it might be relevant.
- Vince Young shows up.
- Hart's bottled up enough for USC to leave two safeties deep.
- Booty is suffered to stand and survey.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Michigan defensive ends warp around USC tackles like the last game USC played in the Rose Bowl.
- Steve Breaston is all like "hey, I remember this place, this is where I'm awesome."
- Vince Young shows up... and plays for us!
Fear/Paranoia Level: 7 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for West Coast Pain, +1 Bowl Pain, +1 for Specific USC-Related Pain, -1 for You Know I Think We're Just Better This Year).
Desperate need to win level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for Rose Bowl, +1 for Last Time We Had A Really Satisfying Season Brady Was The QB, +1 for Media So Irritating If Lose, +1 for USC Fans Eeeeeritate, +1 for It's Still The Rose Bowl)
Loss will cause me to... wander around, ripping eyes out of USC fans' eyesockets.
Win will cause me to... remember what it's like to end a season on an up note.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict: these teams are mirror images of each other: big honkin' pocket passers at quarterback, a rangy possession guy and a quicksilver deep threat at wide receiver, a junior left tackle projected in the top ten of the NFL, a right tackle everyone's terrified of, intimidating run defenses, severe pass rush, and maybe some questions at corner. USC doesn't have Mike Hart, but they don't have Ryan Mundy either.
I can't tell you if USC's defense is so intent on preventing the big play that they never bring a safety in the box without bailing their corners and playing three deep -- because I assume they'll bring a safety up at least sometimes -- but if they are... that doesn't seem like a good idea to me. Time and again this year a safety aggressive in run defense has been the only thing between Hart an consistent, gashing cutbacks. That's opened up Manningham and his double-move arsenal. When the Michigan offense has been effective, it's because opponents have been forced to pick their poison between the thousand papercuts of Hart and the Elliot-Smith-knife-to-the-heart of Manningham. That's difficult for anyone to defend
Michigan's image in the mirror is just a little bit more intimidating in all aspects. USC has a very good rushing defense; Michigan has the nation's best. USC has an intimidating pass rush; Michigan is second in sacks. USC has a rifle-armed pocket passer; Michigan's is in his third year of starting. USC has running backs, I guess; Michigan has Mike Hart. USC has a clear advantage at safety but nowhere else. It'll be a good, tight game, but I think the Michigan pass rush versus the USC offensive line is more of a mismatch than vice versa, and that's the most important matchup in the game.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Arrington has a big day.
- Booty is sacked five times.
- 27-20, Michigan.
Thank you, Brian, for inviting me to this discussion about the match up in the best bowl tradition in all of college football: the Rose Bowl. Not every word or thought expressed is purely my own as I consulted some USC-savvy friends to get a better answer for some of the questions asked.
Michigan's run defense has been totally dominant except for that one game we won't talk about. Meanwhile, the Trojan running game has been pretty meh in the aftermath of Reggie Bush. Who will get the bulk of the carries and what are their strengths and weaknesses? How do you see the Trojan run game attacking Michigan's defense?
I'm going to deviate slightly and say that C.J. Gable (with Allen Bradford at fullback) should get the bulk of carries on Monday. What will more likely happen is that the perpetually bandaged Chauncey Washington will be USC's primary back. The coaches are simply most comfortable with him back there because of his bulk, blocking ability and experience. He's been so-so of late but is healthier than against UCLA and almost by accident will improve his showing. By most accounts he was running well in practice although the flu may have sidelined him for a day.
If Washington's the choice, USC won't be "attacking" Michigan's run defense so much as strenuously trying to get its four yards every first down to set up the rest of the offense. If the coaching staff relaxes from the rigor mortis that was the UCLA experience, we're likely to see sprinklings of Gable and the shifty Emmanuel Moody (back from a midseason ankle injury) and some Bradford in the passing game.
It seems to me there are two John David Bootys: an accurate nightmare for other teams when given time to throw and a frazzled nightmare for USC fans when forced to move around in the pocket. This may be exagerrated by close viewing of the UCLA game. How has Booty handled pressure in other games this year, and has he gotten much of it?
