"He makes it really easy on you as a coach because he has tremendous football instincts," Michigan tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh said. "Things come really naturally to him. He doesn't have to see things too many times. He has a good sense for how things should look and feel, and he's a tough, physical guy."
|WHAT||Michigan vs Air Force|
|WHERE||Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI|
|WHEN||3:30 pm Eastern, September 8st 2012|
|THE LINE||Michigan –21.5|
|TELEVISION||ESPN2/ABC reverse mirror (coverage map)|
|WEATHER||windy, mid-60s, slight chance of rain|
[HEY BOO-URNSERS: I know ain't no one gonna tell you what to do, but booing a service academy when they are introduced is a terrible idea. Let's not do that! None of you are reading this blog, probably.]
Run Offense vs Air Force
what up mr kotter, what up
After a comprehensively abysmal outing against Alabama, Michigan gets a slightly better matchup against the Falcons. Subtract 70 pounds from everyone on the Alabama defense and add serious engineering degrees for most: that's Air Force. Thank gawd.
Last week Air Force beat up on I-AA Idaho State. The Fighting Gutierrezeses were 2-9 last year, losing to the various Montana, Utah, and Washington I-AA teams by scores like 54-13. They averaged—wait for it—27 yards rushing doing so. This is not data.
We don't have much in the way of data we can take forward from last year's Falcon outfit since they turned over seven starters, but if we assume they'll be a lot like last year's outfit, Michigan should go buck-wild on what was the #109 rushing defense. The Notre Dame game featured in Ace's FFFF saw the Irish go for 266 yards on 29 carries, including a 78-yard run by Andrew Hendrix(!). Brady Hoke's old outfit and 2011 common opponent San Diego State put up 201 on 35 carries, with Ronnie Hillman going for 172. Undersized and heavily reliant on confusing the opponent with blitzes, Air Force stands little chance of holding up against any reasonably good BCS-level rushing attack.
Michigan should have one of those again. They've got Fitzgerald Toussaint back, and since this is an overmatched opponent Michigan will probably run Denard 30 times. I'm not sure we learned anything about Michigan in the first game for the exact opposite reason we didn't learn anything about Air Force in the first game; extrapolating from past seasons suggests Michigan will run riot.
Key Matchup: Offensive line vs getting push. This should not be a problem, but we're all spooked after last week's total inability to block any-damn-body.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the news. Which is less bad!]
[Note for people who don't read who posts what: Ace posted this. You probably didn't read this either. DAMN YOUUUUU.]
|WHAT||Michigan vs Alabama|
|WHERE||Cowboys Stadium, Arlington TX|
|WHEN||8 pm Eastern, September 1st 2012|
|THE LINE||Alabama -13.5|
|TELEVISION||National on ABC|
|WEATHER||sunny, mid-90s, roof expected to be closed so it doesn't really matter|
[Image via Tower of Bammer]
It's the opening game of the season, so certainly the Wolverines have scheduled a directional Michigan school or similar creampu...
Michigan takes on defending national champion Alabama, which is ranked second in both preseason polls despite returning just 11 starters. There is good reason for this: Nick Saban has turned Tuscaloosa into an NFL talent factory, one that shows no signs of slowing despite the heavy personnel losses. Michigan's toughest test traditionally comes in the last regular season game; this year, it's the first.
Run Offense vs Alabama
Jesse Williams shifts from end to nose tackle; this should not be a problem
The Crimson Tide defense posted one of the most dominant seasons in collegiate history in 2011, allowing ten yards per game fewer than any other team in the country. A look at their run defense, game-by-game, reveals their numbers could have been even better if not for one obvious outlier:
FCS school Georgia Southern was the only team to crack 3.6 yards per carry against Alabama, and they more than doubled that figure. Flukes are flukes, however, and a triple-option FCS team managing that kind of output against that defense screams irrelevance unless Al Borges breaks out the flexbone tomorrow. The rest of the year, Bama allowed more than three ypc just twice, to Penn State (still boasting Silas Redd) and LSU (first matchup—the second didn't go so well).
This isn't the same Alabama outfit, of course; they lose nose tackle Josh Chapman and a pair of All-American caliber linebackers in Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw. The Tide can replace that talent effectively, sliding 320-pound end Jesse Williams down to the nose and inserting former blue-chip recruits Trey DePriest and Adrian Hubbard into the lineup at linebacker, but replicating last year's success will be difficult.
Then again, Alabama ceded just 2.4 yards per carry last year en route to crushing the entire universe. Giving up a full yard more per carry would've still placed them inside the top 25 nationally—there may be regression, meaning the extent of their destruction is limited to merely our own galaxy. Williams reportedly bench-pressed 600 pounds(!!!) over the summer—as a JUCO transfer who originally hails from Australia, he's just beginning to reach his potential. Starting ends Damion Square and Ed Stinson each played in all 13 games last year (Square started all 13) and weigh in at over 280 pounds. The Tide carry a reputation for being strong up the middle and that should not change this year.
At linebacker, Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosely combined for 11 TFLs in 2011 and should greatly improve on that output now that they're out from under the shadow of Hightower and Upshaw. Johnson is listed as the co-starter at both MIKE and WILL, while Mosely will stick to the weak side. You may remember DePriest from his recruitment, when the five-star out of Springfield, Ohio, appeared to favor Michigan at one point before choosing to head South. He tallied 25 tackles as a true freshman last year and is a star in the making. Strongside linebacker Hubbard functions more as a defensive lineman in Alabama's 3-4 defense.
On the Michigan side, their performance in this regard may hinge on the status of Fitzgerald Toussaint [UPDATE: forget that]—it takes a dynamic runner to be effective against this defense, and Thomas Rawls and Vincent Smith do not fit that bill.
If Toussaint isn't available, Moving the ball on the ground will be a difficult proposition, especially since Alabama can then key on Denard Robinson without having to fear the guy next to him.
As long as there are no injuries along the offensive line, the Wolverines should hold up in the trenches. The pressure will be on Patrick Omameh—who's struggled against bigger, stronger linemen—and new starter Elliott Mealer to not give any ground; if they're getting knocked into the backfield, the efforts of Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield will be for naught.
If, as expected, Toussaint is not available, it'll take a monster effort from Denard for Michigan to consistently move the ball. He's capable, of course, especially against a defense facing its first full-speed test of the season. As detailed in FFFF, it usually takes misdirection to find running room against the Tide, so we'll see if Borges gets creative to try and get Denard into space on the edge.
Key Matchup: The interior line vs. Jesse Williams. As I said, Lewan and Schofield could dominate and it won't matter if Omameh, Mealer, and center Ricky Barnum can't keep Williams from getting a push up the middle. If the interior line can fight Williams to a draw there's a chance Denard and the backs can put together a few decent runs, perhaps (please?) by running some inverted veer, which Auburn (and Cam Newton) ran with great success against the Tide in 2010.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the news. Which is mostly bad.]
North Korea DPR
|WHERE||Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor MI|
|WHEN||Noon Eastern, November 26th 2011|
|THE LINE||Michigan –7.5|
|TELEVISION||National on ABC|
cloudy, mid-50s(!) minimal chance of rain
So… before we even get into the breakdowns, yes, Opponent is bad. Their wins are over…
- Akron, Colorado, and Indiana (horrendous teams that will finish with double digit losses)
- Toledo (a good MAC team that still managed to lose to 'Cuse; Ohio State was one good zone read decision away from losing)
- Illinois (Illinois)
- Wisconsin (uh…)
No, the Wisconsin win makes no sense. They've lost to 6-5 Miami and 5-6 Purdue. They've had some relatively good outings this season but strip away the scarlet and gray and this looks like Purdue again. I know, I know.
Run Offense vs Cleveland State
Ryan Shazier will be a source of big plays both ways
Jackrabbits fans were bracing for impact on offense as soon as Terrelle Pryor's eligiblity went poof, but the Tressel fallout has unexpectedly claimed big chunks of the defense's effectiveness as well. Yeah, they lost a lot of starters. But they are still the vaunted SUNY-Stonybrook defense. They reload.
Not so much this year. They've dropped to 41st nationally defending the run. The game-by-game is… variable.
[Note: for purposes of this preview Colorado is not counted as real opponent.]
Murderous performances against MSU, Purdue, and Illinois are paired with eh outings against Indiana and Wisconsin and crap versus Miami, Nebraska, and PSU. I don't know what to do with that. Spread and pro-style are all mixed together; good and bad are mixed together.
