Run Offense vs. USC
You may have surmised that I don't like this matchup, and I don't. Against UCLA the Trojans often featured two things that are bad for the old zone running game: linebackers comfortable in a stand-up role and a penetrating nose tackle. The end result is a 5-2 look that's perfect for combating a zone rushing game. It's no fluke that USC's run defense is 16th in the country. Their front seven is so ridiculously athletic their jerseys should say "OMG shirtless," especially because that would be some wicked irony.
There is the suggestion that a Michigan-caliber rushing game can slog ahead, though. Marshawn Lynch had a decent, if uninspiring, day in the Cal game, finishing with 88 yards at 4.4 per carry. Oregon State's Clinton Polk had 100 yards on 22 carries. Arkansas' bizarre multifaceted attack picked up 130 yards on 27 carries. If you believe Mike Hart is closer to those teams than, say, UCLA or Oregon, then you believe he's likely to have a typical Mike Hart day. The worst case scenario here is a game similar to Iowa or Wisconsin where Hart is forced to turn zero yards into four with irritating regularity.
Is there upside outside of that? Doubtful unless he minor injuries to Sartz and Cushing are serious enough to affect their play. I expect a number of plays where Hart is forced to dodge in the backfield, a few where he cuts back for good yardage, and an array of fairly successful draws, but it'll be a tough 30 carries an
Key Matchup: USC NT Sedrick Ellis versus Mark Bihl. UCLA's offense was almost singlehandedly disrupted by Ellis; Bihl's good but not that good.
Pass Offense vs. USC
USC cornerback Terrell Thomas is questionable with a dislocated shoulder. No one knows if he'll play or how functional he'll be if he does.
USC's defensive philosophy is bend, don't break. The Trojans rely on their pass rush and running defense to force a series of third downs, banking that an offense that has to convert three or four times on every long drive won't end up with many touchdowns. That's been the case much of the year. Precious few USC opponents have gotten past twenty points without aid from turnovers, special teams breakdowns, or -- in the case of Oregon State -- both. 13th in scoring defense, 20th in total defense, and 19th in pass efficiency defense, the Trojans have completed a remarkable turnaround from last year's glaring deficiency in The Greatest Team Of All Time Ever Ever (Ever!!!). Expect more of the same tomorrow.
That will put the onus on Henne's accuracy and Michigan's pass protection to keep Michigan rolling down the field. Watch for the post-wheel combination that got Adrian Arrington wide open a couple times against Ohio State (one was a 40-yard touchdown, the other overthrown) if USC tips cover-2 too often. Though I can never get this to work in NCAA 2007, the dual routes are designed to get the safeties biting on the threat of a Manningham post as Arrington inserts himself into the gap created 25 yards along the sideline. Henne's comfortable enough with firing posts and seams to Arrington -- remember the dart between three zone defenders against Penn State -- that if given time, he will find open receivers. With the Trojans intent on preventing the deep ball at all costs, hitting Ecker, Butler, and Arrington behind the linebackers will be key.
There's that time thing, though.
Key Matchup: Rueben Riley versus Cushing/Jackson. Henne on the move is Booty on the move: bad.
Run Defense vs. USC
But for the Ohio State game, this section would be a prophecy of doom for foolish Trojan running backs. Two ARRRRGH RYAN MUNDYs later, things are murkier. This is what we know: USC's rushing game, plagued by injury and youth, was mediocre this year. Nearly the definition of mediocre, actually, finishing 57th of 119 teams. In recent games against Cal, Notre Dame, Oregon, and Oregon State USC featured a merely functional run game. Gable or Washington would finish with 18 or 20 carries and around 80 yards; Washington broke a long one against Oregon to prop up his YPC; all told USC would usually end up with around 120 yards on 25 or 30 carries and they'd average about 4 YPC. All of this is average.
The outlier against UCLA may be instructive. UCLA held the Trojans to 55 rushing yards. Nominal starer CJ Gable averaged 2.7 YPC and nominal short yardage back Chauncey Washington got stuffed on a series of third downs before USC gave up and started finessing itself a few third down conversions. Perhaps it isn't fair to look solely at one performance against one of the top twenty rushing defenses in the country, but even after the dual Ohio State debacles Michigan is more than one of the top twenty rush defenses in the country: it's number one. Can USC replicate the spread-'em and misdirect-'em that got Pittman and Wells loose for long touchdowns? No. USC's limited itself to a fairly conventional set of formations this year -- ace 3-wide was their most common formation in the UCLA game -- more reminiscent of the Wisconsin and Iowa and Penn State offenses that Michigan swallowed alive than OSU's. (Not that the talent level is equal.)
If USC can spring Gable into a secondary featuring Ryan Mundy he's virtually guaranteed to take a terrible angle, but that's a chore and Willis Barringer is healthy again. Michigan should dominate.
Key Matchup: Branch and Taylor versus Short Yardage. USC was forced to throw, pitch, an finesse its way to what third and short conversions it could pick up because when they tried to line up and plow ahead they got stuffed. Along the way USC turned the ball over on downs twice. A duplicate performance would equal a Trojan loss.
Pass Defense vs. USC
Projected Michigan dominance against the USC running game won't mean that much because USC uses the run to supplement its potent passing game even when they aren't playing a team that just got torn to bits by Troy Smith. The $64,000 question: what the hell was that? Spread and destroyed, the Michigan secondary limps into the Rose Bowl befuddled and suddenly shaky-looking. They face giant, sticky-fingered Dwayne Jarrett and yappy, meh Steve Smith. Alarm! Loud noises! Ack!
Michigan's best defense against the pass will come before Booty ever lets the ball go. Second in the country in sacks and featuring the Lombardi award winner, the Michigan pass rush plays Jarrett/Smith to USC's suddenly alarming offensive line, who decided that blocking UCLA defensive ends was strictly optional. Booty was forced to step up time and again; when he did the result was invariably negative for the Trojans: checkdowns on third and eleven, errant passes, and punts. This is not a situation like Michigan faced against Smith, where he can wander outside of the pocket and casually toss 25-yard daggers downfield. Ohio State's great weapon against the Michigan D was their ability to neutralize the Michigan pass rush with one player, Smith. USC does not have that, and they do have their own "Ack!" in this department: flaky RT Kyle Williams. Mr. Williams: Mr. Woodley. Dance.
In response, USC should go to a short passing game. Jarrett's a slant machine, a physical wideout who gets position on virtually everyone and uses his huge body to shield the defender from the ball. It's difficult to defend; the key will be getting USC in situations where the slant is not an option.
Key Matchup: Woodley, Biggs, Jamison, and Crable versus Booty, Stationary. The recipe spelled out by the UCLA game is simple: make Booty uncomfortable in the pocket. When he's forced to deal with pass rush he has eyes only for his checkdown.
These have been a surprising negative for the Trojans. Bush-less, they've averaged less than seven yards a punt return. They're 75th in net punting and have ceded a couple game-changing returns in losses to Oregon State and UCLA. Michigan has the advantage he
re, though it's a small one since Steve Breaston is constantly under siege from unblocked gunners.
USC does have a capable kicker in Mario Danelo, who was 13 of 14 on the season.
Key Matchup: Breaston versus Argh Gunners. USC's been susceptible to big punt returns at times this year, but aside from a touchdown against Indiana and an anomalously big game against Wisconsin, he's been quiet on returns because more often than not he's getting run over as soon as he catches the ball. But you knew that already.
