I did not make this headline up
Number one breakout. ESPN's Travis Haney compiled a list of 50 breakout players for the upcoming season based on "a lot of input from coaches" and your new favorite quarterback is #1:
“I recruited him,” said one of the Big Ten coaches who played against Gardner late last year. “I know how good he can be. I would say I have been looking forward to him getting his chance, because he’s a really good kid, but they’re on the schedule again this year.”
Frank Clark also features at #35.
Swag. We are totally losing Michael Ferns to Mississippi State, you guys.
Following up on earlier assertion. I mentioned in passing in a previous post that I felt Bill Connolly was way underrating LeVeon Bell and way overrating Michigan State's offensive line in his Spartan preview for the year, and as I was looking up various things about Derrick Green I came across a stunning stat on Bell:
Le'Veon Bell gained 921 yards after contact in 2012, most among players from AQ schools. Bell gained more than 50 percent of his yards after contact and averaged 2.4 yards after contact per rush.
Bell got 2.3 yards before contact and 2.4 after. That is a man doing work to clean up for a terrible offensive line. And quarterback: Bell's 382 carries led the nation by 26.
Countdowns to kickoff. Taylor Lewan:
Lewan is a thousand times more boring than he used to be. Leadership!
Also Quinton Washington and Jeremy Gallon. True story: bought a chair at Art Van this summer, marveled at the size of the guy they had hauling stuff around, realized that I knew who this was: Quinton Washington. Woo minimum wage, for one more year.
Also, the first day of practice:
Derrick Green's first carry went for 50 yards and birthed a unicorn.
Wide receivers block, then they receive. In-depth ESPN article on the blocking aspects of playing out wide comes highly recommended for interesting quotes and such. Minnesota safety Brock Vereen is either worried about his knees or an expert at backhanded compliments:
“They act as if they are more excited to block than they are to catch a pass,” Minnesota safety Brock Vereen said. “Sadly, I’m not even exaggerating.”
Michigan's dumped cut blocking for a lot of reasons, but the primary one is the fact that defensive backs just get up too darn fast these days:
“They are like those Weeble Wobbles that you had growing up,” Hecklinski said. “You can throw a great cut and he’s right back up making a play and golly, that’s a great cut."
"Golly," says the man eating everyone's lunch on the recruiting trail. #TheMichiganDifference.
The article gestures at one of the main reasons Michigan's wide receivers were so pumped up to block: with Denard Robinson on your team, any play could be a 20 yard run you fail to turn into 80, and then your ass is roasted. Hopefully they maintain the same urgency as Michigan moves to a system more likely to get you five (after contact, and by "contact" I mean "safety murder") than 50.
Hoke advocates earlier official visits. Makes sense, will never happen for the same reason a baseball season that makes sense will never happen:
“Having an official visit date in June would help football,” Hoke stated. “I know some of our friends in the Pac 12 and the SEC probably don’t want the young man and his family coming up to Michigan during the first two weeks in June, because they’re hoping it’s 10 below zero when those official visits take place.”
A rather large win. Wolverine Historian puts up the '95 Minnesota game:
Mack Brown offer letter. I just find this interesting. It's an official offer letter from Mack Brown to a guy named Lorenzo:
- The first bullet is basically Michigan's much-discussed and much-misunderstood "policy" about commits taking visits: you are committed if you are not taking visits, and if you visit elsewhere Michigan will not consider you committed. That doesn't necessarily mean they'll pull your scholarship offer, but your spot is no longer reserved and they may recruit someone else or just reconfigure their class. Why recruiting sites, opposing fans, and Michigan fans keep going on and on about it is a mystery to me.
- Texas is explicitly offering four year scholarships, and seems to state that a fifth year is also guaranteed… but I think the fine print there means the firm handshake is still an option if the Head Coach wants it to be.
- The pointlessness of the rule where players cannot get written offers before August 1st of their senior year is brought home in the first paragraph: Texas is "pleased to reconfirm our commitment to the football athletic scholarship you committed to earlier this year." The lack of written offers has led to the rise of the incredibly annoying "uncommittable offer" and prevents players from getting the exact stipulations of their scholarship offer in writing until long after many of them have committed. And it obviously does nothing to slow down the pace of recruiting.
The only way to slow down the pace of recruiting, by the way, is to let kids sign whenever they want. Eighth grader offers will come to a screeching halt, for real.