If there's a trend it's one of struggles against the spread. Penn State deployed a wildcat look that tore it up in the first half of that game; when forced away from that they imploded. Nebraska: spread option, MSU: pro-style. But Miami is basically pro-style—certainly was against OSU—and Purdue is spread. Emphasis on the "if" in that sentence about trends.
OSU has some assets. John Simon is like Mike Martin… but fast(!). Nominally a DT, he has been a crazy effective DE this year. His game is built on penetration and he is their leader in TFLs(13.5) and sacks(6). Jonathan Hankins [insert rant about RR DT recruiting and/or Archie Collins here] has 10 TFLs and three sacks. That's a defensive line's worth of production from two guys.
That's kind of where it stops, though. At least, relative to your average Ferris State defense. They've still got plenty of TFLs and whatnot… just not quite as many as usual. The other two starters on the DL have 4 TFLs between them; there is no standout linebacker unless it's newcomer Ryan Shazier. Shazier's nominally Andrew Sweat's backup but has been making plays in limited time all year. Think Lavonte David, except bigger. With Sweat questionable after a nasty concussion suffered against Purdue, Shazier will be a pain if he's in the right place. That is an if. While Shazier made a ton of highlight reel tackles against Penn State, it's the ones he didn't make that let the Nittany Lions rack up those gaudy numbers above.
As for Michigan, they recovered from an alarming outing against Iowa to put up back to back 200 yard games. Their performance against Illinois (which went out the next week and held Wisconsin under 300 yards only to be betrayed by their turnover-prone offense) was more impressive statistically. The Nebraska game saw a comedy of errors on Denard Robinson's part…
Three yard loss because Denard did not pitch
…hold down a series of plays that would have worked if he'd pulled or pitched. The blocking was quality all around, Fitzgerald Toussaint locked down the starting tailback job, and Borges seems settled on a mostly zone shotgun attack that fits the personnel. The addition of an H-back headed for the backside end has neutralized the double-A-gap blitzes that annihilated Michigan's offense in East Lansing.
So they'll probably be good. Michigan will have to more effectively constrain the Ohio State defense than they did Nebraska—it's much higher quality. Those runs that were slipping through the line despite Denard making an iffy decision may not be there, and then you've just got the litany of 3, 4, 0, –2 that might as well be run from under center.
Key Matchup: Denard decisionmaking and/or actually giving him decisions to make. Nebraska didn't exactly lay down a blueprint for stopping the Michigan offense but they did hint that you can cheat in certain ways without getting punished. Michigan will either have to read or call their way out of that.
Pass Offense vs IUPUI
Anyone attempting to scout a Big Ten passing defense runs up against a familiar problem: where are the quarterbacks? The Minutemen defense has gone up against few passers of any quality.
They gave up near-identical 7.8 YPA days to Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins… and that's about it as far as threatening passers. The non-threatening variety:
- Taylor Martinez averaged 8.7 YPA with two TD and one INT
- Nathan Scheelhaase averaged 5 YPA with one TD and two INT
- Tre Roberson averaged 8.3 YPA with one TD and one INT
- Purdue's two-headed outfit averaged 6.3 YPA with an INT
- Matt McGloin was indistinguishable from Braxton Miller with 4.9 YPA and an INT
With Cousins also throwing a couple picks, plan on Robinson getting intercepted at least once. Yes, you were already planning on that.
Limiting volume seems like a good plan here. The quality passers got away with attempts in the mid-30s; Martinez and Roberson succeeded on 22 and 21 attempts, respectively. Scheelhaase and the Purdue outfit are not quality passers and got up into the 30s. The effect is apparent in their YPA. (McGloin had limited attempts but plays for the pro-style tire fire that is the Penn State offense and should probably be ignored.)
The secondary is youthful and iffy, at least by the high standards in Columbus. Travis Howard and Bradley Roby are the corners; Howard was expected to be a lockdown type and has not. He's kind of like JT Floyd, actually. Redshirt freshman Bradley Roby has been okay to good, considering his age. The real issue is in the safeties.
When is the last time you saw Kovacs helplessly wave at a running back headed for six? GERG was roving the sidelines with a beaver. CJ Barnett is a redshirt sophomore who's been at fault on a number of big plays against this year; Orihan Johnson has kinda sort a lost his job to Christian Bryant at the other spot. Bryant is 190 pounds. They'll shuffle both guys regularly; they can all be exploited. Barnett will make great plays in coverage when he's got his head on straight. These guys are all athletes with high ceilings. They just haven't hit them because they're inexperienced.
This might be a game in which an oh noes type action comes back. Michigan's all but shelved it the last few weeks after opponents started planning for it. If Shazier or the safeties or one of the other linebackers starts getting nosy, play action could re-emerge.
On the other side of the ball, Denard Robinson has emerged from a shaky period early to reclaim his situational accuracy and not entirely terrible reads. He is a danger to both teams when he drops back; this is an improvement from early in the year. Borges has slowly hacked out passes that aren't zings over the middle or bombs and Denard has actually started setting his feet when he throws. On the run, even. Sometimes.
Michigan's offensive line has been pretty good in pass protection but Mark Huyge is potentially exploitable by a quality end like Simon; Michigan did miss third-down back Vincent Smith against Nebraska. Fitzgerald Toussaint is a much better runner but his blitz pickups make you understand why coaches hate playing young running backs on passing downs.
M receivers… eh. They're all right.
Key Matchup: OL versus Simon and blitzers. Pressure Denard and you will be rewarded with bad decisions. Very bad decisions. Pick up six, though, and it's trouble for a defense that can either cover deep or prevent scrambles—not both.
Run Defense vs Creighton
This will be a test after a couple weeks running up against flimsy offensive lines down important starters. This week Michigan runs into an intact, veteran line with lots of power (and admittedly crappy coaching). Senior Mike Brewster is an NFL prospect who was getting touted as a potential Rimington winner preseason. That's probably out of the question after snapping the ball into his own butt three times last weekend.
He's still a massive upgrade on the guys Mike Martin has been tossing around like ragdolls the past three weeks.
Brewster is flanked by touted recruits. At tackle, McGuffie buddy JB Shugarts is a false-start machine but when he missed the Purdue game his replacement was a sieve; they don't have alternatives and he generally shoves the guy in front of him so there he is. Mike Adams returned from his tatgate suspension and quietly re-emerged as an excellent LT. On the interior a couple of sophomores hold down the guard spots.
Ohio State runs "Dave"—their name for cromagnon iso football—out of the I, matching it with counters and the occasional outside pitch. From the shotgun and pistol they run a lot of zone on which confusion can abound. If Michigan's linebackers are suddenly more effective in this game it's probably an environmental effect more than anything else. They use Miller as a runner whenever, wherever, with any passing down a potential quarterback draw. Third and fifteen? Honey Bollman don't care.
They also like speed option; the QB never pitches on theirs, either. He's getting better at actually running the damn play, but will go off script on a whim:
There's only so much you can do to prepare for a quarterback like this, because Miller won't always do what is intended on a given play, making it really difficult for the defense to stuff a play even when making the proper read. He'll reverse field, go through the wrong gap, wait around in the backfield until he finds a crease—there's just no guessing where he is going to go. The best way to defend this is through dominant defensive line play, and luckily Michigan has had that in spades recently—it's going to take a big day from the entire line, as well as the linebackers, to keep Miller from amassing 100 yards.
Contain, fits, contain and fits. Overrunning things or getting out of your lane is a big play waiting to happen. Stay responsible and eventually Miller will go down to a gang tackle.
Defensive line penetration will be important. Penetration hacks off potential running lanes and allows cleanup defenders to focus on a smaller section of the field that's usually away from blocking angles. Second level defenders should be cautious; linemen should get into the backfield and be the first guy Miller makes miss.
Key Matchup: Martin vs Brewster, et al. The touted one on one matchup between Brewster and Martin may not develop unless OSU tries to run to him on the zone. Most teams choose to run away from him, leaving the backside guard the man in question. Either way, if Michigan can stone inside runs with regularity the resulting passing downs will be rewarding. Martin can make that happen by himself, or he can force the ballcarrier to his friends.
Pass Defense vs Eastern Washington
Braxton Miller attempts in games he's played the whole way: 4, 12, 11, 18, 17. Last week against Penn State he got the ball back down six with seven minutes left and proceeded to Zook his way down the field, burning 5:28 on a drive that ended on downs at the Penn State 32. Albion does not throw the ball much.