I think Booty's been flustered at times. Certainly nothing like the UCLA game, but opponents have occasionally been able to move him around the pocket when his tackles have had bad days. The USC people I consulted were much more optimistic about Booty's poise, seeing the UCLA game as the only real rough go he had. The USC offensive line has had an up and down year, but that's relative to how that unit played last year. It's a fantastic line with serious talent everywhere except right tackle.
Right tackle Kyle Williams had three false starts against UCLA, was run around most of that game, walked out of a Rose Bowl practice, and is scheduled to start. This is a concern, right? What's the situation there, and can USC keep Booty clean? We know Baker's pretty good and Williams pretty iffy, but how's the interior of the line?
Speak of the Devil. It is a concern, although again USC people are a little more relaxed about his ups and downs. He's a 5th year guy and is unlikely to repeat a career worst performance, or so the thinking goes.
If we step back for a moment from the highly scrutinized UCLA game, and just look at the USC line, it's really a fine group. Sam Baker is one of the country's finest left tackles. Ryan Kalil is one of the nation's best centers. Chilo Rachal has great promise at right guard. Drew Radovich is an elite recruit who has been superb with his pass blocking. Kyle Williams is experienced. They do a good job, but things just haven't been as smooth this year as the last.
The interior of the line is good. Anytime your center is a great lineman like Kalil things are looking good. Both Rachal and Radovich are first year starters and have been at those spots all year. The real issue with them at this point is consistency.
OSU exploited Michigan's thin secondary with multiple four and five wide receiver sets, forcing Johnny Sears on the field and making backup WLB Chris Graham do things like "cover" Anthony Gonzalez. How is USC's receiver depth? Can they hypothetically replicate that strategy?
USC has great receiver depth. Thing is, USC isn't doing anything about that depth. Besides Smith and Booty, there is former No. 1 receiver recruit Patrick Turner. He's a giant with decent speed and a strange sub-10 yards/catch average. Then there's Chris McFoy who has battled injuries this year and is a reliable veteran target.
And then there's the pair of burned redshirts with four catches between them: Vidal Hazelton and Travon Patterson. Both players spent the bulk of fall camp putting on a show with Patterson's zigzagging through the Trojan's first string defense and Hazelton's acrobatics and one-handed grabs.
This season we've seen none of that. Instead, when USC went to five wide against UCLA, the "receivers" included fullback Thomas Williams and blocking tight end Dale Thompson. UCLA simply laughed that off. The staff doesn't have faith yet in the kids and thus, you won't see USC replicate Ohio State's strategy.
The thing with USC's offense is that the coaches rarely mimic what other programs do. USC is going to do its thing and nothing on tape is going to change the fundamentals. Thus, no shotgun, very little no huddle, five wide only in desperation, no option, none of that.
Steve Smith evidently thinks he and Jarrett can exploit the Michigan secondary; anyone who saw the Ohio State game agrees. What say you?
Smith has had a great year, so I'm not going to challenge what he feels about the passing matchups. He and Jarrett are a little different from the Ohio State guys in that they're more physical, a little bigger, and not as fast. They're professionals and have seen literally everything a defense could throw at them over their careers. They'll make plays. They did against Texas' vaunted secondary last year and they'll do it again if Booty has time to throw.
What would your gameplan be if you were Lane Kiffin?
If I were Lane Kiffin I'd feature a lot of Gable and Bradford in the run offense. Gable's a little more of a slasher, just something different for Michigan's defenders to chase around and Bradford is simply one of the best athletes on the USC team who can do some things in the passing offense if given a chance.
USC definitely needs to run the ball to give themselves some breathing room on offense, but if the offense is to have a good day Booty will be the one making most of the plays. Also, I'd challenge Michigan's linebackers and extra defensive backs to run around a little bit and mix in a lot of slants and crosses. Judging by the press conference quotes this week, USC's players and coaches view Michigan as a big, physical team and maybe not the most athletic. If true it would be wise to make those defenders play more with their athletic skills than their strength and size.