SBNation has a roundup of offer letters from around the country, featuring Comic Sans from Virginia Tech, "formally" spectacularly misspelled as "formerly" by Virginia, and Illinois claiming that those who attend there will play "championship football." That latter might be true if in fact the Big Ten has been relegated to the second level of English soccer. Which it probably has after last year. We done got relegated you guys.
Quite a rise. Four Michigan players make the final roster at the USA World Juniors evaluation camp: JT Compher, Tyler Motte, Boo Nieves… and Andrew Copp. I think 14 of the 18 forwards on the roster will be on the WJC team, so Copp's gone from JJ Swistak But Big to a guy with a very good chance of making the WJC team in 12 months. Wow.
Amen. Hoke on ND:
"I do not like the fact it's going away," Hoke said.
Asked who is a fault for all this, Hoke responded simply: "We would like to continue the series."
Realignment has replaced the ND game and games against Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Northwestern with Rutgers and Maryland.
Etc.: Harmon Of Michigan's theme song is a "Hollywood-style rendition of the Victors," and MVictors has it. Michigan Hockey Net posts the famous 2002 Denver-Michigan West Regional Final at Yost. Michigan players on the O'Bannon case.
Also! Of course Mitch McGary is photobombing John Beilein, triumphant.
McGary is Facetiming Zack Novak with part of the net on his head, because of course he is. SUBMITTED: "Big Puppy" is still an appropriate nickname for Mitch McGary even if he is putting in 25 and 14 on Jeff Withey.
Been there. A TWIS-worthy moment from a sideways Kansas fan watching the Burke three:
Prediction of the tournament. Mark Titus, come on down:
5. Bill Self will become so enraged with Elijah Johnson that his toupee will fall off
Self and Johnson have an interesting relationship, and by “interesting,” I mean that before every game, I’m pretty sure Self pulls Johnson aside and gives him the following speech:
“…God as my witness, if the other team’s point guard outplays you tonight, I will end you. Your corpse will spend eternity in the crawl space of my summer home, and when guests ask, ‘What’s that smell?” I’ll tell them it’s the scent of mediocrity."
He also predicted that Tim Hardaway wouldn't wear his hat. No matter: that is creepy. In lots of ways.
Yeah. No. Charles Pierce has an article on Syracuse's 2-3 zone that strikes on a key point:
"Everybody's talking about the 2-3 zone," Thompson said. "That's not a 2-3 zone. The 2-3 zone has been with us since the dawn of time. It's the way it slides and moves out there, like a damn amoeba.
"The only time it's a 2-3 zone is when they're waiting for you to bring the ball to it. Then, it becomes something else."
Watching the IU-Cuse game I was struck by how the conventional wisdom about where you need to attack the 2-3—flashing to the free throw line—didn't seem to apply. Cody Zeller seems built to crush a 2-3 by getting the ball there and passing, shooting, or driving as the defense provides a wrong answer to the threat he provides no matter what they do.
Syracuse just checked him and folded in their "wings" a bit. Those guys are 6'8", so Watford wasn't much threat and they were more than capable of extending out to contest three pointers from the corner. More than that, they just knew what to do to react to Indiana's attempts to beat the zone. By playing this amorphous zone they play on a sort of home court against everyone. They know exactly what they're doing; a lot of opponents don't.
This'll be a test of the Beilein Is A Genius meme. Boeheim is undefeated against him, albeit in talent matchups nowhere near as even as this one.
Not exactly a rock of journalistic credibility. Seriously, New York Times?
Stop listening to NPR! It's just stories about how you shouldn't abuse elderly people!
[Via Reader Brent McIntosh.]
Correct. Reader Stephen Suarez provides a visual representation of Nik Stauskas's decline, fall, and mutation into unstoppable phase beast:
At least they got your/you're right. Michael Ferns instagrammed this Handwritten, Lovingly Crafted Recruiting Letter from Mississippi State:
"Baller" is underlined, FWIW.
I've always wondered what the hell anyone could put in the incessant communication teams have with recruits, and now I know. I am dumber for this knowledge.
