frank beamer #1
There is an interesting dichotomy of the views of Michigan's defense of 2014 - some view it as a "top 10 defense" because the NCAA stats say so. Others (hand raised) use more of an eye test and advanced stats, specifically FEI and S&P+ via Football Outsiders, which have various measures to adjust for SOS, garbage time points, etc. (more info on how those stats are derived can be found on that site - I wont rehash)
Let's take a closer look at the NCAA stat for total defense which sports journalists of both the print and video variety tend to parrot. What does it really track? Only 1 thing: total yards given up per game. It is very simplistic and in my estimation misleading. My thesis has been this gives an overinflated value to all Big 10 defenses because Big 10 offenses have really stunk it up of late, especially the past half decade. So this piece will try to fact check my opinion.
There have been very few premium QBs the past 6-7 years in the Big 10 until last year... the last golden batch was 2007-2008 when you had Henne, Smith, Stanton. Before that you had to go to 2004 to Navarre, Sorgi, Krenzel, Smoker. 1 year of Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins really are all you have had up to about 2013 and after 2008. It's been 18 years since the Big 10 had a QB drafted in the 1st round although there is finally the potential for 3 at once in 2016 with Cook, Hackenberg, and Jones. But even Hackenberg was a disaster last year. So you get the general point - when you look at passing stats of Big 10 offenses vs those of the Pac 12, SEC, Big 12 - it has lacked severely for most teams... Wisconsin was throwing out a converted safety last year as a QB and they were the 3rd best team in the conf. Gary Nova - in the conference for all of 1 year, was the 3rd best QB (If you group all the OSU QBs as one since only one plays at a time) in the conf last year. Kevin Hogan in the Pac 12 ? A lower third QB ... in the Big 10? Awesome throw god....
I don't recall what week it was (maybe week 8 or 9) 8 of the top 25 defenses in the country per the NCAA stat were in the Big 10. Even in the year end results the Big 10 had 4 of the country's top 10 defenses (PSU, Wisconsin, UM, MSU)... and 6 of the top 22 (OSU, Iowa) Wow what a performance! Elite defenses all over this conference!!
Or is this really a confluence of mediocre to poor offenses with some former powers looking awful (PSU, UM) and other recently high octane offenses (Indiana) hampered by a true freshman QB, while others were run by a former safety for much of the year. Advanced stats say the latter - in fact only 2 offenses made the top 30 in the country via FEI; OSU and MSU. Some Big 10 teams in the West avoided both those offenses, and others only played 1. So you could in theory go through your conf slate playing 0 or 1 of the top 30 offenses in the country. Wisconsin's 1 dimensional offense was 33, and then you have to drop to 50 to find another Big 10 team. It's was an awful year save for a few teams on that side of the ball. And advanced stats say only Wisconsin and PSU had anywhere near elite defenses - and you saw what OSU did to Wisconsin.
So with run heavy schemes without Jeff George, Chuck Long, Drew Brees (hell Kyle Orton) types populating mid level teams in the league (and of course those schools wont have that type of QB every year), Big 10 defenses have feasted. Or at least that is my opinion so I thought I'd use advanced stats to compare the major conferences.
Below is a comparison chart of 7 teams comparing FEI offensive stats of their conference only schedule in 2014. The lower the average rank, the better the average offense faced. I've created a pool of 2 Big 10 teams (one from the East, one from the West), 2 SEC teams (one from the much tougher West, one from the East), and then 1 team from the other 3 power 5 conferences. I chose mid level type teams (excl Michigan which had 5 wins) of 7-9 wins on average to try to compare similar teams from each conference in 2014. Not the top teams, not the bottom teams....
This led me to: Nebraska, LSU, Tennessee, Louisville, West Virginia, Utah -along with control group Michigan.
My theories going into this were:
- The Pac 12 features the most NFL arms and prolific offenses so their defenses would be most stressed and thus a high defense ranking in that conf actually means something.
- The Big 10 and ACC would both suffer from a lot of mediocre offenses and thus their defenses (per NCAA stats) would be overinflated.
- The Big 12 rank in terms of opponent offensive rank would be closer to the Pac 12 although the struggles of Texas would hurt.
- The SEC West would rank very well, somewhere near the Big 12 while the SEC East would be hurt by the brutal (Michigan/PSU like) Florida offense
These are obviously 1 year data points specific to any 1 team (or 2 teams) in a conference (picking another team would give some variability) but I do think by and large they would hold up over the past half decade to give us a general trend (Obviously the Big 12 has changed body count over that time frame as has the Big 10 and SEC).
The Rankings Unadjusted
Let's see what the data told us (the # to the right of each team is their offensive FEI rank - lower = stronger) UM was 82 for comparison.
|NC State||38||OK St||70||ASU||16|
What does this data set say?
- As predicted in theory 1, Utah had the most onerous schedule. Pac 12 offenses are very good - they only faced ONE offense with a rank outside the FEI top 48. Again there are only 3 teams in the entire Big 10 with a ranking inside the top 48. Week in and week out - its brutal and the 32.0 ranking clears the field. (of course a cynic could say Pac 12 defenses are bad and Pac 12 offenses feast on bad defenses but I'd say the eye test disagrees - the Pac 12 offenses put a ton of pressure on you with a lot of pass oriented spread teams).
