11/12/2011 – Michigan 31, Illinois 14 – 8-2, 4-2 Big Ten
In a distant place a long time ago they played a football game in a dark and remote land. The opposing team's coach was a confused person who thought he had a pretty good team. Michigan scored a couple touchdowns but couldn't put the game away; at some point during the second half the confused coach's confused offense finally put together a touchdown drive to narrow the game, and I felt… irritated. Annoyed. Peeved.
This was a strange feeling to have about a suddenly close football game Michigan should have put away already, because every damn game Michigan lost against teams not named Ohio State could be described as "a suddenly close football game Michigan should have put away already." Despite this I was not casting about for pearls to clutch or pre-perforating my garments for easy rending when the time came. I was worried about the stats. This was odd.
Then: near interception, four-yard out, incomplete, incomplete, ballgame. Instead of a roar there was but a flat, damp squeak as Michigan landed the final clubbing blows and emerged from the lion's den with a rug in tow. There are no arguments about this game. No two seconds, no questionable heels or holding calls or other fantasies about if this or that. There is no "if". Michigan has still not been threatened this year. No opponent has moved the ball except when fortunate or permitted to. Its dominance is unquestioned by the foes it leaves battered in its wake. Sometimes -- and I know this is hard to believe -- seven points is a very large lead indeed.
Yeah, that game.
Of all the magical things that Greg Mattison has done since arriving in Ann Arbor for a second tour of duty, making me think about the 2006 Michigan defense a year after… that is hard to top.
2006 happened a century ago. I looked it up. The top songs were "I Want A Girl (Just Like The Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad)" and "Down By The Old Mill Stream." Long-distance communication was conducted by banging rocks together and hoping to startle a pigeon in a way that communicated "happy birthday" instead of "everyone is dead of typhoid again lol." Football games were played between competing sawmills and textile factories; a strict limit of two cattle per offensive line was still controversial. People in Alabama were accused of over-bovining. Craggy men who remembered the invention of writing like Joe Paterno, Jim Tressel, and Lloyd Carr roamed the sidelines. People did not reflexively talk about real good times.
2006 was a long time ago. The ten-volume history of the intervening century is a narrative of relentless, soul-crushing decline on defense.
This summer the UM Club of Greater Detroit invited me to their kickoff dinner. There I sat on a roundtable with Greg Dooley of MVictors and Angelique Chengelis of the Detroit News as various guys with nametags peppered us with questions.
These things always have a pattern: I start out nervous because I'm just this guy, really, and there's a chance someone asks "why should we listen to you?" Since my response is necessarily "I have this blog… it's on the internet!" it's not a question I look forward to. These concerns are a little more pressing when the room is full of people who look like they still get newspapers home-delivered.
But the questions remain hypothetical because I start talking about these things and it turns out that doing what I do on a weekly basis fills your head with esoteric knowledge about all things. Denard Robinson was 84th of 100 qualifying quarterbacks last year in interception percentage. That sort of thing is just in my head, ready to be dispensed. After my head pops open and I start depositing THE KNOWLEDGE like the world's least appetizing Pez dispenser, there is a groove of confidence.
I mention it because there was one question from an elderly gentleman with a pleading edge I still remember. It was about the defense and why anyone would think it would get better. I was already on the record that this was an eight or nine win team; Dooley and Chengelis were pessimists. They cocked their heads and passed the mic.
I said that if you had only watched every play from the last three years over and over you would know. You would not know but feel the mass incoherence, the week-to-week changes, the insane personnel decisions (Demens, Roh as a LB, moving Woolfolk to corner in 2009, Cam Gordon as FS). That if you felt this thing having a guy the Ravens had coordinating their defense could only result in instant, massive improvement. At the very least they would have a plan*.
Though I believed it, as I was saying it it seemed like a reckless thing to tell people. If…that, or anything like it, happens again people will remember someone told them it was going to be all right, and then it wasn't. I hoped I wasn't telling them about the rabbits.
This was the point last year where everyone wrote off JT Floyd. It was the logical thing to do.
Twelve months later Floyd is holding AJ Jenkins to five yards a target and jumping a short route for a shoulda-been pick six for the first time since… God. A century ago. Time is working funny again. Greg Mattison has a phonebooth time machine he sent the secondary back to Charles Woodson's childhood in; they have emerged with ZZ Top beards, children, and skills.
This is a foundation for the future. Wrapping this motley crew of walk-ons, freshmen, people who were totally incompetent last year, Mike Martin, and Ryan Van Bergen into a top 20 defense is a QED achievement no matter the quality of the opposition. The level of coaching required to go from that to this is a constant Michigan can build its program on.
Last year the quality of the opposition didn't matter. Matt McGloin had the above to throw at, and he did. This year Michigan has been average at worst after Mattison figured out he didn't have Ed Reed. Some days they stroll off the field and if you squint you can just convince yourself the last century never happened. You can envision a future where Michigan isn't wondering about its place in the world.
*[Then I told everybody that Denard Robinson's turnover rate would drop like a stone. One out of two isn't bad. ]
There's also the Illinois POV. In their world Illinois wins 14-0 in a thrilling game lasting exactly 1:30. Parkinggod highlights miss the first drive thanks to ESPN sticking with the PSU press conference, but prove that Michigan's everything-is-wonderful POV still goes ten minutes.
Meanwhile, Desmond Morgan is fabulous.
Borgeswatch. 95% thumbs up. As it transpired I was frustrated with the lack of play-action after Illinois started selling out on the run game, but I forgot about the wind. I much prefer that to being reminded about it every 40 seconds like we were against Michigan State. I wonder if Scheehaase's propensity to wing it wide on Jenkins out cuts was due to the wind. While he's not the most accurate guy in the world he seemed particularly off Saturday.