I ran out of fouls! I—I had guards with shoulder injuries! We recruited guys who ended up at Iowa State! There was an earthquake! A terrible flood! Blue Devils! IT WASN'T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD!!! Tom Izzo post-NCAA-exit always sounds like John Belushi trying to prevent Carrie Fisher from flamethrowing him. With Michigan in the Final Four, he's turned it up to 11, to mix 70s movie metaphors.
Tom Izzo doesn't blame the referees.
"It just seemed like that whistle was blowing all the time, and we never got in the flow of the game in that second half,'' Izzo said. "I'm sure they (officials) thought they did a helluva job, or I thought that I did a helluva job.
"I bit everything I could bite a couple of times.''
I wonder why that might be, that Michigan State might get called for a bunch of fouls. I am racking my brain for a potential reason a proud purveyor of "physical defense" might end up flaming out in the NCAA tournament thanks to fouls. I am… nope. Still thinking.
In any case, the free throw disparity was vast.
Duke made 24 of 26 free throws while MSU was 18 of 24 from the free-throw line.
"They killed us on the free-throw line,'' Harris said.
Before the last 1:20—when State started fouling intentionally—FTAs were 24-16 in favor of Michigan State.
Tom Izzo doesn't blame his players, he blames himself for his players.
"I think it got in all of our heads, and that's why I did a poor job, I can't let that happen,'' Izzo said. "We're not gonna win that battle, and I let some of that get to me.''
Have we mentioned that injuries devastated Michigan State to the tune of two games missed by a starter? Duke's Seth Curry hasn't practiced all year; Trey Burke was sick and still shaking off that nasty fall he took against South Dakota State. Izzo takes full responsibility for that, too. Those guys had no right to play that well.
"Make sure you give Bo Ryan his nappy." That's the Big Ten equivalent of the brewing officiating scandal in the Pac-12, in which the director of officials offered bounties for technical fouls on Sean Miller. Joking or not, dude is fired.
Etc.: Five key plays from Florida. Beilein and Boeheim kind of go way back. Surprise: Trey Burke is an All-American to everybody. Final Four refs include a few guys who have done Big Ten games this season, but no one you know. Recommended: this Matt Norlander article at CBS on Michigan's regional triumph. Gregg Doyel writes something nice!
LOL UCLA hired Steve Alford.
Michigan has the worst field goal kickers in the country and will use them only when facing preposterous situations like fourth and goal from the fifteen. One of MSU's kickers is basically a Michigan kicker but he was replaced and the new guy is 9 of 11. [shakes fist at sky.]
The punt games are a wash. MSU is 28th in net punting; Will Hagerup and co are a couple yards off of that but it's not a big enough difference to expect it will matter. MSU was decent at punt returns but Bumphis has all but one on the year so that's a question mark for them; Michigan will just fair catch it. Kickoffs are also a wash, though Michigan gave up a KR touchdown against OSU in their last game.
Key Matchup: DON'T ALLOW A DAMN TOUCHDOWN
- The first triple option pitch is so open it's not like there's anyone to blame.
- No one knows how to run a 3-3-5 still.
- Someone calls a halftime press conference.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- We're all like "oh, right, Mike Martin is a beast, I forgot."
- A healthy Denard is zinging accurate balls hither and thither.
- Greg Robinson's beaver makes frequent appearances for whatever reason.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 5 (Baseline 5; +1 for We're Playing The Illinois Offense Again, –1 for But Denard Is Healthy And So Is Odoms And So Isn't MSU's Best WR, +1 for Mississippi State's Defense Will Not Be As Accommodating As Illinois, +1 for Burn The Gardner Shirt Or Run Wildcat If—When—Robinson Gets His Ding, –1 for Chris Relf's Erratic Throwing Is Defense-Invariant, –1 for Healthy Mike Martin, +1 for Mad Cowbell Disease)
Desperate need to win level: 8 (Baseline 5; +1 8-5 Is Undeniable Progress, –1 for That Might Not Matter One Whit Anyway, +1 for The Faint Memory Of January Happy Events Is Like Motes Of Dust In A Room Half-Remembered, +1 for The Slight Chance It Might Impact Our Ability To Watch Denard Finish His Career Here, +1 for I Just Want To Win A Damn Game, –1 for I Know It's Over And Oh It Never Really Began But In My Heart It Was So Real, +1 for Seriously, Win.)
Loss will cause me to... sigh and brace for a press conference.