- As predicted in theory 2, Big 10 defenses had a huge advantage as the 57.9 opponent rank for UM and 56.6 for Nebraska were far and away the worst readings out of all 7 teams. And for all the talk of the how weak the Big 10 West is, the Big 10 East had even worse offensive outputs via FEI. But its very close - any defense in the conference had a much easier time than in any other conference.
- I was wrong in theory 2 about the ACC, I thought their offenses were as bad as the Big 10s. In fact they were right on par (with Louisville's 49.0) to the SEC East, and the Big 12.
- I was wrong about theory 3, than the Big 12 would be closer to the Pac 12 then not. The offenses in that conf were not dissimilar to the ACC, and SEC East. But part of that is due to both Oklahoma State and Texas having really bad offenses so it's a bit of an outlier this year. More on that later.
- I was correct on theory 4, the SEC West had the 2nd best offensive output - thus difficult on their defenses, and the SEC East was pushed down to average due to Florida. In fact every SEC West opponent for LSU was in the top 50 - even better than Utah's opponents. Surprising as we assumed this was a down year for SEC offense with a down year for SEC QB play.
The Rankings Adjusted
Now I decided to take this one step further and create an adjusted set of data. What does the adjusted data do? It simply takes a handful of teams above and puts them nearer to a historical reading - those teams would be UM, PSU, Clemson, Florida, Texas and Oklahoma State. I also threw in Indiana to try to make Michigan look better :P and also to account for their offenses of late which under Wilson are usually decent...when not run by a true freshman model. So I re-ran the numbers giving those schools a 35 FEI offensive rank. That is not world beater but it is solid (Wisconsin like). Let's see how the data changed.
|NC State||38||OK St||35||ASU||16|
What did the rerank do? It benefited the Big 10 East (UM) and Big 12 team (WV) the most as it rocketed up PSU - Indiana - OK State - Texas. 2 teams for each schedule - and in a 8 game schedule that is (math alert!) 25% of the schedule adjusted. Louisville benefited from Clemson, and both SEC teams from Florida. There was no benefit to Utah.
Results? The SEC West moved ahead of the Pac 12. A bit surprising because it felt like a down year for SEC West offenses. But these are clearly the 2 most competent conference / divisions from an offensive standpoint. Coming in 3rd was the Big 12 - which more fits my theory #3 above. So I believe my theory that the Big 12 is a good offensive league is true in general but didnt hold so much in 2014 as Texas and Oklahoma State had abnormal readings.
The Big 10 East and SEC East would be more on par with each other if PSU/Indiana (and Michigan) and Florida were more normal rather than abysmal. Then just behind them would come the ACC if Clemson had been a more typical offensive power as they usually have been under Chad Morris. Then way way way at the bottom is the Big West - which would support the case the Big 10 West sucks if UM and PSU can ever find their way. But for the purpose of this exercise - even adjusting to "normal times" for PSU and UM, and a Kevin Wilson Indiana the typical Big 10 defense is going to have the easiest time out there- and hence their stats are going to be inflated via NCAA.com's stats. Throw in their normal foray into the offensive juggernauts of the MAC in their non conf schedules and it gets even more slanted for Big 10 defenses. As expected the ACC would not be too far behind the Big 10 in a "normalized" environment.
The other 3 conferences are on a different plane, esp the SEC West and Pac 12 in terms of offenses and their defenses suffer. Or put another way - if your defense is performing in those conferences / divisions they have really earned it.
Or if you are a Big 10 apologist you can just yell they dont play no stinking defense in the SEC or Pac 12.... Or you could also blame cold weather for bad offenses and bad passing attacks but teams in Boston, Columbus, East Lansing, West Lafayette (in the Tiller years), Ann Arbor (in the Carr years), South Bend, et al seem to be able to run nice offenses even in northern climates so I dont buy the excuse. Lack of good QBs is more the issue.
Before looking at this I felt UM disappointed on defense last year relative to expectations - despite their "top 10!!!" ranking. Now - adjusting for what appears to be the easiest set of offenses faced in 2014 in any conference / division it makes it even more disappointing considering a relative good amount of talent and experience on that defense. Most advanced stats only had the defense around #40ish in the country despite an array of mediocre offenses faced. Going forward, it is worth keeping this sort of data in mind when comparing conference defensive achievement - the Big 10 (and ACC) defenses seem to have a quite clear advantage.
With June days away, and the board under constant Nike v Adidas attack, thought I'd steal some Mr. Yost thunder and do a 2 deep for the defense for 2015. I was going to do this for the offense but as I looked over the RB, WR, and even OL positions it is really in constant flux - any number of guys could be starters or backups and even positions on the OL are not set in stone. So it's way more guesswork.
Unlike Mr. Yost who does this as a data set I'll add some thoughts and comments.
