I'VE HAD JUST ABOUT ENOUGH OF YOU SONNY
10/29/2005 - Michigan 33-17 Northwestern - 6-3, 4-2 Big Ten
Pop quiz, hotshot:
- Defense A plays a conservative, bend-don't-break style of defense that results in a lot of long drives by the opposition. They get few three-and-outs. By the end of the game they yield 17 points on three long drives, giving up about 420 yards.
- Defense B is more of a gambling unit that uses more man coverage and stunts the hell out of its defensive line, getting frequent pressure at the expense of the occasional gaping hole. It gives up fewer long drives but more long plays. By the end of the game they yield 17 points due to a series of big plays against. They also yield about 420 yards.
Which defense is better?
Is this a trick question? What if I told you that Defense A faced 11 drives and Defense B 16? Does that make your thinking on this case very clear, man? What if I told you this particular situation was not particularly hypothetical at all and would probably serve as fabulous justification for a much different take on two performances that seem nearly identical on the surface? What if I stopped using this slightly annoying rhetorical device?
The upshot is this: the game is changing, man, and those that change with it will have extremely fine pads with all the latest in eight-track technology. Those who do not will probably end up on Fanopticon under the headline "Irate fans burn down house of coach; much of the latest in eight-track technology lost." Part of that change is in realizing that the current state of football statistics is dire and that what really counts is drive efficiency, not raw totals. Part of that change is in realizing that 30-40 yards from a punt is just not as valuable as it used to be. A punt is just as good as a long interception: it's a turnover.
I submit that Lloyd Carr is working towards that sweet eight-track player by changing his habits built up over the decades. This isn't easy--changing an ingrained habit is never, ever easy. He's doing it in fits and starts, like a man attempting to kick heroin. Relapses are regular, but there is change afoot. As a result, Michigan fans were treated to the Least Likely Playcall in History on Saturday when crotchety old Lloyd eschewed a field goal on fourth and six from the twenty-three and instead directed Chad Henne to throw it three yards wide of an open Steve Breaston. Turnover on downs. Oh well.
In this case, though, it is indeed the thought that counts. That play should serve as definitive proof that the old dog is struggling towards some new tricks, because even the hardcore Romer devotees among us probably looked towards whoever else was available and tried to communicate something along the lines of "my vociferous bitching on the Internets has created a monster I cannot control" with only a cocked eyebrow and disquieted countenance. Fourth and six! With a 40 yard field goal waiting! Zounds. Let me be clear on this: I disagree with that playcall because it is too aggressive. T-O-O aggressive. In other news, gravity pulls up, Penn State fans are models of decorum when questioned about officiating, and Michigan State is showing remarkable resiliency after losing to Michigan.
Carr's attempt to come to Game Theory Jesus shouldn't be a total shock. Carr's always been somewhat schizophrenic when it comes to risk. While he's downright Victorian when leading a close game, he's always had a flair for exquisitely timed trickeration when behind--the Navarre buffalo stampede versus Minnesota, the flea-flicker this year, etc. Those plays which are inherently high-risk, high-reward, and Carr has an undeniable knack for producing them at the right time. He occasionally risks without benefit, generally when he's feeling his oats way ahead late. I still maintain that the John Navarre called with six minutes left in the '03 MSU game--Navarre fumbled and turned a two-score-going-on-three laugher into a losable game--was amongst the worst calls in the history of everything. Likewise, he chose this game to feature third-down play action attempting to kill the clock when the situation--up 16, under two minutes left--probably called for the run run run punt strategy employed against Penn State, since only a miracle pick-six could have given the Wildcats even a sliver of hope.
I'm not complaining about any of this, at least not at the moment. Nor am I complaining about the run run run field goal at the end of the half that seemed designed more to keep Northwestern from scoring before the end of the half (a futile endeavor) than to get a critical extra four points. Running from the three against Northwestern's D is not a crazy decision. Carr's fourth down decisions have been largely correct this year aside from the Rivas pooch punt towards the end of the Penn State game. In multiple cases he's made tough, correct decisions: going on fourth and goal from the one against Wisconsin, pounding it into the line twice against Michigan State, etc. Even when the strategy has backfired, he accepts the downside and persists in a more aggressive posture.
In context, the Penn State gaffe seems more like one last hit of that sweet Bombay Popsicle* snuck in-between rehab sessions than evidence of 1970s thinking taking hold. Lloyd Carr has checked himself in to the Betty Ford Center for Coaches Addicted to Low Variance. I wouldn't expect a flying-colors discharge any time soon, but he's made the first, biggest step. There's still a lot of work to do--I think we need an intervention about that running on first down into a nine-man front thing, not to mention that horrible soft zone--but he's trying to change.
