|WHAT||Michigan vs Western Michigan|
|WHERE||Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mi|
|WHEN||3:30 Eastern, September 5th 2009|
|THE LINE||Michigan -13|
|TELEVISION||Nationwide on ABC|
Run Offense vs. Western
If Michigan wants to win football games this year, especially starting a freshman quarterback, they are going to have to run the ball well. As detailed extensively here and at Varsity Blue, they went from a horrible running team at the beginning of last year to an average-to-good one after the Penn State game. Returning every contributor from the offensive line with another year in the offensive system and the weight training program can only help.
The Broncos weren't particularly adept at stopping the run last year, ranking 62nd in the nation despite facing buzzsaw offenses like Idaho (#74 in rushing), Tennessee Tech (#95 - in Division 1-AA), Temple (#109), Ohio (#79), Buffalo (#75), Central Michigan (#72(!)), and Rice (#62). The Broncos did also face a couple top-30 teams, and some that were vaguely around the 50th percentile. Still, they gave up some serious rushing yardage to some bad teams. Michigan should have the talent advantage over every single one of those moribund teams and everyone the Broncos played against last year except Illinois (who the Broncos took down) and Nebraska. I say "should" because of last year.
That brings us to the horror show that is Western's front seven. The top two defensive ends and the 2nd and 3rd defensive tackles are gone. Cody Cielenski—all 274 pounds of him—is the only returning starter. That much turnover on a line that wasn't very good last year, could spell trouble for the Broncos' ability to defend the run.
The linebackers aren't quite as inexperienced, with 5th-year senior Austin Pritchard returning. He was second on the team in tackles last year, and was named first-team all-MAC. He'll be joined by Mitch Zajac and Justin Braska. Braska is a classic linebacker, while Zajac is the new-model converted-safety-type who can play in space, and will likely be a bigger hindrance to a spread team like the Wolverines.
Key Matchup: Michigan's Interior Offensive Linemen v. The Second Level. With an inexperienced defensive line facing Michigan's now-seasoned OL, the Wolverines in the trenches should be able to execute their initial double-teams and move up to the second level. If their athleticism is such that they can get blocks on linebackers and even secondary players, it could be Big Play City for the Michigan offense. Otherwise, it could be a grind-it-out kind of day, which might not be the best-case scenario for Michigan with Brandon Minor dinged up.
Still, Carlos Brown and Co. should be able to move the ball on the ground with, no matter what.
Pass Offense vs. Western
If Western's run defense was pretty bad last year, their pass defense was downright terrible. Facing the same motley crew of offenses, they finished #102 in the nation in pass defense. 9They were a more respectable #62 in pass efficiency defense.) That indicates they were in lots of shootouts last year (a couple) and games in which the opponent was trying to mount a comeback (a couple more).
The Bronco defense soared to those heights despite two players selected in the NFL Draft in Louis Delmas (2nd Round to the Lions, still technically in the NFL) and EJ Biggers (7th Round to the Buccaneers). I think it's safe to say that you can't expect WMU to replace two NFL-caliber players at one position group. Ohio State they are not. The lone returning starter is strong safety Mario Armstrong.
For Michigan's part, they're trying to erase the memory of a horrible passing game last year (#108 in the country). It's not like we'll be sending out a juggernaut against the Broncos' depleted corps. However, their must must must be an upgrade at quarterback, if only because there was no place to go but up. Tate Forcier will hopefully justify his reputation as a robo-QB, and all will be well as Junior Hemingway, Greg Mathews, and Martavious Odoms can stride from one end of the field to the other with ease.
Key Matchup: Michigan Freshman/Sheridan QBs v. Their Inherent Freshman/Sheridan Qualities. Western's secondary isn't going to be all that good. Their defensive line will only be able to provide a little bit of pressure. The main thing that can stop the Wolverine offense here is shooting itself in the foot. First-game jitters for the freshmen may lead to a little bit of that, and we all know what Sheridan can (or more accurately, can't) do.
The runner up in this category was Michigan Receivers v. The Dropsies. There have been some reports of mild problems in this category, and there are few things more frustrating than a wide open receiver droping a pass.
Run Defense vs. Western
Western has had a prolific offense in the Bill Cubit era, but they haven't been doing most of that work on the ground. They were 28th in total offense last year despite finishing #96 in rushing. Their lack of rushing yardage, however, wasn't always for lack of trying. They tried with little success to pound the ball against Nebraska and Illinois. It will be interesting to see if that extreme pass skew holds up this year; Western has experienced running backs and offensive linemen and a green receiving corps.