They do call a lot more passes than they actually throw. Many end in Miller scrambles; others end in sacks. Despite having just 196 attempts to their name (115th nationally) they are is 116th in sacks allowed. That is an incredible combination of incompetence. While the frequency of Miller scrambles and existence of Joe Bauserman complicate things, doing a simple [sacks / (passing attempts + sacks)] calculation gets you an astounding 16%. Great googly moogly.
This isn't all Miller's fault. He's been saddled with an untenably young receiving corps that got untenably younger when Verlon Reed was lost for the year attempting to field an onside kick in a 10-7 loss to MSU. Freshman Devin Smith is the leading receiver in terms of yardage and he's caught three passes in the Big Ten season. Sophomore Corey Brown (Not That Corey Brown) is next, and it appears that everyone in Buckeye comment threads hates him. Jake Stoneburner is a senior and the kind of guy Al Borges would turn into an All American, but he goes to New Jersey Institute of Technology and therefore has 13 catches. (Seven have gone for touchdowns. PROTIP: cover Stoneburner in redzone.)
The inexplicable return of DeVier Posey complicates matters. Anyone who saw him make that one-handed spear along the sidelines knows he's pretty good. Unlike the rest of the receiving corps, he's veteran. Last year he had 848 yards. He had four catches for 66 yards against Penn State and could—probably should—become Florida Gulf Coast's leading receiver before halftime of the Motor City Bowl.
Since the biggest threat on Shawnee State's passing plays is still Miller's legs, opponents have prioritized containment. Miller generally goes through one read, two at most, and then starts wandering around MAKING PLAYS. Wisconsin can attest that he does keep his head up looking for downfield opportunities on the roll; overplaying his legs can result in big plays that are even more disastrous against an offense hovering in the triple digits nationally.
Key Matchup: Mattison blitz schemes versus Braxton Miller's scrambling. Taylor Martinez had a wide open QB draw he cut back into defenders; that draw was open because a Michigan okie scheme got RPSed. Miller is a more dangerous runner and when Michigan sends its wildly unbalanced zone blitzes there will be lanes for Miller. Having a plan to combat those will help Michigan hold Miller under the 100 yards that seem a requirement for a win.
This was supposed to be a huge advantage for Nebraska last week; instead the Cornhuskers' various debacles saw them fall from 5th to 14th in FEI's special teams rankings. This week it's much the same. LSSU's traditionally strong special teams are holding serve.
While nothing excels except maybe kickoff returns, all five phases are above average. Kicker Drew Basil is 13 of 16 on the year. Punter Ben Buchanon's net is held down by a lot of derpy short-field punts and he's still 43rd in raw yardage. Jordan Hall is a quality returner on both kicks and punts; he's spearheaded their run to 7th nationally in kickoff returns without springing a long touchdown. While Michigan's gotten better in the KO return department since early in the season this is still a matchup of concern.
Michigan is the usual except their kicker is not a tire fire and punt returner Jeremy Gallon has come on in recent weeks. He's way more reliable than he used to be and he's even getting some yards here and there.
Key Matchup: Gibbons you put it through the uprights?
Tacopants Bowl? Tacopants Bowl.
- Wright State is teeing off on Toussaint without riposte.
- Denard can't get the time that makes him effective because of Simon.
- Miller goes all Troy Smith 2004.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Mattison has a package that gets after Miller without opening up too much in the way of scrambles.
- Borges gets Shazier running really fast in the wrong direction.
- Clock reads 00:00 and Michigan has more points.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 3 (Baseline 5; +1 for I Think We May Have Not Won Many Games Against This Team In The Recent Past, Let Me Check, +1 for OH GOD I CHECKED, –1 for 118th In Passing Offense, Man, –1 for Ding Dong The Tressel's Dead, –1 for And Their Head Coach Is Now Adam Sandler, –1 for OY OY OY Seems More Concentrated On The Opposing Sideline After The Last Two Weeks, +1 for Denard Turnover Fiesta AY AY AY, –1 for Comparative Scores Against Purdue, Illinois, Nebraska, MSU, +1 for General Principles.)
Desperate need to win level: 11 (Baseline 5; +1 for This Garbage Stops Now, +1 for BCS Bid On The Line, +1 for Officially Puts League On Notice In Year One, +1 for This Opponent Sucks And Has Sucked All Year, +1 for Seriously, Screw These Bastards And Their Crying About The Immense Damage Losing Tressel Has Caused Them, +1 for This One Goes To 11.)
Loss will cause me to... drink.
Win will cause me to... I don't even know anymore. Michigan has never won The Game in the history of this blog.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
It seems like Miller and company can only move the ball serious distances in the event of hijinks, major Michigan mistakes, and awesome plays that Miller and Herron and Posey all have the capability to turn in. Major Michigan mistakes have been minimal this year and Bollman has not seemed capable of forcing them in opponents. So Ohio State points come from their one or two sustained drives, the turnover(s) you know are coming from Michigan, and…?
That puts them in a range from 7 to 20, the bottom of which seems more likely than the top. Don't give up a cheap long one and Michigan seems good. This is where the power of Kovacs is powerful.
As for Michigan's offense, the assumption is they'll keep it tight for the same reasons Tressel kept it tight in the 2007 edition of the Game. When the opponent doesn't seem capable of scoring unless you help it and you have a run offense that will eventually find a crack and break it big, you just probe until you break it open. We'll see some deep balls mixed in because Borges gets the shakes if a quarter goes by without him seeing a ball at eye level, but it will be a tortoise sort of day. They'll do all right and grind it out. Turnover fiesta is the main danger.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Combined passing attempts go under 40.
- Borges has some new stuff saved for this very event.
- Fitz Toussaint goes over 100 again at a 5 YPC clip.
- Michigan, 24-12
|WHAT||Michigan vs Nebraska|
|WHERE||Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor MI|
|WHEN||Noon Eastern, November 19th 2011|
|THE LINE||Michigan –3.5|
|TELEVISION||National on ESPN|
|WEATHER||mid 40s, cloudy, 10% chance of rain, moderate wind|
Why have one mascot when you can have two on a tandem bike? OH NO DAVE BRANDON HAD AN IDEA
Run Offense vs. Nebraska
Lavonte David likes the letter X
One week after Michigan turned in a poor outing against an Iowa run defense currently struggling to get its nose above average (thus causing all Michigan fans to PANIC about the previously-taken-for-granted running game), they kicked off the Illinois game by marching 80 yards in four plays against a top ten defense. By the end of the game they'd put up the best numbers anyone had against the Illini:
How did this happen? Michigan went from a 50-50 split between the shotgun and under center to nearly 80-20. In the UFR yesterday I calculated a gap of almost 2 YPC between the two, with shotgun averaging 5.8 YPC and under center 3.9. The numbers above disagree slightly: remove the under center runs and you get a smoooooooth 6.0 YPC.
If it wasn't blindingly obvious before—no. It was blindingly obvious before and is now even more blindingly obvious. Michigan has two run games. They are Oregon from the shotgun and Akron from under center.
As for the opponent, you'd think a team that practices against Taylor Martinez and has an undersized lightning bolt of a weakside linebacker would have disproportionately good performances against mobile quarterbacks, but that is not the case:
Head coach Bo Pelini's defenses have thrived against pocket passers. Against dual-threat quarterbacks, the results aren't nearly as good. In both of Nebraska's losses this season, a run-pass threat at quarterback did much of the damage. So facing the most electric dual-threat player that college football has seen since Michael Vick (i.e. Denard Robinson) presents an enormous challenge.
Survey says: yeah, but it's not quite the blowout you'd think from the above. In seven games against BCS opponents Nebraska's faced two pro-style statues, two passing-oriented scrambly types, two out-and-out dual threats, and a crazy melange from Northwestern. Results ordered by total yards above or below season average:
*[YPA based on Miller's production, not Bauserman going 1 of 10. Using Bauserstats is ridiculous.]
Yards are a noisy stat but the overall picture painted is a team that has difficulty defending the pass when they are stretched or busy defending the run. Mobile quarterbacks have had mixed success when actually probing on the ground. Miller averaged 9.1 yards a carry; Persa and Colter combined for 4.2; MarQueis Gray had just 3.9.