Nose tackle Sedrick Ellis was a penetrating nightmare against UCLA. Has he maintained that level of performance the whole year? I have visions of him slipping into the backfield on our zone plays with
depressing frequency. How are USC's linebackers at picking through the trash and getting to the ball? They were impressive against UCLA. How reliable are they with their assignments?
Ellis was actually knocked out of a few games this year. When he returned it took about two games to really get back into the swing of things. He started the year playing as well as I've ever seen him play, which was a carryover from his strong finish at the end of the 2005 season. Michigan might be a good match up for him with its straightforward attack. When he can concentrate on being big strong interior tackle man he's at his best as he can set his feet and plow into the backfield and then slide towards the quarterback or ball carrier.
USC's linebackers are fairly good at parsing all the muck up front. Rey Maualuga and Dallas Sartz have taken some heat for their inability to shed blockers, but collectively this group uses its rare combination of size, speed and athleticism to really disrupt things. Pete Carroll trusted Brian Cushing's ability to engage linemen enough that he spends a fair amount of time at the line of scrimmage as a down lineman. Obviously the guy isn't a pushover when times call for taking on blockers. Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga are so fast that they really need but an opening to get in there and stop the plays in front of them. There was an adjustment period with the new look defense but everyone's played really well the last third of the season.
Michigan has an iffy right tackle of its own in the game but limited Rueben Riley, a man who would be playing guard in an ideal world. He's had difficulty with high-level pass rushers like CMU's Dan Bazuin and ND's Victor Abiamiri. Lawrence Jackson would fit into that category, right?
Lawrence Jackson has his moments as a pass rusher, but his real talent is as a combo lineman. There's never been a time where I've looked at an opposing tackle and thought "LJ's going to simply own this guy today". He's a little more sporadic about when he'll have that big day.
If I can make you worry about him for a moment, I will say he's played fantastic football the last half of the season. Coach Carroll gave him a book (something about tennis) that helped him change his approach. He'd been trying too hard and had to simply play the game as he knew how. The next week he went out and had three sacks and has teamed will Ellis ever since as this scary, productive, inside-outside combo on the line.
Terrell Thomas apparently intends to play despite dislocating his shoulder in a bowl practice. How healthy is he and how critical is he to the Trojan secondary? Will he match up against Manningham or just stay on the boundary?. You mentioned USC mostly plays zone... which seems dodgy.
Your guess is as good as mine in re Terrell Thomas' health. The coaches are putting on the brave front that he's had this injury before and simply deals with it and will once again deal with it. He's practicing, so I guess he's fine, but we'll know more on Monday the first time he goes to make a tackle.
He's the most consistent corner USC has, but I wouldn't say he's critical to the secondary. USC has some depth at corner (Mozique McCurtis, Kevin Thomas) if someone goes down, but ideally Terrell should be out there as he's reliable. Reliability is what makes the USC defense function in the first place, since it's built around forcing opponents to abandon the big play and patiently work the ball down the field.
Michigan will be trying to get Mario Manningham open deep against OMG shirtless recruit turned freshman starter Taylor Mays; they'll probably hurl a few downfield even if he's covered. How does a mostly cover-two defense deal with an outside deep threat the caliber of MM?
USC will be licking its chops at the prospect of Michigan challenging its defense deep. There's always someone (or two) back there to discourage any serial efforts at a deep passing game. The last and only time I remember someone running past the USC defense since Carroll arrived was in 2004 when BYU's Todd Watkins hauled in a 69-yard touchdown. I'm not saying it's impossible but that was what, once in 2,000 throws since Pete Carroll arrived?
California learned that lesson earlier this year, trying to hit DeSean Jackson deep. Thomas shadowed him to the edge of his zone, and it appeared Jackson was open. Cal's quarterback Nate Longshore made a nice throw but Taylor Mays effortlessly swooped over from one corner of his zone to where Jackson had gotten past Thomas to get in front of the ball and make the interception. It was beautiful to watch the handoff between the two defensive backs as Cal was suckered into an easy turnover while challenging the USC two deep.
I don't doubt that Manningham will shake free from USC's corners a few times, but its one thing to make an intermediate catch against the defense (happens quite a bit) and another thing altogether to make it a long play and/or touchdown. Patience is a virtue, at least when it comes to throwing against Carroll's defense.
