I'VE HAD JUST ABOUT ENOUGH OF YOU SONNY
Yes, there's an OSU preview coming.
|WHAT||#15/16 Michigan v. Houston Baptist|
November 20th, 2009
|THE LINE||No line, junkie|
Michigan will probably come out with the same lineup they played last game: Darius Morris at the point, Laval Lucas-Perry at guard, Manny Harris and Zack Novak at forward, and DeShawn Sims in the middle. Stu Douglass will replace LLP at the first substitution.
With the quality of team HBU appears to be (more on that in a moment), Michigan will probably be able to get lots of subs into the game. It may not mean multiple minutes for Eso Akunne and Josh Bartelstein, but Beilein has a big tournament coming up next weekend, and should try to build a bit of depth.
Matt Vogrich, Stu Douglass, and Zack Gibson will probably get a bunch of time. If Ben Cronin is healthy, he can be the biggest guy on the court by 3 inches. Anthony Wright will probably get some time for a 10-man rotation, but he hasn't played well so far.
For the Wolverines, this should be little more than a tuneup for the Old Spice Classic next weekend.
It's hard to know exactly how good teams are this early in the season, but early returns on Houston Baptist say they're pretty bad. The Huskies have only played South Alabama, Sacramento State, and Rice, and have lost all three games (two on their home court).
The majority of their problems have been on offense, where they're 300th in efficiency (again, don't read tooooo much into the rankings this early in the season). They turn the ball over on more than a quarter of their possessions, and they can't shoot the ball, especially from long range, where they've made fewer than 9% of their shots(!). They also have 13.1% of their attempts blocked.
Defensively, they've been good defending the three-point line, holding opponents to 19% shooting. They've also been above-average in holding opponents from making 2-point buckets.
So, with three games under their belts, Houston Baptist has looked like a very bad offensive team, and a decent defensive team. The Wolverines will be the most talented team they've seen yet by far.
This is definitely a team that won't give Michigan matchup trouble with size. The Huskies' most used players have been post Mario Flaherty (their tallest player at 6-9), 6-6 forward Andrew Gonzales, 5th-year senior guard Wendell Preadom, and guard Michael Moss. Those guys have played more than 3/4 of available minutes, and nobody else has played more than a third.
|WHAT||Michigan v. Northern Michigan|
November 13th, 2009
|THE LINE||No line, junkie|
|TELEVISION||Big Ten Network|
Year 3 of the John Beilein era gets off to its official start Saturday at 7 as Michigan takes on the Wildcats of Northern Michigan in Crisler Arena. Though he's been a coach for over three decades, Beilein still feels butterflies heading into the year. "My gut feels the same... You're excited about it, and at the same time there's nervous energy."
If everything goes according to plan, the Wildcats will provide little competition. Instead, it should be an opportunity to get the kinks worked out, and a rotation established, before Houston Baptist comes to town next Friday—and hopefully even that is just a tune-up for the Old Spice Classic. The game against Northern will count as a win in the record books, but doesn't have an effect on Michigan's final RPI.
Manny Harris is still not 100%, though he's finally practicing in full with the team. Jordan Morgan has yet to hit the court with his teammates, though it should come soon. He and Blake McLimans will be kept on a redshirt track until the team absolutely needs them, in hopes that it never does.
A number of players are looking to improve their versatility. "I'm here to do what Coach Beilein needs me to do," says Laval Lucas-Perry, "I think I'm a little bit of both: point guard and a shooting guard." Darius Morris needs to learn when to simply go to the bucket, instead of setting up an offensive play (he also needs a winter coat). "As a point guard, you have to know when it's your opportunity to go out there and be a scorer... when you have to make that extra pass or go straight to the basket," Morris said. Stu Douglass is learning that sometimes it's OK to just trust his shot, even when running the point.
The rebounding and three-point defense continue to be issues, as they probably will be throughout the John Beilein era, though not to the extent they were last year. "The zone, at times, will give up a higher percentage than we'd like to, but it also creates turnovers," says Beilein. The team size will improve over last year, hopefully fixing some of those issues.
This team is still very much a work in progress. But isn't it fun to be able to enjoy the process?
As discussed in yesterday's non-conference roundup, Northern is, like, not very good. Against D-2 competition, they were below .500. They split the season series with Wayne State, a team that gave Michigan a comfortable victory in their exhibition last week. This is the Wildcats' first game of the season, in the largest arena they'll visit all year. They placed nobody on the pre-season all-conference squads.
Their players to watch are guards Marc Renelique and Raymont McElroy. They were atop last year's squad in scoring, and McElroy is the three-point shooter. The Northern Michigan roster from their website has some differences from ESPN's website, so take any personnel notes with a grain of salt. Hopefully, it shouldn't be too relevant for this game.
No tempo-free breakdown for this game, as it's the first game of the year against a D-2 opponent. We'll see about Houston Baptist getting the statistical preview, but it should make its permanent debut for the Old Spice Classic.
UMHoops has a little more on the Wildcats and six questions going into the season, which makes Rothstein's five questions seem very sad and small and alone. AnnArbor.com has plenty of coverage; Morris and LLP are the point guards with Douglass a third option. Jay Bilas has gone from emotional problems to crazy Michigan homer. Also Dick Vitale said something I'm betting was annoying.
|WHAT||Michigan at #21 Wisconsin|
|WHERE||Camp Randall, Madison, WI|
November 13th, 2009
|THE LINE||Wisconsin –9*|
|TELEVISION||Nationwide on BTN
|WEATHER||Around 50, cloudy,
slight chance of rain
Run Offense vs. Wisconsin
The stats here are grim. Wisconsin may have gone up against a I-AA snackycake but it was a I-AA snackycake that runs the triple option and put up 214 yards on 55 carries: their 1-AA game actually distorts their run defense negatively. There are probably four teams in I-A that can say that.
In the Big Ten, rushing has been near pointless for opponents lately:
Michigan State fell behind big in that game, which helps explain how the meh Spartan rushing offense got 5.1 YPC and why they wouldn't go to it more than 20 times if they were picking yards up at such a good clip. Then you've got a decent performance by Minnesota, a good one by Ohio State, and three obliterations. Despite a ton of sacks—about which more later—Wisconsin's stats hold up under scrutiny. This is one of the best rushing defenses Michigan has played, with only Penn State and Michigan State(!)* anywhere in the statistical ballpark.
Michigan's rushing game never got untracked in a bizarrely short game against State, but the more recent outing against Penn State saw three separate rushers crack four yards per carry; erase five sacks for Penn State—about which more later—and Michigan finished the day with 138 yards on 34 carries, 4.1 yards per attempt. This was accomplished with a long run of 17 yards and without David Molk, so there aren't any factors that suggest Michigan won't be able to replicate that performance against the Badgers.
Well, there may be one: Michigan's senior tailbacks have come down with their usual array of minor injuries. According to Rodriguez, Brandon Minor was "day to day" earlier this week after re-emerging as the primary option against Purdue. He was almost entirely absent from the Illinois game. Carlos Brown, the primary guy against Illinois, was hampered with tendinitis against Purdue and saw one carry. Neither was on this week's injury report, but they weren't on the injury report either of the last two weeks. Either or both could be limited and we won't know until their mysterious absence lasts into the second quarter.