It may have taken two harsh wakeup calls but at least Borges got the message. Run/pass breakdowns in the three windtastic road games against teams with secondaries:
- MSU: 39 passes, 28 runs
- Iowa: 21 passes, 28 runs*
- Illinois: 16 passes, 47 runs
The Gardner package also went away after its momentum-killing outing last week.
A large chunk of getting that play distribution was getting the running game to work. I don't know all of how or why that happened yet, but giving Toussaint the ball 27 times instead of two is part of it; using enough outside runs to get creases on the inside zone is part of it; making Denard a threat is part of it.
While Denard only managed 3.5 YPC on his 11 attempts it's hard to imagine what turned the #15 rush defense** into Swiss cheese if it wasn't Illinois paying too much attention to 16. This was clear on the first drive of the game. Watch the free safety who would be tackling Toussaint after ten yards but for one Denard Robinson:
By the time that dude realizes Denard does not have the ball Toussaint is gone. A similar screwup does not happen if Michigan is operating from under center.
Since I'm usually at games I'm not often able to participate in the internet zeitgeist to the extent I was the past couple weeks. Last week I was in line with everyone being real mad. This week I was surprised by the amount of heat Borges was taking for stuff that wasn't his fault at all. When Denard fumbles and Michigan misses a field goal or Huyge gets destroyed by Mercilus and Denard doesn't see the guy coming right at him, that's not on the OC. The reasons Michigan didn't score touchdowns in this game seemed to be out of Borges's hands.
*[Not counting the final three drives. I did move the two sacks, the fumble, and one Gardner scramble. I made similar adjustment to the other two games; they may be off by one or two but you get the idea.]
**[15-ish. Illinois's sacks distort that. Still a very good unit.]
Fourth and one. The 5% thumbs down, very down, was the fourth and one from the Illinois one yard line. If you're not willing to throw it when you spread them out and they don't spread out…
…I don't think you can do the wacky thing. Those guys to the top of the screen are late arriving and have no idea what they're doing. If you're going to swinging-gate them like this you've got to be able to take advantage of what they give you.
That fourth and one continues a couple trends: speed option and Borges getting cute. I wouldn't have minded it if they had lined up in one of those massive Tebow sets and tried something like this, but going without so much as a tight end in this spot is asking for trouble. The snap didn't help but I don't think it mattered much.
The immediate aftermath. Hoke calmly pointed his defense onto the field:
You are experiencing an unusually calm sensation. Which reminds me:
EPIC HOKE DOUBLE POINT OF THE WEEK. I'm terribly sorry that I inaugurated this thing and then immediately forgot about it. It returns this week because of one man being so ridiculous I thought I should have some sort of special award… oh wait I do.
Your Illinois winner: JT Floyd. AJ Jenkins may have gotten his requisite eight catches for 100 yards but Scheelhaase had to work for it. At one point they showed some Jenkins stats and noted that he had five catches… and fourteen targets. According to Adam Jacobi he ended with eight on 20. That's 5 YPA throwing to a guy who may be the best WR in the Big Ten.
Even that undersells Floyd's day. The deep ball that took Jenkins's stats from mediocre to decent was zone coverage in the middle of the field Floyd was not directly responsible for (and it came after Scheelhaase was given all day). When involved Floyd was all over double moves and jumped a third and short pass for the interception that sealed the game with a little help from Gardner and Odoms.
Even Magnus thought he was "okay for once." WHAT MORE CAN ONE MAN DO?
Honorable mentions go to Al Borges (for his gameplan and getting in on the pointing his ownself), David Molk, and Fitzgerald Toussaint.
RETROACTIVE EPIC HOKE DOUBLE POINTS.
- Michigan State: Ryan Van Bergen, for being the only person to have a good day. HM: None.
- Purdue: Fitzgerald Toussaint, for making the tailback spot a plus for the first time in forever. HM: Mike Martin.
- Iowa: Mike Martin, for being GET IN THE CAR Mike Martin. HM: David Molk.
EPIC DOUBLE POINT STANDINGS.
2: Denard Robinson (Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan), Brady Hoke (San Diego State, Northwestern)
1: Jordan Kovacs (Western Michigan), David Molk (Minnesota), Ryan Van Bergen (MSU), Fitzgerald Toussaint (Purdue), Mike Martin (Iowa), JT Floyd(Illinois).
Weekly bubble bitchin'. Only Ron Zook could send his team out with two deep safeties and three guys tight over WRs against a team that hasn't run a bubble all year:
That's nuts. That's one reason you have that play in the playbook. If they take it away by alignment they've opened something else up. Usually not by putting five guys in the box—that's a Zook special.
What I really meant by posting "We Are ND" after Hoke hiring. I meant that we'd ride a soft schedule to an iffy BCS berth and get our faces crushed. If Michigan wins out—obviously a big if—that could happen. A 10-2 Michigan team will be second in the Big Ten pecking order since everyone other than the champ will have three losses.
Michigan will then be in competition with…
- Boise/Houston. Houston's 11th in the BCS standings and will get an autobid if they remain in the top 12. Boise's actually a spot in front of the Cougars still. One or the other will get a bid. All they have to do is finish in the top 16 since the Big East winner is going to be below them.
- Alabama/LSU/Arkansas. The SEC will get a second bid.
- Stanford/Oregon. If those two win out Stanford will probably get a bid.
- ACC runner-up: a two-loss Clemson or Virginia Tech.
- Oklahoma or Oklahoma State.
Michigan's a lock to beat out a team coming off an ACC championship loss, but one-loss versions of Stanford or Oklahoma State would be tough—Jerry Palm has an all-at-large matchup of those two teams right now. If OU loses Bedlam that would also be tight.
Not making it would be just as well. I'd be happy playing Georgia in one of the infinite Big Ten/SEC matchups. I like nine wins and I cannot lie.
Special teams: actually a positive. FEI's not the only advanced stat rankings system purveyed by Football Outsiders; there's also one called F+. Last week F+ integrated special teams data for the first time; Michigan dropped from 17th to 25th. The special teams… eh… not so good.