Michigan's defense, on the other hand, is a wildcard. Hell, we aren't even positive what the schemes are going to be. Brandon Graham and Mike Martin are the anchors of the DL, and Ryan Van Bergen should be decent unless he has leverage problems with his height. The Western offensive line is pretty big, however, and they could wear out Michigan's DL, especially with the lack of depth Michigan has. Oft-MGoMaligned Obi Ezeh could be vulnerable in space. Brandon West and Aaron Winchester are the type of little darters (Winchester much more so) that have given him trouble in the past of the variety "Ezeh totally overruns the play (-1)."
Contain and discipline will be key.
Key Matchup: Michigan's Defense v. Getting Off The Field. As long as the Wolverines' defensive line doesn't have to play too many snaps, especially consecutively, they should be pretty good. This was a huge issue last year, when they'd force a third and long, and then allow the offense to convert.
Pass Defense vs. Western
This is the segment of the review were Legitimate Fear strikes Michigan fans. Tim Hiller has been prolific in his career to date and is one of Mel Kiper's top five senior quarterbacks. (Don't take that to the bank: Curtis Painter was Kiper's #1 at this time last year.)
There are some reasons for optimism here;
- Hiller is coming off offseason ACL surgery and is not necessarily in peak physical form.
- Western lost most of its receiving corps. Gone are 3 of last year's top 4 options. Juan Nunez returns as the team's best deep threat, but he's one of the very few guys left. Freshman Ansel Ponder should be a top target for Western, with good hands and enough speed to possibly get deep. The Broncos do have a number of tight ends that they may use as well.
Michigan's secondary, however, is about as inexperienced as the Bronco receivers. They won't be tested as much as you'd think, because most of Western's passes are caught within a few yards of the line of scrimmage. That does mean Michigan's linebackers, notorious for their inability to defend the pass, will have to make plays. This will be an early test for Michigan's revamped, speedier linebacker corps and their underneath coverage.
Key Matchup: Brandons Graham and Herron v. Western's Tackles. If Tim Hiller has time to throw the ball, he will find an open play and make a play. That's what 5th-year seniors do, especially those who are coming off all-conference season last year. Michigan needs to make sure they don't allow Hiller that time to make passes.
Both Western's kicker (John Potter) and punter (Ben Armer) return. Potter didn't kick enough field goals and extra points to register any higher than 16th in scoring from last year's MAC ledger. He was decent in his freshman year, and should improve as a sophomore.
The punting game was not so kind to the Broncos last year. They were 97th in the nation in net punting, with Armer barely eclipsing the 40yds/punt mark. If Michigan's returners can hold onto the damn ball, there should be some pretty good opportunities to get serious field position.
For Michigan's part, there is Space Punter and the Unknown. Olesnavage has never kicked a field goal or extra point, and his first real contribution to the team may have to come in crunch time. There is the slight relief that he beat out a scholarship guy in Brendan Gibbons, but I guess Jason Gingell had beaten out Bryan Wright before The Horror, as well.
Key Matchup: Olesnavage v. Angry Michigan-Hating Upset-Minded God. The past two years, Michigan has suffered humiliating upsets because of key missed field goals. If Michigan starts giving away points in special teams, we might be headed for an unfortunate repeat.
Hey, you know what didn't work out last year? Lack of cats.
- The linebackers and secondary look inept in covering the short passing game.
- Either Michigan freshman QB gets hurt, leaving Sheridan as the only viable backup option.
- The offensive line's reported improvement isn't really really obvious.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Michigan can get to Hiller over and over again.
- Tate Forcier looks as good against the Broncos as he did against backups in the spring game.
- Michigan linebackers are sniffing out the screens.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 3 (Baseline 5; –1 for You Have No Men Larger Than Minor On D, Let Alone Linemen, –1 for Still Have Pretty Decent MAC record, +1 for Sheridan Shall Be Sighted, –1 for But Not Much, +1 for Oh Lord Some Safety Is Going To Head Asplode Me.)
Desperate need to win level: 10 (Baseline 5; +5 for Duh.)
Loss will cause me to... Relive the depths of 2008, probably hear all week about how RichRod is sooo fired.
Win will cause me to... Breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to a year of potentially-competent football.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
This game looks to have the makings of an offensive shootout unless GERG Robinson is a miracle worker. Both defenses are expected to be subpar, Western's offense is good, and Michigan's offense is an unknown trending towards good. One team will probably put up decent numbers in order to win.
Offensive shootouts, of course, are typically decided by a couple key plays on defense. Be it a moment of general freshmanity for Forcier or Robinson, or a big sack by Brandon Graham to change field position, one mistake by either offense could decide this one. Considering Michigan's better overall talent level, it should be the Wolverines coming through with a big play.
Offensively, Michigan is still an unknown, mostly because of projected improvement at some positions (offensive line) and youth at another (quarterback). If Brandon Minor was fully healthy, I'd feel much better about this one, as we could probably RAGE down their throats all day. Even if he plays, though, he might be limited. That means a more diverse offense is probably necessary to find any success. That, in turn, means trusting unproven quarterbacks, which generally scares the hell out of me.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Michigan executes a running play longer than 58 yards, their long last year. (It was Threet's gallop against Wisconsin.)