The run games that seem to work best are the sort that pound between the tackles. OSU still does this with aplomb. Wisconsin is Wisconsin. Washington has the tough interior running of Chris Polk, and MSU is MSU. Penn State may not have done so hot but they are Penn State and the thing that leaps out from that chart above is how Nebraska is so not Illinois.
They weren't even when they had Jared Crick; now that he's laid up with an injury their defensive tackle rotation is like Michigan's… with less quality at the top and depth. This is from the immediate aftermath of Penn State:
The defensive line is beat up too. Of course All-American Jared Crick is out for the season and Thaddeus Randle has missed the last couple of games.
[Chase] Rome, who missed the game against Northwestern with a groin injury, was able to play enough to give Terrence Moore and Baker Steinkuhler a break every now and then.
“We don’t have a lot of depth right now,” Rome said. “At least I can contribute and give the other guys some rest when they needed it. I thought it was a good system with how it worked out, especially with it being my first time out since being injured.”
Moore and Steinkuhler aren't Crick, or anything approximating him. They've combined for just four TFLs. Will Heininger's managed that by himself.
The bulk of the tackling and playmaking comes from WLB lightning bolt Lavonte David—think Brandin Hawthorne except really good—and MLB Will Compton. There will be gaps in the line; getting hats on second level dudes will make the difference between a pretty good and a very good day.
Key Matchup: Michigan versus the dirty pictures the I-Form has of them. This is actually another matchup where it seems possible Michigan will have some success lining up and running straight at the Huskers, what with their undersized LBs and dodgy DT situation. That worked out to the tune of 3.6 yards per Fitz carry against Iowa. Don't take the cheese.
Pass Offense vs. Nebraska
Alfonzo Dennard and some guy who is not good
Michigan took one look at this matchup in the swirling winds of Memorial Stadium and decided to pass on passing, a decision that worked out just fine. They're not likely to do the same against a less intimidating Cornhusker defense. Nebraska enters the game 86th in sacks and 29th in pass efficiency defense. While the latter number isn't far off that put up by the Illini, the former is a huge step back from Whitney Mercilus and the blitz-mad Vic Koening. When Michigan drops to pass this will be closer to Iowa than Illinois.
Nebraska's YPA ceded can be found above; the place it seems Nebraska struggles is when they have to defend with an extra guy because the quarterback is a threat or they are playing Wisconsin. (Russell Wilson's four carries had little to do with the gameplan, but Wisconsin is Wisconsin.) Play action appears to be the death knell, what with 81-yard Kain-Colter-to-Jeremy-Ebert touchdowns popping up in box scores. I mean, holy terrible safety play, Batman.
This makes the lack of the damn I-Form even more imperative since Nebraska's weaknesses multiply like badgers once you force a safety into the box or make them defend both run and pass. They never want to do this. FFFF:
You know how Iowa does the whole cover 2 zone thing constantly? Nebraska is their cover 2 man counterpart, pretty much doing the same thing on every play and relying on their defensive talent to make plays. Unfortunately, the Huskers lost their All-American DT, Jared Crick, and now only have three healthy scholarship players on the interior of their D-line. Their corners are very good in coverage, but the safeties looked very susceptible to deep throws over the middle, especially off play-action, and the line just can't generate any pass rush.
Dollars to donuts this is because the Huskers have one asskicking cornerback and not much else in the secondary. Alphonzo Dennard has 20 tackles this year… and five PBUs. That is the statistical profile of a totally awesome cornerback. Michigan is going to avoid him like everyone else. This should hurt them less than most teams because they have a deep stable of eh receivers with no particular standout. I guess Hemingway might be less likely to catch a deep one, which, like… when is the last time that happened?
Husker safeties Damion Stafford and Austin Cassidy have racked up a lot of tackles but those big flashy YPA marks above are their doing. Stafford is a big hitter fresh out of JUCO; Cassidy appears to be a former walk-on who emerged as a starter halfway through last year. Last year's Michigan offense would be good for some Worst Waldo plays against this pair—finding some in this year's offense is up to Borges.
There's only one guy Michigan has to watch for in pass protection: end Cameron Meredith. He's got five sacks. No other Husker has more than two.
Key Matchup: Denard (and possible lingering hand issues) versus the usual array of WTF throws and decisions. He's been better in the Big Ten season and should have time to survey. I think he'll be okay as long as the hand is.
Run Defense vs. Nebraska
Sometimes Nebraska uses the wildcat… but when?
Illinois brought a rep for using a lot of option. They left having deployed it once, and not well:
Nebraska will not do the same thing. After the disastrous Callahan years they have restored sanity to college football by reverting to an option-based system featuring a terrifyingly fast quarterback who throws like a duck. Yea, and all was right in the world again.
Nebraska's option is of the spread, modern variety but it's still option. They do all the spread 'n' shred stuff you've seen Michigan run the last few years but their blocking is more heavily focused on POWER than Rodriguez; unlike Michigan their POWER is actually fairly POWERFUL instead of AMY GRANT HIT WITH A TRANQUILIZER DART. They'll run triple option. They'll run the inverted veer and use the back to the outside a a pitch guy. They'll run in your face with POWER from the pistol. They have a diverse and scary run offense that is totally going to option off some of Michigan's baby-faced youth on the edges.
Probably, anyway. Despite all the blingy option plays, Taylor Martinez's season has taken a decidedly Denard-like path:
He hasn't rushed for more than 60 yards since the Ohio State game and his yards per carry has dropped to 3.85 from 6.68 YPC in September. Nebraska fans will take that trade. Martinez is learning how to throw. He won't forget how to run. The threat of his speed is enough on its own.
Michigan fans will be violently split on that trade, because they are violently split on all things. If Martinez averages 3.85 YPC on Michigan I thi nk Michigan wins, though. That's because Martinez is a relative home-run hitter. Tailback Rex Burkhead is a gritty tough son of a gun Eckstein, a cerebral bellcow who really takes to coaching and finds his way on the field through his smarts and subtle racism. [ed: This was unclear. Just making a joke about how white RBs are described, not implying that Burkhead is a racist. Fun with ambiguity! Not fun.]
Burkhead is a grinder. His long against real competition this year is 22 yards and he specializes in pounding out 100 yards on 25 carries with a YPC under 5: 121 on 25 carries against PSU, 69(!) on 22 against Northwestern, 130 on 35 against MSU, 119 on 26 against OSU, 96 on 18 against Wisconsin. He managed to edge over 5 YPC against Minnesota and Wisconsin; the former was Minnesota and the latter was a blowout. It's hard to see Nebraska getting anything past Michigan's safeties given the trends in both seasons.
Speaking of those safeties: I expect Michigan to go with a lot of man and three-deep that allows Kovacs to shoot up into the box where he can be the tiny space linebacker that made him a three-time Heisman winner in an alternate universe where open-field tackling is the most coveted thing in a football player. It's either that or hoping Michigan's cornerbacks can be tough on the edge. Not betting on that. The over/under on Kovacs tackles is set at 8.5.
Key Matchup: Youth on the edge funneling to Kovacs. This did not so much happen against Northwestern. It did against Illinois—once. Nebraska will be a stiff, confusing test for the freshmen in the lineup.
Pass Defense vs. Nebraska
throws like a duck; catches like a duck
One look at Taylor Martinez flapping the ball out to his receivers and you think "Nick Sheridan with legs," and for big hunks of his career that has been true. Unfortunately those hunks have not come recently:
Since [Wisconsin], Martinez is 77-for-122 passing (64.2%) for 865 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions. That's a passer rating of 142.18 which, if it was his season total, would place him third in the Big Ten ahead of Michigan State's Kirk Cousins. That's not factoring in drops, which have become a growing problem of late.
WR Kenny Bell said there were "at least four" in the Penn State game. The Minnesota game had at least three that I can remember in the third quarter alone. No matter, the trend is clear. Martinez, as a passer, is playing as good as he's ever played.
There are games with Minnesota and Northwestern in there. As someone who's seen his team's erratic quarterbacks play Minnesota and Northwestern and emerge averaging 10.6 YPA with five TDs and three INTs… eh… maybe it's best not to consider Minnesota and Northwestern. Survey says:
Given the opponents, Martinez is actually backsliding a bit when it comes to YPA. But the thing that jumps off the page is the lack of interceptions. Michigan's had more multi-INT quarters than Martinez has had games.