This week they were. Matt Wile put five kickoffs in the endzone, Jeremy Gallon averaged 15 yards on four actual punt returns, and the missed field goal was off by about a foot. The only downer is Will Hagerup's persistent mediocrity. He averaged under 35 yards a kick and Michigan is now 112th in net punting. Even if you exclude all the coffin corner stuff from the MSU game he's averaging just 37.7 yards a kick. Wile was doing significantly better during Hagerup's suspension.
Unfortunately, it's likely Gallon's momentary renaissance and the Wile bombing are effects of the opponent and the wind. Illinois's punting is also in the triple digits.
Derp du jour. Seeing some revival of the "we can't run Denard because he won't last through the season" meme, which… like… guh. He's missed a series last week and the last quarter and a half this week because he banged his hand on a pass-rusher's helmet. Twice. The first time he was back in after a series. The second time he could have come back in if necessary. Cancel the spread offense.
Denard's lasted through the bulk of the Big Ten season and with Nebraska and Ohio State left on the schedule, restricting his carries in case he gets hurt is nuts. What are you saving him for?
BONUS: Devin Gardner did two things and Michigan's offense went from racking up yards (and shooting itself in the foot) to not doing the former (and getting short fields). There is no QB controversy. If Michigan makes a 39 yard field goal and Borges doesn't get too cute on the goal line it's 24-0 at halftime and we aren't having this conversation.
Let's stop talking about this.
A permanent feature. Hoke on his decision to go from the one:
Michigan reached the Illinois 1-yard line in the second quarter and went for it on fourth down. Robinson lost 4 yards on the play.
Hoke was asked if going for it in that situation will be the norm. "Pretty much," he said. "And the defense bailed me out."
Desmond Morgan decleater. Don't hate me but I thought that was a missed cut by the RB, who had a lane outside the block. /ducks
dnak puts the defensive performance in a graph (graph):
Left axis is as a percentage of historical worst—ie, last year. That's right: Michigan's scoring defense is brushing up against '06.
Inside the Box Score on Martin going uber:
Mike Martin lead us with 9 tackles. That’s right, an interior defensive lineman lead us with NINE tackles. I’m going to miss that guy. He also got half a sack and 2 QHs. Roh also had 2 QHs. We were QH’ing Scheelhaase all game long.
That's three straight games he's crushed the opponent. Moving towards what we all thought he'd be this year. Too bad it will be tough to crack the All Big Ten team with Short, Still, and Worthy also tearing up offensive lines.
Hoke for Tomorrow brings yet another reason to laugh at Ron Zook:
Ron Zook is a bad coach, this is known. It is remarkable how bad he is though, when looking at his record after bye weeks. Over the past 4 seasons (2008-2011) Illinois has had 6(!) bye weeks, with two in both 2009 and 2010. Their record following these bye weeks? 0-6:
2008: Lost to Penn St 38-24
2009: Lost to OSU 30-0, Lost to Cincinnati 49-36
2010: Lost to OSU 24-13, Lost to Fresno St 25-23
2011: Lost to Michigan (woot!) 31-14
That is epic fail. Ron Zook should be fired.
Bye weeks aren't actually helpful, but come on.
2010:: Total: 8, Scoring: 25, FEI: 2
2011:: Total: 40, Scoring: 37, FEI: 17
Our youthful inexperience has been replaced by transitional inexperience - so we still are inconsistent and turnover-ridden.
The FEI is most indicative I think - we went from an O with the potential to be great (if we had any kind of ST and D) to one that is just very good. I think after Borges was hired, this is sort of where we expected to be offensively - a step back, but not disastrously.
2010:: Total: 110, Scoring: 107, FEI: 108
2011:: Total: 16, Scoring: 5, FEI: 17
Mattison == Awesome. Last year, I said that I thought our D played worse than the personnel. Nevertheless, even if they were being outcoached by say, twenty teams in FEI, and the extra year of experience is good for another twenty teams - Mattison still improved the baseline by about 50 ranks. The defense is now as good as the offense.
Keep in mind that FEI adjusts for schedule strength so a realistic benchmark for an average BCS offense is not 60th. I just chopped out all the non-BCS teams and an average offense is 48th. That's actually lower than I would have guessed. Unfortunately for Michigan, their lack of success has been highly concentrated.
Unwashed blog masses. Via Adam Jacobi, Junior Hemingway scored an imaginary touchdown:
Ron Zook can probably make this happen.
Illini blog A Lion Eye has a habit of taping himself when things are actually going on. This seems like a bad idea in general and for an Illinois fan in particular, but it is entertaining. A partial transcript:
So there's two twenty-four left. We just got the ball back down… what is it… 31-14? And I… I really have… I'm like "oh, what's my emotion? What am I going to record?"
Uhhhhm… dead inside? That doesn't sound right. But it's kind of a… I don't know. I guess the only way to describe it is—oh, and a sack.
I recommend the whole thing not necessarily for the schadenfreude (of which there is plenty) but because it's reassuring that we're not jaded. You may think you're jaded after the last century, but you have no idea. I mean: "I'm just normal right now."
The HSR decides to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald a lot:
"Life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat; the redeeming things are not happiness and pleasure but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle."
I think we can all agree that yesterday's game was a classic example of "left wanting". Though Michigan had a two score lead, on the road, against a team that considers Michigan its arch-rival*, it still felt like all of the missed red zone opportunities were going to come back to haunt Michigan, because we're taught that when you don't put the boot on the throat, it will cost you. Except, it didn't.
Refs. They obviously made a decision to only call holding if the offensive lineman actually removed the jersey of rusher. And on the play where Avery picked up the ball and scored the touchdown, they made three bad mistakes on a single play. The unholy trinity: 1. It wasn’t a fumble in the first place, that’s somewhat forgivable. 2. If it was a fumble, Avery was clearly on the ground (and thus down) when he picked it up, but they gave him a touchdown. 3. They didn’t adjust the clock after the play was reversed, should have been 19 or 20 seconds left instead of 14.