I'm expecting something similar to the Penn State game, where the rushing is effective but erratic enough that Michigan can't just pound it all day; a big play or two is a possibility but not a major one. Unless Michigan can get some pass blocking drives will be hard to sustain.
*(Seriously: MSU is 15th in rushing defense, which makes that game earlier this year far less weird.)
Key Matchup: Brandon Minor's ankle versus Everything Good And Holy.
Pass Offense vs. Wisconsin
Wisconsin's been far more vulnerable here when Purdue receivers aren't making Danny Hope's mustache droop and opposing passers aren't arm-punting all day. Ben Chappell, who you will remember as a polished, entirely average sort of fellow:
If that looks familiar, Ben Chappell against Michigan:
I'll take any statistic that suggests the opponent's secondary is on par with Michigan's. Please.
The wider view isn't as kind but it does suggest some vulnerability: the Badgers are 65th in pass defense efficiency, and those numbers Wisconsin's stats are probably about right relative to how they've performed. The Purdue game may have been a break but Wisconsin scrubs also gave up two long aerial touchdown drives to Michigan State after that game had descended into garbage time.
The secondary is vulnerable. The problem will be getting to it. Magically delicious Badger defensive end O'Brien Schofield has seven sacks this year and the run stats above required serious extraction to separate the actual runs from the copious sacks Wisconsin has racked up. They're 27th nationally, and remember they basically did not have a I-AA game in this statistic. Michigan is 82nd in sacks allowed despite being 82nd in pass attempts: the pass protection has been really, really bad. Michigan's responded with rollouts and screens and crazy huge dropbacks from the shotgun, so they might be able to get around the pass protection issues by it's going to be a matter of mitigation.
Roy Roundtree might be key again. He was the bulk of the pass offense against Purdue and while Wisconsin will adjust to that, the slot receiver is a guy who will be open in seams and on bubble routes when linebackers are cheating to the run game and having a rangy, sure-handed target like Roundtree can provide Forcier with an array of quick options on which magically delicious defensive ends are spectators. Then the weakside linebacker must choose between eating Brandon Minor facemask seven yards downfield or watching Roundtree grab a short seam route or four. Part of the slot receiver's popularity in this edition of the Rodriguez offense is borne of necessity: guy is close and you can get it to him quick.
I'm heartened by the relative inexperience of the Badger linebackers and think Forcier will have a good day in the short to intermediate stuff, with Koger and Roundtree frequent targets and that RB wheel route re-emerging into a threat. On passing downs Michigan will be ineffective and Forcier flushed or sacked frequently. The usual.
Key Matchup: Huyge or Dorrestein versus Large Minus In Next Week's UFR. This is easy, right: the RT spot has been a sore one in pass protection all year.
Run Defense vs Wisconsin
To adequately address the Michigan defense this weekend we have to address the rumors that there's been a major shakeup in the secondary. The rumors are so rampant that they just about must be true. "Guy is practicing at this position on the first team" is a rock-solid piece of information that comes with future intent; "OMG Forcier transfer!" is the opposite of that.
So: Michigan is likely to reconfigure its defense. The obvious thing to do is pull the overmatched or underperforming safeties off the field; rumors are focused on Brandon Smith, linebacker as of two weeks ago, as a replacement. This makes sense against Wisconsin, as Michigan figures to be in an eight-man front on any reasonable rushing down. Then you've got one deep safety who will probably not be Jordan Kovacs because Kovacs has shown over the past few weeks that he has magically un-delicious walk-on speed. Woolfolk may move, or it may be Warren, who's been playing a two-deep safety in various formations for much of the year after the Woolfolk move. This means JT Floyd gets another crack at corner.
To the run defense: despite rumors that the Big Ten is a huge power running sort of conference from people who haven't watched a college football game in ten years, this will be the first actual test of Michigan's defense against a team of neanderthals who know and love rock, only rock. Previous traditional running teams have not done that well…
[Note: QB/WR runs excised for tighter focus on 'rock' style running.]
…but none of those teams is actually much good at running. Iowa and Michigan State are terrible; Penn State is 42nd.
To boot: many of those yards have not been Michigan getting overpowered by their opponent but Michigan doing something dumb like Mouton leaving a 41-yard cutback lane for Royster, Kovacs whiffing on Robinson, or Mike Martin stopping his flow down the line against Caper. This is the opponent-invariant bit. Michigan's defense has been bad for reasons other than physical limitations.
Unfortunately, if there's a team out there more likely to expose Michigan's physical limitations it's the last game on the schedule. Wisconsin is Wisconsin except this year they've replaced an overweight plodder with John Clay, a true moosebeast of a tailback who looks like Beanie Wells or Adrian Peterson, a guy it's hard to believe is playing college football instead of the NFL variety. Clay had some issues early in the year of the practice fumbling or disciplinary variety that saw him lose time to decent backup Zach Brown, but once he emerged he did so with vigor. He is currently the leading rusher in the Big Ten and is averaging 5.1 YPC.
A few teams have held him in check but one of them is Ohio State, with whom there is no possible comparison to Michigan's defense. The other—outside of a strange 15 carry, 45 yard day against NIU in the opener—was Iowa, though, and we saw that Iowa's rushing defense was pretty mediocre this year. However, Clay's crushed Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota, and Michigan State. Put Michigan's defense in one of those two categories, and it's the wrong one.
Michigan is already slant happy and will remain even more so against a Wisconsin line that is much bigger than they are; I think you''ll see a lot of cutbacks because guys are hitting it into the backfield. These cutbacks will meet late and ill-prepared linebackers and Clay is going to get his 2-3 YAC on most plays and grid like he usually does. He'll also break a long one when someone screws up. Fact of life. He should easily clear 100 yards.
Key Matchup: Whoever is at linebacker versus overpursuit. This week's key matchups are "things I expect Michigan will not do well."
Pass Defense vs Wisconsin
Death by tight end. I know that our Wisconsin guest suggested that Garrett Graham had disappeared after the Michigan State game—in which he and Tolzien had a creepy mind-meld—but Michigan has a knack for making tight ends re-appear. The dossier is extensive at this point: Moeaki, Quarless, etc. Last week against Purdue Kevin Leach got lost on a mesh route and turned a third and five dumpoff crossing route into a 56-yard completion. Garrett Graham will be hand-wavingly wide open on a series of waggle plays/seam routes, especially if Michigan goes to a one-high eight man front as the previous section suggests they will. Linebackers will bite, and Graham will be open, and he will probably get 100 yards.
That out of the way: Tolzien's been decent in his first year as a starter. He's 51st in efficiency and is completing 62% of his passes. His main issue has been interceptions; he threw five in the two losses against Ohio State and Iowa; those were huge factors in their losses. If Michigan can cover some guys, he might screw up, especially if Brandon Graham is attempting to eat his face.
