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: I Liked It Better When You Sucked
Run Offense vs. Northwestern
Resistable force versus movable obect here, though our force gets significantly less resistable if a short guy from Syracuse shows up. Even if he doesn't, I have to believe that the Long-infused Michigan offensive line will be able to deal with a Northwestern defensive line that is Barry Coefield and a bunch of guys who are really smart.
Unfortunately, I've probably said that exact same sentence four or five times and been mostly wrong about it; the one time I said we were doomed on the OL, before Penn State, they did an admirable job. Michigan had a lot of trouble without Hart against Iowa, eventually resorting to fourth-string
Jermaine Tito Jerome Jackson late because he would A) not fumble and B) run places that were not also occupied by our offensive linemen. Still, there's a major gap between the Northwestern DL and even Iowa's undersized and young unit that's evident in the statistics. Without Howard these guys are crippled, and they don't have the secondary to run up a safety without seriously tempting fate.
The yards will be there, but there will be many more if Hart can go.
Key Matchup: RB Mike Hart versus Mike Hart's Ankle. The cooperativeness of Hart's ankle is apparently still in question. His replacements all seem adequate but adequate isn't enough to make up for an inadequate offensive line.
Pass Offense vs. Northwestern
Just when all reasonable people had resigned themselves to a mostly ineffective Chad Henne he had to come back and flash some of the ability that had everyone in such a tizzy at the beginning of the year. Of course, he paired that flash with instances of ridiculous decision making and inaccurate short throws, nicely summing up his "Yes, but..." season. Jason Avant and Steve Breaston re-emerged as the heroes du jour after taking a one game backseat to Mario "The New Math" Manningham, whose main contribution against Iowa was a broken route that led to an interception.
I've previously said that Henne has struggled against all but resolutely awful defenses. That's a problem most weeks, but not this one. Northwestern's Mildcat (ho ho ho) pass defense is 115th in the country in terms of yardage and 85th in terms of efficiency--and it was much worse than that before picking off Drew Stanton three times as he melted down last week. Henne's tendency to short-circuit under pressure should not be much of an issue: the Wildcats, deprived of the services of Loren Howard, have managed only five sacks the entire year. Two of those were against Ohio. Henne should have time and the ability to pick his spots throwing downfield, as the Wildcats will probably be forced to offer the Michigan receivers a significant cushion.
So here it is. Fool me like four times, shame on me, but Henne is going to have a great day against the Wildcats, especially if they let him sit in the pocket for extended periods of time. Long's return and the feeble Northwestern pass rush should greatly help his confidence and allow him to make his reads.
Key Matchup: WRs Mario Manningham and Steve Breaston versus CBs Marquise Cole and Deonte Battle. Northwestern has had a tendency to give up a lot of yards on relatively few completions in several games this year. The Northwestern CBs will either have to leave the deep ball open or leave Manningham and Breaston large cushions. Either way, these two have to take advantage of the opportunites the Northwestern defense will afford them.
Run Defense Vs Northwestern
Little. Deadly. Different.
Oy. It's time to start wondering about what happened here. Last year Michigan had a run defense that was consistently great against tailbacks (quarterbacks are another story). Lining up in a 3-4 with Watson, Massey, and Larry Harrison backed by linebackers Lamarr Woodley, Lawrence Reid, Pierre Woods, and Scott McClintock, running on first down was usually second and nine. With the switch back to the 4-3 and a wholly new linebacking corps has come disaster. Everyone except EMU has ownzored the Michigan run defense, and Northwestern is no EMU (and don't we miss the days when that sentence was one of the most ridiculous in the english langauge). The return of Lamarr Woodley and Rondell Biggs will certainly help and Michigan may have found a WLB in John Thompson, but it would take a drastic improvement to hold down the newly resurgent Northwestern ground game. Yeah. Weird, I know.
I haven't been right too often this year, so humor me while I point out something I did get right:
Despite his diminutive stature, or perhaps because of it, Sutton could be the 2005 version of Mike Hart.
This he has done, and how. Sutton has torn Northwestern opponents limb from limb. He's the scariest guy his size since Chucky. He seems especially suited to gashing the Michigan defense by getting outside containment. Maybe Thompson's insertion will help, but he is still young and Michigan's defensive line still has problems keeping gaps down to reasonable sizes. Sutton's going to get some stabbin' in.
Key Matchup: LBs John Thompson and David Harris versus RB Tyrell Sutton. Sutton's going to be bouncing all over the place, looking for holes. Thompson and Harris have to contain and tackle surely, otherwise Michigan will get posterized.
Pass Defense vs. Northwestern
Look, I know I'm just a guy. I've never played organized football, let alone coach it for ten billion years. But some things make no sense to me as a guy who's played a lot of games--chess, Command & Conquer, Super Tecmo Bowl, NCAA Football, etc. One of those things that make no sense is to explicitly disclose your plan to the enemy. As Sun-Tzu's Art of War says, "Goddammit, play some man coverage." Michigan forgoes all deceit with baffling regularity, and this season's all-zone all-the-time attempt at pass defense is a prime example. There's no excuse for Michigan to cover opposing players on 10% of the avaiable downs against Iowa.