Anyone notice that there was a fair bit of slipping around in he UCLA-USC game? Anyone notice the site of that game? Apparently, the Rose Bowl replaced its turf around the same time Ohio State did and the problems were similar, though of lesser severity. More than once Booty dropped back to pass and lost his plant foot when he tried to move up in the pocket. Apparently grass like, sets and stuff -- don't ask me -- but it might be relevant.
- Vince Young shows up.
- Hart's bottled up enough for USC to leave two safeties deep.
- Booty is suffered to stand and survey.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Michigan defensive ends warp around USC tackles like the last game USC played in the Rose Bowl.
- Steve Breaston is all like "hey, I remember this place, this is where I'm awesome."
- Vince Young shows up... and plays for us!
Fear/Paranoia Level: 7 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for West Coast Pain, +1 Bowl Pain, +1 for Specific USC-Related Pain, -1 for You Know I Think We're Just Better This Year).
Desperate need to win level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for Rose Bowl, +1 for Last Time We Had A Really Satisfying Season Brady Was The QB, +1 for Media So Irritating If Lose, +1 for USC Fans Eeeeeritate, +1 for It's Still The Rose Bowl)
Loss will cause me to... wander around, ripping eyes out of USC fans' eyesockets.
Win will cause me to... remember what it's like to end a season on an up note.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict: these teams are mirror images of each other: big honkin' pocket passers at quarterback, a rangy possession guy and a quicksilver deep threat at wide receiver, a junior left tackle projected in the top ten of the NFL, a right tackle everyone's terrified of, intimidating run defenses, severe pass rush, and maybe some questions at corner. USC doesn't have Mike Hart, but they don't have Ryan Mundy either.
I can't tell you if USC's defense is so intent on preventing the big play that they never bring a safety in the box without bailing their corners and playing three deep -- because I assume they'll bring a safety up at least sometimes -- but if they are... that doesn't seem like a good idea to me. Time and again this year a safety aggressive in run defense has been the only thing between Hart an consistent, gashing cutbacks. That's opened up Manningham and his double-move arsenal. When the Michigan offense has been effective, it's because opponents have been forced to pick their poison between the thousand papercuts of Hart and the Elliot-Smith-knife-to-the-heart of Manningham. That's difficult for anyone to defend
Michigan's image in the mirror is just a little bit more intimidating in all aspects. USC has a very good rushing defense; Michigan has the nation's best. USC has an intimidating pass rush; Michigan is second in sacks. USC has a rifle-armed pocket passer; Michigan's is in his third year of starting. USC has running backs, I guess; Michigan has Mike Hart. USC has a clear advantage at safety but nowhere else. It'll be a good, tight game, but I think the Michigan pass rush versus the USC offensive line is more of a mismatch than vice versa, and that's the most important matchup in the game.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Arrington has a big day.
- Booty is sacked five times.
- 27-20, Michigan.
Thank you, Brian, for inviting me to this discussion about the match up in the best bowl tradition in all of college football: the Rose Bowl. Not every word or thought expressed is purely my own as I consulted some USC-savvy friends to get a better answer for some of the questions asked.
Michigan's run defense has been totally dominant except for that one game we won't talk about. Meanwhile, the Trojan running game has been pretty meh in the aftermath of Reggie Bush. Who will get the bulk of the carries and what are their strengths and weaknesses? How do you see the Trojan run game attacking Michigan's defense?
I'm going to deviate slightly and say that C.J. Gable (with Allen Bradford at fullback) should get the bulk of carries on Monday. What will more likely happen is that the perpetually bandaged Chauncey Washington will be USC's primary back. The coaches are simply most comfortable with him back there because of his bulk, blocking ability and experience. He's been so-so of late but is healthier than against UCLA and almost by accident will improve his showing. By most accounts he was running well in practice although the flu may have sidelined him for a day.
If Washington's the choice, USC won't be "attacking" Michigan's run defense so much as strenuously trying to get its four yards every first down to set up the rest of the offense. If the coaching staff relaxes from the rigor mortis that was the UCLA experience, we're likely to see sprinklings of Gable and the shifty Emmanuel Moody (back from a midseason ankle injury) and some Bradford in the passing game.
It seems to me there are two John David Bootys: an accurate nightmare for other teams when given time to throw and a frazzled nightmare for USC fans when forced to move around in the pocket. This may be exagerrated by close viewing of the UCLA game. How has Booty handled pressure in other games this year, and has he gotten much of it?
I think Booty's been flustered at times. Certainly nothing like the UCLA game, but opponents have occasionally been able to move him around the pocket when his tackles have had bad days. The USC people I consulted were much more optimistic about Booty's poise, seeing the UCLA game as the only real rough go he had. The USC offensive line has had an up and down year, but that's relative to how that unit played last year. It's a fantastic line with serious talent everywhere except right tackle.
Right tackle Kyle Williams had three false starts against UCLA, was run around most of that game, walked out of a Rose Bowl practice, and is scheduled to start. This is a concern, right? What's the situation there, and can USC keep Booty clean? We know Baker's pretty good and Williams pretty iffy, but how's the interior of the line?
Speak of the Devil. It is a concern, although again USC people are a little more relaxed about his ups and downs. He's a 5th year guy and is unlikely to repeat a career worst performance, or so the thinking goes.
If we step back for a moment from the highly scrutinized UCLA game, and just look at the USC line, it's really a fine group. Sam Baker is one of the country's finest left tackles. Ryan Kalil is one of the nation's best centers. Chilo Rachal has great promise at right guard. Drew Radovich is an elite recruit who has been superb with his pass blocking. Kyle Williams is experienced. They do a good job, but things just haven't been as smooth this year as the last.
The interior of the line is good. Anytime your center is a great lineman like Kalil things are looking good. Both Rachal and Radovich are first year starters and have been at those spots all year. The real issue with them at this point is consistency.
OSU exploited Michigan's thin secondary with multiple four and five wide receiver sets, forcing Johnny Sears on the field and making backup WLB Chris Graham do things like "cover" Anthony Gonzalez. How is USC's receiver depth? Can they hypothetically replicate that strategy?
USC has great receiver depth. Thing is, USC isn't doing anything about that depth. Besides Smith and Booty, there is former No. 1 receiver recruit Patrick Turner. He's a giant with decent speed and a strange sub-10 yards/catch average. Then there's Chris McFoy who has battled injuries this year and is a reliable veteran target.
And then there's the pair of burned redshirts with four catches between them: Vidal Hazelton and Travon Patterson. Both players spent the bulk of fall camp putting on a show with Patterson's zigzagging through the Trojan's first string defense and Hazelton's acrobatics and one-handed grabs.
This season we've seen none of that. Instead, when USC went to five wide against UCLA, the "receivers" included fullback Thomas Williams and blocking tight end Dale Thompson. UCLA simply laughed that off. The staff doesn't have faith yet in the kids and thus, you won't see USC replicate Ohio State's strategy.
The thing with USC's offense is that the coaches rarely mimic what other programs do. USC is going to do its thing and nothing on tape is going to change the fundamentals. Thus, no shotgun, very little no huddle, five wide only in desperation, no option, none of that.
Steve Smith evidently thinks he and Jarrett can exploit the Michigan secondary; anyone who saw the Ohio State game agrees. What say you?
Smith has had a great year, so I'm not going to challenge what he feels about the passing matchups. He and Jarrett are a little different from the Ohio State guys in that they're more physical, a little bigger, and not as fast. They're professionals and have seen literally everything a defense could throw at them over their careers. They'll make plays. They did against Texas' vaunted secondary last year and they'll do it again if Booty has time to throw.