- SDE: Charlton OR Wormley / Charlton OR Wormley
- WDE: Ojemudia / Marshall
Other contributors (i.e. 3 deep): Godin, Hurst (?), Jenkins-Stone, Poggi**
Freshmen: Johnson, Jones
Lost in the Weeds: Strobel
Views: Of the 5 position groups on defense the DEs have the most variability and question marks. Depth is an issue - any injury could cause havoc. Or cause the team to go heavily to a 3-4 system.
Ojemudia played decently in spots last year but this will be the first time starting. Charlton is already a JR - he is one of those guys who you wonder if he is a great athlete or a great football player. One hopes he turns into the latter in the next 2 years. For now he has the "potential" label. Wormley intrigues me as he is a guy who can flex out to SDE and in a 3 man front could be an end. I see him as potentially being more impactful than Charlton but that's just an uninformed guess - he does seem to make splash plays and will be 2 years removed from his ACL this year. He could also play inside but I think the depth chart says we need him outside next year. If he breaks out, a lot of concerns for the DEs could go away.
From there the dropoff in experience is vast. Marshall is a projected backup WDE but right now that is based on no one else on the depth chart. He did make a splash play or two in the spring game but... it's a spring game. Godin is a plugger at the WDE and could also play inside at 287 lbs. Then you have a few not perfect fits - Hurst is more of a DT but with his "quick first step" and weight (281) he could play as a DE in a pinch. Jenkins-Stone was a highly ranked LB out of HS who has done next to nothing in his time at UM other than in spring apparently where he is always hyped as doing well. Then fall comes and he disappears. I don't expect much from him but at 240 lbs he would seem to be the 3rd WDE. Speaking of disappearing 4 star Strobel is a guy most fans probably don't even remember at this point.
**They seemingly have shipped Poggi to TE but in theory - in case of injuries - he could flip back to WDE.
UM recruited 2 freshmen in 2015 but it would seem - barring a lot of injuries - neither is going to be playing in 2015 at their current projected weights. Each could use 15+ lbs (i.e. a redshirt year).
- NT: Glasgow / Mone
- DT: Henry / Wormley / Hurst
Other contributors (i.e. 3 deep): Godin
Views: Having a strong 2 deep at the DT is a nice luxury for the 2015 team. There should not be much drop off from starters to backups. In fact if Mone and Wormley were starting at Utah over Glasgow and Henry you wouldn't bat an eye really. You'll notice Wormley here along with Hurst - these are probably their more natural positions but in a 3-4 they could be your ends (along with a Charlton type). Heck Henry might be an end in a 3-4. It will be interestng to see how it plays out.
Henry is tantalizing - he is talked up by the staff and does some very good things on the field. Then sometimes he doesn't. Have to remember he was only a RS SO last year - the next 2 years should be very good for him and the no nonsense staff should help any potential attitude issues (i.e. drive). Glasgow is a 297 lb NT - that's tough but (cliche time) you can't measure heart! He is not going to get you much in pass rush but seems like a very good run stopper. Mone makes hearts flutter and performed much better than Pipkins in these sets of eyes in their respective freshman years. The FR to SO leap for an interior linemen should make him a serious contributer this year and in the 320s he is a mountain of a man.
Wormley has proven pass rush capabilities from the inside and Hurst - again a young guy that it seems like we've been hearing good stuff on from practice reports for a few years - seems like he is ready to take a step as a contributor much like a Bolden did a year ago in the LBs. This sets up a lot of flexibility in pass rush options as you could have a big stout but still pretty effective pass rush group of say Charlton, Henry, Hurst, Wormley. Whatever the case the DTs have talent, depth, and lots of competition among talented players which should drive the group.
I've assumed with so much fire around his name, Pipkins will have be a medical...
- SAM: Ross / Jenkins-Stone
- MIKE: Morgan / Gedeon
- WILL: Bolden / Gedeon
Other contributors (i.e. 3 deep): Gant, McCray, Furbush, Wangler
This is a solid workmanlike group but it seems to lack elite playmaking. I'd also argue it lacks depth. And it gets downright scary in 2016 when all 3 projected starters graduate. (UM might take 2 grad transfers here in 2016 the way this depth chart looks!!)
Bolden seems like the most sure thing as a starter after he and Jake Ryan combined for an enormous amount of playing time last year. UM played a ton of 2 LB sets, essentially erasing the SAM position for large portions of games and going with a nickel. Morgan is a presumed starter at the MIKE but I hold out hope Gedeon is seriously going to push there. He is another tantalizing guy that we've seen splashes of to get our interest up but not over a sustained period of time. At the SAM, Ross is a mystery - a 2 year starter he entered 2014 expected to continue to be an undersized fast LB - but disappeared for much of the first half of the year it seemed like. One hopes he re-emerges this year - his size hurts him but with a guy like this if you can keep him clean he is one of the few guys in the LB core with serious speed. His backup is RJS but again see notes above - guy has been a disappearing act for 3 years so I am not counting on him. I really would have liked to see Dymonte Thomas bulk up to 210-215 lbs and take a swipe at SAM in his remaining 2 years at UM.