Win will cause me to... smile and brace for a press conference.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
I hate this section because predictions are stupid. I always have. That's why the bolded text is whining. I want Michigan to win so I think Michigan will win. I fear Michigan will lose so I think Michigan will lose. You see that behavior in the BlogPoll: the most irrationally exuberant voters are always from some team doing well at that second with caviar dreams and the most irrationally negative voters have just watched their puppy run over and loathe everything. I'm caught between the two, and don't really know what to expect in a game that seems like a replay of the Illinois game. The Illinois game turned out to be rather close.
A couple other blogospheric predictions have dispensed with the idea that predictions are anything other than hopes, with Blue Seoul declaring…
I hate making predictions, especially when the two teams are close. So instead I'll just put what I hope happens.
…and BWS saying…
This is probably a homer's prediction, but I don't like picking against Michigan when a game looks not only winnable but more or less like a coin flip
…and I'm here to tell you that I don't know what's going on, man. I want Michigan to win, so I'll predict them to win because I can, in defiance of Vegas and the vague hope it matters. I'll spare people the talking myself into it bit.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Demens is still aligned like an idiot would align him and MSU counters are highly effective, but Martin's presence makes the interior inverted stuff mostly ineffective.
- Michigan has two fifty-yard-plus touchdowns.
- Michigan gives up two fifty-yard-plus touchdowns.
- Michigan, 31-28, with Justin Meram erupting from the locker room with ten seconds left to boot a 200 yard field goal.
Run Defense vs. Mississippi State
The most terrifying bit of the game lies in here. You've heard it before but: this offense is Illinois part II. Chris Relf is a big, stocky runner with some talented sidekicks in a system that runs a ton of option until you freak out about it, then nails you for freaking out about it. They also effectively deploy the new hot thing in college football:
This isn't a veer of any sort but it is inverted,—the quarterback is the upfield threat—power-ish,—backside tackle(!) pulls around—and effective. Their running game is as diverse and almost as hard to stop as Michigan's. Michigan finished the year 11th, MSU 16th. The "almost" comes with a deeper look at the numbers: MSU runs a freaking ton, with 561 carries on the year against just 265 passes. That's a hefty 68% run rate reminiscent of Pat White's days at West Virginia. The Bulldogs average a full yard less per carry than Michigan, and that's a large chunk of the reason FEI has Michigan the #2 offense in the country and Mississippi State #72.
You can chalk that up to a distinct lack of Denard Robinson. Chris Relf is more Cam Newton than Robinson, albeit a version of Cam Newton without the ability to run away from Patrick Peterson. He's a tough inside runner with good vision and the occasional sweet move downfield but he's not a bolt of lightning. The reason MSU runs so much inverted stuff is to take advantage of his interior power.
On the outside the answer was a combination of Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins. Ballard is the team's leading rusher with around 900 yards, with Relf at 700 and Perkins at 500 and guys down the list picking up spare yards here and there. Michigan won't see slot receiver extraordinaire Chad Bumphis due to injury, so his role taking end-arounds, reverses, and jet sweeps figures to fall to Perkins. He's he fastest guy they've got left. Blue Seoul:
He's extremely dangerous on edge running plays. Especially the sweep. Expect him to carry the ball 5-10 times. But they'll probably have another 5-10 plays designed to go to him on either screens, wheel routes, or some other trickery.
With the extra practices, expect him to line up in the slot and then motion around, possibly to the backfield or to get the ball on a jet sweep.
Ballard is more of a north-south guy with good top end speed but not a whole lot of wiggle. Watch if MSU tips their option plays by tailback—Blue Seoul says Ballard was de-emphasized as the pitch guy as the season went along because he had a tough time maintaining the proper relationship with the QB.
Michigan will also have to watch for the shovel. While technically a pass play it's more like a different twist on the triple option. Remember that TE Gonzalez getting guaranteed first downs for Florida by pulling across the formation and taking a shovel pitch from Tim Tebow? Yeah, that has migrated over to Mississippi State. MSU lacks a TE with ridiculous athleticism so they will align in a wing set with one of the tailbacks as an H-back and then run the shovel away from the strength of the formation.
The MSU offensive line seems pretty mediocre to me but as he got deeper into the Bulldog season Blue Seoul came away with a certain appreciation for the tackles and center. Not so much the guards or the depth:
The only weak spot is #62. He is a good run blocker, but has made several mistakes in pass protection. I suggest running a lot of two man stunts or blitzes on his side making him choose who to block and who to let go.