The key here will be responding to paly action. Martinez has gotten significantly over 20 attempts in two games. In one he was bad, in the other he was playing Northwestern. In all other games Nebraska makes up for the lack of skill at QB by going mostly with play action. (Yes, it is frustrating to watch Nebraska roll the pocket on an option fake and then drop back without getting their QB killed.) Putting Nebraska in situations where they can't effectively do that will end drives. Doing that will probably require defending it when they can.
There's no point focusing on any one Nebraska receiver. They're immensely diverse. Seven players have at least thirteen catches on the year; all save Burkhead have a YPA over ten. Kenny Bell is nominally the top WR with 23 catches for 306 yards. This seems like a situation where having seven receivers means you have none: as mentioned above, drops have been a big problem for the 'Huskers. Michigan may get bailed out a couple times.
I'd expect something similar to the first four games above: few attempts, decent success with those attempts. If Martinez starts pushing into the 30s it will be bad news for UNL.
Key Matchup: Demens and Morgan versus play action drops. The bulk of Nebraska's damage comes in big gaping holes between the linebackers and safeties. I don't think this will go well, but it only has to go well enough.
Massive Nebraska advantage. The Cornhuskers are great on kickoff returns—freshman Ameer Abdullah has a touchdown and a few other impressive returns this year—decent on punts, good at punting, and have hit 16 of 19 field goals this year. FEI's introduced special teams rankings; they're fifth. Michigan is 80th.
Key Matchup: Gibbons you put it through the uprights?
It's a candy corn hat, you pervs
- Folks on the edge against the option aren't actually there.
- Michigan lines up under center.
- Martinez is slinging darts.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Nebraska gets stuck in an obvious passing down. Michigan's okie package gets pressure without providing tons of scrambling lanes when it sends four.
- Molk and company can pound the shaky interior of the Nebraska DL.
- Kovacs appears to have cloned himself.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 5 (Baseline 5; +1 for Is This The Best Team They've Played? Seriously, +1 for Option Paranoia After Northwestern Game, –1 for But Mattison Heals All, –1 for Their QB Throws Like A Duck, +1 for Our QB Throwing Like A Duck Would be An Improvement, –1 for Boy We Figured Out What To Do Last Game, +1 for Maybe, –1 for Run Defense Weakness In Opponent At Home.)
Desperate need to win level: 7 (Baseline 5; +1 for NYD Lockdown, +1 for I Like Nine And Half Wins And I Cannot Lie, –1 for It's Pretty Much About Next Week, –1 for Keeping The Possibility Of A Sparty No Open Is A Silver Lining To A Loss, +1 for ALAMO REVENGE, +1 for 1997 JUSTICE.)
Loss will cause me to... place way too much importance on beating a 6-5 team next weekend.
Win will cause me to... place way too much importance on beating a 6-5 team next weekend.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Oh, hell. I just know the defense is going to have a comedown. I just… I look at the opposing offense and think "okay, they'll get some yards but are they going to bust anything long?" I've been predicting this will happen in the option game all week but now that I've look at the numbers, they just don't have it. Burkhead tops out at 20 yards and Martinez hasn't had anything, really, since the Ohio State game.
And if Nebraska isn't busting it long, if they're grinding it down the field, how long can they manage that before Michigan's third and short defense rises up and boots them off the field?
On the other side of the ball, as long as Borges makes the obvious conclusion from last week—shotgun forever—Michigan will move the ball. They'll even get some opportunities downfield when the safeties freak out on play action, which they'll have to if Nebraska is intent on running man in a nickel package against Michigan. If they do that it's like crediting Michigan for running the bubble when they don't, and then you could see some fireworks.
This looks like a win, but two things worry. Turnovers, obviously, and then what figures to be a massive hidden yards advantage for the Cornhuskers. It's really easy to see this game show up in "Life on the Margins" after Michigan outgains Nebraska by 150 yards and still loses.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Michigan finally hits a Worst Waldo play.
- Burkhead averages 4.0 YPC on a zillion carries.
- Denard has a day that mildly surprises to the positive.
- Michigan, 26-20
|WHAT||Michigan vs Illinois|
|WHERE||Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL|
|WHEN||3:30 Eastern, November 12th 2011|
|THE LINE||Michigan -1|
|TELEVISION||ABC regional/ESPN reverse mirror|
|WEATHER||clear, upper to low 50s, windy|
Run Offense vs. Illinois
Jonathan Brown via Brad Meyer photography
This blog's assumption since Denard Robinson burst onto the scene almost two years ago has been that a non-elite defense will not slow Michigan's ground game because it has Denard. That assumption is now out the window after Michigan took its place on this list against Iowa's then 69th-ranked rushing defense:
Iowa actually improved to 63rd after last weekend. Our world has crumbled.
For its part, Illinois's run D looks very shiny (15th, yielding 2.7 YPC) thanks to a huge number of sacks. When you drill down into the stats the bloom comes off the rose… a little.
They got beat up pretty good against Ohio State and fail to keep opponents under three YPC once their many, many sacks get excised but those are still good numbers against quality competition. The only comparable defense Michigan has played this year is Michigan State. That did not go well, though the special circumstances surrounding that game (trash tornado, lizard brain) mean you shouldn't read too heavily into the results there. You can stick with the Iowa table above if you'd like to furrow your brow about likely events this weekend.
Illinois is a blitzing, confusing defense that will see various linebackers enter the backfield at unpleasant times. Uber-DE Whitney Mercilus is more of a threat in the passing game (11.5(!) of his 16.5 TFL(!) are sacks—already) but does get some penetration against the run; past that the Illinois TFL leaders are their three linebackers. Those guys have 5-7 TFLs each to go with their sacks. Jonathan Brown leads the team in tackles by a wide margin despite missing the Indiana game after turning heel against Northwestern; he will be a guy to watch. Possibly for funny business.
Michigan's best shot may be a reprise of last year, when they had a lot of success reaching then-freshman Akeem Spence with David Molk in the wacky 67-65 game I hardly have to describe to anyone reading this. Blitzing stretch plays can be dangerous business if your linebackers get caught in the wrong gaps—earlier this year when I was flailing about for an answer to constant double-A gap blitzing, multiple folks told me the reason RR didn't suffer the same fate is fear of the outside zone. Michigan's new version of the outside zone is speed option—it might be a bridge to success against an intimidating unit. That, or Borges bringing out some new tricks.
Key Matchup: Denard checking at the line/Molk providing time to diagnose blitzes. I'm leery of an MSU repeat. Michigan has a road game against a blitz-heavy opponent. Lessons need to be learned: vary snap counts to help Michigan diagnose what's happening pre-snap.
Pass Offense vs. Illinois
How good could Whitney Mercilus be if he had all of his fingers and crazy eyebrows?
Denard spent last weekend surveying the erosion of rural Iowa. Plays developed around him at the same rate empires rise and fall; in a world of change the sole constant was Denard Robinson sitting in the pocket, wondering where all the dudes trying to kill him were. While this worked for Iowa it led to Denard's best passing day of the year, Minnesota excepted, in UFR.
Now for something completely different:
DC Vic Koenning is a lot like Greg Mattison in that he likes to throw out a lot of different looks to confuse the quarterback, and his favorite way to do this is to switch up the fronts and zone blitz. He doesn't always bring huge pressure—in fact, he'll often just bring four rushers, just not always the ones you'd expect—but you're never exactly sure where to look for blitzers.
The Illini get to the quarterback, and then they get to the quarterback, and then they get to the quarterback some more. The aforementioned Mercilus has the aforementioned 11.5 sacks, which puts him on pace for a Lombardi trophy at the end of the year. LBs Michael Buchanan, Ian Thomas, and Jonathan Brown have combined for 13 more. Past that no one has more than one but that is still sufficient to see Illinois sitting third nationally in sacks acquired. The prospect of Denard back-footing some throws looms. Passing downs are to be avoided since zone blitzing is considerably tougher when the run is a threat.
When Michigan does get a pass off things don't project to get a whole lot better for them, but sample sizes are restricted. Illinois is 19th in pass efficiency D; their last four matchups have come against Matt McGloin (wsg Rob Bolden), Caleb TerBush, Braxton Miller (who had four attempts), and Dusty Kiel (wsg Tre Roberson). I feel like I say this every week: the opponent has an impressive pass efficiency number thanks to all of the quarterbacks in the league being total suck at passing.