- Tate frustrates the hell out of fans at least once, but excites them more times than that.
- Hiller gets sacked at least three times.
- Michigan, 31-21. [Editor's note: put me down for 34-20.]
[Aaaaand we're out.]
Part thirteen of the all-singing all-dancing season preview. Previously: The Story, 2009, quarterbacks, tailbacks, receivers, offensive line, secondary, linebackers, defensive line, special teams, offensive overview and predictions, defensive overview and predictions, and putting it on the record.
Note: Western preview upcoming with considerable assist from Tim. ETA about one hour, and then we're out.
[Update: Song is "A Better Son/Daughter" by Rilo Kiley. Album.]
A. Watch it. (If you watched it, go to D. Otherwise, go to B.)
B. I told you to watch it. This is not optional. (If you watched it, go to D. Otherwise go to C.)
C. I hate you so much. You don't win the World Series and are eaten by a dinosaur.
D. It's pretty weird being a Michigan fan right now. Winningest program, relatively recent national title, six-of-seven losing streak against Blood Rival, 40 year bowl streak just broken, some guy who tells USA Today he "grew up in a holler," by which he means a dirt road, and "is the same guy [he's] always been" in charge of the whole broken enterprise. I don't think any of us expected to ever be here.
I told Paul I wanted a hype video along the lines that you saw above—unless of course you are currently inside the digestive track of a dinosaur, in which case what sort of wifi do you have?—and he was skeptical. "I've never put highlights to a waltz," he said. I told the girlfriend I told Paul I wanted a hype video along the lines above and she was incredulous. "But it's desperate and sad," she said. I was kind of like yeah… and? And then also I was kind of like "in desperation there's that shred of hope; people who are down and not desperate are resigned. I could be ignorant or desperate." Actually I didn't say that, I said something along the lines of "hi, I'm a Michigan fan, nice to meet you."
E. By this point, I think Rich Rodriguez and the fan collective understand each other pretty good. Maybe we wanted people to conform to our idea of a "Michigan Man," but it turns out things just move towards an asymptote from opposite directions. Here we are on opposite sides of an unbridgeable gap, so close we can reach out our hands and touch.
I said earlier this week in The Story that last year was hard and apathetic. It's still hard, but goddammit I want Michigan to win.
G. I need a nap and a drink.
Part twelve of the all-singing all-dancing season preview. Previously: The Story, 2009, quarterbacks, tailbacks, receivers, offensive line, secondary, linebackers, defensive line, special teams, offensive overview and predictions, defensive overview and predictions.
Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.
The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.
|Year||Margin||Int +||Fumb +||Sacks +||Int -||Fumb -||Sacks -|
|2007||0.15 (41st)||14||15||2.46(33rd)||14||13||2.17 (67th)|
|2008||-.83 (104th)||9||11||2.42(33rd)||12||18||1.83 (57th)|
I should have stopped here in last year's preview…
I expect this to be solidly negative this year what with the n00b quarterbacks and the line and the no Mike Hart,
…but I kept going:
but Scott Shafer’s GOT what plants CRAVE so it could be around even again. Don’t think it will have a major impact.
…oh well. Michigan got crushed in this metric last year and this is a major reason for optimism this year, as has been discussed ad nauseum. If people
HOLD ON TO THE GODDAMN BALL
Michigan should again approach neutral (but probably not reach it: freshmen at QB and all). This should be enough for a one or two game improvement by itself.
Position Switch Starters
Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.
- Steve Schilling moves from tackle to guard and will start.
- Ryan Van Bergen sort of moves from DE to DT and will start.
- Brandon Herron moves from LB to sort of DE and will start.
- Stevie Brown moves from S to sort of LB and will start.
- Troy Woolfolk moves from CB to S and will start.
Though the italicized section above notes that minor moves aren't too damning and all of these fit the category save for Stevie Brown's, IME, that is a lot of guys at positions that are at least somewhat unfamiliar. Schilling's move is probably not a big deal—probably a net positive, actually—but er… that's suboptimal on D there.
An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt
Even if Tate gets injured and Sheridan is thrust into the starting lineup on a semi-permanent basis it's tough to see Michigan losing to Indiana, Delaware State, or Eastern Michigan. Western… well, Tate's healthy and it's a stretch to say he'll be out for that game. Also there is Denard. And you can throw in Purdue, too, as a game that Michigan should win. Plus seven other games. These cases aren't meant to encompass the entire spectrum of possibility, so 5-7 should be the realistic bottom.