There seems to be a significant talent/experience dropoff when the backups come in. In the one game where they had to shuffle linemen around because of injuries, Ballard was held in check and things were not pretty.
As far as Michigan goes, who knows what the hell we'll see. Everyone's pulling for a four-man line and whatnot but this actually seems like a game the 3-3-5 was built for—a matchup against a dedicated spread rushing attack. Expect to see Jordan Kovacs in the box 90% of the time on running downs as Michigan deploys an extra man on the edge in an attempt to slow down the option they couldn't against Illinois. Kovacs made some critical mistakes in that game that were compounded by the youth of a freshly-inserted Ray Vinopal and an odd scheme that saw Jonas Mouton rendered mostly useless.
Michigan's best hope for a surprisingly good performance rests in the ankles of Mike Martin, which have been pronounced 100%. If he can go full bore we'll see the combination of Actual Mike Martin and Kenny Demens we never really got in the regular season. Greg Robinson will line Demens up two feet from the guard and get him obliterated but I'm saying there's a chance of usefulness.
Key Matchup: Jordan Kovacs and Cam Gordon against the option. The edge safeties will be key players against a play Michigan struggled badly against in the Illinois game. They've got to correct their mistakes.
Pass Defense vs. Mississippi State
I don't think you're supposed to hold it like that.
Here's the other bit of why FEI is so down on the MSU offense relative to Michigan's:
That is a UFR chart of Relf's performance against Kentucky and it's basically on par with Denard Robinson… as a freshman. You remember what that was like. It wasn't very good. Massive caveat: that was by far the worst game of the season for Relf. I did the Arkansas game, too, and here it is:
That's better but still pretty ugly. Relf ended up 20 of 30 for 224 yards, which is a decent 7.4 YPA. His receivers dropped no easy ones—they could have bailed him out on two or three bad throws—and his deep balls were wildly off target. His successes came mostly on plays where he had all day in the pocket and could zing darts across the middle of the field, and on several plays he was reduced to ineffective scrambling after holding the ball a long, long time.
His two key deficiencies as a passer are that tendency and his total inability to hit deep balls. Blue Seoul suggests putting the corners in all inside leverage all the time and blitzing like Manny Diaz is in charge and I agree—in third and long situations Michigan should drop eight only as a changeup and send waves of blitzers, playing the percentages when it comes to Relf and tough throws.
At receiver, with Bumphis out the main guys are Chris Smith and Arceto Clark, with Brandon Heavens a third option. All are sophomores that seem pedestrian, though it's hard to tell given the limited opportunities they receive. They don't get much downfield separation but seem sure-handed.
Pass protection has not been good. Despite passing only 32% of the time Mississippi State gives up almost two sacks a game. They're 53rd in the NCAA's raw stats but would be well down the list if the NCAA ranked by sacks per pass attempt; against Arkansas there were a lot of blitz pickup breakdowns. Bizarrely, though, Arkansas is 6th nationally in sacks and still left Relf back in the pocket for ages for most of that game.
Mississippi State will attack the level between the linebackers and safeties on play action, attempting to hit chunk plays on digs and seams and whatnot; Relf's limitations and their lack of a go-to receiver makes deep balls futile unless the opponent massively busts a coverage, which Michigan will do twice. Relf's likely to miss it when it happens or miss the throw anyway.
On the other hand, the Michigan secondary.
Oh all right, the Michigan secondary: Jebus. What is it? Does it exist? We could ram them through a particle accelerator to find out if not for "laws" that you should keep off my body, kthx, and by body I mean joke physics experiment. Keep your laws off my joke physics experiment.
But seriously folks, Michigan cornerbacks should force guys outside and deep and hope Relf's accuracy is as advertised, with the linebackers getting appropriate depth on play action drops and the deep safety coming up into that middle range where Mississippi State makes its hay. Will they do this without getting burned? Probably not.
Key Matchup: Martin, Roh, and Van Bergen getting to Relf against (hopefully) single blocking afforded by a lack of stupid three man rushes I hate so very much.