That might happen. Wisconsin's sack numbers are decent on the surface—they're 49th—but that conceals a passing offense that doesn't get a whole lot of work. The Badgers are 94th in pass attempts. If Michigan can get Wisconsin into passing situations, Graham can nibble on a cheek here and there. Those figure to be few and far between.
When Wisconsin gets protection, the deep threat is Badger legacy Nick Toon. He's Wisconsin's best deep threat and a guy who can probably get open downfield against Woolfolk—who's been vulnerable—but not Warren. He's averaging 14.5 yards per catch but only has two touchdowns on the year.
And then there's Michigan's presumably reconfigured secondary. I assume Toon will draw the non JT Floyd corner, which means second receiver and infrequent target Isaac Anderson will get a lot of work. Given what we saw from Floyd earlier this year he's going to play off and hope for the best.
That'll be the recipe, I guess. Tolzien won't have a lot of attempts, but the ones he gets will be efficient.
Key Matchup: Roh/Leach/Ezeh vs Graham. If they can get a chuck or read the play action or just do something long enough for the dodgy pass protection to matter, maybe?
This should be a solid advantage for Michigan. Darryl Stonum continues to prove himself the conference's best kick return specialist. He's already broken the single-season kick return yardage record set by Steve Breaston a few years ago. That's largely because of sheer volume, but Stonum took one back for a touchdown against Notre Dame and has interspersed excellent returns throughout the rest of the year. He took two over the 50 against Purdue. Wisconsin, meanwhile, ceded a kick return touchdown of its own against Ohio State and Adam Hoge of Bucky's Fifth Quarter thought they might be vulnerable despite a recent improvement in performance.
Michigan's punt returns have been substandard all year, so that's not much of a threat; Wisconsin is about average in net punting.
When Michigan kicks to Wisconsin, expect little. Wisconsin's in the triple digits in both punt and kickoff returns and David Gilreath has taken a major step backwards this year. Kicker Phillip Welch has been okay, not great. He's hitting two-thirds of his attempts and missed an extra point against Wofford. He was very good last year, going 20/24. Jason Olesnavage is 10/12 with a far costlier missed extra point.
Key Matchup: CATCH THE DAMN BALL.
- Wisconsin has adjusted to the Roy Roundtree show and Michigan is forced to rely on pass protection more than they'd like.
- Michigan has no answer for the beast machine.
- Forcier doesn't play on the second drive.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Wisconsin's OL can't handle the quickness of Martin and Van Bergen.
- The reconfigured secondary makes you wonder what the hell took them so long.
- It's 2010.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 8 out of 10. (Baseline 5, +1 for The Scales They Fall From My Eyes, +1 for We're Winless On The Road And Camp Randall Is Slightly More Intimidating Than Memorial Stadium, +1 for I Bet Totally Changing The Defense In Game 10 Is Going To Work Great, –1 for I Guess It Can't Be Worse, +1 for Forcier Aigh!).
Desperate need to win level: 9 out of 10. (Baseline 5, +1 for Bowl Game, +1 for Partial Cessation Of Hostilities In The RichRod War, +1 for Escape Big Ten Basement, +1 for Tip The Scales Back Towards Not Doom.)
Loss will cause me to... work on my Henri the Otter of Ennui impression even more.
Win will cause me to... relax.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
To reiterate on the Forcier thing: I expect he will miss the first series and then return. If that assumption does not pan out, head for the hills and re-emerge in two weeks.
Given that: I can see many ways for Wisconsin to move the ball against Michigan's defense, reconfigured or not, and have explained them in detail above. I think Michigan will have a decent day on offense but be poor on third-down conversions because of the pass protection issues; they'll need about two huge breaks to win.
Finally, opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Garrett Graham goes over 100 yards receiving.
- Minor is the primary back and also goes over 100 yards.
- Robinson gets more work in the backfield than he has to date.
- Wisconsin, 30-20.
|WHAT||Michigan vs Purdue|
|WHERE||Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI|
|WHEN||12:00 EST, November 6th, 2009|
|THE LINE||Michigan -6|
|TELEVISION||Nationwide on BTN|
|WEATHER||Sunny, dry, mid-50s|
So, a bird dropped a baguette on the Large Hadron Collider, causing it to overheat. This is the thousandth thing that has gone wrong with the LHC in the past six months. A couple weeks ago some scientists suggested that the LHC could never be activated because the creation of a Higgs Boson—the thing the LHC strives to create—would not only destroy the universe but retroactively destroy the universe. Therefore the LHC's problems were an inevitable consequence of having a universe and that the universe would prevent the LHC from ever operating in order to protect itself. In effect, they argued that the Higgs boson was preventing itself from ever generating itself from the future. They were serious about this.
Theory: you can create the Higgs boson by combining three things: Rich Rodriguez, a Michigan windbreaker, and a bowl game.
Run Offense vs. Purdue
The issues that cropped up when David Molk got injured are likely to compound this weekend. Perry Dorrestein, who drew into the lineup when Molk went out, wasn't listed on the injury report this week but missed some time against Illinois with a back injury, and midweek his availability was in question:
“(His back problem) has been ongoing,” Rodriguez said. “He's been fighting it every week, and it flared up a little with him in last week's ballgame. He's been battling that the last couple weeks, really."
Patrick Omameh would replace Dorrestein if he can't go. Mark Huyge would kick out to tackle and Omameh would play RG. Omameh did okay in his first shot at playing time but is a redshirt freshman and a backup for a reason. That would probably ding the running game farther.
The Illinois stats are pretty ugly and the goal line stand that will live in infamy is the item that lingers in everyone's mind, but the running game has played a fair number of stiff defenses this year and done well; the Illinois game is an outlier. A scary, terrible outlier against a team that had been horrible against the run, but an outlier. Well, mostly an outlier: Michigan State also shut down Michigan's ground game. The running game was effective against Penn State and Iowa, however, and gets Brandon Minor back from his overwhelming ennui. Mike Shaw, who missed the Illinois game with a knee sprain, also returns.
Purdue, meanwhile, is a bad rush defense. They're 88th nationally and just finished having their head caved in by John Clay and a zillion other Badgers—Wisconsin ran for 266 yards on 53 carries. The week before, Mikel Leshoure ripped off a 65-yard run and Illinois picked up 180 yards on 37 carries. The week before that, Purdue totally annihilated Ohio State. Yeah, that doesn't make any sense. But over the course of the season Purdue has proven itself pretty terrible.
Obvious riposte: so had Illinois. The Illinois game shouldn't be weighted too heavily—losing Minor meant Brown was forced into a lot of sub-optimal situations and Michigan lost its most effective runner by far—but it must be weighted. Michigan now has three good rushing performances in the Big Ten (Indiana, Penn State, Iowa) but no great ones—the long stuff has disappeared since the Indiana game. They also have two bad ones.
Purdue blogs say they're extremely susceptible to up-the-middle pounding…
As boilerdowd noted to me, UM is not a rough and tough team. They're a little more finesse. And if they play that way, Purdue can own 'em. However, if they punch Purdue in the mouth early, like Northern Illinois and Wisconsin did, Purdue may run away whimpering like my dog when I get mad.