If you were designing an offensive gameplan with Michigan's personnel, how would you attack the Trojan defense?
Hmm... I'd employ a patient, short game passing attack. I'd throw the ball early and often, taking what's given by USC's zones, and start running the ball once inside USC's 30's to keep them off balance. It's not difficult to score on USC's defense (fundamentally it's a bend don't break strategy, after all), the difficulty is scoring repeatedly. I'd try to get an early touchdown or 10 points just passing the ball with extreme discipline. That won't work forever, so I'd eventually get down to your running game and just hammer away with that. Eventually USC will figure that out, their defense is just so fast and talented, but some well timed reverses, misdirection etc. with one of your speedy young backs might put USC on its heels for a few plays and net another score somewhere.
Finally, USC's special teams are just short of woeful. I'd spent an inordinate amount of practice time with the coverage and returns teams, forcing USC into a field position game. Whatever Steve Breaston ate the night before you played Texas a few years ago, I'd feed him that again and tell him we need another 200+ yards on returns and maybe even a touchdown. The real back-breaker in the Oregon State loss was that punt return touchdown. USC mounted an epic comeback, but that extra score gave the Beavers just enough points and shook USC's confidence to ensure the narrowest of victories.
Any motivation concerns?
USC won't have any motivation concerns. They're embarrassed and proud and they're playing a team that despite the subtle trash talk from Steve Smith, they deeply respect. USC has played its best against the big names they've seen this year like Arkansas, Notre Dame and Nebraska. As you've mentioned, anytime the words Rose Bowl and USC are mentioned, people in the Michigan program perk up. The same thing goes with USC.
And a prediction?
I'm generally a bit pessimistic about USC's performance this year, but they should find a way to come through here. For whatever reason, Michigan tightens up just a little in games like this, which weighs heavily in my assessment of t
he outcome. Both teams at their core are defensive powers and will bunker down if it doesn't look like they have a chance to open things up offensively. For all USC's foibles this last calendar year, they've found ways to win when things aren't always going right and have the droves of skill talent to get just enough scoring to escape with a victory.
USC 17, Michigan 13? Enjoy the Song Girls.
Youtube's been processing the video for hours... dunno WTF the issue is. So clunky links; sorry.
USC Drive 1
Washington off tackle for one; Booty reacts to a linebacker blitz by hitting TE Davis for a a good chunk. Empty on third down, a slant is nearly undercut â€“ nice play by the CB to get a hand on it, but Jarrett hauls it in anyway.
On the ensuing first down, Booty pumps left then comes back to a wide open Davis on the right side of the field for another first. Some rhythm showing in the Trojan offense; no pressure yet. Zone right for Gable picks up a few. UCLA goes five in the box on second down, blitzes from the edge and manages to shut down a draw that had a ton of room. After the play, a personal foul moves USC back 15 yards. Ensuing bomb is a Jeff Bowden Hopeful Downfield Jump Ball, and it's punty time.
DRIVE NOTES: UCLA lucks out with the personal foul, as USC was looking smooth on offense for the first time all game. Booty was kept clean and picked up a series of first downs until misfortune kept them out of the endzone. This will be repeated.
UCLA Drive 1
Cowan play action is one-hopped. (AAAARRRGH Musberger talking about Michigan in Glendale.) Markey stuffed on second down; Ellis again, this time holding at the POA, driving his man a yard or so back, and disengaging. On third down, Cowan gets pressure and flips a ridiculous left-handed shovel pass incomplete. He is not good.
DRIVE NOTES: Cowan can't throw. Punter launches one, flipping field position despite the three-and-out. This is how you beat a far superior team, with a lot of luck.
USC Drive 2
Booty stands in against an onrushing Bruin and flings up a ball that lands right in Jarrett's hands. Impressive. Jarrett puts on a Manningham-esque double move, but doesn't have that extra step that gets Manningham into the endzone. Next play is a wheel to Gable that Booty puts in between the corner and safety, but a bit high for the shortish Gable. Leaping grab attempt comes up short.