That includes our guy, unfortunately. It's hard to envision things getting much better than they've been. Even when left unmolested a combination of poor WR play, poor planning, and some Denard being Denard plays saw Michigan finish under 50% completions and turn the ball over twice. This was against a team that treated pass rush like kryptonite. Against more aggressive teams Michigan turned the ball over… twice, or more. I'm in wait 'till next year mode when it comes to an effective passing offense. Expect a crappy completion percentage, two picks, and a highly variable YPA depending on whether the downfield jump balls are brought in.
Key Matchup: Huyge versus Mercilus. I assume Illinois is going to match up their best DE on Michigan's somewhat shaky right tackle instead of Taylor Lewan, who I don't think has a single pass protection minus this year not attributable to a biffed blitz pickup.
Run Defense vs. Illinois
When I think Illinois rushing offense these days, I think this:
Pistol triple option. You may remember this from such plays as "aaargh who has the pitch man," "aaargh who has the pitch man," and "you cannot be serious about that tackle Jonas Mouton" from last year's game. (All of which I would have linked if not for the DMCA fight from earlier this year getting my previous youtube account shut down.)
According to Ace, Illinois shelved this look for the entirety of their most recent game against Penn State, but since Michigan has been weak on the edge and specifically showed a vulnerability to shotgun triple option against Northwestern, the bet here is M gets a dose of this early just in case they still can't stop it. Survey says… stopping it, actually. I am surprised as well, but Illinois has been mediocre at best against non-horrible rushing defenses.
Aside from blowing up Indiana and Purdue their best performance was a decent day against Penn State. The other three outings are stinkers, and not even against particularly good opposition. After Michigan re-enacted the Kids in the Hall intro a week ago by having an average weekend, they qualify as Not Indiana Or Purdue and can expect to hold Illinois to reasonable totals.
A major reason for this expectation is a dropoff at the tailback spot. While I have a soft spot for Jason Ford, he is the poor man's Marcus Coker and a far cry from the NFL first-rounders Illinois has inexplicably gotten to deploy the last four years. Mendenhall he is not, Leshoure he is not. He is Just A Guy and he's got the 3.9 YPC to prove it. Smaller, dreaded Troy Pollard has a great YPC thanks to the vast bulk of his caries coming against SDSU (not that SDSU: South Dakota State), Western, and Indiana. In serious games he hardly touches the ball. Freshman Donovonn Young is another backup with moderately shiny numbers thanks to carries heavily distributed towards bad defenses. The last three weeks he's picked up 49 yards on 20 carries. The running back situation is uninspired.
That leaves just one Nathan Scheelhaase. He's Illinois's leading rusher even including large swathes of sack yardage. Chop those out and:
If you take out all the sacks Illinois has allowed this season—they also randomly insert freshman Reilly O'Toole at times, so this may be generous to Scheelhaase—that average jumps to 5.9 yards per carry.
Not Denard but pretty good; I think Ace declaring he doesn't have "breakaway speed" is in comparison to our guy. He's a fast bugger and will be the home run hitter unless Michigan busts something.
A thing I'm curious to see: Illinois does not have right and left on their offensive line, they have strong and weak. IE: they will flip their line down to down. I have never even heard of this.
Key Matchup: Ryan/Beyer/Roh/Black versus the immediate edge. I think we'll see a lot of Michigan's nickel package with Thomas Gordon deployed as an edge containment guy. For things to get to him Michigan will have to correct the issues that caused the unblocked DE to plunge down on the dive back. Michigan's mission on the option is clear: get the ball out of Scheelhaase's hands.
Pass Defense vs. AJ Jenkins
There are rumors of other Illinois receiving threats. They remain unconfirmed at press time. Jenkins is 8th in receiving yards per game on a team that runs 60% of the time, which means he has some ridiculous share of total receptions, like, say, having more than three times the catches and five times the yardage of Illinois's #2 option. They like throwing to Jenkins.
Jenkins is good, a shifty speed merchant equally capable of turning a drag up for big yardage and beating a safety over the top. He's in the running with a few other guys for title of "best WR in the Big Ten," but he's more of a Manningham than the hulking Floydbeasts Michigan has gone up against much of the year. Even Marvin McNutt, who doesn't seem like a Floyd or a Cunningham or a McKnight is 6'4" and lacks that "oh shiiii" deep speed. Jenkins has it. This is a situation where either Floyd gets a bracket or Countess gets a stiff test, because Floyd doesn't have the speed to even be in NOBODY CARES WHEN WR LOOKS FOR THE BALL position.
So that's the good bit of the Illinois passing game. The bad bit is everything else. Despite running the ball most of the time and having a mobile quarterback, they give up a ton of sacks (100th). Scheelhaase has been efficient overall but is on a serious downswing: 4.9 YPA against OSU, 6.2 against Purdue, 3.9 against Penn State. He contributed to the torchings of the Northwestern and Illinois secondaries but back it a bit farther and you get 133 yards against WMU, 135 against ASU—in limited attempts and efficient, granted, but the implication is clear. Illinois will run and run if they can and then hit you for the deep ball. If they can't—and they haven't lately—it's flailing time. Sounds familiar.
Illinois's other WRs, if they exist, are not serious threats. Spencer Harris is the #2 guy; he's averaging under ten yards a catch. Slot type guy Darius Millines has –6 receiving yards in Big Ten play. They do have a couple tight ends they'll throw to and Ford gets the ball a bit; none of these things are going to do anything except maybe move the chains on a third and medium.
Key Matchup: Could possibly be AJ Jenkins versus JT Floyd. The War of the Initials goes down this weekend; more realistically it's The War Of The Initials And A Safety Over The Top. Woolfolk's speed should be of use… if it still exists.
If you hadn't given up on the Penn State-Illinois game in favor of Golden Girls reruns two weeks ago, you may remember Derek Dimke plinking the game-tying field goal off the uprights. Do not get your hopes up based on that. That was his first miss of the year; in 2010 he was 24 of 29. He's good.
The rest of the Illini's special teams are unbelievably terrible. Illinois is 105th in net punting, 118th in punt returns (averaging an incredible 1.7 yards an attempt) and 119th in kick returns (an even more incredible 16.2). Some of the crap net punting stats can be blamed on Ron Zook's belief that punting from inside the opponent 40 is winning, but this looks like one of the few games this year where Michigan will get a field position advantage from the kicking game.
Key Matchup: Gibbons you put it through the uprights?
photography by Zook. SO FUNNY
- Ming the Merculis is destroying Denard's confidence and giving him happy feet.
- The usual happens against a quality defense.
- Illinois is getting the edge, whether via option or otherwise.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Jason Ford runs are ending in the arms of Mike Martin.
- Ron Zook sends out the punt team on third and one from the Michigan 15. It could happen.
- We have a plan on offense.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 6 (Baseline 5; +1 for Easy To See Denard Getting Crushed For Killer TOs, +1 for Hey Option Football We're Good At Defending That Except We're Not, –1 for Ron Zook's Puh-Puh-Puh-Poker Face, –1 for Generalized Ron Zook Scorn, +1 for Is Anyone Going To Be Surprised If Michigan has 150 Yards At The Start Of The 4th Quarter?, +1 for Road Suck Suck Road, –1 for This Defense Is Decent And That's Apparently All You Need Against Illinois.)
Desperate need to win level: 7 (Baseline 5; –1 for Division Goals: We Do Not Has Them, +1 for Boy Am I Tired Of Never Winning Against Anyone In November, +1 for Seriously We're Playing Ron Zook, +1 for I Like Eight And A Half Wins And I Cannot Lie, +1 for Hard To Keep Any Optimism About OSU Up If We Biff This One, –1 for I Feel The Stirrings Of Henri Deep In My Heart.)
Loss will cause me to... put on a smoking jacket, fill a snifter with brandy, sit in an opulent chair in front of a roaring fireplace, and read Beckett until the camera has reached an appropriate zoom level. At this point I will slide my reading glasses down my nose, look into the camera, and say "Life? Don't talk to me about life."
Win will cause me to... experience extremely unwise feeling… hope.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
I HATE THIS SECTION THIS SECTION CAUSED ME TO SAY SOMETHING ABOUT FERENTZ BEING A STUPID STUPID PERSON LAST WEEK AND YOU SEE WHERE THAT GOT US LENNY I AM GOING TO CHOKE OUT THE PERSON WHO FIRST THOUGHT PEOPLE WRITING ABOUT SPORTS SHOULD ACTUALLY TRY TO PREDICT EXTREMELY RANDOM ACTIVITIES THAT THEY DON'T EVEN KNOW ABOUT
So… Illinois is on a hell of a tailspin in which they have 28 points over three weeks. In that time they've hardly given up more points: 17 to OSU, 21 to Purdue, 10 to Penn State. The OSU touchdown drives were 12 and 22 yards. One of Purdue's was 14 yards. Michigan has the aforementioned difficulties against pulse-bearing defenses.