Hoke even complained about #3 and got nowhere. That is almost inevitably a call the refs give coaches.
My first impression was one of doom and gloom, but, the more I think about it, maybe it's not so bad. Michigan put up 31 against a formidable defense, more than any other Illinois opponent save Northwestern (qualifier: yeah, those are some bad offenses on their schedule, but it's all relative at this point). This is of course not even mentioning the inopportune turnovers and the Illini's general inability to move the ball, additional reasons to not feel so bad about things. Obviously you can't just take turnovers out, but Michigan could have very easily scored in the 40s, on the road, against a pretty good defense.
There was a lot of the doom and gloom on the internets, which I don't get. Michigan failed to put up 24 in the first half on the #6 defense in the country by shooting itself in the foot. While that's frustrating, it is so much worse to have a performance like Iowa where the offense is neither scoring nor moving the ball. Sometimes bad things happen. Michigan outperformed Illinois's yardage average by 80 despite playing in adverse conditions.
BWS is eeee Mattison:
Mattison is installing this defense a lot like Rodriguez or Borges installed their offense. Week by week, Mattison introduces a new formation or coverage scheme to the defense--usually only one. Early in the season, it was a basic stunt move intended to overwhelm one side of the offensive line. Against MSU, he debuted an A-gap zone blitz. Purdue: nickel blitz. Iowa: crowding the line of scrimmage. Michigan's base defense is a 4-3 under, man-coverage look that Mattison can slowly and effectively build upon. While he doesn't go back to the cookie jar in later weeks, the hope (and my expectation) is that when Michigan plays Ohio
State, they'll have an arsenal of blitzing plays that can be deployed in unison, creating a defense that is as unpredictable and consistently effective as the constantly tweaked offense under Rodriguez.
Mainstream media type persons. The Daily's Stephen Nesbitt gets a a slice of life from the field:
As Floyd started crossing the turf toward the tunnel to the visitor’s locker room, he saw Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins approaching him. The receiver-cornerback duo had battled all game long.
Floyd pulled up at the goal line.
“Heck of a game, man,” Floyd told the All-American wideout. “I think you’re a heck of a talent.”
Jenkins, in his orange No. 8 jersey, gave a big smile and tossed the same compliment back at Floyd — Michigan’s No. 8.
“Make sure you go get the rest of the (defensive backs) and give them some trouble the rest of the season,” Floyd said as he stepped away.
Chengelis on the diverse and sundry contributions:
Senior defensive lineman Mike Martin led the team with nine tackles. Linebackers Desmond Morgan and Kenny Demens had eight and seven tackles, respectively, and senior Ryan Van Bergen had 2.5 sacks.
Safety Jordan Kovacs forced a fumble, and Thomas Gordon made the recovery, his fourth of the season, and cornerback J.T. Floyd made a pivotal interception in the fourth quarter on a third-down play at the Michigan 40-yard line. He returned it 43 yards and Michigan converted into a touchdown to make it, 24-7.
That is many contributions. Kovacs's in particular was a MAKE PLAYS moment, putting his head on the ball after Michigan had found its line creased and forcing a turnover. That fumble was forced in a way that some of the previous ones haven't been.
Daily on Mattison's reaction:
“That was a Michigan defense,” Mattison said like a proud father figure, admitting it for the first time all season. “They played as hard as they could, they did whatever they had to do. Without a doubt, that was a Michigan defense.”
The Michigan football team had just won the game on defense, holding Illinois to 30 yards, including minus-14 first-half rushing yards, before ultimately allowing 14 points and just 214 yards of offense en route to a 31-14 victory on the road.
“They’re Michigan Men,” said an emotional Mattison. “We talk about it all the time, that there’s a standard at Michigan and you’ve got to live up to that, and you're judged by it. We haven’t come to that final point where you win the game on defense, and we said, ‘This is your last away trip to do it.’ I couldn’t be more proud of this group of guys.”
After a one-week hiatus, the Big Ten Recruiting Rankings are back. There's even a new Michigan commit, so I might actually front-page this sucker for the first time this season. The past couple weeks saw a fair amount of movement among teams at the top of the rankings, while the bottom half remained static. Action since last rankings:
10-30-11: Ohio State picks up Michael Thomas.
10-31-11: David Perkins decommits from Notre Dame.
11-3-11: Michigan State picks up Ezra Robinson.
11-5-11: Wisconsin picks up Reggie Love.
11-8-11: Michigan picks up Drake Johnson.
11-11-11: Joey O'Connor decommits from Penn State.
|Big Ten+ Recruiting Class Rankings|
|Rank||School||# Commits||Rivals Avg||Scout Avg||ESPN Avg||24/7 Avg||Avg Avg^|
*ESPN doesn't rate JuCos, so Isaac Fruechte and James Gillum (Minnesota), Darius Stroud and Jacarri Alexander (Indiana), Steffon Martin, Devin Smith, and Greg Latta (Purdue), and Zaire Anderson (Nebraska) are counted as unranked recruits for the sake of consistency (trust me, it makes sense when you look at the spreadsheet).
^The average of the average rankings of the four recruiting services (aka the previous four columns). The figure is calculated based on the raw numbers and then rounded, so the numbers above may not average out exactly.
On to the full data, after the jump.
These are admittedly tenuous but Michigan did just convincingly win a road game against a team with a winning record to ensure themselves a better season than they had last year, so…
And you can't have one without the other…
How about JT Floyd? He just destroyed AJ Jenkins. I have no idea how this happened. Gibson minus all of the points.
Please check out the Liveblog Chaos Mitigation Post for information on things. Things like this liveblog.