In multiple parts due to length.
|WHAT||Michigan vs Mississippi State|
|WHERE||Gator Bowl, Jacksonville, FL|
|WHEN||1:30 Eastern, January 1st 2010|
|THE LINE||Mississippi State –4.5|
|WEATHER||Partly cloudy, 76 degrees
20% chance of rain
If you haven't gotten the basic outline by now you're to be commended on your remarkable ability to avoid information. The internet now possesses a frame-by-frame breakdown of a long run by I-AA Alcorn State in their body-bag game against the Bulldogs along with dozens of other bits less manic. Truly, no team has ever met the level of amateur scouting that Mississippi State just did from the Michigan blogosphere.
But here we go anyway…
Run Offense vs. Mississippi State
The maniacal maniacs of Manny Diaz will make this tough sledding for the Michigan ground game except in instances where someone gets caught out of position and Denard Robinson's sledding will have a new non-caloric silicon-based kitchen lubricant applied to it. MSU's hoping this won't happen, what with articles being written that quote "discipline" in the headline and stress tackling:
"Tackling is the other big concern with bowls because we haven't tackled a guy in five weeks," Diaz said. "So those will be the things we will all unfortunately find out together, whether we'll be ready to tackle in one-on-one situations. They're going to spread you out and make that a one-on-one game."
And other articles in which Diaz invokes "gap control":
“It’s all about gap control,” Diaz said. “They do some pretty good things with their run game. They’re going to ask you the questions and you have to have the answer for it. The issue with them is that if there’s a play when you miss the answer, he has a chance to go 80 yards because he’s so fast.
"With such a small margin of error, it might be our death.”
Can the Bulldogs do this? They've got a shot. Diaz points out they won't be intimidated since their scheduled was littered with Heisman finalists, including the 6-6 controversy robot that won the thing. MSU held him to 70 yards rushing on 18 attempts and 136 yards passing in a 17-14 loss; if they do the same to Michigan and give up 17 points they won't be losing.
The basic philosophy of the MSU defense is evident in their first drive against LSU. It's evident everywhere all the time but this is a particularly emblematic bit:
Blitz, blitz, blitz from everywhere. Eight guys on the LOS on first down run blitzing like nuts. On passing downs heavy doses of zone blitz, and on third and two there's a specific rollout contain blitz from a linebacker. MSU doesn't blitz like Michigan blitzes: as the changeup.
This has been highly effective no matter what metric you grab. MSU is 19th in rushing defense against a fairly tough schedule—they didn't play anyone in the nonconference but got stuck in a brutal SEC West (or "Legends," whatever)—and obliterated a few actual teams along the way:
The problems usually came in the form of big gains, like a 56-yard Julio Jones run by Alabama, a 64-yard Knile Davis run by Arkansas, and even the aforementioned long touchdown by the Alcorn State Acorns.
The ruthless math of blitzing is that when you're wrong, you're really wrong. Mississippi State has not found a way to defy this, but they're good enough that you're going to be in second and long lots and unless you rip off a long one you're not cracking 5 YPC even if you've got Cam Newton. They also managed to give up 24 points to a 4-8 Conference USA team a week after holding Florida to seven—unpredictability is inherent in the system.
This begins to be old hat but the numbers above indicate a certain difficulty with spread systems—Florida, Auburn, and Arkansas had three of the top four rushing days against the Ole Miss defense. As you can see above and Georgia found out in their loss to MSU early in the year, the question you're asking when you line up under center and run pro-style at this thing is "do you know how much I like second and long?" Michigan's spread will pull linebackers outside and ask questions of the safeties, who I liked in the Georgia game but Alcorn State (and everything else) analyst Blue Seoul has consistently dogged for things like that still above, wherein #5 is in the midst of pulling a Random Michigan Safety Since Marcus Ray With The Exception Of Jamar Adams-level boner.
As far as individual Mississippi State players, the defensive line is a who's-who of reasons Jay Hopson was a bad idea. He tried and failed to acquire three fourths of their starting DL. One was longshot JUCO Pernell McPhee; the others were high school kids Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd. Neither could escape Mississippi's immense gravitational field, and even trying has seen Hopson move to Memphis. Within two years he'll be in the event horizon.
Anyway, on tape none of these guys are great. McPhee is the best, a fairly disruptive (9.5 TFLs) DT who leads the line in tackles with a respectable 32 and can penetrate if given a one-on-one matchup. Boyd is also a guy who can beat a block and make a play. No one really gets to the QB but that's another show.
