The nutty Michigan coverage isn't so much about Harbaugh as it is a signal to the Big Ten that Fox wants to party.
Preview: Columbus Delenda Est
Run Offense vs. Ohio State
Oy. This is not so looking the good. Ohio State is now the second-ranked rushing defense in the country, though that is due in part to their tendency to sack the hell out of the quarterback--38 on the year for 244 yards. Game by game against teams with a pulse:
- Texas: 35 carries for 127 yards discounting sacks, 3.6 YPC.
- Iowa: annihi-tated (ha!). Albert Young gets 25 yards on 10 carries. Tate gets sacked for a loss of 43 yards; Iowa finishes the game with -9 yards.
- Penn State: 37 carries for 117 yards. Tony Hunt does get 64 on 16 for 4 YPC.
- Michigan State: Stanton is sacked 12 times for 58 yards. Outside of that Michigan State rushes for 174 yards on 39 carries, slightly over 4 YPC.
- Minnesota: 42 carries for 182 yards, 4.3 YPC.
- Northwestern: 27 carries for 116 yards, 4.3 YPC
What does this mean? It does appear that Ohio State's run defense is slightly flattered by its copious sack numbers. In general, teams not named Iowa or Illinois or Indiana can expect around four yards per carry. These numbers don't show the yardage variance but I suspect it's fairly high if the linebacker sack numbers accurately reflect the level of aggression in this defense, which would make sense with its profile. A defense that gives up 16, 0, 0, and 0 yards on four runs is a much more effective defense than one that gives up 4, 4, 4, and 4--it's the difference between punting on third and ten and having a second and six. Aggressive defenses that occasionally give up a chunk of yards because of said aggression are effective ones. Ohio State has an effective defense.
The upshot? There's the possibility of an actual running game if Hart is healthy and Henne is throwing short slants, crosses, and screens accurately. Michigan can't afford to hurl itself into the line 30 times if second and eight is going to be a punt most of the time, but if they do find an ability to keep the chains moving despite getting stuffed with frequency, the run game might break out like it did against Michigan State: nothing nothing nothing OMG RUN LITTLE MAN RUN.
Key Matchup: RB Mike Hart versus Carve Your Name In The Heart of This Game. He can do it if he's healthy, if he's on, if he's got space. He was shut down last year, yeah... but I'm saying there's a chance.
Pass Offense vs. Ohio State
This is where those 38 sacks come into play. The thing is, only 13.5 of them come from the defensive line. Carpenter has 8. Hawk has 7.5. Safety Donte Whitner has four. Obviously Ohio State is blitzing the bejeezus out of its opponents to pick up 24.5 sacks from people who are normally tasked with defending receivers. How do you combat such maniacal aggression? EA Sports Lee Corso says it several times a fictional football game: with screens and draws.
Michigan happens to be rather good at both these things, especially the former. Henne's inconsistency and the plethora of Michigan wide receivers capable of making those who attempt to tackle them look extremely stupid has made the wide receiver screen a staple of this year's offense. With the Ohio State secondary looking creaky past the first corner or two, Michigan appears poised to flip the script and use the passing game as a consistent source of low-variance first down yardage. There's only so much the vaunted Ohio State linebackers can do against Steve Breaston taking a screen to the sideline.
That won't suffice for the entire game, however, and Henne will be forced to drop back and throw downfield at some point, possibly very early if Ohio State comes out pressing. The Michigan passing game has been a comedy of errors at times this year, but the flame flickered a bit against Indiana as Henne hit all manner of routes both short and deep as well as you possibly can. He has the capability to beat a Buckeye secondary that has given up yards in big chunks against Texas, Minnesota, and Michigan State if Dr. Jekyll shows up. Michigan's success going downfield will be sporadic--Henne will be under pressure and the offensive line will allow pressure up the gut--but there will be opportunities. The difference in the game will be how well Henne takes advantage of open deep crosses and corners. Wisconsin == loss. Indiana == win.
Key Matchup: Offensive Coordinator Terry Malone versus Defensive Coordinator Tim Beckman. Chess match here. Michigan does have an advantage on the edges but attempting to exploit it too frequently will reduce its effectiveness. Malone has to pick his spots right.
Run Defense Vs Ohio State
For a variety of reasons Michigan's run defense has been very bad. Some of these reasons have to do with injury--Woodley's been out for about three games, David Harris missed the NUI game, Graham's been walking wounded, several DEs found their way to the bench--but there are systemic flaws that the now almost totally healthy team still has to deal with. Pat Massey is just not good at football. Chris Graham and Prescott Burgess have major issues with outside containment. It is possible that Michigan is healthy and experienced enough to drag some of the main offenders off the field, as John Thompson has proved himself a capable player and the defensive ends are finally all healthy at the same time, allowing Branch to slide back inside where he is equally effective. I would think that Graham and Massey might get less time than normal. They'll play, but it seems obvious to all that there are better alternatives. Michigan is out of injury and playing-style excuses.