…and say that Michigan is not a team to pound you, which is weird but on the radio Monday I argued with a guy who thought the problem with Rich Rodriguez was that he didn't run the ball enough and that running "side to side" gets people hurt. People think things and retroactively come up with reasons for them.
If Minor's back and healthy and Omameh can slot in this should be an effective, if uninspiring, day on the ground, with Minor getting 100 yards on 20 or so carries and other people chipping in to get Michigan near 200.
Key Matchup: Brandon Minor versus His Overpowering Ennui. His ankle has been sprained since the 2007 Purdue game.
Pass Offense vs. Purdue
Purdue's got a good pass efficiency defense, which I do not understand as a thing that is possible but there it is: 25th nationally. Their pass defense is 34th. Some of that has to do with the run defense. Scott Tolzien attempted all of 13 passes last week, and Adam Weber's preposterous stat line from a 35-point output was 5 of 9 for 74 yards and two interceptions. Um.
On the other hand, Jimmy Clausen had what was probably his worst game of the year against Purdue:
There was some severe turf toe involved there, but Clausen would need one foot and half a hand to shred Michigan's secondary.
Purdue's also 25th in sacks, and Michigan's shuffling the offensive line again or playing a guy who was hurt and pretty poor against Illinois. This does not seem like a good matchup after Tate Forcier's last month of football and the problems the right side of the line's had in pass protection. Bonus negative: Martavious Odoms is definitely out for the second straight week. While Roy Roundtree had a nice day against Illinois, he lacks the quicks Odoms has on bubble screens and whatnot.
Forcier did have a nice day against Illinois but remains plagued with freshman inconsistencies and happy feet; this will be a secondary option given Purdue's apparent lack of run defense.
Key Matchup: This
UPDATE: …um, this nefangled offensive line pass protecting again.
Run Defense vs. Purdue
Purdue's Robert Bolden started the year off hot but as the competition has gotten better the Purdue run game has fallen off:
These numbers correspond well to the quality of the opponent rush defense, and are uniformly terrible except for the Illinois bludgeoning. Purdue's early cupcake indicators have given way to the reality that the rushing game can't move the ball at all against quality teams.
Michigan, all you are well aware, is not a quality team. They languish 85th in rushing defense after taking a hammering from Illinois last week; the week before that Penn State racked up a bit over four yards per carry. Michigan's main issues have been terrible linebacker and safety play that causes good work from the defensive line to go to waste, and Robert Bolden is a fast bugger if you screw up like that.
On the plus side, Michigan did do good-to-excellent jobs on the two rushing-deficient Big Ten teams they went up against before the last two debacles. Purdue is evidently a rushing-deficient Big Ten team. Illinois played straight into their weaknesses, too: confusion, inability to maintain their assignments, safeties who have religious proscriptions against containing Juice Williams. Purdue's got a pocket passer and an run game that isn't nearly as good at getting really fast guys in open space one-on-one with guys who might well be chasing someone who doesn't have the ball. The numbers should come down, with an error here and there springing Bolden for a long run or two between a lot of 0-2 yard runs.
Key Matchup: Mouton and Leach versus cutbacks. Obi Ezeh lost his job because he attacks wrong holes all the time and Mouton only has his because Michigan doesn't have many other options. The numbers suggest there will be a lot of fouled running plays that either get crushed or break long.
Pass Defense vs. Purdue
This is where you go "urgh we die" except that Purdue has been crazily inconsistent all year here and it may be a game where Boilermaker receivers drop a thousand passes, as they did against Wisconsin, and Joey Elliott calls them out after the game, as he did after a game earlier this year.
I mean… Jesus:
That makes Denard Robinson look like Tom Brady. But then there's the Ohio State game, in which Elliott was 31 of 50 for 281 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception against the #8 pass efficiency defense in the country.
Which is it? Against Michigan, the probably the latter. Purdue still loves the short dink-and-dunk offense that Tiller deployed so effectively in the early part of his term and Elliott has been moderately efficient running it, racking up a zillion attempts that aren't as accurate as you'd think—58% completion rate—but are as dinky: 6.7 YPA. Boiled Sports on the dinky:
One of the biggest problems that I have with the Elliott-led offense this season is their lack of a vertical passing game. Granted, the simple fact that Purdue's receivers aren't really burners plays into the equation, but, both Valentin and Carlos have gotten behind the defense on numerous occasions this season only to be missed.
Elliott's also had an issue with interceptions, with 11 against 14 touchdowns.
Michigan's got a couple of decent cornerbacks and then hellish confusion all over the field; Purdue is a team that can exploit Michigan's inability to cover anyone with a linebacker or safety with any of their equally mediocre wide receivers—four guys already have over twenty catches. They'll be open, they'll drop some balls to kill drives, they'll be less likely to hit a big play than teams with more explosion at the position, they'll probably still get a couple because Michigan's starting two walk-ons and they're clearly better options than some other guys who are starting.
Key Matchup: Safeties versus enormous long touchdowns. Purdue looks like it will stab itself in the foot often enough if forced to march down the field for Michigan to give up a non-huge amount of points. They also appear to be a team that doesn't have a ton of big-play ability in the passing game unless Michigan gives them the opportunity, which they probably will. Just tackling guys as they grab the ball will be a win.
Hey, Jason Olesnavage and Zoltan Mesko are pretty good. Purdue's guys are not. The Boilers are 104th in net punting, 91st in kickoff returns, and dead average at punt returns. Slight advantage Michigan, I'd say, except that Michigan returners have muffed two punts in the last three games against real competition and let a lot of other punts drop to the turf.
Key Matchup: HOLD ON TO THE DAMN BALL
- Anyone from Purdue shoots into the backfield like Corey Liuget did.
- Purdue decides to catch stuff.
- Minor limps off again.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Purdue leaves the sanity at home.
- Forcier can get time in the pocket.
- Suddenly it's next year.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 6 out of 10. (Baseline 5, –1 for We're Favored By Almost A Touchdown, +1 for Why Are We Favored?, –1 for Purdue Hasn't Won Since 1963 At Michigan Stadium, +1 for The Last Year And Half Has See A Lot Of "Since Impossibly Long Time Ago" Records Fall, +1 for they Spread And Throw At Our Weakness, +1 for And What The Hell Was That Last Week, –1 for Purdue Is Thinking The Same Thing).
Desperate need to win level: 9 out of 10. (Baseline 5, +1 for Bowl Game, Any Bowl Game, +1 for And Really If They Don't Win This Game It's Hard For Them To Not Go 5-7, +1 for And I Am Tired Of Talking People Off Ledges, +1 for Why I Am I Talking People Off The Ledge When I Want Them To Jump?)
Loss will cause me to... well, there's damn well going to be an otter picture, that's for sure.
Win will cause me to... start perusing arcane bowl rules in the hope that Michigan doesn't get dragged into the Alamo or something where someone will rain fury on them.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Does anyone get this line? I know the records are divergent but Purdue is outgaining opponents by 10 yards a game and hasn't played any I-AA opponents. Their nonconference schedule was two MAC schools, Oregon, and Notre Dame. Take away the Baby Seal U game and Michigan is getting outgained by 40 yards a game. I guess they've managed to be competitive until the last couple weeks, but despite Purdue's record I think they've proven themselves a better team over the course of the season. They could-have-should have beaten both Notre Dame and Oregon, they did beat Ohio State, and… well, they did lose to an eh MAC team. And just got crushed, but by Wisconsin, not Illinois.