What would your gameplan be if you were Lane Kiffin?
If I were Lane Kiffin I'd feature a lot of Gable and Bradford in the run offense. Gable's a little more of a slasher, just something different for Michigan's defenders to chase around and Bradford is simply one of the best athletes on the USC team who can do some things in the passing offense if given a chance.
USC definitely needs to run the ball to give themselves some breathing room on offense, but if the offense is to have a good day Booty will be the one making most of the plays. Also, I'd challenge Michigan's linebackers and extra defensive backs to run around a little bit and mix in a lot of slants and crosses. Judging by the press conference quotes this week, USC's players and coaches view Michigan as a big, physical team and maybe not the most athletic. If true it would be wise to make those defenders play more with their athletic skills than their strength and size.
Nose tackle Sedrick Ellis was a penetrating nightmare against UCLA. Has he maintained that level of performance the whole year? I have visions of him slipping into the backfield on our zone plays with
depressing frequency. How are USC's linebackers at picking through the trash and getting to the ball? They were impressive against UCLA. How reliable are they with their assignments?
Ellis was actually knocked out of a few games this year. When he returned it took about two games to really get back into the swing of things. He started the year playing as well as I've ever seen him play, which was a carryover from his strong finish at the end of the 2005 season. Michigan might be a good match up for him with its straightforward attack. When he can concentrate on being big strong interior tackle man he's at his best as he can set his feet and plow into the backfield and then slide towards the quarterback or ball carrier.
USC's linebackers are fairly good at parsing all the muck up front. Rey Maualuga and Dallas Sartz have taken some heat for their inability to shed blockers, but collectively this group uses its rare combination of size, speed and athleticism to really disrupt things. Pete Carroll trusted Brian Cushing's ability to engage linemen enough that he spends a fair amount of time at the line of scrimmage as a down lineman. Obviously the guy isn't a pushover when times call for taking on blockers. Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga are so fast that they really need but an opening to get in there and stop the plays in front of them. There was an adjustment period with the new look defense but everyone's played really well the last third of the season.
Michigan has an iffy right tackle of its own in the game but limited Rueben Riley, a man who would be playing guard in an ideal world. He's had difficulty with high-level pass rushers like CMU's Dan Bazuin and ND's Victor Abiamiri. Lawrence Jackson would fit into that category, right?
Lawrence Jackson has his moments as a pass rusher, but his real talent is as a combo lineman. There's never been a time where I've looked at an opposing tackle and thought "LJ's going to simply own this guy today". He's a little more sporadic about when he'll have that big day.
If I can make you worry about him for a moment, I will say he's played fantastic football the last half of the season. Coach Carroll gave him a book (something about tennis) that helped him change his approach. He'd been trying too hard and had to simply play the game as he knew how. The next week he went out and had three sacks and has teamed will Ellis ever since as this scary, productive, inside-outside combo on the line.
Terrell Thomas apparently intends to play despite dislocating his shoulder in a bowl practice. How healthy is he and how critical is he to the Trojan secondary? Will he match up against Manningham or just stay on the boundary?. You mentioned USC mostly plays zone... which seems dodgy.
Your guess is as good as mine in re Terrell Thomas' health. The coaches are putting on the brave front that he's had this injury before and simply deals with it and will once again deal with it. He's practicing, so I guess he's fine, but we'll know more on Monday the first time he goes to make a tackle.
He's the most consistent corner USC has, but I wouldn't say he's critical to the secondary. USC has some depth at corner (Mozique McCurtis, Kevin Thomas) if someone goes down, but ideally Terrell should be out there as he's reliable. Reliability is what makes the USC defense function in the first place, since it's built around forcing opponents to abandon the big play and patiently work the ball down the field.
Michigan will be trying to get Mario Manningham open deep against OMG shirtless recruit turned freshman starter Taylor Mays; they'll probably hurl a few downfield even if he's covered. How does a mostly cover-two defense deal with an outside deep threat the caliber of MM?
USC will be licking its chops at the prospect of Michigan challenging its defense deep. There's always someone (or two) back there to discourage any serial efforts at a deep passing game. The last and only time I remember someone running past the USC defense since Carroll arrived was in 2004 when BYU's Todd Watkins hauled in a 69-yard touchdown. I'm not saying it's impossible but that was what, once in 2,000 throws since Pete Carroll arrived?
California learned that lesson earlier this year, trying to hit DeSean Jackson deep. Thomas shadowed him to the edge of his zone, and it appeared Jackson was open. Cal's quarterback Nate Longshore made a nice throw but Taylor Mays effortlessly swooped over from one corner of his zone to where Jackson had gotten past Thomas to get in front of the ball and make the interception. It was beautiful to watch the handoff between the two defensive backs as Cal was suckered into an easy turnover while challenging the USC two deep.
I don't doubt that Manningham will shake free from USC's corners a few times, but its one thing to make an intermediate catch against the defense (happens quite a bit) and another thing altogether to make it a long play and/or touchdown. Patience is a virtue, at least when it comes to throwing against Carroll's defense.
If you were designing an offensive gameplan with Michigan's personnel, how would you attack the Trojan defense?
Hmm... I'd employ a patient, short game passing attack. I'd throw the ball early and often, taking what's given by USC's zones, and start running the ball once inside USC's 30's to keep them off balance. It's not difficult to score on USC's defense (fundamentally it's a bend don't break strategy, after all), the difficulty is scoring repeatedly. I'd try to get an early touchdown or 10 points just passing the ball with extreme discipline. That won't work forever, so I'd eventually get down to your running game and just hammer away with that. Eventually USC will figure that out, their defense is just so fast and talented, but some well timed reverses, misdirection etc. with one of your speedy young backs might put USC on its heels for a few plays and net another score somewhere.
Finally, USC's special teams are just short of woeful. I'd spent an inordinate amount of practice time with the coverage and returns teams, forcing USC into a field position game. Whatever Steve Breaston ate the night before you played Texas a few years ago, I'd feed him that again and tell him we need another 200+ yards on returns and maybe even a touchdown. The real back-breaker in the Oregon State loss was that punt return touchdown. USC mounted an epic comeback, but that extra score gave the Beavers just enough points and shook USC's confidence to ensure the narrowest of victories.
Any motivation concerns?
USC won't have any motivation concerns. They're embarrassed and proud and they're playing a team that despite the subtle trash talk from Steve Smith, they deeply respect. USC has played its best against the big names they've seen this year like Arkansas, Notre Dame and Nebraska. As you've mentioned, anytime the words Rose Bowl and USC are mentioned, people in the Michigan program perk up. The same thing goes with USC.
And a prediction?
I'm generally a bit pessimistic about USC's performance this year, but they should find a way to come through here. For whatever reason, Michigan tightens up just a little in games like this, which weighs heavily in my assessment of t
he outcome. Both teams at their core are defensive powers and will bunker down if it doesn't look like they have a chance to open things up offensively. For all USC's foibles this last calendar year, they've found ways to win when things aren't always going right and have the droves of skill talent to get just enough scoring to escape with a victory.
USC 17, Michigan 13? Enjoy the Song Girls.
Youtube's been processing the video for hours... dunno WTF the issue is. So clunky links; sorry.
USC Drive 1
Washington off tackle for one; Booty reacts to a linebacker blitz by hitting TE Davis for a a good chunk. Empty on third down, a slant is nearly undercut â€“ nice play by the CB to get a hand on it, but Jarrett hauls it in anyway.