Let's set aside the super fairy tale where Tate Forcier is Drew Tate as a sophomore, no one gets injured on the defense, and the safeties are a vast improvement over last year. But since this is the best case area: Michigan has five games they should win handily, and a slate of seven opponents who will all be slight favorites. If Tate is functional, Denard is good for one ninja move a game, and the run offense maxes out, Michigan will be in all of those games; I can see them picking off four at maximum. 9-3 is the ceiling.
I believe(!) in the Rodriguez leap.
The only issue is that even if Rodriguez makes a leap similar to that turned in by his 2002 West Virginia team—probably the most comparable since they were coming from so far back—Michigan will only improve to 68th in total offense. They would, hypothetically, get to 42nd in scoring offense if they turned in a 42% jump in points. And unlike Rodriguez's previous stops, his new quarterback is totally inexperienced instead of just mostly inexperienced or Shaun King.
So even if I believe in The Leap, the projections I threw out earlier are a variety of Super Leap Rodriguez hasn't experienced before. The main way I can justify that is by citing Forcier/Robinsons presumed VORP because that RP is a horrible amalgam of Threet and Sheridan. Also, it's a lot easier to go from wretched to okay than okay to pretty good. That, and the turnovers, is where the projections of the Super Leap come from. I'm sticking with 'em. Michigan offense: erratic trending towards sort of good if you squint. Book it.
The defense, well… it's a lot like the offense last year, not to terrify you into a catatonic state. What I mean by that is it relies heavily on a few players to be upright, healthy, and very good lest the whole thing dissolve into chaos. Last year those players were Stephen Threet, various tailbacks, the offensive line, and maybe Junior Hemingway, all of whom were laid up for significant portions of the season (or, in the case of the offensive line, saw significant portions of them laid up for the season). If a similar plague befalls Michigan, the bottom will drop out of the defense again. Probably not to the extent that the offense bottomed out last year—horrible defenses always seem to be coupled with totally incompetent teams (or hyper-pace passing spreads)—but a repeat of last year is possible if Graham or Warren or a variety of others go down. The unit hangs by a thread and could be a pleasant surprise or a fiasco. Splitting the difference, let's shoot for "meh."
|9/5||Western Michigan||Probable win|
|9/19||Eastern Michigan||Must win|
|10/17||Delaware State||Must win|
|10/3||@ Michigan State||Tossup|
|10/10||@ Iowa||Probable loss|
|10/24||Penn State||Probable loss|
|11/21||Ohio State||Probable loss|
Note that the "tossups" above lean to the opponent slightly except maybe for Michigan State and Wisconsin. Michigan should be large favorites in the five games in the jinx-preventing "must win"—no auto-wins here—and probable win categories. The lines in games Michigan will be the underdog in figure to be considerably smaller. If it's 3-4 points, Michigan's still got a 40% chance of winning by the numbers.
So… yeah. If Michigan is an 80% favorite in those five games and a 40% dog in the other seven on average their win expectation is 6.8. That's a simplification since they'll be a bigger favorite in some games and a bigger dog in others, but overall it seems accurate to me. I'd love to find some reason to defy the prevailing consensus for many reasons, amongst them the twin desires to be interesting and avoid the Motor City Bowl, but I can't. Michigan should win the five games against chumps and pick off two or maybe three of their other seven opponents. 7-5 is the chalky pick. FWIW, I think I've talked myself into the idea that 8-4 is a more likely outcome than 6-6.
Part eleven of the all-singing all-dancing season preview. Previously: The Story, 2009, quarterbacks, tailbacks, receivers, offensive line, secondary, linebackers, defensive line, special teams, offensive overview and predictions.
Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.
(The picture at right was snapped by MVictors after the Utah game and will be forever lodged in my mind as the definitive image of Shafer's brief tenure as Michigan's defensive coordinator. Its got pathos in spades.)
The second thing that leapt out at me after "Brandon Graham is re-damn-donkulous" when I went back over the defensive UFRs is just how much bitching about Scott Shafer was contained therein. (We'll ignore the Purdue game since that didn't appear to be his decison.) GSimmons forgive me—or at least don't Blount me—but here goes.
It started during the Miami UFR, when I noted Michigan's bizarre insistence on the 4-3 against spread formations when they had a perfectly good senior nickelback available. And don't get me started on three-man lines featuring a true freshman when your best players on D are your senior defensive tackles. Too late:
… Michigan can't hold up against the run against a poor MAC team in this alignment, and it's pretty obvious why: you're lifting Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson, seniors and the best position group on your offense, for a safety and a freshman who, while promising, remains a freshman. You are then backing him up with Michigan's pretty crappy linebacking corps.
So I would like to know this: WTF is Michigan doing with a three man line on the field on a critical third and one late? And why are they using it at all on things that aren't obvious passing downs? … I am in no way ready to render a verdict on Scott Shafer or even give him the internet equivalent of the evil eye, but I have to admit my opinion of the hire is slipping.