Booty checks down to Davis; throw is high and hard and incomplete. False start from RT Kyle Williams. Now third and fifteen, ace three-wide. WTF? Booty bails on the throw in the face of the blitz, checking down to a running back before he completes his drop.
UCLA Drive 2
Starts with a 24 yard punt return, again flipping field position. UCLA starts near the 50. Cowan drops back, play action, and hits Everett on a comeback for 16. Waggle to Paulsen for another first down. We run this exact play.
UCLA empty, batted at the line. More play action finds Cowan under pressure immediately, forcing a one-yard checkdown. Next play is just badass from Cowan, who steps up through two edge rushers, spins around and takes off, then finds Everett for the first. Not relevant, but sweet.
Markey for two again. UCLA's run game has been nonexistent save for Cowan scrambles. Out on second down a bit wide. ARRRRRGH MICHIGAN WATCHING ARRRRGH. UCLA goes empty, Everett should have enough room to get the first down but hesitates and ends up a yard short. Chippie FG is good, UCLA 10-9.
DRIVE NOTES: Waggle was a clone of our play. USC friend of mine has a couple contacts and said that USC thinks Michigan thinks USC's linebackers are vulnerable in coverage. Personally, I've been impressed with Sartz in straight zone drops but perhaps misdirection is the way to attack them? Fast but stupid?
USC Drive 3
UCLA blitzing into a Gable counter; by the time it develops the blitzers are in position to close it down. Minimal gain. Second down slant batted at the line. Empty on third and eight and UCLA gets some edge rush, forcing Booty to step up. He slips down, sacking himself and ending the drive.
DRIVE NOTES: Booty had that badass completion when allowed to stand in and fire downfield to Jarrett in the only place that pass could be. On the next play, the wheel to Gable, Booty was a little high but well within tolerances for a pass 30 yards downfield. But even though UCLA's rushing has been the wild upfield variety that's easily stepped around and fundamentally unsound, Booty on the move has been mostly a disaster.
He's not Troy Smith, and when USC has gone empty they never bring in more than three wide receivers. Davis, the tight end, is the fourth guy, and the fifth is a motioned running back. Plus it's clear that Booty prefers to stand and deliver, making an empty set an invitation to blitz. USC also eschews the shotgun.
UCLA Drive 3
Cowan fumbles the snap, losing 2. Waggle on second down is checked down to the short option for a few. On third down, Cowan is blitzed, scrambles around, throws a backwards pass that's dropped and recovered by Ellis, turnover.
DRIVE NOTES: Cowan still not good at football.
USC Drive 3
First and ten on UCLA's side of the field. First time in the game USC has an advantage in field position... and they jump before the snap. Bleah! Gable is chopped down on a stretch play â€“ Smith's block attempt is whiffed. Loss of four, second and nineteen. Booty permitted time again nails Davis across the middle.
On third and five, Gable takes a draw-type thing that UCLA reads and attacks â€“ safety was up like a shot. Going on fourth and short; a quick snap pitch that's overrun.
DRIVE NOTES: Third and fourth and short killing the Trojans. Can't make a yard in short yardage and have stopped even trying to get it up the middle, and this is a UCLA defense that doesn't have the destructive power of Branch and Taylor up the middle â€“ check that. On further review, UCLA finished the year 12th(!) in rushing defense, which is amazing after last year's disaster. Didn't Reggie Bush have something like 10 YPC a year ago?
Anyway, UCLA's rush defense is no pushover but it also hasn't been dominant like Michigan's (OSU game excepted, of course... but it's doubtful USC can spread the Michigan D out like OSU did). Long story short: I'd be surprised if USC moved the ball much on the ground.
UCLA Drive 3
Markey up the gut for around five. Holding penalty sets up second and long... Ellis again. Guy will be an issue. Cowan waggle against his throwing motion is thrown into the turf. Third and fifteen, and Cowan is permitted time to find Everett down the seam. Outstanding route and catch by Everett, who's been the guy when UCLA needs a critical conversion.
Markey up the middle for 12. USC linebackers don't get off their blocks.