L to R: Greatest photo evar(!), Trey Burke, Evan Smotrycz
Brian has decided to activate the "ninja" half of my job description and deploy me as MGoBlog's go-to basketball guy this season, a role which will only increase as football season comes to a close. Michigan's basketball season officially
kicks tips off tonight against D-II opponent Ferris State in a game that would be far more interesting if it took place at Yost instead of Crisler, but that's non-conference basketball scheduling for you. That means I should probably post a season preview.
Last year saw an extremely youthful Michigan squad overcome the losses of Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims and a six-game midseason losing streak to make a shocking run to the NCAA tournament—highlighted by a season sweep of Michigan State—where they bombarded Tennessee in the first round before falling just short against top-seeded Duke. The Wolverines were poised to bring back every major (and minor, really) contributor from the 2010-11 squad until Darius Morris—the team's leading scorer and only true point guard—decided to leave for the NBA, turning Michigan from a potential Big Ten dark horse into, well, a darker horse, if that makes any sense whatsoever.
Still, the Wolverines return everybody except Morris, add a pair of high-profile freshmen in point guard Trey Burke and combo guard Carlton Brundidge (as well as forward Max Bielfeldt), and have an obvious go-to guy in place in sophomore Tim Hardaway Jr., who is poised to take over the reigns from Morris as the focal point of the offense. This is enough to earn them a preseason #22 rating from Ken Pomeroy, good for fourth in the B1G behind Ohio State (#2), Wisconsin (#10), and Purdue (#19), and just ahead of the Spartans (#24). How will the team fare? Let's start by breaking it down by somewhat-vague position groups:
Yes, point guard gets a section to itself, and this will be the most scrutinized spot on the floor for the Wolverines. As expected, John Beilein has named freshman Trey Burke, a four-star recruit and last year's Mr. Basketball in Ohio, as the starter, and he's under an extraordinary amount of pressure to come in and adequately replace Darius Morris. Their styles couldn't be much more different—Morris is a 6'4", physical creator who used his size to create interior shots (both for himself and others) but struggled with his outside shot, while the 5'11" Burke relies on his quickness and shooting ability to create his own offense. Burke actually fits better into Beilein's offense, but the looming question is whether or not Burke will be able to set up his teammates like Morris (6.7 assists per game last year) while not making too many freshman mistakes with the basketball.
It's likely that Stu Douglass will reprise his role as sixth man and primary backup at both guard positions. Douglass isn't an ideal creator at point guard—last year, he had a higher turnover rate (17.0%) than assist rate (10.9%)—but he's a streak shooter who can occasionally catch fire from deep and as a senior he's well-versed in the offense. Now that he's got a year of experience at point guard—a position he had never played until last season—under his belt, he should be an adequate backup for Burke. Douglass is the team's best perimeter defender, as well, but he must develop more consistency in his shot (48.9% from two, 35.8% from three LY) to become a real threat on offense.
Michigan's only other scholarship senior is the King of the Gritty White Guy Platitudes himself, Zack Novak, a 6'4" shooter/rebounder/unlikely-dunk-contest-winner/sideline-freakout-artist who has spent much of his Wolverine career playing wildly out of position at power forward. Now that Michigan finally has some depth up front, Novak can play the two or the three, and this should help open up his offense—other than seldom-used Matt Vogrich, Novak had the best three-point percentage on the team last year at 38.5%, but he often seemed to get gassed and disappear offensively due to having to guard players half-a-foot taller than him. Unfortunately, he's not a threat inside the arc, posting a paltry 38.0% shooting mark on two-pointers, but his remarkable ability to get rebounds amidst the trees makes him a valuable player on both ends of the floor. I expect Novak will average double-digits in scoring while grabbing 5-7 rebounds per game and providing valuable defense.
Your other starter on the wing is Tim Hardaway Jr., who greatly exceeded expectations as a freshman—averaging nearly 14 points and four rebounds per game—and will now become the team's go-to scorer. Hardaway spent much of last season as a spot-up shooter, and connected on a decent 36.7% of his threes, but this year he'll be asked to do much more creating with the ball in his hands. This was an area he improved upon as the season wore on last year, but he'll still have to get much better now that Morris isn't there to take away a lot of the defensive pressure. Still, Hardaway is the clear best player on the team—he's on both the Naismith and Wooden award preseason watch lists—and he should average at least 15 points a game. The big question here will be his shot selection, as he displayed a propensity for "what was that?"-type jumpers at times last year and could feel more pressure to jack up ill-advised shots as the team's main scorer.
Douglass, again, should be the primary backup at guard, but don't be surprised if 6'4" junior Matt Vogrich sees a greatly increased role this season. Vogrich was a dead-eye shooter from distance last season, hitting 38.7% of his threes, and was much-improved defensively after looking lost as a freshman two years ago. He's still limited in terms of his skill set, but in Beilein's system his sharp shooting will be a big asset off the bench.
The wild card here is four-star freshman Carlton Brundidge, who stands at only 6'1" but is a strong slasher who is at his best when attacking the basket, something you can't say about anyone else on the roster. Brundidge barely played in Michigan's exhibition game against Wayne State last week, but I think his role will increase as the season moves forward—he's one of the more talented players on the roster and could see a lot of time next to Douglass when the senior shifts over to the point, as their respective size and skill-sets make for a solid backcourt pairing.
(I'm throwing the nominal power forwards in here too, just in case there's some confusion when I call, say, the 6'6" Colton Christian a backup big.)
The starter at the four is 6'9" sophomore Evan Smotrycz, a very solid outside shooter (38.1% from three) who many have tabbed as the X-factor for this year's team. Smotrycz reportedly gained 30 much-needed pounds in the offseason, which should help his post defense greatly, but there are still major questions about his athleticism and ability to create shots on offense. Smotrycz doesn't have much in the way of a post game and hasn't displayed the quickness to face up and drive past a player with regularity, and we'll have to see if he's improved in those areas over the offseason. While I still don't think he'll be a major threat in the post, his size and shooting ability are very intriguing, and I think Smotrycz could emerge as the team's second option on offense. Defensively, he should be fine as long as he's not asked to take on quick small forwards or hulking centers, and Beilein now has enough flexibility with his lineups where that shouldn't be a huge issue.