Shafer didn't learn his lesson by the Penn State game, either:
Said 3-3-5 has not been effective at rushing the passer and has been a complete disaster against the run, but it got rolled out on third and one last week and second and six this week, with predictable results.
I just don't get it, man. You cannot put five guys in the box on a potential running down, especially when two of them are defensive ends, two of them poor linebackers, and the other a freshman NT. And yet.
After Illinois I bemoaned Michigan's inability to play assignment football ("They did not stay in their lanes; they did not stay with their man. They attacked the ball, only to find the "ballcarrier" bereft when they got there.") In fact, the only half-decent defensive performances came after Shafer was (apparently frozen out) and common freakin' sense won out. The Minnesota UFR:
So what in the hell happened?
In the postgame players and coaches said that Shafer dumped anything resembling complexity and went with a completely basic nickel cover two scheme. The Okie made an appearance on passing downs, but other than that there were a grand total of two snaps in anything other than a 4-2-5 nickel. (One of these was a 30 yard run, natch.) There was almost no substitution. …
Does this sound suspiciously close to what you were complaining for earlier in the season?
Um, not to get all high and mighty, but… yes? I've always hated the lack of flexibility engendered by playing a 4-3 against the spread, especially when the third linebacker is a ponderous run-stuffer like Johnny Thompson. And I never understood the idea behind yanking one of Michigan's best defenders (pick a starting DT) off the field except on passing downs.
So Michigan goes to a nickel. Harrison's lack of size is not a factor in the run game, he plays well against the pass, and everyone can go back to the way they played much of last year. Confusion removed, Michigan dominates.
The picture painted by the above is, in retrospect, one of huge incompetence. Last year Michigan regularly removed functional veteran players in favor of crappy ones that made no sense given the down and distance situations or the offense on the field, and those things only got fixed (-ish) once Shafer was removed from the decision-making process. It's not like the position guys covered themselves in glory with that 3-3-5 against Purdue but at least they pulled their heads out of their butts afterwards and put in the defense Michigan should have been running from day one against spread teams.
Also, I've heard from folks closer to the program than I that the stuff about Greg Robinson teaching them how to tackle seems like more than standard new defensive coordinator hype. This comes paired with dark assertions about eyerolling and "tackling" education that consisted of "run up to them really fast and give them a shoulder block." That's strange given that the buzz in preseason was that the position coaches were just yellers and it was Shafer who was an educator.
So, no, Shafer wasn't just a scapegoat. His schemes may be awesome but his playcalling, roster management, and ability to identify third wide receivers were beyond poor.
Well, I don't know. I was on record about being very on edge, man, about hiring a guy with one season that wasn't reason to cover your eyes to his credit in the past ten years, but Robinson wasn't working with much talent at Syracuse or Kansas City and his track record with more respectable outfits is a good one. Michigan certainly counts as a more respectable outfit than Syracuse, but that doesn't extend to that excellent Texas defense Robinson coordinated. Michigan hovers in-between.
Still, the opinion on the hire at the time doesn't seem insane from this distance:
Robinson walked into a good situation at Texas* and managed not to screw that up, then went to Syracuse, where he had an average defense on a horrid team (1-10), which he then proceeded to crater for the next three years. Before his brief, star-making turn at Texas—again, for doing nothing more than treading water—he presided over one of the worst defenses in the NFL, getting fired after three years. The last actual success you can plausibly attribute to Greg Robinson came during his tenure as the Denver Broncos' DC, when his defenses were top ten in the NFL and a significant aid in Denver's back-to-back championships. Since then it's been abject failure save the one year in Texas.
It's not like Robinson's never had success, but it's also not like he's shown much ability to take crap and shine it up even a little bit. From my perch as Google Master, I have really limited information, though, and when I went through Robinson's history, association with Pete Carroll, defensive philosophies, and all that stuff for Hail To The Victors 2009 I came out a bit more impressed. Robinson's move to these hybrids also seems like a forward-thinking move in an era of spread madness, something Michigan will now be more prepared for than just about any team in the country.
Rodriguez made the bed, and now we get to lie in it. I don't think it'll be as big of a deal as I did back then.
*(Obama drop not intended to express any approval or disapproval of current president; intended only to get the picture at right wider dissemination. Unicorn drop intended to express full approval of unicorns.)
Can Michigan sustain an injury anywhere without imploding?
Maybe one of the two interior linebackers can get hurt without a huge dropoff. JB Fitzgerald has some experience, practice buzz, and recruiting hype and should be okay if thrust into the lineup. And possibly a Ryan Van Bergen could be solved by sliding Martin over and sticking Campbell into the starting lineup. Neither would be good, but Michigan could probably live with it. Also, losing Mike Williams would probably be okay since he was battling with Emilien all year; that dropoff might not be huge.