Key Matchup: Denard Robinson and possibly others in space against Mississippi State safeties. The very nature of this defense and this offense demands that this matchup happens several times. Sometimes it will be behind the LOS and bad for Michigan. Sometimes it will be downfield with one guy between Denard, paydirt, and 5 YPC. Note that the situation with Alcorn State victim above got bad at the end of the year. He was replaced for the Arkansas game, not that it mattered as Mallett went ham.
Pass Offense vs. Mississippi State
Chris White is white. Also he sacks people sometimes.
Here's a spot the Bulldogs might be vulnerable thanks to that blitz-mad philosophy. MSU's 89th in pass defense and while they're considerably better in efficiency terms at 50th, Michigan rolls into the game with the 24th ranked pass efficiency offense thanks to a wide variety of long gains that happen when people freak out about Denard Robinson and forget about 'Tree and company.
Michigan's got a reputation as a run-mad team where receivers go to die but if you flip over to the actual stats you'll see Roy Roundtree behind only a trio of Indiana receivers in receptions per game. He's 37 yards short of Jeremy Ebert's conference-leading 919 receiving yards, and most of those were not screens—teams have been taking away the bubble just about the whole year. If he hadn't gotten a severe case of the dropsies late in the season Roundtree would have led the conference in yards.
The reason a slot receiver has gone ham this year is because of the guy throwing it to him. Teams bring up a safety, then they bring up another safety, then they watch Roundtree fly down the field behind those guys. Opponents that have played it safe have held him in check, however. Conservative Big Ten cover two archetypes Iowa and Michigan State held him to a total of 58 yards, but both had the luxury of doing so because Michigan's offense rolled down the field only to turn the ball over in the redzone in both games.
It's not like Michigan is going up against a defense anything like that anyway. MSU is aggressive to the extreme. Their results to date show a vulnerability…
…but unfortunately for Michigan it appears it's a vulnerability to good pro-style quarterbacks who either have the protection to slice apart the defense or the arm and devil-may-care attitude to zing it into tough places MSU gives up by design. You'll note that Auburn has the best performance outside of the pro-style slingers. Auburn was wildly run-biased in that game, especially since two of the throws were trick plays for former QB Kodi Burns and a few more were screens, and it got them their worst scoring output of the year. Michigan should learn the lesson from that game and move first-down playcalling much closer to a 50-50 split unless they have some indefensible magic rushing gameplan.
When Michigan does pass, pickups will be key. The Diaz philosophy is evident in the numbers. His leading sack guy is linebacker Chris White with six. Number two is linebacker KJ Wright. Five different defensive backs have tackled the quarterback in the backfield when he attempts to throw the ball. Since no MSU defensive lineman has more than two and a half sacks and Michigan's offensive line has combined with Denard's legs to provide mostly fantastic pass protection, most pressure on Denard will come via unblocked rushers. On the one hand, that's a Diaz specialty. On the other, pickups equal time equal trouble for MSU because…
The Mississippi State secondary is shaky. They did not impress in the Georgia game and Blue Seoul's comprehensive evaluation of the Bulldogs hammers this point time and again:
Ark. #7 takes it to the house on a 60+ yarder on a student body left type play. Again, these DBs will give up big plays against real speed. Thankfully we've got a lot of that at WR. (not so much at RB, this would be a great team for Carlos Brown to play against). MSU's #7 let himself get blocked on the play when he didn't need to and could've saved the TD (14 yards downfield, but that's still better than a TD)
All the blitzing covers up for that, but it'll be interesting to see who wins that back-and-forth battle. Michigan opponents have been terrified to get after Robinson in the pocket since a missed tackle (or even a poor choice of rushing lane) is a big gain waiting to happen, especially if you have the cajones/stupidity to put man coverage behind your blitz. Robinson is going to see a ton of zone blitzes.
On conventional downs this game cries out for a heavy does of QB Draw Oh Noes. The thing that leaps off the tape about the LSU game above is just how aggressively the Bulldog defense reads run. Mallett also nailed one of the MSU safeties for an 88-yard TD on play action in the Arkansas game—these guys scream downhill. Michigan has gashed opponent after opponent with Denard's one-man play action and there probably isn't a team on the schedule more naturally vulnerable to the play than MSU. The Bulldogs will be trying to coach their players up on it but when your entire philosophy is built around maniacal aggression it's tough to beat that now well-worn instinct out of players.