At center, it's a battle between redshirt sophomore Jordan Morgan and true sophomore Jon Horford (brother of Al) for the starting spot. Morgan was the man there last year, and was extremely efficient shooting the basketball (62.7%), but most of his opportunities were either created by the now-departed Morris or the result of offensive rebounds. While he was decent in his on-ball defense, Morgan was extremely foul-prone and did not provide much of a shot-blocking threat. If tabbed as the eventual starter, Morgan should be solid, but he's got his limitations and could really feel the absence of Morris more than anyone else on the roster.
Though it came as a bit of a surprise, it was Horford who started against Wayne State, and he'll take the opening tip once again against Ferris State tonight. An extremely raw prospect out of high school, Horford showed occasional flashes of rebounding and shot-blocking brilliance last year, but often looked awkward with the ball in his hands and frequently settled for outside shots, which he rarely made. Like Morgan, he was very foul-prone, so we'll likely see both big men get major minutes this season, but Horford seems to have the higher upside—he's more athletic than Morgan and has a better shooting touch while providing a much-needed shot-blocking presence on the interior of the defense.
There are two bench players who should see occasional minutes this year: 6'6" sophomore power forward Colton Christian and 6'10" center Blake McLimans. Christian doesn't provide any real threat offensively, but he's a capable rebounder and defender who could turn into an interesting role player if he shows the ability—and willingness—to hit any sort of shot. McLimans is big, which is always nice, but he was supposed to possess a good outside shot and ended up going 1-for-19 for three last year. Since he only shot the ball 41 times total (making 13), this is a bit of an issue, and defensively he's not as strong as either Morgan or Horford. We'll see if Beilein trusts him enough to put him in the rotation, or if he decides to go small and occasionally move Smotrycz to the five, something we saw a fair amount last year.
I hate to kind of punt on this one, but man, who knows? The 2008-09 team was supposed to be mediocre at best, then made a surprise run to the tournament and even knocked off Clemson once they got there. The 2009-10 team brought back pretty much everyone, had a lot of preseason hype, and fell flat to the tune of a 15-17 record. With Harris and Sims gone last season and pretty much the entire team either freshman or sophomores, the 2010-11 squad looked to be terrible, so of course they reeled off 21 wins and once again advanced to the second round of the NCAAs.
This year's team appears poised for a potential top-25 season and another tournament run, but much of those expectations rely on a smooth transition from a star in Morris to a true freshman in Burke while other players—most notably Hardaway and Smotrycz—pick up the scoring slack and keep the offense running smoothly. With a difficult non-conference slate that includes a brutal draw in the Maui Invitational, plus playing in a Big Ten conference ranked by KenPom as the nation's toughest, this looks to me like a team that will spend much of the season squarely on the tournament bubble.
Exceeding those expectations means that we either see vast improvement from key role players, a huge breakout from Tim Hardaway, or a fantastic freshman year out of Burke—none of those are out of the question, but none are certainties, either. If Michigan suddenly finds that they can't create inside scoring chances without Morris's penetration, or Hardaway spends the season trying to carry the offense by chucking up less-than-ideal shots, Michigan could fall short of their goals as the fanbase begins to look ahead to the arrival of Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, and Nick Stauskas in 2012-13.
All I can say for certain is this will be an interesting year, and lucky for us, this is a group that is extremely likable and fun to support. The future is very bright, almost regardless of what happens this year, but we'll just have to see if the Wolverines continue to make a push towards the top of the Big Ten or stay in a holding pattern until blue-chip reinforcements arrive.
|WHAT||Michigan vs Illinois|
|WHERE||Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL|
|WHEN||3:30 Eastern, November 12th 2011|
|THE LINE||Michigan -1|
|TELEVISION||ABC regional/ESPN reverse mirror|
|WEATHER||clear, upper to low 50s, windy|
Run Offense vs. Illinois
Jonathan Brown via Brad Meyer photography
This blog's assumption since Denard Robinson burst onto the scene almost two years ago has been that a non-elite defense will not slow Michigan's ground game because it has Denard. That assumption is now out the window after Michigan took its place on this list against Iowa's then 69th-ranked rushing defense:
Iowa actually improved to 63rd after last weekend. Our world has crumbled.
For its part, Illinois's run D looks very shiny (15th, yielding 2.7 YPC) thanks to a huge number of sacks. When you drill down into the stats the bloom comes off the rose… a little.
They got beat up pretty good against Ohio State and fail to keep opponents under three YPC once their many, many sacks get excised but those are still good numbers against quality competition. The only comparable defense Michigan has played this year is Michigan State. That did not go well, though the special circumstances surrounding that game (trash tornado, lizard brain) mean you shouldn't read too heavily into the results there. You can stick with the Iowa table above if you'd like to furrow your brow about likely events this weekend.
Illinois is a blitzing, confusing defense that will see various linebackers enter the backfield at unpleasant times. Uber-DE Whitney Mercilus is more of a threat in the passing game (11.5(!) of his 16.5 TFL(!) are sacks—already) but does get some penetration against the run; past that the Illinois TFL leaders are their three linebackers. Those guys have 5-7 TFLs each to go with their sacks. Jonathan Brown leads the team in tackles by a wide margin despite missing the Indiana game after turning heel against Northwestern; he will be a guy to watch. Possibly for funny business.