On the ensuing first down, Booty pumps left then comes back to a wide open Davis on the right side of the field for another first. Some rhythm showing in the Trojan offense; no pressure yet. Zone right for Gable picks up a few. UCLA goes five in the box on second down, blitzes from the edge and manages to shut down a draw that had a ton of room. After the play, a personal foul moves USC back 15 yards. Ensuing bomb is a Jeff Bowden Hopeful Downfield Jump Ball, and it's punty time.
DRIVE NOTES: UCLA lucks out with the personal foul, as USC was looking smooth on offense for the first time all game. Booty was kept clean and picked up a series of first downs until misfortune kept them out of the endzone. This will be repeated.
UCLA Drive 1
Cowan play action is one-hopped. (AAAARRRGH Musberger talking about Michigan in Glendale.) Markey stuffed on second down; Ellis again, this time holding at the POA, driving his man a yard or so back, and disengaging. On third down, Cowan gets pressure and flips a ridiculous left-handed shovel pass incomplete. He is not good.
DRIVE NOTES: Cowan can't throw. Punter launches one, flipping field position despite the three-and-out. This is how you beat a far superior team, with a lot of luck.
USC Drive 2
Booty stands in against an onrushing Bruin and flings up a ball that lands right in Jarrett's hands. Impressive. Jarrett puts on a Manningham-esque double move, but doesn't have that extra step that gets Manningham into the endzone. Next play is a wheel to Gable that Booty puts in between the corner and safety, but a bit high for the shortish Gable. Leaping grab attempt comes up short.
Booty checks down to Davis; throw is high and hard and incomplete. False start from RT Kyle Williams. Now third and fifteen, ace three-wide. WTF? Booty bails on the throw in the face of the blitz, checking down to a running back before he completes his drop.
UCLA Drive 2
Starts with a 24 yard punt return, again flipping field position. UCLA starts near the 50. Cowan drops back, play action, and hits Everett on a comeback for 16. Waggle to Paulsen for another first down. We run this exact play.
UCLA empty, batted at the line. More play action finds Cowan under pressure immediately, forcing a one-yard checkdown. Next play is just badass from Cowan, who steps up through two edge rushers, spins around and takes off, then finds Everett for the first. Not relevant, but sweet.
Markey for two again. UCLA's run game has been nonexistent save for Cowan scrambles. Out on second down a bit wide. ARRRRRGH MICHIGAN WATCHING ARRRRGH. UCLA goes empty, Everett should have enough room to get the first down but hesitates and ends up a yard short. Chippie FG is good, UCLA 10-9.
DRIVE NOTES: Waggle was a clone of our play. USC friend of mine has a couple contacts and said that USC thinks Michigan thinks USC's linebackers are vulnerable in coverage. Personally, I've been impressed with Sartz in straight zone drops but perhaps misdirection is the way to attack them? Fast but stupid?
USC Drive 3
UCLA blitzing into a Gable counter; by the time it develops the blitzers are in position to close it down. Minimal gain. Second down slant batted at the line. Empty on third and eight and UCLA gets some edge rush, forcing Booty to step up. He slips down, sacking himself and ending the drive.
DRIVE NOTES: Booty had that badass completion when allowed to stand in and fire downfield to Jarrett in the only place that pass could be. On the next play, the wheel to Gable, Booty was a little high but well within tolerances for a pass 30 yards downfield. But even though UCLA's rushing has been the wild upfield variety that's easily stepped around and fundamentally unsound, Booty on the move has been mostly a disaster.
He's not Troy Smith, and when USC has gone empty they never bring in more than three wide receivers. Davis, the tight end, is the fourth guy, and the fifth is a motioned running back. Plus it's clear that Booty prefers to stand and deliver, making an empty set an invitation to blitz. USC also eschews the shotgun.
UCLA Drive 3
Cowan fumbles the snap, losing 2. Waggle on second down is checked down to the short option for a few. On third down, Cowan is blitzed, scrambles around, throws a backwards pass that's dropped and recovered by Ellis, turnover.
DRIVE NOTES: Cowan still not good at football.
USC Drive 3
First and ten on UCLA's side of the field. First time in the game USC has an advantage in field position... and they jump before the snap. Bleah! Gable is chopped down on a stretch play â€“ Smith's block attempt is whiffed. Loss of four, second and nineteen. Booty permitted time again nails Davis across the middle.
On third and five, Gable takes a draw-type thing that UCLA reads and attacks â€“ safety was up like a shot. Going on fourth and short; a quick snap pitch that's overrun.
DRIVE NOTES: Third and fourth and short killing the Trojans. Can't make a yard in short yardage and have stopped even trying to get it up the middle, and this is a UCLA defense that doesn't have the destructive power of Branch and Taylor up the middle â€“ check that. On further review, UCLA finished the year 12th(!) in rushing defense, which is amazing after last year's disaster. Didn't Reggie Bush have something like 10 YPC a year ago?
Anyway, UCLA's rush defense is no pushover but it also hasn't been dominant like Michigan's (OSU game excepted, of course... but it's doubtful USC can spread the Michigan D out like OSU did). Long story short: I'd be surprised if USC moved the ball much on the ground.
UCLA Drive 3
Markey up the gut for around five. Holding penalty sets up second and long... Ellis again. Guy will be an issue. Cowan waggle against his throwing motion is thrown into the turf. Third and fifteen, and Cowan is permitted time to find Everett down the seam. Outstanding route and catch by Everett, who's been the guy when UCLA needs a critical conversion.
Markey up the middle for 12. USC linebackers don't get off their blocks.
Williams then has back to back runs for a first down at the ten. Secon is a nice cut through a small seam at the line. Williams up the middle for three... run a zone, UCLA! None of this is that relevant. Cowan scrambles out of the waggle + a tenuous late hit on Cowan gets UCLA inside the ten. On replay, a terrible call.
On first and goal, UCLA stuffed. Nice play by the other DT to flow down the line. Relevant.
On second down Cowan takes a
n inexcusable sack on another attempted rollout as no one bit on the play action. Cowan just sort of falls down instead of throwing the ball out of the endzone. Third and goal from the twelve ends with Cowan again iffy, dumping down to a tight end five yards behind the LOS. Field goal up and good, UCLA 13-9.
DRIVE NOTES: UCLA's third and fifteen conversion was followed by a series of slashing runs that got them in field goal range. Ellis will be a major issue but on plays we get him blocked Hart should find himself some room.
USC Drive 4
Booty hits Jarrett on a three step drop zag route for seven-ish. ARRRGH MICHIGAN IN BCS AARRRRGH. Gable is sniffed and stuffed, setting up the dreaded third and one. I-form with TE Davis at FB â€“ whenever we do this it's a pass â€“ and it's a pass! Booty is swamped by blitzers, panics, and slips down as he tries to throw.
UCLA Drive 4
First and ten Cowan rollout has an open receiver for 7 or 8 but his pass is wildly inaccurate. Second down run stuffed for no gain. Next play is the Cowan rollout that ends with a helmet to helmet that's uncalled. A virtual replay of the Crable hit. I hate everything.
DRIVE NOTES: Cowan still can't throw. Announcers don't even mention the helmet to helmet.
USC Drive 5
Booty sacked on a pump fake that was an attempt to go deep. Sam Baker beaten. I can see Woodley doing this. It's one of his moves.