The backups are worrisome and injuries to this unit could be a big issue. Not recruiting an impact LB this class hurt as he could have been someone who was part of the 2 deep, especially at that SAM position. And it will hurt even more in 2016 when this team is probably going to be running out multiple freshmen on the 2 deep. With Winovich switched to TE (head scratcher to me) and Ferns transferring all you are left at from the 2014 class is often injured Furbush and Wangler. Can either help this year? They will have to in 2016. McCray is a MIKE type who has yet to really make any impact on the football team (was injured this spring) and Gant is a lightly regarded SAMish type. Again the worry is depth here - once you get past LB #4 (Gedeon) you open up a lot of question marks. The starting unit should be "solid" but it would be nice to really develop LBs other teams have to game plan for.
- FS: Peppers / Thomas or Kinnel
- SS: Wilson / Hill
Other contributors (i.e. 3 deep): Clark
The much hyped Peppers joins Wilson at the safety position. If Dymonte Thomas had developed as projected out of HS (or Hoke didnt stop recruiting wonderkid Montae Nicholson - grrrr), one wonders how dynamic a corner tandem of Peppers and Lewis could have been but that is not our situation. So Peppers takes over and is joined by a solid if unspectacular Wilson. There will be a learning curve for Peppers and a busted assignment here or there but one hopes the football IQ and pure athleticism helps hide that, especially by the time the conf season rolls around.
Thomas and Clark are sort of ... well meh for now. Clark played nicely vs App State and you have sugar plum dreams of a 6'4 safety but that was App State. When real competition rolled in Clark did not look good. Dymonte Thomas is a worry as a guy who will never reach his potential - this year should be a make or break year as he is already a JR and if he doesnt make an impact this year, your only hope is a Will Campbell SR yr miracle.
The 2 that intrigue me are Hill and Kinnel. Hill had a rough 2014 with all the injuries - he had supposedly won the starting spot across from Wilson and then promptly was hurt. He returned later in the year, but getting trucked by Connor Cook was a testament to the type of season it was. He still seems like someone who has good potential and a good year for him would help alleviate worries about the 2016 SS position. As for Kinnel, I am for some reason buying this kid's hype. He has great size at already 205 and is one of the guys I could see losing his redshirt with the inevitable injuries every team has in the secondary.
In nickel defenses one assumes Peppers moves over to nickel and Hill and Wilson are your traditional safeties. Unless Dymonte Thomas has a break through and can figure out nickel.
There is also a wildcard here with a guy like Moncrief from Auburn but he was a backup beat out regularly by other, younger players and frankly a prospect like Hill seems more interesting. But maybe he provides injury insurance if he were to arrive.
- CB: Lewis / Douglas
- SS: Lyons OR Watson OR Stribling
Other contributors (i.e. 3 deep): Dawson
Lost in the weeds: Richardson
I am expecting great things out of Lewis. It might not show up in the stat sheet if teams avoid him. Barring injury I don't see a reason to ever take him out of the game - the drop off between him and anyone else is vast, especially Douglass/Dawson types.
At the other corner the loss of Countess hurts. He wasn't a great player but he was needed depth. Lyons is an ok player (see my diary on him here) but not a world beater - that said Pac 12 QBs crush Big 10 QBs with the exception of OSU, MSU and most years of late Indiana. So he will have an easier job in the Big 10 facing Minnesota and Rutgers type offenses (err, excluding SuperGaryNova). But my hope is Brandon Watson beats him out. Watson looked great in the spring game but ... sigh... it was against our QBs and WRs. He has good size and if he beats out a veteran in Lyons it would be a lot like if Morris beats out Rudock - it would give you a nice floor as a backup and mean very good things for the new starter. Stribling is also there and unfortunately had a rough SO campaign. I thought he would show up last fall up 15 lbs heavier and ready to build on the very understandable mistakes of an unheralded FR CB. Instead he seemed marginalized even further by the coaching staff. And then this year shows up for spring at almost the exact same weight - again. Frustrating. 6'2 195 lb Stribling seems far better suited for Big 10 play than 6'2 178 lb Stribling. He is still a wildcard and I hope the new staff does more with him as he seemed interesting as a freshman.
Douglas and Dawson are not people I feel comfortable rolling out as contributors at this point. Hopefully they can contribute something. Terry Richardson falls into the Strobel camp - a 4 star recruit who has had zero real impact on football Saturdays - and at this point you can't really count on to contribute. Also I don't expect Washington to see the light of day - he looks like a player who really needs a RS year both from size and learning this position.
While Michigan's NCAA defensive rank was pretty decent all that does is rank teams by average yards given up per game. And that gives a major advantage to every Big 10 defense as the offenses - save for a few - have been anywhere from pedestrian to poor by and large for years. Advanced stats showed a Michigan defense which ranked around 40ish in the country and 6th to 8th in the Big 10 last year. That felt about right - and that was disappointing considering the defense was expected to be top 3 going into 2014. Even the things the team did right (rush defense) let the team down when needed (Minnesota). It wasn't a bad defense but it wasn't as good as it looked on paper. The end of 1st half implosions also caused us to pull out our hair.