While I was dead on about Tyrell Sutton, my preseason slamming of Brett Basanez has to be high on the long list of things I've been wrong about this year:
Brett Basanez has a ton of experience but an inaccurate arm. He's a hard-nosed guy who is decently suited for the run-oriented spread option Northwestern runs but doesn't have the athleticism to be a real threat in the run game or the arm to be a true dropback passer.
Uh.... yeah. Basanez is 19th in passing efficiency, has thrown 12 touchdowns to one interceptions, and has completed 67% of his passes. I suck; Basanez does not. It is worth pointing out, however, that the defenses Basanez have feasted upon are much like the lineup from The Usual Suspects: everyone in the room is guilty. Check their passing stats, you fairy godmother:
- Michigan State: 110th/102nd efficiency.
- Purdue: 117th (last!)/108th efficiency.
- Wisconsin: 88th/45th efficiency.
- Arizona State: 104th/74th.
The only competent non-MAC defense the Wildcats have opposed was Penn State. In that game Basanez did all right (20-38, 229 yards, one interception) but certainly not great.
So I don't know what to think. I'd like to say that Basanez can't possibly maintain that impressive efficiency, but Drew Tate and his 27-for-39-with-a-buncha-drops says ha(!). The Jesus and his 20-for-30 seconds the motion. If Michigan insists on the undisguised zone that freaked us all out after NIU and reappeared with terrible vengance against Iowa, the results will probably be the same: a lot of chain moving throws between guys doing their ill-conceived job and a mut
tered prayer for opponent errors. The strategy that appears to make sense is to press the hell out of the Wildcat receivers, take away their short passing game, and give your defensive line time to have an impact on the game, but Michigan's fear of a
black planet mobile quarterback has seen them lay back and wait. That is unlikely to change.
Key Matchup: Lamarr Woodley, Alan Branch, and hopefully Woods, Crable, and Jamison. Michigan's stops against Iowa that were actually due to the Michigan defense were universally caused by a Tate sack that either killed a drive or put it in 2nd-and-20 critical condition. Stopping a methodical but not explosive Wildcat attack will take MOTS.
Breaston had no opportunity to return any of Iowa's 20-30 yard punts; Rivas' field goal was a chip shot. The Michigan special teams this year have been good but not great; expect that to continue.
Northwestern kicker Joel Howells has been decidedly average this year. He went 5 of 6 against Penn State but is barely above 50% on the year (8 for 15). Marquice Cole has a punt return touchdown and is average 27(!) yards a return, but Ross Ryan has been good about preventing returns this year. Under 30% of his kicks are being run back, and most of those are under duress. Michigan should keep Cole under wraps.
Key Matchup: Rivas versus Howells. At some point these offenses are going to get stopped, probably in the red zone, and these guys will have to make their relatively short kicks.
Yeah, the first kitten thing was funny and effective. The second was not particularly funny... but effective. So I won't push it this week.
But I'm not above some superstition:
Three Things I'd Like To See:
- Hart, Woodley, Thompson, Engelmon, and Long on the field.
- Something that isn't a zone. I'm not talking all the time, but the Iowa game was ridiculous.
- Evidence that the Northwestern defense really is that bad.
Three Things I Don't Want To See
- Brett Basanez with time to throw.
- Pat "Pancake"Massey chewing the turf as Sutton strolls by.
- Any goddamned unforced fumbles with the game salted away.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 8 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for They've Got Their Own Hart; +1 for We Think Covering Wideouts is Unsporting; +1 for Season On Borrowed Time.)
Desperate need to win level: 8 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for Clearing This Hurdle == One Game To Respectability; +1 for I'd Take The Outback; +1 for A Bye Week To Stew In)
Loss will cause me to... wow. 5-4 with a dominant OSU defense on the horizon? Maybe I do have to scout those MAC teams.
Win will cause me to... exhale.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict: My 0-fer 2005 was finally broken against Iowa, so I can finally predict in peace. Hopefully.
Defensively, Michigan is going to have major issues with Tyrell Sutton. I doubt he gets held under 100 yards. If they decide to let Northwestern have the same coverage Iowa did the results will be largely the same all around and Michigan will be relying on flukes and drops that haven't been featured heavily by Northwestern 2005 in order to stop the Wildcat offense. Michigan should have a signifcant advantage on the OL rushing the passer, especially if Woodley is healthy enough to go full speed, but if Basanez can throw little slants and stops all day because of massive cushions provided they won't make much difference. If Engelmon returns Michigan may get more aggressive but they'll probably pick their spots, but they'll be too few to really shut down the efficient Northwestern offense.
Offensively, we'd better kill these guys. Last! Dead last! With Long back and (probably) Hart back and Avant and healthy Breaston and a Henne that seems to be coming around gradually, we should be able to pound out a number of methodical drives remiscent of those in the NIU and MSU games. Northwestern's defense is no better than the MSU unit we made look stupid or the EMU unit that gave up and went home, and now we've got our big, bad right tackle back. It's shootout time!
It says here that Woodley and Branch make enough plays to squeak this one out. Bring on the bye week, and sweet, sweet release.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Henne goes nuts, then does it again against Indiana. Everyone says he's back. OSU disagrees.
- The delayed LB blitz stops working.
- 35-31, Michigan.