Second and fourteen, USC empty and Booty fires it well outside the field of play... likely a throwaway. On third and fourteen USC rolls Booty out of the pocket, has an illegal formation and obviously holds a Bruin and still can't get anyone blocked. End result, with a tenuous PI call, is a redo.
On the redo Booty fires what's his second-best pass of the game. Under heavy duress, pocket collapsing, he launches a ball to Steve Smith that sets up fourth and less than one.
Dreaded short yardage is short enough for a sneak. First down. WR screen thrown behind Jarrett. Booty stands in â€“ getting protection now â€“ and hits his checkdown. Third and three. Booty hits Davis for the conversion; three step drop. Smith underneath for 6. UCLA ceding yardage here in a Herrmanesque way. Gable draw well read by Hickman and shut down for a yard. Dreaded Third And Short next. Booty drops back and lances a post to Smith for a big gainer.
Underneath to McFoy; clock running under 1:30. Booty fires high and incomplete to a bracketed McFoy. Potentially a throwaway. And the next play is the one that will live in UCLA lore forever
Relevant portion of game over.
- Booty's really good when suffered time to throw. On the move, he is not good.
- USC's tackles can probably be had. The RT has been poor all year and is a bit of a headcase, walking out of a USC practice earlier in the week. They have no alternative, apparently. Even Baker was not particularly effective against the UCLA pass rush.
- USC on short yardage? Ugly. They had lost all faith in their ability to line up and run it, and with good reason.
- Jarrett = good. Expect a series of slants that we can't do anything about.
- Getting Sedrick Ellis blocked is the key for our offense, especially in the run game. He's bad news for our zone running game.
- Efficacy of the USC pass rush. Lawrence Jackson was great until this year, when he was skunked on sacks most of the way. Cushing had one nice sack. But Cowan spent most of the game on the run, so there weren't many opportunities to see how the Trojans did against conventional pass drops.
- USC's secondary. Cowan threw even less frequently than he dropped back, instead taking off. They do appear to play a ton of zone. But how good are they at it and how effective will Terrell Thomas be? He plans on playing but if he can't tackle he'll be a liability.
- Efficacy of Michigan run game. With speedy linebackers and the penetrating Ellis, this looks like a bad matchup for us.
Features four team: USC, UCLA, Ohio State.... and Michigan. Must... not... choke... everyone.
UCLA Drive 1
UCLA opens empty and immediately proves that's not a great idea, as a three man rush from #96 easily beats their LT inside. Markey for two on second down. Cowan overthrows an open TE seam. UCLA will return to the seam later.
DRIVE NOTES: Three-and-out to start for the Bruins. If I remember correctly, Cowan proves he can't pass worth a damn in this game.
USC Drive 1
Booty nailed by an unblocked, blitzing linebacker on first down; his dumpoff is well short of the TE. Gable goes zone outside for a nice pickup on second down, but a downfield holding call brings it back. False start; second and 19. Badly busted coverage allows Booty a first down conversion by dumping down to Fred Davis; Booty was harried.
Gable draw for seven, and the same play goes for ten. USC to the UCLA 40. First down is Gable again, this time shut down by the free safety after a minimal gain. LB stood up the FB â€“ is that still like the fifth string guy? -- to delay Gable a bit. WR screen sets up third and one.
And here's a key play. On third and one, USC goes play action and the world crashes in on Booty as both defensive ends run right around the tackles, forcing Booty up into a charging linebacker. End result is a panicked throwaway.
Look at the defensive ends shooting upfield on a third and one like it's third and fifteen. It worked out this time, but UCLA's defensive ends were a one-trick pony all game: run as fast as you can upfield and get Booty moving no matter what the situation is.
On fourth down USC gets stoned.
This seems to be mostly the ponderous Chauncey Washington's fault. Good job by the UCLA LB to stand up the FB, forcing Washington outside, where he impotently churns nowhere.
DRIVE NOTES: UCLA spent most of the game speed-rushing around USC tackles. Unfortunately, I don't know if we'll be able to replicate that.
- Our DEs are not edge-rushing speed mavens aside from maybe Jamison.
- By the end of the game, USC had figured it out and started walling off UCLA. The final drive was a methodical thing that seemed to be an inevitable touchdown until the fateful deflection. UCLA's pressure had dissapated.
- Lord knows that USC's spent the last month working on edge rush.
So... this was probably a one-time thing.
Reassuring item: Booty reacts about as well to pressure as Henne. That is, he gets a solid C-. This third down is the second time on this drive he's turfed a ball.
UCLA Drive 2
Cowan throws a short post into coverage; Sartz deflects it. Sartz has impressed me in the USC games I've seen. Guy is fast and active in coverage. On second and ten Markey is stuffed on second down; on third down a Cowan bullet in the seam (open for the second time) is called back by holding. USC's nose tackle, Sedrick Ellis, goes right around the center.
Other than Ellis's slick move, note the gaping hole between the linebackers, who got no depth, and the safeties. Cowan was actually late on this one.
On third and nineteen, UCLA gives up.
DRIVE NOTES: Nice play from the NT here. He looks undersized and penetrating, which is not a good combination from Michigan's perspective.
USC Drive 2
Booty, play action, tons of time, wide open Steve Smith. Doubled Jarrett drew the zone coverage. USC false start. Screen blown up by an alert defensive end; second down zone run picks up four. Third and long sees the defensive ends warp around the tackles again. Booty steps up into a nice pocket and wings it nowhere near his intended receiver.
Another instance of Booty's iffy ability to handle pressure.
DRIVE NOTES: "Doesn't respond well to pressure" is usually nothing analysis on a level with "THEY DON'T HAVE ANY HEART!!!!" but Booty looks more prone to rattling than, say, Troy Smith.
UCLA Drive 3
Starts way deep in USC territory; UCLA picks up a big gainer with a waggle dumpoff to Markey that catches USC blitzing hard. Zone blitz filled the wrong (short) side of the field.
USC in a 3-4, stones a UCLA zone play as the NT gets good push again.
We are likely to see this alignment frequently.
No gain. Next play is Cowan's first scramble, which isn't that relevant for us. Cowan then rolls out and fires way too hard and high for his TE underneath the zone. No YAC, two yards.
Next play is a delay that goes for good yardage.
One of the few times in the game UCLA is able to get a running back out to the linebackers smoothly, and the linebackers don't react very well. Two get blocked off, the other gets spun through by Markey, an eminently average back.
Huge Cowan scramble gets UCLA down to the ten; he takes the run option on a waggle down to the five. Endzone PI on next play, and UCLA manages to punch it in from the two on a Cowan rolout that he cuts up.
DRIVE NOTES: Mostly Cowan running and not relevant for our game. Note one good completion on a waggle completion and a delay that looks a lot like ours.
USC's linebackers are fast and impressive in coverage, but might they be a little undersized to take on our rushing game? Dunno.
USC Drive 3
Opening quick pitch is cut off by a corner blitz and blown up. Rock versus scissors. USC goes wide on second and long and Booty nails a slant for a big gainer.
Next play is a near-disastrous waggle. Booty rolls out and find himself pincered by two Des. This time his dumpoff is accurate and the TE picks up a few, then fumbles spectacularly. Jarrett recovers the popup. Gable goes offtackle for four, setting up another third and short for USC. UCLA stones it again.
DRIVE NOTES: Carrol, chagrined, actually punts. This is the third time in the game USC has failed in a short yardage situation, twice getting stoned on runs.
UCLA Drive 4
Starts at the one, and ends in the endzone with a holding penalty. Safety.