Purdue's managed to get themselves crushed by making a crap-ton of stupid mistakes. They're turnover margin buddies with Michigan—M is 109, Purdue is 108. They've had punts blocked for touchdowns. They fumbled away the Oregon game. Etc etc etc. They're sort of a version of Michigan that's not quite as bad, despite the records.
I don't want to be over-reacting Straight Bangin' Award winner guy here, but I made a mistake before the Penn State game of not taking Michigan's yardage margins seriously and predicted a win despite Michigan getting seriously outgained in four previous attempts at BCS competition. That streak is now at six if you count Illinois as part of the BCS, which we have to and no one else does.
I mean, sure, Michigan can win if they stop making huge mistakes all the time, but why would that happen now? After the Iowa game you could say "oh, that's just an outlier"; now it's just life.
Finally, opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- 60+ yard Bolden touchdown.
- Shaw gets about as much time as Brown.
- Michigan is –1 in TO margin.
- Purdue, 30-28.
|WHAT||Michigan @ Illinois|
|WHERE||Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL|
|WHEN||3:30 EST, October 31st, 2009|
|THE LINE||Michigan –7.5|
|TELEVISION||Nationwide on ABC/ESPN2 mirror|
|WEATHER||Sunny and around 50.|
Note: I'm sick of qualifying "last two games" because Delaware State is in there and obviously doesn't matter. For the duration of this preview, the Baby Seal U game is assumed to not exist.
Run Offense vs. Illinois
Though Michigan has fallen off a bit from their ridiculous start, they've done well in the last two games, and they did that against good run defenses. Iowa is currently #44. Penn State is #4. Michigan put up 195 yards against Iowa with Minor racking up 95 on just 22 carries. Against Penn State Michigan did well but for five Forcier sacks, which have been excised from the below numbers:
That's 4.2 yards per carry against a team that's currently giving up 3.4 to the rest of the world. (Penn State's got 26 sacks for 155 yards on the year, which hugely distorts the numbers. Including those, PSU is giving up 2.6 YPC!) That, more than anything that's occurred against Baby Seal U, indicates that Michigan's got a ground game that's for real. At this point it's established. People on the internet and the radio are begging for more running plays. It's a good rushing offense even without David Molk.
On the other side of the ball, Illinois is atrocious. They're 101st in rushing defense. Various abominations put forth this year:
Yikes, eh? Every Big Ten opponent Illinois has faced has gashed them, with Michigan State the only team not to approach five yards a carry. When Mike Rothstein took a look at the Indiana game he came away thoroughly unimpressed, emphasis mine:
-Illinois run defense is unimpressive. Indiana ran right at the Illini’s front four with success, getting a lot of the push with the offensive line.
-The Illini front four also didn’t appear to pressure Ben Chappell much. They’d send four a lot and Chappell had plenty of time to sit in the pocket and throw quick seven-yard passes.
-Illinois really struggled when Indiana brought Mitchell Evans in to run the Wildcat (which usually leads to Evans running). Makes you wonder that if Denard Robinson can hold on to the ball, how much Michigan might be able to use him.
-Illinois’ cornerbacks are unimpressive. They gave a lot of cushion early on, but eventually pressed a little bit.
Ha ha ha, losers
-Illinois’ defense is a lot like Michigan’s. There seems to be a soft hole in the middle of the Illinois defense, much like the Wolverines.
Awwww, hamburgers. But for this section, at least, that's good news: Illinois is flat terrible and is going up against a running offense considerably better than those of certain teams that have crushed them. Michigan should average at least five yards a carry; the Denard Robinson Experience should be extremely effective; I want Michigan to run the ball on 80% of first downs until such point as it's obvious that's not a good idea or it's time to screw around.
Brandon Minor is slightly hurt, as he always has been and always will be, but will be available; this is a game in which Shaw and Smith will get some cracks, too.
Key Matchup: HOLD ON TO THE DAMN BALL. If Michigan just keeps pounding at Illinois, they've demonstrated that they will crack, Molk or no.
Pass Offense vs. Illinois
Illinois is also terrible here. Whee! They can't get to the quarterback: they're 112th in sacks. They can't defend it when it's passed: they're 91st in pass efficiency defense. They are almost mediocre in terms of yards but that's an effect of the rush defense being so bad and Illinois being so bad and everyone just running all the time.
I mean, there's not that much else to say. Ben Chappell went 23/38 for 333 yards and three touchdowns. Terrelle Pryor threw twice in the first half. These two items suggest about all you need to know about Illinois's pass defense: when you have to, you can slice and dice it. You probably won't have to.
The non-Chappell numbers can not make this any clearer:
If you are not Terrelle Pryor you will throw 25 times a game with some uninspiring final yardage numbers, a YPA around 7, and no touchdowns because you just run 'em in. End of story. Illinois likes to lay back and play it safe, because the alternative is the Missouri game.
Michigan's passing offense has bogged down in a big way against two of the best pass defenses in the country the past two weeks. Pass protection has been a major issue. So have drops. And poor decisions from the quarterback. And questionable penalties. Virtually anything that can be going wrong with a passing game has been doing so for Michigan of late.
Things figure to improve against Illinois. That sacks number indicates that Michigan shouldn't have nearly as much trouble holding a pocket together against the Illini as they did against their last three real opponents, which should give whoever's in it some time to come off a first read and hit a second. We'll see if said passer actually takes that opportunity instead of running around like crazy. Probably not, if I had to guess. In any case, Illinois is going to give Michigan a lot of soft coverage because they don't have an alternative, and Forcier should find open guys for short gains when Michigan bothers to pass, which won't be often.
Key Matchup: Forcier versus his tendency to run around. This is a game in which he should be able to stick in the pocket.
Run Defense vs. Illinois
This is the one thing other than waterskiing…
…Illinois is not terrible at. This is largely because of the presence of Juice Williams and his crazy ninja ballfakes. Illinois's rushing game is a crazy reflection of Michigan's. They run a ton of zone option stuff but they run a lot of veer plays where everyone blocks down on the line, leaving the playside DE open as the RB tries to get outside; Williams reads that guy and makes a decision. Illinois likes this for a couple reasons:
- Juice Williams is an excellent runner who can make significant yards on this up the middle, and
- their offensive line is a disaster and down-blocking a bunch of guys is way easier than attempting to stretch them a la Michigan.
They will like it even more against Michigan because it will allow them to not block Brandon Graham. Illinois isn't going to block Brandon Graham whether or not they're trying to; on this play Illinois will be prepared for it. Expect to see a lot of guys tackling RBs without the ball.
You might remember Michigan getting shredded by this last year. Or you might have forgotten it all in an alcoholic haze. (They… they were the lucky ones.) There are a couple reasons to think Michigan will improve this go around. Most of the coaching staff has seen it, the offensive line is a lot worse and less of a threat to do anything else, and Michigan's not trying to get away with a really slow OLB.