While the NFL losses are significant (specifically Ryan and Clark) better position coaching should help as will any reversion to mean in the turnovers caused which was abysmal in 2014. The entire team had 5 INTs last year; multiple DBs on other Big 10 teams had more than our entire team. Fumbles caused was also pathetic. Just adding 8 more TOs a year by this unit - which would just be a "normal" year, should help change the field and make the defense "feel" better. I dont buy the "defense was on the field too long" argument at all for last year's failures - Michigan not only had the ball over 30 minutes a game on offense they also played at a very slow pace in real time terms. Lack of dynamic playmakers and ability to flip the field hurt more.
The 2015 defense should also be interesting in terms of formations - while others have said the type of "3-4" Durkin runs won't be a sea change the position flexibility of a few players on the DL (Charlton, Wormley, Henry, Hurst) should make for interesting post game analysis. The obvious strength are the DTs with a potential pair of top end DBs - Peppers still needs to prove it on the field vs non MAC competition. LBs seem solid if not game changers. Finding solutions at the 2nd CB and DEs are the key - pressuring the QB is probably going to be the #1 issue for this defense. #2 will be depth at various positions - while one feels comfortable with the starters at most spots, the backups are either unproven or proven to be a significant step down, esp in the back 7. So when injuries do hit - can we get servicable production from the next guy on the totem pole?
Fuller / MGoBlog
The 2015 season was a breakout of sorts for Spike Albrecht: the famously under-recruited junior wasn’t projected to start at any point in his four year career, but because of the injuries to Derrick Walton and Caris LeVert, Spike ascended to starter and became an indispensible presence on the court and one of Michigan’s most valuable rotation players. Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins saw the biggest bumps in playing time after the injuries, but Albrecht increased his minutes per game from 26.2 to 38.6 (tied for the most on the team with Zak Irvin for games after LeVert and Walton were sidelined).
Spike showed off more playmaking ability than he had in either of his previous two seasons and became a Vine star with highlights like this:
Plays like that became somewhat common for Spike – Drew Hallett, who posted the Vine above, titled the play “Spike Nash,” something I wrote about at length after Michigan’s win over Syracuse in the ACC – Big Ten Challenge:
Spike attempted a behind-the-head pass (which, if memory serves, resulted in a flubbed Mark Donnal layup) and literally dribbled around the paint a few times in another game so far this season, but this play – a seemingly effortless play that was both audacious and completely necessary – in context, was something else. Firstly, Spike Albrecht is not, nor will he ever be, Steve Nash, a surefire Hall of Famer and one of the more exciting players ever to play the game. Still, there’s been a decidedly Nash-esque quality to Spike’s game this season, even if it’s a $29.99 photo print of an original masterpiece. It’s not hard to envision Spike Albrecht watching hours of Nash highlights on Youtube as a middle-school kid and trying out that nonsense at practice or on the driveway.
Spike’s going to be that guy eventually. He’s currently the elder statesman on the team, but he has almost two entire years of eligibility left in a Michigan uniform. He still has plenty of basketball to give – unlike several players capable of singular brilliance (the Nik Stauskases and Trey Burkes), he won’t be a fleeting season’s worth of memories. I suspect that we’ll have another two years of Spike attempting insane passes that look almost indifferent and while his moments of genius will be much fewer and further in between than those from the stars of the college basketball world, it will be incredibly fun to wait and watch what Spike will do next. At the very least, he’ll probably hit about 40% of his threes, he’ll probably post a gaudy assist-to-turnover ratio, and he’ll probably be a solid player at worst, on the whole.
Spike was one of the most visible silver linings in the wake of Michigan’s disappointing season – he’s an above-average player (particularly on the offensive end) compared to others in his role. To wit, he outplayed future NBA lottery pick D’Angelo Russell in Ann Arbor last year, scored 17 points in half of the national championship game three years ago, and clearly elevated his level of play over the course of the season. Incredibly, he’s played in 107 games as a Michigan Wolverine; Jordan Morgan holds the school record at 140 games and, if he stays healthy, Spike could claim that record as his own.
* * *
Old Man Spike
— LaVall Jordan (@LaVall_Jordan) April 22, 2015
Among the much ballyhooed (and eventually very successful) “Fresh Five” recruiting class, only two are left: Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht. It’s easy to see, even now, that the watershed 2012 class was instrumental in triggering the renaissance of Michigan basketball – they went to the national title game as freshmen (three started), won the Big Ten by three games as sophomores (with Stauskas and LeVert leading the way), and up to four will eventually be drafted into the NBA. Here are their individual accomplishments:
- Nik Stauskas – Second-Team All American (2014), Big Ten Player of the Year (2014), #8 overall in the 2014 Draft.
- Mitch McGary – Preseason First-Team All American (2014), South Regional All-Tournament Team (2013), Final Four All-Tournament Team (2013), #21 overall in the 2014 Draft.
- Glenn Robinson – Big Ten All-Freshman Team (2013), #40 overall in the 2014 Draft.