He won't stay blocked; hopefully UCLA's center is poo.
DRIVE NOTES: Cedrick Ellis again owns the center on the holding penalty. Penetrating, gappy player, and a major danger for our running game.
USC Drive 4
Ball at the 34 after the free kick, Booty drops back and is immediately under seige from the ends and a late-charging blitzer. He manages to scramble out for seven. Next play is a WR screen that's dropped; since it's backwards USC loses three yards. False start. Third and 11; Booty is again forced to step up into the pocket by an edge-rushing defensive end. He dumps the ball off and concedes a punt.
Where Troy Smith tends to look for ridiculous huge plays when things break down, Booty has eyes only for the checkdown.
DRIVE NOTES: Michigan's going to see a lot of familiar formations when they play USC. The Trojans' default set is good old Ace 3-wide.
UCLA Drive 5
End around snuffed out by a good play by #28, skipping past the WR's block. Cowan waggles on second down, finding a wideout open in the zone. Markey shut down by Cushing, who shredded a TE block in a way unfortunately reminiscent of Tyler Ecker.
Also of note: USC has moved Cushing to defensive end but will occasionally deploy him in a stand-up look that's indistinguishable from the old 5-2/3-4 we ran a couple years back. I would expect to see that a butt-ton against Michigan. Ellis will probably line up directly over Bihl and try to beat him playside while the five guys on the line try to shoot gaps.
Cowan sacked on the next play by Cushing, who beat the UCLA RT badly.
Ugly visions of that happening against Michigan, though Cushing and Sartz have some nagging injuries.
Third and fifteen. Cowan flushed â€“ no one wants to block a defensive end this game â€“ steps up and throws it a way punty.
DRIVE NOTES: Fairly sure that Jake Long is better than whoever UCLA is deploying at LT, but Riley's been functional at best and is likely to give up a couple QB hurries or worse.
USC Drive 5
Ace 3-wide again. Gable for a few. He's no Reggie Bush. No terror there. Booty again checks down... no deep passes yet aside from the early waggle. Third and three. Second excellent slant to Jarrett. He's no burner but we don't have anyone who can match his size and strength.
Booty gets time on the ensuing first down; checks down anyway. This one works out as Gable outruns the pursuing linebacker. Think David Harris makes this a minimal gain, hypothetically. Play action next; Booty has better time but doesn't have time to look deep. Flushed out, he finds Smith for an eight yard gain at the sideline. Washington picks up the first down on second and short.
Play action on first down again ends with Booty surrounded by UCLA defenders; TE checkdown for a few. Draw opens up momentarily but an excellent play from the MLB holds it down.
Tellingly, USC converts the third and short with the old fake FB dive-quick pitch combo that gets Gable outside. First and goal. Booty slips on a waggle, smartly ditching the ball at a receiver's feet. Gable plows to the one on a draw. (An attempt to bleed clock and rob UCLA of a final first half possession? Worked out if so.) Gable takes a toss on third and goal, touchdown. USC 9-7.
DRIVE NOTES: First actual drive USC's put together. They do it on the backs of checkdowns, solid possession throws from Booty on slants and an out or two, and decent running, much of it finesse.
This ends the half with USC up 9-7.
Second half tomorrow.
I'm off. Approximate schedule over the next couple weeks:
Now until the 28th: sporadic Fanhouse blogging, mostly bowl previews and liveblogs.
29-30-31: Rose Bowl preview.
1-2: Maybe a brief postgame thoughts post, but maybe not. It depends on how things go.
3: Resumption of normal service.
I'm about to sign off for Christmas, but before I do two things.
1. Work It, Ron English. Scout article on Michael Williams:
I'd say Michigan has just a slight lead over Notre Dame," the four-star defensive back said. "It's really neck-and-neck. I would say there's a 51% chance I'll choose Michigan and a 49% chance I'll choose Notre Dame. Both have great programs. I really haven't made up my mind yet. I'll definitely decide after Christmas. It's a very difficult decision.
"I guess I feel like I fit in a little better at Michigan, with the campus and the school," he said. "They seem to really try to help their student-athletes. They have a twelve million dollar student-athlete place. I just really liked it. Their facilities are top-notch."
Williams plans to announce at the Army All-American bowl January 6th. He also claimed something interesting: Michigan is recruiting him for "nickel-back". WOOOOOO ROXORS GO BLOW LOL MEATCHIC--
...sorry. Subcomandante Wayne tends to show up whenever you mention Stupid Canadian Rock Band.
Anyway: the implication that we're recruiting kids specifically so they can play a nickel... guy... spot jives with what we saw during the year, when Brandon Harrison and Ryan Mundy occupied the nickel-guy spot instead of someone like Sears.
2. The Matrix. I haven't mentioned Sam McGuffie here, but if you read Deadspin or the Fanhouse you've seen him go all Neo on kids:
So I grab some videos and slap 'em up on the Fanhouse, because, dude. Seriously. A comment shows up like so:
Ok, here's the deal. I was on the same team with him this past year when he rushed for his 3,121 yards and 43 TD's.
Im a Michigan fan so of corse Im trying to get him to wear the maize and blue, and sometime in November I think it was Michigan offerd him a full ride.
Later on in the season when I walked in to watch film of our previous game, our head coach saw my shirt (the day of the Indiana game) and we were talking about Michigan, and Sam looked at me and kept stating he's going to Michigan. Over time, he's repeated the same statements to me. And just last week he got my attention to let me know he's visiting Michigan in February.
(Comment sic.) Intriguing! But probably internets FUD. I follow up with the guy. I get a name and number that check out. I think it's legit, and I think in February we're likely to get a commit from McGuffie.
Harbaugh Harbaugh Harbaugh. Right, so he's the coach of Stanford. I had assumed this would be widely regarded as a good move given the pool of masochists and bedwetters willing to consider the Stanford job, but NSFMF!
It's not if you ask Jon Wilner , who's yet more proof that the people we have voting in the polls should be disenfranchised. Check the exclamatory bon mot:
So you might be asking yourself: Why is Harbaugh qualified to coach Stanford?
Well, I'll tell you: Last month, San Diego lost to UC-Davis â€” Harbaugh is perfectly qualified for his new job!!!!
That's a zinger, there. Zing!!!! The rest of it putters along as you might expect; it makes me mad because it's really dumb. I almost fisked it, but there's been too much fisk in these here parts lately. For a much better version of the same skepticism check Tightwad Hill.
That's a double suckit on the rocks. Remember Notre Dame defensive end Ronald Talley's bizarre midseason decision to transfer away from a sure starting spot? Well, Talley has decided on a school and they wear this:
That's I-AA Delaware for anyone still stuck in double-take mode.
Woo statistics. The advent of the offseason causes some of the twitchier amongst us to pore over tables of minutiae like total dorks, something you would never see on this blog.
IBFC broke down the careers of offensive coordinators Malone, Parish, and DeBord in astounding detail. Vijay breaks up Michigan opponents by winning percentage, then presents average scores for those teams:
An interesting pattern emerges: Malone blows the doors off of bad teams, as does Stan Parrish, but as soon as you get away from the dregs of the schedule (say, teams in the 0-20% categories) Terry Malone's PPGs show a clear declining pattern (scoring less and less as the competition gets better), Stan Parrish's PPG show a generally declining but pockmarked pattern and Mike DeBord's don't waiver much at all. DeBord's offenses are scoring almost the same against the best teams on the schedule as they are against the good, the mediocre and the slightly bad.