However, you are probably thinking "this does not fix our bighuge problem at middle linebacker," and that is accurate. Michigan is still vulnerable to overpursuit from the linebackers and crippling errors from the safety and most visions of this game include one or two agonizing long runs from Illinois when someone blows an assignment.
When Charest comes in, Michigan should crush the ground game. Given this offensive line, Brandon Graham, and the rest of the Michigan defensive line there will be limited opportunities for any of Illinois' mediocre running backs to create yards without serious errors from Michigan's linebackers. Which there will be. So chalk up a 10 or 20 yarder or two with Charest in, interspersed with a lot of nothing.
Key Matchup: Ezeh and Mouton versus Williams. Williams is the big play threat and he will create big plays by convincing one of our erratic linebackers to tackle a guy without a ball or, like last year, convincing two.
Michigan has demonstrated that there is plenty of vulnerability in their secondary, but Illinois seems singularly incapable of taking advantage of it. Again, the terrible offensive line combines with confused, inaccurate quarterbacks to create a sort of crazy magic: Illinois is 112th in sacks allowed, 110th in passing efficiency, and 101st in passing yardage. They are terrible. This is how terrible: backup quarterback Eddie McGee got to start the Michigan State game and went 2 of 11 with a pick-six before getting yanked and is now a wide receiver.
The Not Juice du jour is redshirt freshman pocket passer Jacob Charest, who completed half of his passes against Purdue a week ago and will rotate in as Illinois tries to find something, anything, that works. The wisdom of sticking a freshman pocket passer behind your terrible offensive line when the opponent has Brandon Graham is… um… debatable, but when the alternative is Juice Williams it makes some sense.
Illinois still has terrifying uber-receiver Arrelious Benn around but can't get the ball to him because of the aforementioned problems. If Illinois does find protection it's going to be very tough for Michigan to cover him. Illinois loves lining him up in the slot and Michigan's response to that has been to stick Stevie Brown on said slot guy—sort of—and hope. With little in the way of safety help in Michigan's eight-man front, expect a wide-open corner route or two that may or may not be completed. Benn has an injured ankle and a dinged shoulder, FWIW. He will play; he's not 100%.
Michigan will have to defend the Illinois passing defense the way everyone has so far: sit back, let your line shred the Illinois line, and don't give up anything cheap before Illinois screws up a third and short or gets sacked or throws a hilariously terrible interception. It's teams like Illinois that remind us why bend-but-don't-break used to seem like such a good idea: people would shoot themselves in the foot well before they neared the endzone in the olden days.
Key Matchup: Jordan Kovacs and Mike Williams in two-deep coverage. They key to bending, but not breaking, is to not give up really long touchdowns. Can Michigan do that with a couple of slow underclassmen at safety? Eh… maybe, maybe not.
It's a theme: Illinois has terrible special teams. They're 108th in punt returns and 89th in kick returns. Kicker Matt Eller is 3/7 this year and missed an extra point. Their punting is pretty good, I guess.
Michigan, well: you know the story by now. The kick returns have returned to normal after an early period of competence, and the opposition kick returners are 50-50 to get a long one. Punting is fantastic; punt returns are an effort to fair catch every ball. Jason Olesnavage has been pretty good as a kicker. Slight advantage Michigan.
Key Matchup: CATCH THE DAMN BALL.
Kittens? I hesitate, but the spread is in the single digits.
- Illinois gets any push at all from the offensive line.
- Michigan can't pass protect again.
- Folks other than Graham aren't smoking their blockers.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Juice Williams is in third and long.
- Michigan doesn't even have to gesture towards play balance.
- They don't screw themselves with turnovers.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 3 out of 10. (Baseline 5, –1 for Holy God This Opponent Is Terrible, –1 for And In Ways That Play Into Michigan's Strengths And Away From Their Weaknesses, –1 for And Holy God, Just Look At It, +1 for This Same Quarterback Put Up M-vs-Baby Seals Yards Last Year, By Himself, +1 for and It Is A Road Game, –1 for That Will Be Attended By Six People.).
Desperate need to win level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5, +1 for This Is A Debacle Of A Team We're Playing, +1 for Loss Would Totally Blow The ND Game Good Feelings, +1 for …And It Would Make A Bowl Game Look Super Iffy, +1 for …And Then I'd Have To Go On The Radio The Day After, +1 for …And Then I'd Have To UFR It.)
Loss will cause me to... rip a single branch off every tree in Ann Arbor out of existential spite.
Win will cause me to... WOO BOWL GAME BABY.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
The recipe for this game is Lloydball. On offense: run, run, run, run. Sprinkle in a short pass here and there, run some play action for shots deep. But do it rarely and just plow ahead for your points. On defense, lay back. Bend but don't break, don't give Illinois anything cheap with their athleticism, and wait for the inevitable stuff/sack/incompletion that gets you off the field.
Can Michigan follow this recipe? On offense, almost assuredly. The only thing that argues otherwise is the persistent issue with fumbles. If Michigan HOLDS ON TO THE DAMN BALL, the rushing numbers from the first few Big Ten games will be at least replicated, with the Penn State bombing more likely than the quasi-respectable game against Michigan State. Michigan matches up well against this defense. (Who doesn't, you ask? Er.)
It's a little bit iffier on a defense that's alternated stretches of competence with huge errors or structural deficiencies that give away easy yards. I expect Illinois to look almost competent on offense, something similar to the first half of the Penn State game where Illinois' running game was working pretty well and Penn State was busy with that and couldn't be bothered to get the pressure that kills Williams. So they'll have some drives that move the ball, but without short yardage it's hard to see more than one serious touchdown drive. Tack on one mind-bending error and some other stuff, and you've got a score similar to the other ones Illinois has put up so far, albeit one that assumes Illinois's points are not garbage-time decoration.
Finally, opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Denard goes for 100 yards.
- Michigan has a positive turnover margin.
- The safety play burns Michigan.
- Michigan, 28-17.
|WHAT||Michigan vs #13 Penn State|
Ann Arbor, MI
October 24th, 2009
|THE LINE||Penn State –4.5|
|TELEVISION||Nationwide on ABC|
|WEATHER||Mid 40s, cloudy
30% chance of rain
Run Offense vs. Penn State
Despite the scary numbers Penn State has put up so far, I think Michigan can run the ball on them. Michigan will bring a rushing attack far better than any that Penn State's seen so far, and the most Michigan-like offense the Nittany Lions have faced did a good job in the limited attempts they were provided:
(As per usual, I excised sacks. There were three for 23 yards.)
These were not garbage-time stats. Illinois outgained Penn State by a significant margin in the first half and failed to score more than three points because Penn State downed two punts at the one and the drives they created from that field position went 40-60 yards before stalling out. Illinois is the #40 rushing offense in the country and did not exactly light up any of their other opponents; I think it's safe to assert that Michigan's line and backs are considerably better than those of Illinois if Molk is fully healthy. Williams' ability versus Forcier/Robinson's is a wild card.