Key Matchup: Magee versus Diaz, and in the event of a favorable outcome there Denard versus His Shoulder. There will be opportunities for explosive plays if Magee catches Diaz in the wrong call.
Here's the Mississippi State offense against Kentucky:
The Bulldogs won 24-17 with a quick late drive featuring a Relf zinger over the middle that ate up a third of the field. Kentucky's defense was (sigh) significantly better than Michigan's this year but it wasn't great. They were 79th in rush D, 53rd in pass efficiency D, 49th overall. The don't fare nearly as well in FEI, though—they're 82nd, the worst defense other than Memphis the Bulldogs played. Michigan was 103rd. (Fun fact: only one other team had a winning record against I-A competition with a worse defense than Michigan, and that was Baylor.)
I charted Relf for the hell of it:
[Most of these were clear-cut, but there was a fade down the sideline that was well-covered, hit the receiver in the hands, got dropped, and then saw the receiver hit with an offensive PI call. That could have been anything from CA to BR. I punted and filed it MA—he should have led the receiver to the sideline but it wasn't awful.
The backup quarterback came in for a series, went run, BR, INX, and then ate bench. ]
So… that's not very good. That DSR is one pip off Denard Robinson's freshman year—you know, the one that spawned an offseason of debate about whether he should be a wide receiver or running back—and most of those INs were TacoBLANK specials where the receiver watched the ball zing well over his head or well wide or well short; receivers had no chance to bring in any of them. The two TAs are generous as well. Either could have been filed IN.
However, it should be noted that the Kentucky game was Relf's worst of the year by far. In his last two games against reasonable defenses Relf went 13 of 20 for 288 yards with 3 TDs, and one INT (Ole Miss) and 20 of 30 for 224 yards (Arkansas). This is not a representative sample.
Relf seems like a ridiculously fast version of Steven Threet—capable of those downfield darts in the seam that result in huge chunks of yards and blithering inaccuracy on the next play. In this game he had six complete misses against six accurate downfield throws, but three of the accurate ones were beautiful long gains.
I probably didn't give Relf enough credit as a runner. He was impressive in this game, making decisive option cuts and even throwing in an I-hit-circle spin move:
He's a better runner than Tebow, closer to a Scheelhaase than anyone else we saw this year. Yes, again with the Illinois comparisons and the grim prospect of not putting up 67 against a team with the Illinois offense.
Even more Illinois comparisons. Seriously, they scored the winning touchdown on the inverted veer after their erratic but fast quarterback scrambled for a first down. The clip above is an option keeper. They love the jet sweep and have a difficult time throwing downfield. It's a really close comparison. The differences as I see them:
- Mullen is much more willing to chance his QB throwing downfield. Illinois games I saw this year almost never featured Scheelhaase throwing more than ten yards downfield. Mullen's takes his shots and lives with the balls to covered receivers because occasionally Relf nails a guy and Mississippi State has a much shorter touchdown trudge to make.
- Relf is a better power runner. Scheelhaase is fast but not a guy you're going to go to on third and two (or five, or nine) as Mississippi State does with Relf. He brings the wood and usually picks up two or three yards after contact.
- The Bulldog offensive line may not be very good. It's hard to tell without going super in-depth but it seemed like MSU bogged down when Kentucky players were not getting hooked on the outside or doing many things wrong on the long TD. Almost every time MSU faced a third and long situation they ran or moved the pocket, though, and their offensive design seems like it's built around not expecting a ton out of the OL.
Bumphis and Ballard. Those guys are the heart of the Bulldog offense. Both are short, quick guys capable of turning a small crease into a big gain. Ballard isn't going to break a ton of tackles but is very fast, getting to top speed quickly when an opportunity presents itself and capable of turning on the jets. A wrong angle on him and you've given up six points.
Bumphis is an A- version of a slot receiver.
General confidence level adjustment. Even despite the ugly Relf chart above since more recent info suggests he's not really this bad, because MSU put up 24 against a Michigan-ish caliber defense when their QBs went 7 for 19. If Michigan's 4-7 points worse than Kentucky (and many metrics suggest this) I'm not happy with the idea that they'll have to put up mid-30s to win with the opponent completing 33% of their passes.