- Caris LeVert – Second-Team All Big Ten (2014), Preseason First-Team All American (2015).
- Spike Albrecht – Final Four All-Tournament Team (2013).
As it turns out, Caris and Spike will be the only two to finish out their four years of eligibility at Michigan and – for the first time in several years – the Wolverines will have two senior cornerstones. LaVall Jordan’s tweet above calls an interesting comparison to mind: Zack Novak and Stu Douglass were four year contributors and valuable leaders in their time at Michigan and, like Caris and Spike, were under-the-radar prospects added late in the recruiting process. Beilein’s had success in uncovering gems late – Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman come to mind – and they’ve made quite an impact at Michigan.
Albrecht and LeVert have obviously had very different careers, but there’s one interesting factoid that underscores the leadership role Albrecht’s in: Spike’s two years older than the next-oldest Michigan player (LeVert) and has several years of game experience. Because of prep school, Spike will be 23 by the time next season starts, providing a level of veteran leadership that was lacking at times this past season. Last year, he was unexpectedly called on to fill a big role and performed admirably – Spike was a captain as a junior and was eventually named team MVP. His hips were so badly messed-up that he had to have offseason surgery on both, but he played star minutes through the end out of necessity. Hard-hats, lunchpails, and all that.
Additionally, he’s the front-runner for the Robbie Hummel Memorial “That Guy’s STILL In College?” Award given to the Big Ten player who seems to have been around forever more than anyone else in the league.
After the jump, more on Michigan’s floppy-haired cult hero
The softball team left for Oklahoma City and the WCWS today, ahead of their Thursday match up with Alabama (7:00 pm ET, ESPN2). The ASA/USA Player of the Year award (softball Heisman) will be announced tonight and Michigan's Sierra Romero -- already the recipient of ESPNW's POY award and MGoBoard's Chick that Knocks the Fuck Out of the Ball award -- is one of three finalists. Here are some tweets and reading material for those interested.
— Carol Hutchins (@UMCoachHutch) May 26, 2015
— Michigan Softball (@umichsoftball) May 26, 2015
- Inside Pitch with LC: Eight Things That Led Team 38 to OKC: Catcher Lauren Connell provides a view from inside the team on the Super Regional and the preparation for the WCWS.
- 5 Questions Heading Into Women's College World Series: ESPNW's Graham Hays writes a great primer on the WCWS and what to look out for. Touches on Romo, Christner, Betsa, and the Michigan-Alabama game.
- Sierra Romero is Michigan's Derek Jeter: Angelique Chengelis bio piece on Romo, details Hutch's comparison of her to Jeter.
- Dancing helps Michigan softball boost energy, maintain chemistry in push for national title: Justin Hicks covers the most important key to the team's success. This one is from before the Super Regional, but still a fun read.
After the confederates fired on Fort Sumter, Lincoln asked the loyal states to provide a total of 75,000 soldiers. The peace time army had been very small and Washington DC was left practically undefended. There were some fears at first that some of the northern states would not furnish troops or in sufficient numbers in time.
However, on May 16, 1861 newly formed Michigan regiments came marching into Washington DC to defend the capital...the very first state to respond to Lincoln's call and with more troops than Lincoln had asked from the state of Michigan. Lincoln is alleged to have responded: "Thank God for Michigan.”
Many Michigan units would go on to great fame in the Civil War.
At Gettysburg the 24th Michigan pushed back a confederate regiment and then faced a much larger regiment with elements of another regiment allowing them to be flanked. They fought back ferociously and fell back multiple times to try and resume the fight. They suffered the most casualties of any unit at the Battle of Gettysburg. They were later chosen to be the honor guard for President Lincoln’s funeral.
In fact so many Michigan units fought well at Gettysburg, that Michigan’s 2nd State Flag (we are on our 3rd) was deliberately unfurled and raised for the first time ever in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 4th, 1865 above the graves of Michigan soldiers in the national cemetery there.
At Fredericksburg the 7th Michigan completed the first successful amphibious attack in US Army history. They volunteered to row across the Rappahannock River under fire. Their commanding general said if they could do it, it would be one of the greatest feats of the war. They successfully established a foothold and helped build a pontoon bridge to bring the rest of the army over and into the city. They got the nickname the “forlorn hope regiment” for the willingness to take the toughest tasks.
The 4th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry captured a fleeing Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. His wife threw her shall over him to try and disguise him at the last moment and some of the Michigan soldiers embellished a bit and said that he was dressed in woman’s clothing.
Michigan regiments captured a significant amount of confederate flags in the war and a few were put on display in the state capitol rotunda until they were later returned to southern states in 1941, months before Pearl Harbor. I suppose southerners complained a lot about their captured flags being on display in our state capitol building as they didn’t have satellite camps to whine about yet.
Remember the reasons for Memorial Day.
Roll the dough!
NCAA Softball Super-Regional
Thursday-Friday, May 21-22
ESPN, ESPN2 & ESPNU
The NCAA super-regional is a best-of-three series. There will be one game Thursday and one Friday, with a third game following a half-hour after the second if needed.