Illinois did a lot of their damage on the edge, as Penn State defensive tackles Jared Odrick and Ollie Ogbu were very good at blasting into the backfield and causing havoc on conventional stretch runs. Illinois runs a veer package where the line blocks one direction and the run goes the other, with Williams reading an unblocked playside defensive end; this was pretty successful because the DT's natural inclination when they see stretch blocking is to shoot to one side of the field. This leaves Michigan open for cutbacks, and this was the tendency Michigan exploited last year to birth Minor RAGE and give Anthony Scirroto very bad dreams.
Chances are Penn State will attempt to adjust to this with backside games. Against Illinois they remained in their base 4-3 on all but extreme passing downs, showing a two-deep look but always—literally—walking down a safety over the slot receiver and showing one deep middle safety. So this isn't going to be as gentle as the Iowa game for Michigan. Penn State will be more aggressive and less predictable. Denard Robinson will find the sledding tougher than he did on his drive against Iowa; even against Denard the Hawkeyes persisted with their two deep safeties.
Star Penn State linebacker Sean Lee is supposed to play after missing most of the last three games. Lee got in for around 15 plays against Minnesota before "tweaking" his injured knee and getting pulled. How healthy he is, and how effective he'll be after a layoff, is a mystery. Indications are he will play.
Michigan has had two weeks to prepare for Penn State and has a good indication of what the Nittany Lions will try to do on defense. They have always been an aggressive, slanting defense against the stretch, dating back to the Debord days of stretch monotony, and that's not going to change because of a few hiccups in a game they won 35-17. Look for a number of new wrinkles for Michigan's rush offense—more blocking the backside end and trying to slam it up behind the slant-happy DTs, for one—and an extremely effective drive or two to start. I think Michigan pulls out a new package and gets mileage out of it; their conventional sets should also pick up yards. I think this is a solid win for Michigan; they should approach 200 yards with more if someone breaks it long.
Key Matchup: Molk vs Odrick/Ogbu. If Molk can reach one or the other DT consistently, or even most of the time, Michigan is going to rip it up. He probably can't because these guys are serious, but if he does…
Pass Offense vs. Penn State
Tate Forcier's had two weeks to get right after his torrid outing against Iowa, to heal his shoulder and clear the cobwebs from the minor concussion he sustained in that game. He now claims to be 100% healthy. Penn State will put that to the test.
PSU has lost its top three defensive ends from last year, two of whom were high picks in the NFL draft, and the replacements have been decent to good. The numbers are impressive—PSU is 11th nationally with three sacks per game—but there is the whole schedule thing to take into account. Jack Crawford has four sacks, all of which come against the Akrons and Temples on the schedule. In Penn State's three real-ish games, they acquired one sack (Odrick) against Minnesota, three (Crawford, Latimore, Stanley) against Illinois, and two (Hull and Crawford/Lynn) against Iowa. Odrick is actually the biggest threat; he's got four sacks from the defensive tackle spot. He's a frightening dude.
Penn State's pass coverage has been very good but as per usual the schedule is a big asterisk. It's even more of one when the best QB you've faced is… Ricky Stanzi? I think so. Juice Williams and Adam Weber are your other candidates. The numbers from those guys:
Yeeeaargh. Williams had a good game—some of that was garbage time but his first half was on par with the above numbers—and the other two guys died an ugly death. And all this came with a totally new secondary that's sporting a true freshman nickelback.
Has Forcier established himself as obviously better than those guys yet? I don't know. His numbers are certainly better and he's only had one ugly performance so far, the cold night road game against Iowa's fierce secondary. But that's the last memory we have of him and it lingers, unpleasant.
Black Shoe Diaries has seen Penn State go up against its share of scramblers and indicates that the Nittany Lions will likely reserve a linebacker for spying duties, trusting their defensive line to zip past Michigan's offensive line without help from the blitzes and then using that linebacker to snuff out Forcier's wild scrambling. Penn State's gameplan will be to make Forcier beat them from the pocket, a place he's clearly uncomfortable. Some of the reasons he's uncomfortable are not his fault—the right side of the line has had serious pass-blocking issues—but whether or not it's on his shoulders, the fact is Michigan hasn't gotten a lot of production out of the pocket this year and Penn State has the wherewithal to force Michigan to operate out of it.
Since Michigan's receivers have proven themselves to be unintimidating on the long ball, Penn State will crowd the line with that one-high safety and dare Forcier to read coverages, throw slants, and whatnot. Forcier should do better than he did against Iowa, if only because the game is at home and he's now got some experience with high level defenses, but asking him to put the game on his shoulders is just asking for it. Michigan's success in this game is going to have to come on rollouts and play action.
Key Matchup: Moosman & Huyge/Dorrestein vs Crawford, et al. Michigan's offense has bogged down when these guys can't pass block, and Penn State will test their ability. At least Molk is back.
First: Penn State backup tailback Stephfon Green is out. That's not a huge blow for Penn State but Green's a fast bugger and replacement Brandon Beachum is the kind of guy who gets listed as a fullback/tailback. He is not a fast bugger. The chances that Penn State breaks something long on the 5-8 carries Royster doesn't get are considerably reduced.
This has been a struggle for Penn State all year, the major reason Penn State fans have to fret about the team. Against Iowa—as we've seen, not a great run defense—Penn State scraped out 118 yards on 30 carries, a pedestrian 3.9 per. This was the culmination of four games to open the season in which Penn State struggled to run the ball against damn near anyone: 136 yards against Akron, 78 yards against Syracuse. (They did get 186 against Temple).
Then came the Illinois game. They were bottled up in the first half until a Stephfon Green run broke long with an assist from an uncalled clip; from there it was time to bludgeon. Penn State ended with 338(!!!) rushing yards on 40 carries. Eastern Illinois was next and as meaningless as Delaware State for Michigan, but last week they ground out 177 yards on 43 carries against Minnesota; Royster averaged 6 YPC with a long of just 26.
Clearly there's been some improvement from early in the season, when Penn State couldn't dream of putting up numbers like that against Syracuse. How much the offensive line has "come together" and "cliche cliche cliche" is in the eye of the beholder. For what it's worth, Illinois' rush defense has been consistently horrible all year and Minnesota has been little better. Minnesota yielded 295 yards on 49 carries to Wisconsin; they are currently sitting 87th nationally.
Michigan, for its part, started off slowly and is still digging themselves out from things like "85-yard Indiana touchdown" and "Kirk Cousins's Michael Vick impression." Statistically, they are not good. But, like Penn State, they've put together two good-to-excellent performances against Big Ten teams in their last two tries. Like Penn State, it appears the opponents in question are pretty terrible at the activity in question. Like Penn State, you can argue that a bunch of young guys in a new system are finally getting their heads on straight and will be better henceforth.
It could be that the improvement here is a mirage on one side or the other and someone is going to get pwned. I doubt it, though, and lean towards a fairly even battle in which Penn State gets 4 YPC and maybe breaks a couple long-ish runs but doesn't make a living on the ground. There's always the chance someone from Michigan screws up heinously, but that hasn't happened in the run game of late. Passing game… eh, well, that's next.