Anyone else, though, and it's panic time. It is thin, thin, thin.
Okay, well, what if a couple freshmen come through?
Yes, there is the possibility Michigan's young bucks are of sufficient quality to stave off a defensive apocalypse. Roh, Campbell, Turner, and Emilien will all see plenty of playing time and are getting hype from all corners; by midseason if all pan out Michigan could be sporting reasonable depth at all positions not named Brandon Graham. Injuries early would be more harmful than injuries late, and God willing Michigan will be able to shelve the starters and blood the n00bs relatively early against Eastern, Indiana, and possibly Western in preparation for the Big Ten slog. The schedule sets up relatively well, I suppose.
This one I don't know about. I've been making the point for a while that Michigan's defense can run in place and look a lot better this fall just because it won't be on the blunt end of the country's 109th-ranked offense and 104th-best turnover margin. Michigan was 17 spots worse in scoring defense than it was in yardage defense last year, which ranked 15th nationally. This year an average offense, average turnover margin, and Zoltan point them towards finishing on the plus side of that metric this year. That seems something we can take for granted.
HOWEVA, that only gets Michigan to 67th nationally, their rank in total defense last year, and that's extremely kind given that two games were played in a monsoon, another was against a third-string quarterback at Purdue who had been moved to running back earlier in the season, and significant chunks of the season were spent with opposing offenses shutting up shop because the only way they could manage to blow the game would be to turn it over.
So a position-by-position eval:
- New Brandon Graham > Brandon Graham
- New Obi Ezeh > Obi Ezeh
- New Jonas Mouton > Jonas Mouton
- Stevie Brown, LB > Johnny Thompson, LB – probably by a lot
- New, Healthy Donovan Warren > Donovan Warren
- Troy Woolfolk > Stevie Brown, S
- Mike Martin = Terrance Taylor
- Boubacar Cissoko = Morgan Trent
- Charles Stewart = Mike Williams
- RVB < Will Johnson
- Brandon Herron < Tim Jamison
Those are big drops in the worse category and only incremental leaps in the better category, but I guess IME the starting talent on this year's defense is better than it was last year. That's not too hard to believe. Add in something less than total incompetence, insurrection, and chaos in the coaching staff and this should also be a step forward unless injuries strike Michigan down.
So… yeah. Michigan's defense improves in real, non-running-in-place terms. Maybe not much. But given the schedule they should claw their way to slightly above average, just like the offense.
Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.
Was Tate Forcier immaculately conceived or what?
a chorus of seraphim, a light from above
It's not analysis to state that the Tate Forcier's ability to function as an honest-to-god Big Ten quarterback, or lack thereof, will have more impact on Michigan's 2009 season than anything else. It's just obvious.
Many bits have already given their lives to bring you thousands upon thousands of words about Forcier's quarterback boot-camp background, Michigan's quarterback situation last year, Rodriguez's offense vis-a-vis young starting quarterbacks, and then all of that stuff again in triplicate. If you've been paying attention even a little bit you know all this: shaped by homeschooling, his father, and Marv Marinovich, Forcier enters a veritable wunderkind in technique, accuracy, and—unfortunately—size. He's pretty shifty but not a human bolt of lightning. He occasionally tries to do too much. And so on.
The things I think:
- Forcier's high school career and spring game indicate great proficiency in many things Michigan lacked last year. The ability to throw a bubble screen and a seam. The consistent ability to exploit that step on a guy Michigan's offense is designed to create. A fairly decent running ability.
- Rodriguez's offense is as n00b friendly as these things get. Reading coverages is somewhat replaced with reading the defensive end or, in the case of a scrape exchange, the linebacker. There are a lot of short throws that don't require reads, either, and Rodriguez's previous young quarterbacks have been something between functional and quality.
- Forcier will get his head taken off and make some comical facepalm errors. He does scramble around too much and I can see the odd 20-yard sack in his future. Plus, the senior-year interception spike may be wholly attributable to a wretched offensive line but it also suggests that Forcier's more likely to Favre it than take a minimal loss and live to fight again. This will probably cost Michigan one close game they're in.
Forcier will be above-average for a freshman quarterback. This won't make him good, exactly, but it'll seem fantastic.
Which run offense is the real run offense?
One last time: Michigan's run offense over the second half of the season was above-average in five of six games, significantly so in three, and 25% better than you would expect from a hypothetical average team. Extrapolated over the course of a season, that would see Michigan rank #30 in rushing offense.
Is that a realistic picture going forward? I think it's more realistic than what preceded it, when Sam McGuffie was the primary back and the offensive line was in total disarray. With every lineman and the vast bulk of the carries over the second half of the season returning, you'd expect Michigan to at least tread water. More functional quarterbacking, both by land and air, should keep defenses less focused on the tailbacks. And Rodriguez, of course, has a history of mondo rush offenses. You'd expect the increase in proficiency to be greater than normal going from year one to year two.