I predict this.
I predict an offensive explosion in which Ron Zook makes razor-sharp decisions, Denard runs 24 times, Illinois's special teams are awesome, and turnovers are a theoretical concept best left to the MAC.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Teams combine for six turnovers.
- Scheelhaase is the game's leading rusher with around 80 yards.
- Denard is sacked five times.
- Michigan, 9-7
|WHAT||Michigan vs Iowa|
|WHERE||Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, IA|
|WHEN||Noon Eastern, November 5th 2011|
|THE LINE||Michigan -4|
|TELEVISION||National on ESPN|
|WEATHER||mid-40s at kickoff rising to almost 60; sunny, windy|
Run Offense vs. Iowa
this team averaged 4.8 YPC.
Now that this site has a post dedicated to opponent scouting that I don't write it's always interesting to see whether my impressions from the opponent's game are the same as Ace's. This week they were in one critical respect: wow, Iowa has problems at DT.
Minnesota's late surge was a bunch of downhill runs from the pistol aimed at one Steve Bigach, who is a walk-on, national merit scholar, and Academic All Big Ten. He played like it. He's actually the second-string walk-on; Thomas "Not That Nard Dog" Nardo is the preferred starter but he was out with injury. He's touch and go this week in the same way Kovacs is. This is the difference between Michigan starting Heininger (not ideal but you can get away with it) and Brink (time to be nervous).
The rest of the Iowa front seven has not been great. Iowa is languishing at 69th in rush defense. Results against teams other than Tennessee Tech and Louisiana-Monroe:
That's remarkably consistent. Any opponent other than Iowa State averages just under five yards a carry despite not being that good at running the ball. The last couple weeks mobile quarterbacks Tre Roberson and MarQueis Gray have combined for 156 yards at 5.9 a pop. Mac Morehouse just describe the Hawkeyes as "awful" against mobile QBs.
no reason. via Midnight Maize
Michigan is good at running the ball when they bother to do it. After Finding Themselves against Purdue Michigan moved from a horrible 12th to a fantastic 8th nationally. They're actually beating last year's 5.5 YPC at about 5.8, albeit with most of the toughest defenses on the schedule yet to come.
Last week it was finally the Fitzgerald Toussaint show. Toussaint was the first Michigan tailback to get 20 carries in a game since Eastern Michigan in 2009; he turned those into 170 yards and won the starting job in the process. Denard Robinson enjoyed a relatively light workload thanks to that, and everyone hopes that will continue.
As to what Michigan does… at this point your guess is as good as Norm Parker's. Michigan bludgeoned the outside of the Purdue defense, brought out a power-based variant of the inverted veer (or "dash"), and is liable to do something completely different next week. Hell, if Iowa's interior line is as iffy as it looks they could line up in the I and run power. They might even succeed at it.
The only sure thing is that Michigan will do a bunch of different stuff and it will average around 5 yards a carry, if not more.
Key Matchup: Iowa LBs versus Toussaint/Robinson. The Iowa guys don't find the ball that well and could be optioned off to spectacular effect—or just run by. A big play or two could be in the offing.
Pass Offense vs. Iowa
If the run defense is a problem this is a… very large problem. That's the ticket. You have seen the Steele Jantz comparison from Fire Jerry Kill, but here is the Steele Jantz comparison:
The issues in Iowa's pass defense are not limited to funny but trigger-happy Gopher fans, either. Local beatwriter Mark Morehouse picked up on the same post I did before last week's Hawkeye Armageddon event:
FireJerry, who put some work into the post, computed that Iowa’s opposing FBS quarterbacks have pass-efficiency ratings that are 27 points higher against the Hawkeyes than against the rest of their competition.
But the site draws the same conclusion you (at least you should) and I do about the Gophers’ chances of springing an upset at TCF Bank Stadium Saturday:
If only Iowa’s offense was as bad as their defense then we might be on to something.
It’s still the Minnesota defense that allows 308.7 rushing yards per game in Big Ten play.
Herf nerf hurf hurf.
So. The Iowa secondary is atrocious, 91st(!) in pass efficiency defense despite having maybe one decent QB on the schedule I mean, seriously people:
- Steele Jantz
- Tino Sunseri
- Matt McGloin (wsg Rob Bolden)
- Dan Persa
- Tre Roberson
- MarQuies Gray
I've spent the year fretting about the level of competition facing Michigan's defense; Iowa has faced worse (No ND, no MSU even in a trash tornado) and is in the same ballpark as the GERGfence's pass efficiency D.
This is inexplicable.If you were asking people to name the best starting cornerback combo in the Big Ten before the season started, I'm guessing most people would have gone right to Iowa's Prater/Hyde combo. I would have, certainly. Even if Prater has been a disappointment that's probably not it.
Candidate reasons include a complete lack of corner depth (MGoFootball's interview with Planned Sick Days hopefully mentions the return of a nickel corner that might foretell a nickel package), a complete lack of pass rush (83rd wsg 99th in TFL implying a further lack of penetration), and walk-on safeties of the not-Sash variety (
For Iowa's defense to be so bad against such a motely collection of opponents the answer has to be "all of the above." Nothing is working.
The good news for Iowa is that Michigan's performance here has an opponent-invariant quality. You might shoot a guy wide open but if he's not the one farthest downfield you just might get away with it, because both of Michigan's quarterbacks have Rex Grossman disease*. Robinson has been incredibly frustrating this year and Gardner's best pass was a beautiful touchdown that was just a bit over the line.
That fretted about, against defenses of Iowa's caliber Denard has been acceptable. He was 9 of 14 against Purdue with a YPA well over 12 (26th in pass efficiency D), put up 337 yard on Northwestern, and bombed Minnesota as everyone except Iowa does. Struggles against iffy teams stopped when the nonconference schedule did.
Terrible interceptions did not. You might as well rack one or two up right now. This will slow Michigan's offense down; it doesn't seem like Iowa is going to.
*[The secret weapon in Michigan's turnover margin is that half of Michigan's function as punts.]
Key Matchup: Denard vs Accuracy. Forever and ever this key matchup until Denard's missing at a rate that forces defenses to fear him in the air. Is this possible? Absolutely—a lot of spread QBs have light-on moments. Until it happens it hasn't happened.
This section is unchanged from the last two weeks. Until this part.
Run Defense vs. Iowa
"I call them Lithuania and Estonia. Latvia? That's for a special someone."
After weeks and weeks wherein opponents went after Michigan's flimsy edges, this will be a stiff test for the interior of the defense. Marcus Coker is a tank with legs, if you can call the meaty appendages below his torso "legs" instead of "Baltic states." Think Beanie Wells with less breakaway speed and even more cinderblock to his fists. I be like dang about one of his long runs against Minnesota:
There is a 75% chance Hoke kidnaps him after the game and puts him out in Cavanaugh's number at the Tuesday practice availability. I fully support this course of action.
Iowa does the fullbacks and TE and MANBALL thing except their main play is zone—they haven't pulled linemen much since Ferentz arrived and they're not going to start now. The Iowa line is veteran and quality; there's some dodginess in the pass protection but that's another section.
So what's the deal with the rankings? Iowa is square in the middle in rushing yardage, 60th at just under 160 a game. That's after running through the tissue-soft Northwestern-Indiana-Minnesota anti-gauntlet. The numbers:
I'm not sure what to make of that Penn State number since it includes 49 yards from Vandenberg—surely scrambles—and hacks out 39 sack yards. Coker managed 74 yards on 18 carries, 4.1 per. Make of that what you will.
I make this of it: punt. I don't think you can tell much from the last three games. The Penn State number looks a little daunting, Pitt not so much. It's clear from the numbers that the issue with the Iowa run game is not quality so much as quantity. As BHGP put it earlier in the week, Coker's backup has been Marcus Coker. In games that are serious they can't put it all on the run game because the run game will break and then they'll be screwed.
Michigan's run defense is also sort of an enigma. They're obviously a lot better than last year. They also got gashed for big yards by the two teams with serious rushing attacks they played (Notre Dame and MSU), and neither of those teams actually has a serious rushing attack. They just have quality backs. If that's the secret to beating the Michigan defense—outrun and out-thump Michigan's young, iffy linebackers—er… the above run is not so much with the confidence building.