He's got fourth down, uh, down. First and second are mountains yet to come.
*(uh, yeah, I don't know either.)
This is the location for comments and trackbacks to opinions about this weekend's games. Don't forget VT-BC... that Vick guy is good. No, not the one on the sideline eating chili fries.
The place for all opinions and the like on tonight's game versus Northwestern... and hell, the hockey team's playing UAF again tonight (lost4-2 yesterday) and it's on Comcast Local at 11, so anyone wishing to post re: it is welcome as well.
Just a reminder: try to keep your OUTRAGE! out of fifth gear... and probably fourth as well.
Suntory time for all!
Uh... yeah. Someone has decided to use photoshop for bizarre ends; why do all these strange cat animations seem to come from the UK?
Doug Karsch is reporting on WTKA that Hart and Woodley are "unlikely" for tomorrow. I may have to rename Angry Michigan Safety Hating God to Angry Michigan Safety, Defensive End, And Magical Midget Hating God, and that's just not very catchy. Our prospects immediately dim if they don't play but Woods did fill in well against Iowa, and Northwestern's run defense didn't get any better because of it.
I'm going to find out who's fault this is, and I'm going to force them to read the entire Drew Sharp column archive. Primary suspect: the Trix Rabbit.
Run Offense vs. Northwestern
Resistable force versus movable obect here, though our force gets significantly less resistable if a short guy from Syracuse shows up. Even if he doesn't, I have to believe that the Long-infused Michigan offensive line will be able to deal with a Northwestern defensive line that is Barry Coefield and a bunch of guys who are really smart.
Unfortunately, I've probably said that exact same sentence four or five times and been mostly wrong about it; the one time I said we were doomed on the OL, before Penn State, they did an admirable job. Michigan had a lot of trouble without Hart against Iowa, eventually resorting to fourth-string
Jermaine Tito Jerome Jackson late because he would A) not fumble and B) run places that were not also occupied by our offensive linemen. Still, there's a major gap between the Northwestern DL and even Iowa's undersized and young unit that's evident in the statistics. Without Howard these guys are crippled, and they don't have the secondary to run up a safety without seriously tempting fate.
The yards will be there, but there will be many more if Hart can go.
Key Matchup: RB Mike Hart versus Mike Hart's Ankle. The cooperativeness of Hart's ankle is apparently still in question. His replacements all seem adequate but adequate isn't enough to make up for an inadequate offensive line.
Pass Offense vs. Northwestern
Just when all reasonable people had resigned themselves to a mostly ineffective Chad Henne he had to come back and flash some of the ability that had everyone in such a tizzy at the beginning of the year. Of course, he paired that flash with instances of ridiculous decision making and inaccurate short throws, nicely summing up his "Yes, but..." season. Jason Avant and Steve Breaston re-emerged as the heroes du jour after taking a one game backseat to Mario "The New Math" Manningham, whose main contribution against Iowa was a broken route that led to an interception.
I've previously said that Henne has struggled against all but resolutely awful defenses. That's a problem most weeks, but not this one. Northwestern's Mildcat (ho ho ho) pass defense is 115th in the country in terms of yardage and 85th in terms of efficiency--and it was much worse than that before picking off Drew Stanton three times as he melted down last week. Henne's tendency to short-circuit under pressure should not be much of an issue: the Wildcats, deprived of the services of Loren Howard, have managed only five sacks the entire year. Two of those were against Ohio. Henne should have time and the ability to pick his spots throwing downfield, as the Wildcats will probably be forced to offer the Michigan receivers a significant cushion.
So here it is. Fool me like four times, shame on me, but Henne is going to have a great day against the Wildcats, especially if they let him sit in the pocket for extended periods of time. Long's return and the feeble Northwestern pass rush should greatly help his confidence and allow him to make his reads.
Key Matchup: WRs Mario Manningham and Steve Breaston versus CBs Marquise Cole and Deonte Battle. Northwestern has had a tendency to give up a lot of yards on relatively few completions in several games this year. The Northwestern CBs will either have to leave the deep ball open or leave Manningham and Breaston large cushions. Either way, these two have to take advantage of the opportunites the Northwestern defense will afford them.
Run Defense Vs Northwestern
Little. Deadly. Different.