This is going to sound hugely improbable, but you can see the hazy outline of a top 20 or even top 10 rushing offense in last year's numbers and the returning personnel. And though that sounds ridiculously optimistic, I can't find any factors arguing against the production Michigan found over the second half of the season other than the tendency of Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown to injure themselves in ways conventional and improbable.
Do I think that will happen? Not top ten. But there should be a major leap forward from last year's 59th. If you need any more evidence that Rodriguez knows what he's doing, this is by far the most remarkable stat in the last decade of Michigan football. Here's Michigan's yards per carry for every year available in the NCAA's online archive:
Last year's Michigan rush offense was above average given the dataset. Not much above average, but far from last and almost on par with the 2007 offense. This system works.
Will anyone emerge as a bonafide star amongst the mass of pass-receiving targets?
Michigan has a lot of options at receiver, with three or four guys on the outside, three in the slot, and two tight ends. All have the potential to contribute, but none seem likely to emerge into the death ninja deep threat that's seemed Michigan's birthright since Desmond Howard's time.
There are two guys on the roster with the sort of recruiting accolades and offers that would lead one to think they could be that guy, and both of them are sophomores: Junior Hemingway and Darryl Stonum. Stonum's been disappointing so far, though, and his freshman year was marked by a lot of balls that might not have been outright drops but were catchable incompletions. Hemingway's shown promise when not afflicted by injury, which was rarely. Both had a ton of offers and considerable recruiting hype (before Hemingway was dropped last second, anyway).
I think the answer here is "no." But the nice thing is that Rodriguez's offense has gotten along just fine without deep threats since it's so explosive on the ground. With Brown, Shaw, and Robinson all capable of turning in long touchdowns, Michigan can get its share of big plays even without the deep ball.
Not that it wouldn't be helpful. See Chris Henry's brief and trouble-strewn career, which was also paired with a remarkably high yards per catch.
Why did the offense fail so spectacularly in second halves? Could Barwis be something other than God?
I've guessed at the answer to this vexing question a couple times before, but it's worth reiterating:
Michigan is getting shut down because their offense is not diverse enough. They add in a new package of stuff, like the wheels against ND and the MINOR RAGE against Penn State, and it works for a while because it's new; then the opponent adjusts and that's gone; Michigan isn't consistent enough at any one part of their offense to force teams into uncomfortable situations as they try to defend it. This was the hope of Minor Rage after the Penn State game. It did not work out.
Michigan was able to catch opponents off guard with new packages several times. But they had such limited capabilities that they couldn't consistently make opponents pay for cheating to their new packages. Threet couldn't throw bubble screens and Sheridan couldn't throw much of anything. The receivers and quarterbacks couldn't make secondaries pay for coming up against the run. By missing second-level blocks, the offensive line did not make opponents pay when excellent play calls saw gaping holes open. It was easy to adjust to Michigan because everything they did was a variation on the one thing they could do.
This shouldn't be the case this year, at least not so severely. Michigan might be limited because they're forced to deploy a freshman quarterback but he's polished, came in for spring, and has a backup that gets the kind of MS Paint tribute you see at right. (MGoBlog: the home of all your MS paint fan art needs.)
I think we'll look back at Michigan's second-half offensive ineptitude as an aberration after the year.
It's a given that the offense will bounce up after finishing last year 109th in total offense and 99th in scoring offense. How far and how fast is yet to be determined.
The OMG top 20 rush offense hypothesized above is probably out of reach. I have zero good reasons for asserting this except maybe the vague idea that instead of getting aggressive against the run, 2008 opponents saw Michigan's clown car offense and decided to sit back and watch Michigan shoot itself in the foot. That happens to be total speculation I never bothered to write down in any of last year's UFRs and seems way less valid than "excellent second half performance from which literally everyone returns." I guess I'm asserting something in the 25-30 range. I guess.
The other half of the equation is far murkier. I'm leery about the pass protection, especially at tackle. There's no obvious go-to receiver and only one and a half plausible options for that role. Everyone except Greg Mathews and a couple of tailbacks is young, young, young. It'll be better, obviously, but the passing offense could finish anywhere from 70th to 30th and I'd be able to retroactively justify that finish.
I don't know… add it all together and this looks like a considerably above-average BCS offense with a true freshman at quarterback. So let's ding them and slot them in from 40th to 50th.
Last Year's Stupid Predictions
- CALL IT A PUSH: People are very excited about Martavious Odoms going into 2009, like Steve Breaston excited.
- OH GOD WHY IS THIS RIGHT: Sheridan starts off the starting quarterback, is replaced at some point, but ends the season as the guy.
- SET ASIDE: Junior Hemingway establishes himself a starter midseason.