Is this infuriating or not? I can't tell. Vijay doesn't offer up sample sizes here, but I would venture that if you're breaking down teams into 10% buckets and only have 3-5 years of data for each coordinator, some of the buckets are going to have two or three games and not represent all that much. More useful are scoring averages charted against average opponent score and averages based on leading/trailing in the fourth quarter, both of which offer a stark and probably statistically meaningful difference between DeBord and his personal Benjamin Harrisons. The conclusion:
To me, it seems that the most obvious answer would be that all the rhetoric is true with DeBord, that there is a "scoring offense" and a "non-scoring offense", that DeBord puts a greater emphasis on putting points on the board when he thinks they are needed than when he thinks they are for style. Playing Vanderbilt or Indiana, they aren't necessary. Up 14 on Wisconsin, Penn State or Iowa and you've got a great defense, they aren't necessary. In Columbus against Ohio State, you better grab the reins and go full speed.
The question remains: can DeBord adapt to defenses that aren't 1997 or 2006's? DeBord's been around for a lot of wins; not coincidentally he's also been around the two greatest defenses at Michigan since Bo retired. So his strategy has been sound, but what happens if next year's D is kind of bleah? Does DeBord open it up early and try to establish an unassailable lead? Or is the Orange Bowl all over again (granted that was not a DeBord production, but it does stand out as the platonic ideal of boneheaded Michigan stubbornness in recent years)?
Let's hope we never have to find out.
Meanwhile, SMQB is breaking down statistical relevance like whoah. My favorite part: other than the odd phenomenon of few penalty yards being slightly negative indicator of victory (hypothesis: penalties are more likely when you're on offense, so teams who finish way low in penalty yardage do so because they don't get many offensive snaps), the least relevant stat tracked by the NCAA? Time of possession. Which I hate.
Etc.: Rosenberg corrects Amaker. Mallet throws things. Florida wants to be just like Michigan. Former Michigan coach Steve Fisher doing fairly well at San Diego State. Braylon interview. Subcomandante Wayne is coming for your hookers. "Michigan Football Memories" Dec 31 @ 8.
Hey, it could get better. USA Today's hockey prospect guru Kyle Woodlief ranked the incoming NCAA classes; Michigan came in third behind Wisconsin and BU. Sayeth Woodlief:
They added a lot of nice ingredients, particularly restocking their blue line with nasty USHL d-man Tristin Llewellyn and a smooth puck mover in Kevin Quick from the prep ranks. Up front they grabbed two Red Line favorites from the USHL: Max Pacioretty brings a big winger with good hands, hockey sense, and touch; and Aaron Palushaj is a pure sniper. Throw in a pair of smallish but speedy and skilled centers in Ben Winnett from the BCHL and Matt Rust from the NTDP, and it's both a strong and well-rounded crop.
Woodlief didn't even get to St. Mike's Louie Caporusso, who leads the Buzzers in scoring -- though he's not quite as prolific as Cogliano was in the OPJHL (30 games and 18-26-44 versus 37 games and 26-46-72) -- and has been compared to Andrew Ebbett by assistant coach Billy Powers. You can see some Caporussian exploits on the Buzzers' home page. Check out highlights 2 and 4... especially 2. If you want to watch Caporusso in his native environment, the homepage has a staggering amount of video available.
The nice thing about this class is its depth. Five of the six forwards coming in project as scoring line players. Then there's Swede Carl Hagelin, a late pickup who would normally be Wyzygowski or a MacVoy, a grinder who's stapled to the fourth line or wearing a suit for the duration of his career. Not so for Hagelin. Says Elite Prospects:
Hyfsad driv i skridskoÃ¥kningen och fina offensiva instinkter. Okej mÃ¥lsinne.
See! Awesome. Offensiva instinkter. Hagelin did average over a PPG for his SÃ¶dertÃ¤lje U20 team in a couple years of play. Powers also claims he's got instinkter:
So it was good to see him in a North American environment over the summer, and he did very well. He's a scorer. He's an offensive player. A very good skater. He is excited about playing the North American brand of hockey because he likes the physical game. He likes to forecheck. He's a skill player.
Some Swedish guy on Hockey's Future chips in as well (everything in here sic):
He's a pretty smallish player an captain for the Sodertalje juniorteam this season. H has alot of speed and has pretty good offensive abillities. Skating and agility is above average, has an fairly good shoot and okay passingskills and vision. Not that good along the boards and has problem when meeting aggressive defensmen.
Don't se him develope in to a great player(no NHL material) but perhaps a pretty good forwards a few divisions down.
We have no frame of reference to judge Hagelin's ability, but at the very least he sounds like more than a random body.
Also unmentioned by Woodlief: obscure-ish defensemen Chad Langlais and Scooter Vaughn. Vaughn is from the NAHL, which is normally a bad sign. Though Michigan will pick up the occasional Kaleniecki or Rohlfs from the league, that's about the performance cap of USHL players. Positives: Vaughn is rated a "B" player at this early juncture by the CSB, so he can't be that bad, and his name is "Scooter." Langlais is tiny but he plays in the much higher-profile USHL and is already 20, so he should be able to step in right away and be serviceable.
Then there's Bryan Hogan, a goalie and teammate of Langlais on the Lincoln Stars. Regarded as the third best prospect in 2007's weak goalie class, Hogan drove current Michigan backup Steve Jakiel from the starting job in Lincoln. When Michigan picked Hogan up, he had just finished posting an impressive .916 save percentage, but this year... sigh: .885 in 20 games. Sad panda.
General Tenor: What the hell was that? That can't happen again, right?
It's reasonable to declare Penn State's repeat hope dead (Jim), but there's life in '05's corpse yet with Derrick Williams, Levi Brown, and the three-headed Cerberus at linebacker. If Anthony Morelli has a Flowers-for-Algernon leap forward, if the offensive line is stunningly competent, and if any sort of pass rush materializes Penn State could do it again.
You will note none of these things happened even a little bit aside from the pass rush, which happened in spades (Penn State finished 8th in the country in sacks).
Morelli. If memory serves, the thing I got bashed most heavily for across nine previews was my outlook on Anthony Morelli:
Taken together, Facts About Anthony Morelli bode unwell for Penn State's chances for a repeat. He's a raw recruit with no experience coached by the most widely reviled son this side of Jeff Bowden being handed the starting job in an offense that has to change drastically to accommodate his talents.
Er... good luck with that.
HE GON' SUCK!
This he did, completing under 54% of his passes and compiling a 10-8 TD-INT ratio en route to finishing 85th in passer rating. The defining image of Morelli (other than being buried by Alan Branch) was a ball floated into triple coverage against OSU that turned into the easiest pick-six Brandon Mitchell's ever going to see.
Alas. I did a few players wrong before the season, but none more so than poor Tony Hunt:
Starter Tony Hunt is a trier who can run over the unprepared linebacker but is a long way from a gamebreaker. He's thoroughly average; even PSU's official site says he possesses a "hard-running, straight-ahead" style, though they claim a "big play burst" that has never materialized in front of my eyes unless you'd like to count a terrible angle by freshman Brandon Harrison a year ago. Penn State partisans will no doubt point to his 6.0 yards per carry as evidence of his explosiveness, but let's review: Cincinnati's, Central Michigan, Northwestern, &c. This is a case in which the stats are being very naughty and fibbing with elan. Hunt is okay and no more.