Thursday, May 21
Game 1 -- #3 Michigan vs. #14 Georgia (ESPN2)
Friday, May 22
Game 2 -- #3 Michigan vs. #14 Georgia (ESPNU)
Game 3 (if necessary) -- #3 Michigan vs. #14 Georgia (ESPN)
Last year in Tempe, the regional was an emotional thrill-ride. Shoot-outs, come-backs, and one of the greatest games in Michigan softball history combined to put the Wolverines past Arizona State. Cardiologists throughout Southeast Michigan were probably happy to see this year’s affair cause the Maize & Blue spectators a great deal less anxiety. Apart from a spot of indigestion when Cal briefly took a 1-0 lead on Saturday, there was not much to raise heart rates or drive up blood pressure as the big Blue machine cruised to their regional coronation.
As the top seed in the region, Michigan drew the Oakland Golden Grizzlies in the opener, a middling team that snagged an auto-bid out of a lower-tier conference. Michigan was not as sharp as they could have been in their first playoff appearance, which Carol Hutchins attributed to the nervous energy of the first game of the playoffs. Even so, Michigan breezed by a badly out-matched Oakland team. The Grizzlies played into Michigan’s hands, handing out 6 walks, committing 2 errors, and plunking a pair of Wolverine batters. As she has done so often, Sierra Romero led the way on offense, going 2-3 with 2 RBIs as Michigan secured a 9-1 mercy-rule win.
Michigan had to shake off the jitters that slowed them down in game 1 quickly, as a tested California team came knocking on the door on Saturday. As mentioned, Cal took an early lead with a home run in the top of the 2nd. The first time through the line-up, Michigan continually made contact against Cal starter Stephanie Trzcinski, but couldn’t get much going beyond a manufactured run in the 2nd to level the score. Once they’d had a look at her, though, Michigan’s deadly line-up zeroed in and showed no mercy. Romero gave Michigan the lead on a deep solo-blast in the third, and in the 4th the rest of the team blew the doors down. Falk, Lawrence, and Christner each launched long-balls, and Cal was down 7-1 before they came back to the plate. Cal would continue to threaten throughout the day, but Betsa worked out of several jams with a little help from her friends. Abby Ramirez highlighted the defensive performance with a dynamite diving grab to rob a base hit. A two-run double in the 6th from senior catcher Lauren Sweet allowed Michigan to walk off early for the second day in a row, also by a 9-1 margin.
On Sunday, Michigan unexpectedly faced the Pittsburgh Panthers, who used a grand slam and some good freshman pitching to oust the Bears in the Saturday late game. As the away team on the scoreboard, Michigan batted first, and by the time they were done, the game was almost out of reach. Sierra Lawrence sprinkled the cheese from the lead-off spot, reaching 2nd base on a hard-hit ball down the right-field line. She would come in to score after two illegal-pitch calls. Pitt’s hurler hit Romero and walked Christner before giving up a 3-run blast to Susalla. Clearly flustered, she left the game without retiring a single Michigan batter. Aidan Falk added another run, and it was 5-0 by the time Pitt picked up their bats. It briefly looked as though Michigan might grab yet another mercy-rule win when the lead swelled to 8 runs in the 3rd, but Pitt got 3 back in the bottom of the same inning. Neither starter Wagner nor reliever Betsa had her best stuff today, as on-and-off drizzles, fatigue, and perhaps just a little complacency with the big lead kept them off-balance. They did what they needed to do, however, and the offense removed any doubt with a pair of insurance runs in the 5th inning. Alumni Field rose as one to cheer on Betsa as she gunned down the final Pitt hitter in the 7th, and Michigan could celebrate a 10-3 win and a regional championship.
The stats throughout the weekend were impressive to say the least for the Maize & Blue. Michigan went 3-0, outscoring their opponents 28-5 along the way and posting a combined 1.84 ERA with a 26-5 K to BB ratio. 5 home runs on the weekend pushed Michigan’s season total to a staggering 112, now well past the 2005 team’s program record in that category. Junior wonder-worker Sierra Romero showed the full range of her abilities, going 5-9 at the plate, showing power with a home-run and blazing speed with a triple and a cheeky bunt-single against a backed-off infield. Freshman Aidan Falk made a big impression as well – as Hutch says, at this point in the year, they’re not freshmen anymore! She hit .600 on the weekend, grabbing 3 hits against both Cal and Pitt.
After Sunday’s game, Carol Hutchins told her team what she always does after a regional win – that they are one of only 16 teams in the country that gets to have practice on Tuesday. For a coach that wants nothing more than a chance to help her players get better, that is reason enough to be excited. One of those other 15 teams will be thinking along the same lines, however, and is headed for Ann Arbor with no intentions of bowing out early. Now it’s time for us to look ahead to our opponents in the next round, the Georgia Bulldogs out of the ESS-EEE-SEE!