- PUSH: The running back situation involves a mess of players; Minor, Brown, McGuffie, and Shaw all see 100 carries. Brown has the best YPC.
- WRONG: Michigan has a better offense in-conference than they did last year. (Ninth.)
- WRONG: Ricky Barnum ends up starting five or six games.
- REALLY REALLY WRONG: Michigan is around 50th in yardage.
This Year's Stupid Predictions
- Minor misses two games with injury [note: chalk!].
- People expect Vincent Smith to be the 2010 starter.
- Junior Hemingway is your leading downfield receiver (ie: Odoms is in the running but we aren't counting screens).
- Denard runs for 450 yards and throws about ten times.
- Michigan uses a huge multiplicity of formations on offense, debuting new stuff frequently and ending the year with a huge (hur) package.
- A two-back three-WR set is most common, though sometimes that third WR will be a tight end in the slot.
- As noted, Michigan finishes somewhere between 40th and 50th in total yardage.
Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.
Overall rating: 4.
|Zoltan Mesko||Sr.*||Jason Olesnavage||Sr.*||Martavious Odoms||So.||Boubacar Cissoko||So.|
|Bryan Wright||Jr.*||Brendan Gibbons||Fr.||Greg Mathews||Sr.||Martavious Odoms||So.|
|--||-||Bryan Wright||Jr.*||Terrance Robinson||Fr.*||Carlos Brown||Sr.|
One of my slides when I went out to New York to talk to the alumni club there was titled "I Love Rugby Punting And So Do You," and this command now extends to the entire readership. Michigan's punt game in 2007 and 2008:
|Awesome Highstepping Fakes||0||2|
Michigan increased the average distance of their punts and still managed to reduce returns by 40%. Across the 83 (ugh) punts Michigan launched last year, the increase in average was worth 282 yards. That's a huge source of hidden yards. And also awesome highstepping fakes.
And though the average doesn't actually show it, I'm of the opinion that the rugby punting significantly reduced the chances of an opponent breaking a big return. The delay allowed by the rollout coupled with the spread formation allows players to get free releases once the punt is off instead of worrying about blocking a guy and then releasing. Guys get downfield quicker, and there more of them.
All this resulted in Michigan's punt game finishing #5 nationally. Zoltan returns and should at least replicate last year's feats, perhaps with a side of curing cancer. If he does, this blog is going to try to get him a Heisman vote. Just one.
Projecting kickers you've never seen before is a rube's game, so this will be brief. But I have some disquiet for these reasons:
- Olesnavage couldn't beat out the walk-ons who preceded him; Kickin' Competency Lopata was pretty erratic last year.
- Olesnavage was the guy in the spring game; the kicking demonstration early was sort of a fiasco.
- I'd rather see the touted freshman win the job because I assume he's got higher upside than the fifth-year walkon.
Jason Olesnavage is the first one out of the gate right now. He has kicked pretty well, pretty consistent. Some days have been better than others. Brendan Gibbons, Bryan Wright and Kris Pauloski are the other three in camp and they’ve all had their moments. That’s an area that again none of them have kicked in a game quality kicks yet. We are going to try and put them under pressure the next few days and see if there is anybody else emerges or who kind of takes control of it.”
I'm slightly mollified by the idea that if Olesnavage is about equal with Gibbons, you might as well redshirt your freshman.
I don't know what happens here; I'll be happy with consistency from 40 and in.
HOLD ON TO THE GODDAMN BALL
End preview section.
No, not really. Okay. Okay, so if you ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Michigan's returns last year were okay. Both units finished in the middle of the pack nationally and Martavious Odoms ripped off a punt return touchdown. Both primary returners—Cissoko took control of the kick returns by midseason—were freshmen and return, so you'd expect some improvement there, primarily in their effort to
HOLD ON TO THE GODDAMN BALL
One concern: Michigan's operating considerably shorthanded this year, which might cause the special teams to get filled out with walk-ons and whatnot instead of backup scholarship players. This might be a slight drag on Michigan's ability to block dudes.
Another note: Michigan's a lot deeper in little dodgy guys this year and so if Odoms can't
HOLD ON TO THE GODDAMN BALL
he'll get a quick hook, at which point it sounds like you might see Terrance Robinson:
On punt returns, Donovan Warren, Terrence Robinson, Martavious Odoms and Greg Mathews all worked on returns. In semi-live punt returning, Robinson made a couple of tough reads and catches. Granted, it's a small, small subset of what really goes on, but he seems to be separating himself a little bit.
I'd like to avoid whatever small possibility there is that Donovan Warren gets pwned on a return. It would be one thing if he'd shown any ability to actually return a punt; he hasn't. Throwing an average returner out there who happens to be one of your most critical players on a thin, thin defense doesn't make much sense.
I do assume that the fumbles will come down to a reasonable level; Michigan projects to be average here.