Not true. Hunt's still not a star, but he carried the Penn State offense on his shoulders, often accompanied by two bewildered linebackers. Saddled with an erratic quarterback, no deep threat at wide receiver, and a vaporware offensive line, Hunt could have been excused if he muddled his way to an 800-yard season. Instead, he ended up averaging over 100 yards per game and driving Penn State to victories over Minnesota, Purdue, and Michigan State. The Nittany Lions are playing on New Year's Day mostly because of him.
NSFMF at wide receiver.
[Derrick] Williams is on a stardom vector that only more unfortunate injuries can derail.
...not so much. It's hard to tell whether Williams' uninspiring numbers -- 37 catches for 413 yards and one touchdown, worse than perpetually maligned Steve Breaston's 51-555-1 -- were more his fault or that of Morelli and the line. Survey says "both". While no receiver would have had a banner year when any pattern longer than six yards was a probable sack, the bloom has fallen off the Williams rose as he struggles to transition from Guy Who Was Faster Than Everyone Guy to an actual receiver. At this point in his career, Breaston is an apt and frightening comparison for Penn State fans.
Yadda Yadda: general line abdication, though I gave them a generous 3 on the strength of Levi Brown and a couple promising newbies. That was closer to a 1. Slam-dunk on the linebackers as a 5, said the secondary would be okay, King would struggle transitioning from WR but end up a star eventually -- he got there about a half-season earlier than I thought.
Cobbled together. Penn State's aforementioned sack parade was an anomalous one: they got almost no help from every defense's designated sack demon, the defensive end -- unless you want to count erstwhile linebacker Tim Shaw, who was moved to an odd standup DE position midway through the year. They got most of their pressure from blitzing linebackers and defensive tackles. This was forecast:
The PSU defense will still be good, but great (again) is asking too much. When you can choke out the opponent's run game consistently you are going to be one of the better defenses in the country, but I would be surprised if Penn State got much of anything from their defensive ends this year. Penn State will have to generate much of their pass rush via the blitz, which will leave them open to exploitation and drive that pass efficiency defense down, especially with a raw secondary that will spend the first half of the season finding its legs.
This poses considerable concern going into next year if Dan Connor leaves for the NFL. All the players PSU returns are either named Sean Lee or have been bad to date.
Final Verdict on the Final Verdict:
Hope exists in the form of Morelli's recruiting rankings, Levi Brown, and Derrick Williams, but recent evidence indicates that the only time in the last five or so years Penn State has been able to cobble together a semblance of offense has been with veterans everywhere and a pounding ground game. This offense figures to have neither.
A step back is coming, though it won't be as disastrous as the '03-'04 seasons. A large portion of the blame for those years falls squarely on the shoulders of noodle-armed Zach Mills and Robinson, who were so inept that passing was not an option for two solid years. I do think Morelli will disappoint, but he would have to implode to send the PSU offense all the way back to the bad old days.
Adding it up yields 8-4.
The most accurate prediction proferred in this space, and something I beg you keep in mind when we get to -- gulp -- Iowa.
General Tenor: Won't be good or anything, but it probably won't matter.
If Purdue is to return to the hallowed ground of the Music City or Sun or whatever their equally anonymous replacements are after the offseason bowl shuffle it'll be on the backs of their offensive line, which returns four starters from a good '05 unit, and the wide receivers, deeper than at any point in Tiller's tenure. Add in Kory Sheets and new quarterback Curtis Painter has a lot of ammunition at his disposal. He'll need it, as the defense is in chaos.
And how! I do my previews heuristically, based on a set of assumptions:
- Ignore anything a coach says unless it's negative.
- Turnovers are close to random.
- Recruiting rankings mean something, but not everything.
- Seniors who have never played are likely to be bad unless they have an excellent excuse.
- When a guy switches positions and is immediately a starter at his new position, project that group of players to be a disaster.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Aaron Lane, the one-man case for the common-sense college football preview:
We do know that junior Aaron Lane is penciled in as the starter opposite King. Relevant facts on Lane:
- He's 5'8".
- He transferred from the University of Saint Francis to walk-on at Purdue.
- USF is an NAIA school.
- Lane was a little-used
running back at USF.
O RLY? If Lane isn't completely overwhelmed they should make a movie about him starring a hobbit. And someone has to be the nickel and dime backs.
Anyone who didn't see Purdue's defensive implosion coming wasn't trying very hard. Purdue's one bright spot, DE Anthony Spencer...
Edwards and Rob Ninkovich are gone and unlike Void were good enough to draw NFL attention (both were mid-round picks). Gone with them is underrated defensive tackle Brandon Villarreal -- third on the team in tackles -- and running mate Brent Grover, leaving almost nothing in the way of proven talent. Senior defensive end Anthony Spencer is it. He was the a nominal starter going into last year, but Ninkovich wrested the job away from him. He managed 3 sacks and 7.5 TFL in limited time. In '04 he was the full time starter and a good one. He'll be fine.
...was more than "fine," leading the nation in TFL despite being the only half-decent player the Boilers had.
Offensively, I was not on the Curtis Painter bandwagon:
What does '06 hold for the now-sophomore Painter? Probably additional pain. Painter's iffy stats were gained against a who's-who of D-I's worst pass defenses (MSU, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois) and Penn State, who killed Painter to the tune of 6-17 for 60 yards. His last statistical reference point, high school, doesn't imply he'll make a great leap forward: as a senior he only completed 51% of his passes. The implication is that Painter's probably unsuited to Purdue's dink-and-dunk passing game, as he either failed at in in high school or was asked to bomb it deep instead. Either way it bodes unwell. Purdue should be happy if he makes gradual progress this year with an eye towards proficiency in '07.
This he did. Painter was a mediocre 43rd in passer efficiency, completing a meh 59% of his passes and throwing a whopping 18 interceptions despite missing the Michigan and Ohio State defenses. With Purdue's schedule difficulty taking a sharp uptick and much of Painter's offensive line gone, he'll have to run to stand still in 2007.
I did get the date of Painter's benching wrong:
Since the only things Joe Tiller likes more than yanking his starter are Quaker Oats and life insurance, you should get familiar with Boiler backup Joey Elliot so you can impress friends and relatives by detailing strengths (isn't the starting quarterback), and weaknesses (when inserted into the game he becomes the starting quarterback) during his inevitable relief appearance and two midseason starts before he finds his butt stapled to the bench again.
Miraculously, Painter made it through the entire season.
Oops. Total references to Dustin Keller:
There is a tight end: Dustin Keller had 13 catches a year ago.
With Kyle Ingraham suffering through an academic suspension, Keller was Purdue's second leading receiver with 55 catches and 751 yards. Even with Dorien Bryant graduating, Purdue's receiving corps is in very good hands with Ingraham, Keller, Selwyn Lymon, and Greg Orton. If Painter can get better and Purdue can find some dudes to block, yow.
Final Verdict on the Final Verdict. Again, please remember this later:
Predicting Purdue's season is, in essence, predicting Painter's. The defense might improve a bit over last year but the secondary looks amazingly bleak and this year there's no Edwards/Ninkovich duo on the edges. The offense, which was quietly all right a year ago despite the whole business with the quarterbacks, will have to score to keep up. With a veteran offensive line and a surplus of talent at the skill positions, it'll come down to Painter's ability to run the offense. Survey says "meh." Purdue figures to return to a bowl, but not a good one.
Predicting 8-5 can't be too far off, can it?
This was also much, much more accurate than 2005's Purdue preview, which was the most humiliating thing I've ever written except for, yes, the Iowa preview. Which is... next!
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