Georgia tore through a thoroughly mediocre non-conference schedule, littered with the Elons and Winthrops of the world. The Mary Nutter Collegiate Challenge was their only real foray into serious opposition prior to conference play. There Georgia notched a shiny win over Oklahoma, but suffered losses to Texas and Notre Dame – tourney teams, but ones a real contender should be able to handle. The Bulldogs added a few more non-conference games in the midst of their conference slate, and did not fare so well in those match-ups, dropping a wild 15-9 affair to UNC and taking a surprise 4-3 loss against USC Upstate.
Within the SEC, Georgia’s season went largely according to plan, with few major upsets in either direction. A home win against Alabama and a road sweep of Kentucky mark the most impressive achievements of the Dogs on the season thus far. With the rise of the conference as a whole, however, simply navigating the schedule without excessive humiliation now buys a team not only a ticket to the big dance, but the right to host a regional as well.
Once in the regional, things got dicey for Georgia. Fans that came to Athens on Saturday got to watch MUCH more than they paid to see. Western Kentucky went 14 innings with Georgia, eventually winning a 2-1 pitchers’ duel on the arm of Miranda Kramer, who struck out 19, allowing only 5 hits and 1 run over the equivalent of two back-to-back games. After that, Georgia was pushed to the very edge of elimination, salvaging a 2-run deficit in the 5th inning against UNC before walking off in the 7th. Sunday went by more easily, as Kramer was unable to recapture the magic of her earlier performance, and Georgia cruised to back-to-back double-digit mercy-rule wins. They escaped ignominy and earned the right to travel north to Ann Arbor where, according to their football coach, they will surely freeze to death.
Digging into the stats, we see a Georgia team with a respectable defense and an elite offense. Chelsea Wilkinson is clearly the work-horse for Georgia in the circle, having hurled over 100 more innings than back-up Brittany Gray, and leading the team in ERA, strike-outs, and a number of other categories. She is a strike-out merchant, averaging a little over one per inning – not Betsa-level, but quite good. The one real knock on her is that she is significantly more inclined to give up the long-ball compared to her partner, ceding over 5 times more on the season. While this may be attributable to having faced better opposition, Georgia may want to consider giving Gray an opportunity if the home runs start piling up.
Meanwhile, at the plate, Georgia stands squarely among the nation’s elite. The Dogs .346 team batting average is actually a hair ahead of Michigan’s .344 number, and is tied for 10th nation-wide. While Michigan more than makes up the difference with a better on-base and more home runs, there is no doubt that the Bulldogs can plate runs when they need to. At the end of the day, what matters on offense is scoring runs, and Georgia is again tied for 10th in the country at 7.31 per game (Michigan, meanwhile, is in 2nd at 8.30).
The star of the line-up is Alex Hugo without a doubt. She hits over .400, gets on base over half the time she steps to the plate, and leads the team with an impressive 21 homers. Limiting her opportunities to get multiple RBIs will be essential for Michigan’s defense. That won’t be easy to do, however, as almost every major contributor on Georgia hits over .330. Sisters Cortni and Sydni Emanuel are both over .400 on the year (there are two other girls in the Emanuel family, Brittni and Whitni, which … ok). For one of the first times this season, Betsa and Wagner will really get a sense of what other pitchers feel like going up against our line-up – there simply are no easy outs available.
The one weakness in this buzz-saw of an attack is a dearth of true power hitters. Apart from Hugo, only one other hitter has double-digit homers on the year (Anna Swafford, a strike-out prone .342 slugger). After her, only one more player has more than 5 long balls. This team is almost certainly going to get hits, but as long as we can scatter them and get the timely K or double-play, we just might escape without too much damage. If they get on a roll and the hitting becomes contagious, however, the wheels can come off in a hurry, as WKU’s Miranda Kramer found out on Sunday.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Like last week, I’ll peg a couple Michigan names for newer fans to keep an eye on. It would be a little too easy to just name superstar Sierra Romero and ace pitcher Megan Betsa every time, so this week, let’s put the spotlight on a couple players who have been coming on strong of late – Lindsey Montemarano and Aidan Falk. In addition to starting the team’s pizza obsession, Montemarano has been a spark plug in the line-up in recent weeks after having to fight for her spot earlier in the season. She has become a highly disciplined hitter, using her diminutive stature (and accompanying smaller strike-zone) to draw more than her fair share of walks. Aidan Falk starred in the “regional review” above, and deservedly so. She has been dialed in of late, and is beginning to show more and more of the power she used to set state records in New York in her high school days. Carol Hutchins has often spoken about the importance of hitting through the line-up, 1-9 rather than just 1-4. Keep an eye on this pair as we look to continue that trend.
As much as I hate to do it, even a superstitious fan like myself has to make some predictions at the end of a write-up. Looking at Georgia’s numbers, it’s impossible for me to believe that we will hold them down all weekend. At some point they’ll string things together, somewhere along the line, Michigan’s defense will be stretched to the limit. All the same, when you stack things up, and as much as I hate to jinx anything with over-confidence, I just can’t see them beating us out. We hit just as well as they do for average, better for on-base, and vastly better for power. Their ace is very good; our back-up has better numbers than her and our ace is among the nation’s best. I see Georgia getting hot and winning a game, but Michigan will pull through in the end and return to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series next week.