Michigan's best shot may be a reprise of last year, when they had a lot of success reaching then-freshman Akeem Spence with David Molk in the wacky 67-65 game I hardly have to describe to anyone reading this. Blitzing stretch plays can be dangerous business if your linebackers get caught in the wrong gaps—earlier this year when I was flailing about for an answer to constant double-A gap blitzing, multiple folks told me the reason RR didn't suffer the same fate is fear of the outside zone. Michigan's new version of the outside zone is speed option—it might be a bridge to success against an intimidating unit. That, or Borges bringing out some new tricks.
Key Matchup: Denard checking at the line/Molk providing time to diagnose blitzes. I'm leery of an MSU repeat. Michigan has a road game against a blitz-heavy opponent. Lessons need to be learned: vary snap counts to help Michigan diagnose what's happening pre-snap.
Pass Offense vs. Illinois
How good could Whitney Mercilus be if he had all of his fingers and crazy eyebrows?
Denard spent last weekend surveying the erosion of rural Iowa. Plays developed around him at the same rate empires rise and fall; in a world of change the sole constant was Denard Robinson sitting in the pocket, wondering where all the dudes trying to kill him were. While this worked for Iowa it led to Denard's best passing day of the year, Minnesota excepted, in UFR.
Now for something completely different:
DC Vic Koenning is a lot like Greg Mattison in that he likes to throw out a lot of different looks to confuse the quarterback, and his favorite way to do this is to switch up the fronts and zone blitz. He doesn't always bring huge pressure—in fact, he'll often just bring four rushers, just not always the ones you'd expect—but you're never exactly sure where to look for blitzers.
The Illini get to the quarterback, and then they get to the quarterback, and then they get to the quarterback some more. The aforementioned Mercilus has the aforementioned 11.5 sacks, which puts him on pace for a Lombardi trophy at the end of the year. LBs Michael Buchanan, Ian Thomas, and Jonathan Brown have combined for 13 more. Past that no one has more than one but that is still sufficient to see Illinois sitting third nationally in sacks acquired. The prospect of Denard back-footing some throws looms. Passing downs are to be avoided since zone blitzing is considerably tougher when the run is a threat.
When Michigan does get a pass off things don't project to get a whole lot better for them, but sample sizes are restricted. Illinois is 19th in pass efficiency D; their last four matchups have come against Matt McGloin (wsg Rob Bolden), Caleb TerBush, Braxton Miller (who had four attempts), and Dusty Kiel (wsg Tre Roberson). I feel like I say this every week: the opponent has an impressive pass efficiency number thanks to all of the quarterbacks in the league being total suck at passing.
That includes our guy, unfortunately. It's hard to envision things getting much better than they've been. Even when left unmolested a combination of poor WR play, poor planning, and some Denard being Denard plays saw Michigan finish under 50% completions and turn the ball over twice. This was against a team that treated pass rush like kryptonite. Against more aggressive teams Michigan turned the ball over… twice, or more. I'm in wait 'till next year mode when it comes to an effective passing offense. Expect a crappy completion percentage, two picks, and a highly variable YPA depending on whether the downfield jump balls are brought in.
Key Matchup: Huyge versus Mercilus. I assume Illinois is going to match up their best DE on Michigan's somewhat shaky right tackle instead of Taylor Lewan, who I don't think has a single pass protection minus this year not attributable to a biffed blitz pickup.
Run Defense vs. Illinois
When I think Illinois rushing offense these days, I think this:
Pistol triple option. You may remember this from such plays as "aaargh who has the pitch man," "aaargh who has the pitch man," and "you cannot be serious about that tackle Jonas Mouton" from last year's game. (All of which I would have linked if not for the DMCA fight from earlier this year getting my previous youtube account shut down.)
According to Ace, Illinois shelved this look for the entirety of their most recent game against Penn State, but since Michigan has been weak on the edge and specifically showed a vulnerability to shotgun triple option against Northwestern, the bet here is M gets a dose of this early just in case they still can't stop it. Survey says… stopping it, actually. I am surprised as well, but Illinois has been mediocre at best against non-horrible rushing defenses.
Aside from blowing up Indiana and Purdue their best performance was a decent day against Penn State. The other three outings are stinkers, and not even against particularly good opposition. After Michigan re-enacted the Kids in the Hall intro a week ago by having an average weekend, they qualify as Not Indiana Or Purdue and can expect to hold Illinois to reasonable totals.
A major reason for this expectation is a dropoff at the tailback spot. While I have a soft spot for Jason Ford, he is the poor man's Marcus Coker and a far cry from the NFL first-rounders Illinois has inexplicably gotten to deploy the last four years. Mendenhall he is not, Leshoure he is not. He is Just A Guy and he's got the 3.9 YPC to prove it. Smaller, dreaded Troy Pollard has a great YPC thanks to the vast bulk of his caries coming against SDSU (not that SDSU: South Dakota State), Western, and Indiana. In serious games he hardly touches the ball. Freshman Donovonn Young is another backup with moderately shiny numbers thanks to carries heavily distributed towards bad defenses. The last three weeks he's picked up 49 yards on 20 carries. The running back situation is uninspired.
That leaves just one Nathan Scheelhaase. He's Illinois's leading rusher even including large swathes of sack yardage. Chop those out and:
If you take out all the sacks Illinois has allowed this season—they also randomly insert freshman Reilly O'Toole at times, so this may be generous to Scheelhaase—that average jumps to 5.9 yards per carry.
Not Denard but pretty good; I think Ace declaring he doesn't have "breakaway speed" is in comparison to our guy. He's a fast bugger and will be the home run hitter unless Michigan busts something.
A thing I'm curious to see: Illinois does not have right and left on their offensive line, they have strong and weak. IE: they will flip their line down to down. I have never even heard of this.
Key Matchup: Ryan/Beyer/Roh/Black versus the immediate edge. I think we'll see a lot of Michigan's nickel package with Thomas Gordon deployed as an edge containment guy. For things to get to him Michigan will have to correct the issues that caused the unblocked DE to plunge down on the dive back. Michigan's mission on the option is clear: get the ball out of Scheelhaase's hands.