Antonio Pittman has emerged as the starting tailback for the Buckeyes but remains a question mark in my mind. While Michigan's run defense is statistically not great, it's probably better at this point than it has been all year, and Pittman has been eating up a rich set of bad defenses. He will get a dose of something closer to reality tomorrow. I think the Hart-Pittman faceoff versus their respective run defenses is a push... wild-eyed optimism perhaps, but there it is.
However, Ohio State has an X-factor in quarterback Troy Smith, who has rushed for almost 600 yards this year. No doubt Ohio State will attempt to exploit his mobility much like it did last year when Smith rushed for televenty jillion yards, most of them by accident. Ohio State's used a lot of quarterback draws this year; given Michigan's chronic inability to stop said draws expect to see at least a few.
Key Matchup: Graham and Thompson versus Pittman. It's critical that Pittman is held down on early downs so Michigan can put the Buckeyes in spots where a third down Smith scramble is unlikely to garner a first down. Otherwise Michigan will be forced to zone up and play back, and that leads to a lot of easy conversions.
Pass Defense vs. Ohio State
I don't know exactly what to make of this. I fear Grant Mason's erratic tackling against Holmes and Ginn on short routes. I think Troy Smith is not the sixth-best quarterback in the country, and I think he's probably forgotten what it's like to see a defensive back within six yards of his receivers over the past few weeks. I think that I would rather not see the ball hurled skyward towards Santonio Holmes on a regular basis. Much could happen here and it would not be surprising. Smith could turn out to be a total mirage that a competent defense shuts down because they can actually cover and tackle just a little bit. He could turn out to be mini-Vince Young. So you've got me here. I'm throwing my hands up when either team drops back to pass: I don't know what's going to happen.
I do expect that Michigan will throw a ton of zone at Ohio State and rely on Woodley and company to get to Smith without compromising their deep coverage or their ability to track down a scrambling Smith. I think Ohio State will not be consistent enough to move t
he chains like Tate did against our zone, nor will they have all that much time to throw against what should be an active defensive line. But then there's those fast guys, and our tendency to show exactly our intent before the snap, and... I could fabricate a bunch of stuff here. But it would be a guess.
Key Matchup: Lamarr Woodley versus RT Kirk Barton or Alex Boone. Boone's a monstrous, hyped recruit but still only a freshman. Barton has been in and out of the lineup with injuries just like Woodley. If Smith is not forced to make quick decisions he will pick apart the zone. The defensive line's ability to force stupid mistakes will be key.
Will be heavily hyped but are unlikely to have much impact on the game. As I've started harping upon recently, Ross Ryan has severely limited opponent return opportunities. Ohio State's Josh Huston and AJ Trapasso have done likewise. Ryan's had 11 of 44 punts returned; Trapasso 11 of 40. Ryan has put most of his kickoffs into the endzone; Huston has done the same. Neither Ted Ginn nor Steve Breaston figures to get much in the way of return opportunities.
Ohio State has an advantage in Huston. While Garrett Rivas is reliable inside forty yards he has limited range and something of a tendency to miss important kicks. Huston has hit 18 of 21 this year, though he's only had a few opportunities from beyond 40 yards (he's 3 of 4 from 40-49 and 0 of 2 from 50+). He has hit every field goal from within 40 yards.
Key Matchup: Garret Rivas versus The Lurking Ghost of Hayden Epstein. I assume that both returners will be neutralized and Huston will be reliable; the only thing left is Rivas and his occasional tendency to mess with our heads.
No, I didn't type in SARS kitten, just "desperate kitten." I think that sums it up well: the kittens are prepared for the worst but still holding out hope in the form of a jaunty blue bell collar.
Three Things I'd Like To See:
- Henne throwing downfield like he did against Indiana.
- John Thompson instead of Chris Graham.
- Evidence that the OSU offensive line is as unprepared to deal with Lamarr Woodley as they were Tamba Hali.
Three Things I Don't Want To See
- Any sort of limping from Hart.
- Antonio Pittman exploiting the Massey issue.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 9 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for Goddamn That Is An Intimidating Defense; +1 for Hart/Long... Please?; +1 for Ewwww, Mobile Quarterback; +1 for Just Because.)
Desperate need to win level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +5 for The Game! The Game!)
Loss will cause me to... have nightmares where John Cooper and Lloyd Carr turn out to be my parents.
Win will cause me to... root for a last-second, controversial Michigan State victory and a matchup against a Big East team in the BCS.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict: Columbus delenda est. Columbus delenda est! Michigan's brutal schedule and injuries combined with Ohio State's recent dance through the dandelions has many convinced that Ohio State is clearly the favorite. I do not think this is the case, as I laid out above. It's even. So will I pick a Buckeye win? In the immortal syllables of Dana Carvey's George Bush I impression: "Na ga da."
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- No one does anything in the return game.
- Henne comes through in the clutch.
- 23-21, Michigan.