Oy. It's time to start wondering about what happened here. Last year Michigan had a run defense that was consistently great against tailbacks (quarterbacks are another story). Lining up in a 3-4 with Watson, Massey, and Larry Harrison backed by linebackers Lamarr Woodley, Lawrence Reid, Pierre Woods, and Scott McClintock, running on first down was usually second and nine. With the switch back to the 4-3 and a wholly new linebacking corps has come disaster. Everyone except EMU has ownzored the Michigan run defense, and Northwestern is no EMU (and don't we miss the days when that sentence was one of the most ridiculous in the english langauge). The return of Lamarr Woodley and Rondell Biggs will certainly help and Michigan may have found a WLB in John Thompson, but it would take a drastic improvement to hold down the newly resurgent Northwestern ground game. Yeah. Weird, I know.
I haven't been right too often this year, so humor me while I point out something I did get right:
Despite his diminutive stature, or perhaps because of it, Sutton could be the 2005 version of Mike Hart.
This he has done, and how. Sutton has torn Northwestern opponents limb from limb. He's the scariest guy his size since Chucky. He seems especially suited to gashing the Michigan defense by getting outside containment. Maybe Thompson's insertion will help, but he is still young and Michigan's defensive line still has problems keeping gaps down to reasonable sizes. Sutton's going to get some stabbin' in.
Key Matchup: LBs John Thompson and David Harris versus RB Tyrell Sutton. Sutton's going to be bouncing all over the place, looking for holes. Thompson and Harris have to contain and tackle surely, otherwise Michigan will get posterized.
Pass Defense vs. Northwestern
Look, I know I'm just a guy. I've never played organized football, let alone coach it for ten billion years. But some things make no sense to me as a guy who's played a lot of games--chess, Command & Conquer, Super Tecmo Bowl, NCAA Football, etc. One of those things that make no sense is to explicitly disclose your plan to the enemy. As Sun-Tzu's Art of War says, "Goddammit, play some man coverage." Michigan forgoes all deceit with baffling regularity, and this season's all-zone all-the-time attempt at pass defense is a prime example. There's no excuse for Michigan to cover opposing players on 10% of the avaiable downs against Iowa.
While I was dead on about Tyrell Sutton, my preseason slamming of Brett Basanez has to be high on the long list of things I've been wrong about this year:
Brett Basanez has a ton of experience but an inaccurate arm. He's a hard-nosed guy who is decently suited for the run-oriented spread option Northwestern runs but doesn't have the athleticism to be a real threat in the run game or the arm to be a true dropback passer.
Uh.... yeah. Basanez is 19th in passing efficiency, has thrown 12 touchdowns to one interceptions, and has completed 67% of his passes. I suck; Basanez does not. It is worth pointing out, however, that the defenses Basanez have feasted upon are much like the lineup from The Usual Suspects: everyone in the room is guilty. Check their passing stats, you fairy godmother:
- Michigan State: 110th/102nd efficiency.
- Purdue: 117th (last!)/108th efficiency.
- Wisconsin: 88th/45th efficiency.
- Arizona State: 104th/74th.
The only competent non-MAC defense the Wildcats have opposed was Penn State. In that game Basanez did all right (20-38, 229 yards, one interception) but certainly not great.
So I don't know what to think. I'd like to say that Basanez can't possibly maintain that impressive efficiency, but Drew Tate and his 27-for-39-with-a-buncha-drops says ha(!). The Jesus and his 20-for-30 seconds the motion. If Michigan insists on the undisguised zone that freaked us all out after NIU and reappeared with terrible vengance against Iowa, the results will probably be the same: a lot of chain moving throws between guys doing their ill-conceived job and a mut
tered prayer for opponent errors. The strategy that appears to make sense is to press the hell out of the Wildcat receivers, take away their short passing game, and give your defensive line time to have an impact on the game, but Michigan's fear of a
black planet mobile quarterback has seen them lay back and wait. That is unlikely to change.
Key Matchup: Lamarr Woodley, Alan Branch, and hopefully Woods, Crable, and Jamison. Michigan's stops against Iowa that were actually due to the Michigan defense were universally caused by a Tate sack that either killed a drive or put it in 2nd-and-20 critical condition. Stopping a methodical but not explosive Wildcat attack will take MOTS.
Breaston had no opportunity to return any of Iowa's 20-30 yard punts; Rivas' field goal was a chip shot. The Michigan special teams this year have been good but not great; expect that to continue.