Pass Defense vs. AJ Jenkins
There are rumors of other Illinois receiving threats. They remain unconfirmed at press time. Jenkins is 8th in receiving yards per game on a team that runs 60% of the time, which means he has some ridiculous share of total receptions, like, say, having more than three times the catches and five times the yardage of Illinois's #2 option. They like throwing to Jenkins.
Jenkins is good, a shifty speed merchant equally capable of turning a drag up for big yardage and beating a safety over the top. He's in the running with a few other guys for title of "best WR in the Big Ten," but he's more of a Manningham than the hulking Floydbeasts Michigan has gone up against much of the year. Even Marvin McNutt, who doesn't seem like a Floyd or a Cunningham or a McKnight is 6'4" and lacks that "oh shiiii" deep speed. Jenkins has it. This is a situation where either Floyd gets a bracket or Countess gets a stiff test, because Floyd doesn't have the speed to even be in NOBODY CARES WHEN WR LOOKS FOR THE BALL position.
So that's the good bit of the Illinois passing game. The bad bit is everything else. Despite running the ball most of the time and having a mobile quarterback, they give up a ton of sacks (100th). Scheelhaase has been efficient overall but is on a serious downswing: 4.9 YPA against OSU, 6.2 against Purdue, 3.9 against Penn State. He contributed to the torchings of the Northwestern and Illinois secondaries but back it a bit farther and you get 133 yards against WMU, 135 against ASU—in limited attempts and efficient, granted, but the implication is clear. Illinois will run and run if they can and then hit you for the deep ball. If they can't—and they haven't lately—it's flailing time. Sounds familiar.
Illinois's other WRs, if they exist, are not serious threats. Spencer Harris is the #2 guy; he's averaging under ten yards a catch. Slot type guy Darius Millines has –6 receiving yards in Big Ten play. They do have a couple tight ends they'll throw to and Ford gets the ball a bit; none of these things are going to do anything except maybe move the chains on a third and medium.
Key Matchup: Could possibly be AJ Jenkins versus JT Floyd. The War of the Initials goes down this weekend; more realistically it's The War Of The Initials And A Safety Over The Top. Woolfolk's speed should be of use… if it still exists.
If you hadn't given up on the Penn State-Illinois game in favor of Golden Girls reruns two weeks ago, you may remember Derek Dimke plinking the game-tying field goal off the uprights. Do not get your hopes up based on that. That was his first miss of the year; in 2010 he was 24 of 29. He's good.
The rest of the Illini's special teams are unbelievably terrible. Illinois is 105th in net punting, 118th in punt returns (averaging an incredible 1.7 yards an attempt) and 119th in kick returns (an even more incredible 16.2). Some of the crap net punting stats can be blamed on Ron Zook's belief that punting from inside the opponent 40 is winning, but this looks like one of the few games this year where Michigan will get a field position advantage from the kicking game.
Key Matchup: Gibbons you put it through the uprights?
photography by Zook. SO FUNNY
- Ming the Merculis is destroying Denard's confidence and giving him happy feet.
- The usual happens against a quality defense.
- Illinois is getting the edge, whether via option or otherwise.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Jason Ford runs are ending in the arms of Mike Martin.
- Ron Zook sends out the punt team on third and one from the Michigan 15. It could happen.
- We have a plan on offense.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 6 (Baseline 5; +1 for Easy To See Denard Getting Crushed For Killer TOs, +1 for Hey Option Football We're Good At Defending That Except We're Not, –1 for Ron Zook's Puh-Puh-Puh-Poker Face, –1 for Generalized Ron Zook Scorn, +1 for Is Anyone Going To Be Surprised If Michigan has 150 Yards At The Start Of The 4th Quarter?, +1 for Road Suck Suck Road, –1 for This Defense Is Decent And That's Apparently All You Need Against Illinois.)
Desperate need to win level: 7 (Baseline 5; –1 for Division Goals: We Do Not Has Them, +1 for Boy Am I Tired Of Never Winning Against Anyone In November, +1 for Seriously We're Playing Ron Zook, +1 for I Like Eight And A Half Wins And I Cannot Lie, +1 for Hard To Keep Any Optimism About OSU Up If We Biff This One, –1 for I Feel The Stirrings Of Henri Deep In My Heart.)
Loss will cause me to... put on a smoking jacket, fill a snifter with brandy, sit in an opulent chair in front of a roaring fireplace, and read Beckett until the camera has reached an appropriate zoom level. At this point I will slide my reading glasses down my nose, look into the camera, and say "Life? Don't talk to me about life."
Win will cause me to... experience extremely unwise feeling… hope.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
I HATE THIS SECTION THIS SECTION CAUSED ME TO SAY SOMETHING ABOUT FERENTZ BEING A STUPID STUPID PERSON LAST WEEK AND YOU SEE WHERE THAT GOT US LENNY I AM GOING TO CHOKE OUT THE PERSON WHO FIRST THOUGHT PEOPLE WRITING ABOUT SPORTS SHOULD ACTUALLY TRY TO PREDICT EXTREMELY RANDOM ACTIVITIES THAT THEY DON'T EVEN KNOW ABOUT
So… Illinois is on a hell of a tailspin in which they have 28 points over three weeks. In that time they've hardly given up more points: 17 to OSU, 21 to Purdue, 10 to Penn State. The OSU touchdown drives were 12 and 22 yards. One of Purdue's was 14 yards. Michigan has the aforementioned difficulties against pulse-bearing defenses.
I predict this.
I predict an offensive explosion in which Ron Zook makes razor-sharp decisions, Denard runs 24 times, Illinois's special teams are awesome, and turnovers are a theoretical concept best left to the MAC.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Teams combine for six turnovers.
- Scheelhaase is the game's leading rusher with around 80 yards.
- Denard is sacked five times.
- Michigan, 9-7