Williams then has back to back runs for a first down at the ten. Secon is a nice cut through a small seam at the line. Williams up the middle for three... run a zone, UCLA! None of this is that relevant. Cowan scrambles out of the waggle + a tenuous late hit on Cowan gets UCLA inside the ten. On replay, a terrible call.
On first and goal, UCLA stuffed. Nice play by the other DT to flow down the line. Relevant.
On second down Cowan takes a
n inexcusable sack on another attempted rollout as no one bit on the play action. Cowan just sort of falls down instead of throwing the ball out of the endzone. Third and goal from the twelve ends with Cowan again iffy, dumping down to a tight end five yards behind the LOS. Field goal up and good, UCLA 13-9.
DRIVE NOTES: UCLA's third and fifteen conversion was followed by a series of slashing runs that got them in field goal range. Ellis will be a major issue but on plays we get him blocked Hart should find himself some room.
USC Drive 4
Booty hits Jarrett on a three step drop zag route for seven-ish. ARRRGH MICHIGAN IN BCS AARRRRGH. Gable is sniffed and stuffed, setting up the dreaded third and one. I-form with TE Davis at FB â€“ whenever we do this it's a pass â€“ and it's a pass! Booty is swamped by blitzers, panics, and slips down as he tries to throw.
UCLA Drive 4
First and ten Cowan rollout has an open receiver for 7 or 8 but his pass is wildly inaccurate. Second down run stuffed for no gain. Next play is the Cowan rollout that ends with a helmet to helmet that's uncalled. A virtual replay of the Crable hit. I hate everything.
DRIVE NOTES: Cowan still can't throw. Announcers don't even mention the helmet to helmet.
USC Drive 5
Booty sacked on a pump fake that was an attempt to go deep. Sam Baker beaten. I can see Woodley doing this. It's one of his moves.
Second and fourteen, USC empty and Booty fires it well outside the field of play... likely a throwaway. On third and fourteen USC rolls Booty out of the pocket, has an illegal formation and obviously holds a Bruin and still can't get anyone blocked. End result, with a tenuous PI call, is a redo.
On the redo Booty fires what's his second-best pass of the game. Under heavy duress, pocket collapsing, he launches a ball to Steve Smith that sets up fourth and less than one.
Dreaded short yardage is short enough for a sneak. First down. WR screen thrown behind Jarrett. Booty stands in â€“ getting protection now â€“ and hits his checkdown. Third and three. Booty hits Davis for the conversion; three step drop. Smith underneath for 6. UCLA ceding yardage here in a Herrmanesque way. Gable draw well read by Hickman and shut down for a yard. Dreaded Third And Short next. Booty drops back and lances a post to Smith for a big gainer.
Underneath to McFoy; clock running under 1:30. Booty fires high and incomplete to a bracketed McFoy. Potentially a throwaway. And the next play is the one that will live in UCLA lore forever
Relevant portion of game over.
- Booty's really good when suffered time to throw. On the move, he is not good.
- USC's tackles can probably be had. The RT has been poor all year and is a bit of a headcase, walking out of a USC practice earlier in the week. They have no alternative, apparently. Even Baker was not particularly effective against the UCLA pass rush.
- USC on short yardage? Ugly. They had lost all faith in their ability to line up and run it, and with good reason.
- Jarrett = good. Expect a series of slants that we can't do anything about.
- Getting Sedrick Ellis blocked is the key for our offense, especially in the run game. He's bad news for our zone running game.
- Efficacy of the USC pass rush. Lawrence Jackson was great until this year, when he was skunked on sacks most of the way. Cushing had one nice sack. But Cowan spent most of the game on the run, so there weren't many opportunities to see how the Trojans did against conventional pass drops.
- USC's secondary. Cowan threw even less frequently than he dropped back, instead taking off. They do appear to play a ton of zone. But how good are they at it and how effective will Terrell Thomas be? He plans on playing but if he can't tackle he'll be a liability.
- Efficacy of Michigan run game. With speedy linebackers and the penetrating Ellis, this looks like a bad matchup for us.
Arrgh. Fanhouse stuff plus LA time == I couldn't quite finish the second half of UCLA before I got roped into liveblogging the Alamo. Should get it up by halftime.