Northwestern kicker Joel Howells has been decidedly average this year. He went 5 of 6 against Penn State but is barely above 50% on the year (8 for 15). Marquice Cole has a punt return touchdown and is average 27(!) yards a return, but Ross Ryan has been good about preventing returns this year. Under 30% of his kicks are being run back, and most of those are under duress. Michigan should keep Cole under wraps.
Key Matchup: Rivas versus Howells. At some point these offenses are going to get stopped, probably in the red zone, and these guys will have to make their relatively short kicks.
Yeah, the first kitten thing was funny and effective. The second was not particularly funny... but effective. So I won't push it this week.
But I'm not above some superstition:
Three Things I'd Like To See:
- Hart, Woodley, Thompson, Engelmon, and Long on the field.
- Something that isn't a zone. I'm not talking all the time, but the Iowa game was ridiculous.
- Evidence that the Northwestern defense really is that bad.
Three Things I Don't Want To See
- Brett Basanez with time to throw.
- Pat "Pancake"Massey chewing the turf as Sutton strolls by.
- Any goddamned unforced fumbles with the game salted away.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 8 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for They've Got Their Own Hart; +1 for We Think Covering Wideouts is Unsporting; +1 for Season On Borrowed Time.)
Desperate need to win level: 8 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for Clearing This Hurdle == One Game To Respectability; +1 for I'd Take The Outback; +1 for A Bye Week To Stew In)
Loss will cause me to... wow. 5-4 with a dominant OSU defense on the horizon? Maybe I do have to scout those MAC teams.
Win will cause me to... exhale.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict: My 0-fer 2005 was finally broken against Iowa, so I can finally predict in peace. Hopefully.
Defensively, Michigan is going to have major issues with Tyrell Sutton. I doubt he gets held under 100 yards. If they decide to let Northwestern have the same coverage Iowa did the results will be largely the same all around and Michigan will be relying on flukes and drops that haven't been featured heavily by Northwestern 2005 in order to stop the Wildcat offense. Michigan should have a signifcant advantage on the OL rushing the passer, especially if Woodley is healthy enough to go full speed, but if Basanez can throw little slants and stops all day because of massive cushions provided they won't make much difference. If Engelmon returns Michigan may get more aggressive but they'll probably pick their spots, but they'll be too few to really shut down the efficient Northwestern offense.
Offensively, we'd better kill these guys. Last! Dead last! With Long back and (probably) Hart back and Avant and healthy Breaston and a Henne that seems to be coming around gradually, we should be able to pound out a number of methodical drives remiscent of those in the NIU and MSU games. Northwestern's defense is no better than the MSU unit we made look stupid or the EMU unit that gave up and went home, and now we've got our big, bad right tackle back. It's shootout time!
It says here that Woodley and Branch make enough plays to squeak this one out. Bring on the bye week, and sweet, sweet release.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Henne goes nuts, then does it again against Indiana. Everyone says he's back. OSU disagrees.
- The delayed LB blitz stops working.
- 35-31, Michigan.
I'm a sucker for hockey coverage, so with it is with great glee that I point out this NHL.com article on Michigan and its freshmen, though it opens up with this:
In the spring of 1992, Ann Arbor, Michigan and the college basketball world were captivated by five sensational freshmen who brought the University of Michigan basketball team to within seconds of a national title.
Come on, man! Michigan won a national title in 1998 with a similar horde of freshmen... in hockey. No need to throw that Fab Five junk in our face when you've got a much better analogue available--one that ended happily, I might add.
Yes, this is what I meant. The UFR:D yesterday was strident--perhaps a bit too strident, but it's a blog, I don't have an editor--and I expended a lot of words searching for the exact reason why Michigan's passive defense got my dander up. I have found the words:
[The coaches] seemed content with the game being decided by whatever mistakes the opposition made, no matter if Michigan caused them or not.
That's the Underachieving All Stars again filling the pith in where mine fails me. Much speculation about Michigan's tendency towards annoying 9-3 equilibrium has been posted, but I'll add mine to the pile: the reliance upon opponent's mistakes fails a few times a year when Michigan comes up against a team that is on or is just really efficient. Passive play with superior talent is an easy ticket to a bucketful of wins and a small, potent selection of painful losses.
The posts of RBUAS are problematic only in that they are infrequent. Go, partake.
Daniel Horton had a tough year last year in every way you can short of having you mom kidnapped by Space Elvises. Nathan Fenno continues his strong work for the Ann Arbor News with a long story on the star-crossed point guard.