Key Matchup: Van Bergen versus Various Guards and Centers. As per the Iowa game: Van Bergen establishing himself a tough, productive defensive tackle makes Michigan's defensive line go from okay to very good. Recent indicators are encouraging; if he puts out a +5 or so day against Penn State they're going to have some ugly rushing numbers.
Pass Defense vs Penn State
Via the Shredder.
Darryl Clark died
in Iowa City against Iowa like all quarterbacks do this year, and that concludes the decent pass defenses Penn State has faced. Ah, but describing Michigan's pass defense as "decent" is something of a leap. At least… maybe? Though M is 80th in yardage they're 38th in passer efficiency thanks to a number of interceptions provided by Ricky Stanzi, the pass rush against Michigan State, or Indiana's sheer stupid brazenness. FWIW, Clark against Big Ten competition:
One excellent game, one okay game, one poor one.
Michigan actually has a decent chance of matching up against Penn State's receivers. 6'5" deep threat Derrick Moye is threatening, but he hasn't done much outside of the Akron game to start the year and last week's Minnesota game where he had 6 catches for 120 yards and a touchdown. Neither Warren or Woolfolk should have much trouble running with him and they've got good size for corners; while I can see a fade here and there I don't think Moye is the kind of guy who Michigan's going to have a huge amount of trouble with. Penn State's got a tiny white possession slot receiver in Graham Zug; I assume he'll reel in a few balls underneath the coverage and maybe a corner or something but Michigan should match up okay with him, too.
The guy who has the potential to kill Michigan is tight end Andrew Quarless. He's a talented guy, and this week's UFR inadvertently coined the term "Moeaki open" after the Iowa tight end was handed two touchdown receptions without so much as another Michigan player in the same area code. Michigan's linebackers are now freaking out and running downhill and the safeties are small guys without a ton of athleticism; it's hard not to see Quarless running wide open on several play action passes. Defending that is something Michigan's worked on for two weeks, I'm betting. Who's got super awesome faith in their ability to fix it over that time span? No one? Correct.
Pass rush will be the key. That's tough against Darryl Clark, who's not Michael Vick but isn't John Navarre, either. If Michigan yields running lanes like they did against Michigan State, Clark is more than capable of exploiting them. The good news is that right tackle is a huge concern for Penn State. The first and second string guys are laid up with ankle injuries, leaving JUCO transfer Ako Poti the starter at the position. Ako Poti vs Brandon Graham == image you see above. Or, at least, it better. I think the recipe in this game is to threaten a lot of blitzes away from Graham's side to force protection slides, bring a number of them, and tell the defensive tackles to crush their guys backwards but under no circumstances get out of their lanes.
This could be a painfully variable matchup for both teams. Michigan should get guys in on Clark, which may result in sacks or interceptions—Clark was very poor when pressured against both Iowa and Illinois—or Clark loping downfield in acres of space. When Michigan does not get to the quarterback they are liable to turn third and twenty-five into first and goal, though it will be interesting to see if Kovacs is the deep safety this week. That would say lots about Kovacs, and Mike Williams. I don't think Clark will kill Michigan but something like 60% completions for 200 yards, 2 TDs, and an INT might be in the cards.
Key Matchup: Brandon Graham versus Poti or whoever. If Graham kills a drive, Michigan probably loses. If he kills four, they win.
Michigan ascended to #2 in net punting on their bye week, with Zoltan averaging almost 42 yards net per punt. Penn State languishes at #86, but that's deceiving. PSU's punter is averaging almost 43 yards a kick and has seen only five returns. They've been big returns, though, averaging 17 yards each. That combined with a punt block shoots Penn State into the basement. Without the block, they'd be in the top 20.
The rest of Penn State's special teams are atrocious, though. They're 95th in punt returns and 119th in kick returns. Kicker Colin Wagner is only 6 of 10 on the season. This should be an advantage for Michigan as long as they…
Key Matchup: CATCH THE DAMN BALL.
- Ako Poti does not cower and beg for mercy at some point.
- Michigan doesn't have an answer for Slanty McDT and friends.
- The RT is getting abused.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Penn State gets a blizzard of new looks and can't cope.
- Forcier can get comfortable in the pocket.
- Penn State's OL renaissance turns out to be illusory
Fear/Paranoia Level: 7 out of 10. (Baseline 5, +1 for I Explained It Away Above But Those Defensive Stats Are Still Gross, +1 for And We've Been Outgained By All Big Ten Opponents So Far, –1 for Huge Mismatch With Michigan's Best Player, +1 for Jebus The Safeties Are Going To Kill Us At Least Once, –1 for We Own Penn State, +1 for Do We?).
Desperate need to win level: 7 out of 10. (Baseline 5, +1 for Owning Penn State, +1 for Huge Swing Game That's The Difference Between Hoping For 7-5 And Staring Down A New Year's Day Bid, +1 for I Think I Should Make That Last One Two Points, –1 for Season Still About Building And Losing This Narrowly Wouldn't Be A Disaster.)
Loss will cause me to... fret about the possibility of losing one of the next two weeks and blowing the goodwill from the Notre Dame game.
Win will cause me to... dream about going into Madison 8-2.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
So there's one other variable to account for that's a coaching matter: will Penn State pack in and Lloydball their way to a loss? Maize 'n' Brew has a post up about the possibility. Unfortunately, it's totally inconclusive. I do think Penn State has a tendency to go into a shell in big games and that plays against their strength—passing the ball against Jordan Kovacs, last line of defense—and will result in a lot of plays that are stuffed runs.
Another variable to account for, stolen from a message board:
UM's five 1A opponents, in NCAA rank in total offense:
12, 32, 50, 66, 79
PSU's five 1A opponents, in NCAA rank in total offense:
75, 79, 99, 105, 114
Now… we're six games into the season and at least some chunk of the reason PSU's opponents have such crappy offenses is because they played PSU; the same goes for Michigan's opponents. Penn State is giving up 76% of their opponents season averages, though, and has extended that outperformance into the Big Ten schedule. It's a legitimate defense. How legitimate? I don't think anyone really knows. It won't be easy for Michigan, that's for sure, and I'm expecting the lowest point output of the season tomorrow.
Meanwhile, Michigan is probably going to go into a similar shell against Penn State, but for better reasons: that's what makes sense against a defense like this and given your relative strengths in senior tailbacks and whatnot. It'll be a close, grind-it-out sort of Big Ten game that will swing on a few things:
How well did Michigan use the virtual bye? Punishing a potentially over-aggressive Penn State defense with new looks opened it up for Michigan to take a shocking halftime lead last year.
How vulnerable is that Penn State offensive line?
How vulnerable are Michigan's safeties?
Will Penn State's terrible special teams affect the game?
Tentative answers: very well, considerably vulnerable but not overrun, also considerably vulnerable, and probably somewhat.
Finally, opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Minor gets the bulk of the work and puts up 100 yards on 20-ish carries.
- Graham gets a lot of doubles, which leads to effective blitzing from Brown and Mouton.
- Michigan busts out the wheel routes they've avoided so far this year and gets a big one.
- Michigan, 23-21. Missed field goal the difference.