Is Mike Martin the guy who almost singlehandedly crushed the Purdue ground game or the one who got blown out of the middle by MSU's rickety offensive line? Well, it's kind of both:
"Purdue decided to block him one-on-one and zone me? Good luck to the guard that’s gotta block him," Van Bergen said this week. "I’m confident there’s not one guy in the Big Ten who can block Mike Martin one-on-one, run-blocking or pass-blocking. He’s too strong, too quick, got too many tools."
That was odd. If Iowa does the same thing they will be dumb, so they probably won't.
Meanwhile, will Jordan Kovacs be around to provide the security blanket that made Michigan one of the last teams in the country to give up a play longer than 40 yards? Let's find out.
Key Matchup: Heininger and Martin—mostly Martin—against the interior Iowa OL. The best way to stop Coker is to slow him in the backfield and tackle him before he can get up a head of steam. Martin's variable performance and the lingering possibility that Heininger just gets blown up are this matchup's largest X-factors.
Pass Defense vs. Iowa
Problems also loom here. Michigan's list of quarterbacks conquered isn't much more imposing than Iowa's. Purdue and Minnesota are bad (and Gray didn't even play); Cousins is iffy and was playing in the trash tornado; Ryan Lindley is currently 75th in passer efficiency. Tommy Rees went for 315 yards, Dan Persa 331. Michigan's main asset has been that lack of big plays conceded: Rees needed 39 attempts for his yards, Persa 44. That keeps Michigan's YPA in a reasonable range. It does make you wonder what happens if someone like Tommy Rees minus the three mindblowing turnovers comes along.
|13||Jarrett Lee, LSU||63.2||1250||8.1||13||1||157.4|
|14||E.J. Manuel, Florida St.||66.0||1776||9.0||13||8||155.4|
|15||James Vandenberg, Iowa||62.2||1918||8.5||17||4||155.2|
|16||Tajh Boyd, Clemson||61.3||2674||8.4||25||5||154.8|
|17||Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma St.||71.3||2710||7.9||22||7||154.3|
|18||Matt Barkley, Southern California||67.3||2290||7.6||22||5||151.5|
[Ed: thanks for nothing, official NCAA stats site and your decision to freak me out by spelling it "Vanderberg."]
Looks like it's time to find out. Vandenberg's performance does come with some schedule strength caveats similar to those you can apply to Coker. The secondaries of Indiana, Northwestern, and Minnesota are liable to make even Ohio State's quarterback situation look good. Vandenberg struggled against Penn State (50% completions, YPA under 5, two INT) and hasn't really played anyone else with a good pass D. Iowa St and Pitt are decent, I guess. The three already-mentioned dwarves are tire fires. Saturday's game looks like a proving ground for both units.
Iowa has a couple weapons before a steep dropoff. Marvin McNutt is a notch below Michael Floyd but only a notch; Keenan Davis is a quality second banana. Things do get a little thin after the top two: freshman Kevonte Martin-Manley* is the third most prominent target. While he's looking like a keeper he remains a dread freshman. Coker gets his share of dumpoffs and then it's bupkis. They'll hit some tight ends for short gains from time to time, but there's no Clark/Moeaki this year.
The offensive line could be an issue. Watching first-round-hype-recipient Reilly Reiff get blasted back into Vandenberg so badly that a Minnesota DE sacked him with his but is an eye-opening experience. Iowa's below average in sacks allowed (73rd) and the Iowa internets believe Vandenberg freaks out at blitzes. This could be a game in which the Mattison blitz packages play a major factor.
Michigan's pass defense is the most wonderfully mediocre thing that's ever existed. Never in the realm of simulated conflict have so many been so happy for something so middling. Michigan's 41st in pass efficiency D. This statement has sent a half-dozen readers into rapturous seizures. Their man strength is not being completely awful. They get behind opponents but rake the ball out. They usually tackle on the catch. Every once in a while a ball will get batted to them. The safeties haven't let anything behind them all year. This is a tiny unicorn being shepherded into adulthood by an entire community.
The main issue will be the health of Jordan Kovacs. Kovacs missed last week's game against Purdue with some sort of knee injury; he has reportedly been practicing and Brady Hoke says he will go. These things will be believed when seen.
Extra bonus weird factor: there's going to be some wind. Not MSU-level wind, but potentially meaningful.
Key Matchup: Floyd and Countess vs their counterparts. I'm expecting the first deep balls since MSU (sort of), these run by quality receivers in an environment more conducive to completions. Each ball that Vandenberg hangs up there will be a huge swing opportunity for Iowa. May the corners get in chests all game long.
*[Iowa has replaced their Inexplicably Great White Wide Receiver with the Elaborately Named Great Wide Receiver of late. Call it a push.]
Iowa's kicker was amongst the most reliable in the league before he missed a chip-shot and a 30-some yarder in the Minnesota loss. He's still 12 of 16 on the year and was 14 of 17 last year. The misses against Minnesota are a fluke.
Brendan Gibbons added 22 and 37 yard field goals to his collection of uninspiring makes that we'll take all day after last year. He's now 6 of 8 on the year. None of those are from outside 40 and two are glorified extra points. This is still massive improvement.
Iowa has a huge advantage in punting (Michigan is 111th, Iowa 12th net) but Michigan's is based on an extremely small sample size dominated by pooch punts from Michigan State's half of the field. Nobody's returning anything much, though Iowa has a slight advantage on kickoffs.
Key Matchup: Gibbons you put it through the uprights?
- Martin is getting blown up like he was at MSU.
- Denard and Devin do not make the Iowa secondary pay for its inexplicable badness.
- Michigan's road issues rear their heads again with more snap count goofs.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Iowa fans' predictions that mobile quarterbacks will tear them to ribbons bears out.
- Bigach is playing and Michigan can manball him and the rest of that DL.
- Mattison blitz packages send Vandenberg into UPDATE: the fetal position.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 5 (Baseline 5; +1 for Road Disaster Reprise?, +1 for Coker Plus Freshman Linebackers Equals Like Dang, +1 for Where Is The Kovacs Binky?, –1 for GERG-Level Pass D Against Basically A Season-Long McGloin, –1 for Minnesota Comparative Scores For Real, +1 for Vandenberg Is Not TerBush, –1 for Roberson/Gray == Luck Plus Legs, –1 for They Would Take Heininger In A Hot Second.)
Desperate need to win level: 8 (Baseline 5; +1 for This Is Not The Last Two Years, Please, Part II, +1 for Division Goals: We Has Them, +1 for I Like NINE WINS, –1 for It's Not Like This Would Be Totally Incomprehensible, +1 for Hell Yes It Would After The Minnesota Game.)
Loss will cause me to... collapse to my knees, rend my garments, and prepare for the literally Red Sea that is the rest of the schedule to cave in. Okay, so some of it is orange. But orange is almost red.
Win will cause me to... tattoo B-R-A-D-Y G-E-T-S-IT across my knuckles.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Man, this creeps me out. In the aftermath of the Minnesota game Michigan is a solid road favorite that the public is piling in on and Vegas is like "fine by us." Heebie jeebies right there.
Still, they did lose to Minnesota and when Graham Watson made the Hawkeyes her upset special on Doctor Saturday one of her arguments was "Iowa outgained Minnesota by 75 yards." That is the worst argument in the history of arguments. Total yardage in Minnesota-Michigan: 580-177. I know football is weird but it ain't that weird. It's hard to comprehend but it does look like this Iowa team is the kind of team that can lose to Minnesota if they get a few bad breaks, which basically makes them Purdue.
But it is on the road and Michigan is capable of throwing six interceptions at any moment against any opponent and confidence is not roaringly high over here. Still… man. Losing to ISU, scraping by Pitt, hardly threatening to score against PSU, losing to Minnesota… these are not events that make me think this is a team that should beat Michigan.
Meanwhile, what happens if Iowa gets a fourth and two at the Michigan 38? Do they send Marcus Coker at Will Heininger? No, they punt. What happens if the inverse happens? Adamantium claws burst from Hoke's forehead and he says "go for it." Given the defenses in this matchup, advantage M.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Denard has a Heisman-ish day, cracking 100 yards on the ground and completing 65% of his passes. Yes, terrible INT.
- Coker grinds out 120 yards at around 4 per, and this seems acceptable.
- Power works in this game. For real.
- Michigan, 33-28