We don't know how good the San Diego State run defense is yet but the early returns are not good for Rocky Long. The Aztecs got ground down by Army in their first game against I-A competition, yielding 403(!) yards on 77(!) carries. That's 5.2 per against a team that threw less than 10% of the time. It's also a game against a triple option opponent. See Georgia Tech games for evidence option foes can screw with your brain without affecting how well you play against more conventional competition.
A first glance at the stats suggests Washington State played as if trying to illustrate this principle, racking up 51 yards on 28 carries. HOWEVA, a zillion sacks distort those numbers greatly. When you excise those, WSU managed 95 yards on 22 carries. That's not great, but it is 4.3 YPC from last year's #117 rushing offense. Washington State might seem much better but that doesn't mean they can run any: against obviously horrible UNLV they managed just 3.8 YPC on 39 carries. Wisconsin did 6.3, so… like… yeah. Are we ready to give up the dream of having Wisconsin-like numbers on the ground yet? I'm not. Are we ready to project 6.8 YPC based on an inane chain of comparisons? Sure!
It's a guess this early, but the guess here is SDSU does not have a good run defense, and may be downright awful. Ace's SDSU Fee Fi Foe Film* featured a couple of runs where 240-pound SDSU defensive ends get latched on to and turned into donkeys by WSU offensive tackles who are most certainly not Taylor Lewan. Watch the right tackle:
That's an inside zone! You know what never happens on inside zones? The defensive end never gets crushed to the point where the play bounces outside.
If the Aztecs try to play this straight up they will die, so they won't. That's the whole deal with the 3-3-5. If you're smart and disciplined and attack the right way even a size-deficient team like TCU can slash their way into the Wisconsin backfield and live. It seems obvious SDSU does not have this down yet, but neither does Michigan have their stuff down. They spent large chunks of the EMU game looking comically bad on power running schemes, especially that pin and pull zone play that is not the stretch and never gets any yards.
The prescription here is for more donkey: QB iso/offtackle stuff behind Lewan and a surprisingly feisty Mark Huyge, mixed in with some zone read just to see if the world really has forgotten how to defend it. (Frequent emailer and smart football guy (not that smart football guy) Tyler Sellhorn emailed me about my Q about the power-zone read combo and did confirm that it really puts the WLB in a bind and makes the scrape exchange games tougher to play, but that's another post.) Runs that hit laterally are asking the quick little buggers on the SDSU defense to slant into your face and should be infrequent constraints.
Key Matchup: Borges versus Long mindgames. I don't think SDSU can win straight up here and don't think Michigan knows what they're doing well enough to figure out all the blitzes Long will chuck at them. So the Q: who is going to catch the other guy out more often?
*[MEMO TO PAID MGOCONTRIBUTORS: Good God we need to work on segment names. Between "Michigan Muesday" that runs on Wednesday and the above… let's just say it's a work in progress. The redeeming thing about the above is potentially referring to it by its abbreviation: FFFF.]
Pass Offense vs. San Diego State
Washington State quarterback Marshall Lobbestael had a very Denard 2011 sort of day against the Aztecs, except with more volume: 368 yards and three touchdowns are explosive but two interceptions and completing just 20 of 42 attempts are not so much. And that's all we have to go on. SDSU's other opponents were a I-AA team I considered applying to out of high school and option-mad Army.
Last year the Aztecs were good, finishing 20th in pass efficiency D and a bit above average in sacks. They did a creditable job against Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, who needed 51 attempts to rack up 351 yards, 88 of those on a two-play WTF drive with just over a minute left. When not desperate, Gabbert was pwned, but at least Michigan's "fall behind and chuck it deep" strategy looks like it will work.
The Aztecs return three fifths of their starting secondary, losing leading tackler and bandit-type safety Andrew Preston and cover corner Darryn Lewis; the other corner, deep safety, and spur-type safety return. SDSU's pass rush comes from all over—I count 16 different Aztecs picking up sacks last year in Tim's preview—but the main threat is fifth-year SLB Mile Burris, the only guy on the team to get more than two. His 9.5 sacks should make him a marked man. Senior DE Jerome Long has three this year against questionable competition.
Michigan, meanwhile, has had a very Marshall Lobbestael 2011. That's not good. They don't throw much, throw accurately even less, and throw short very, very rarely. Against a shifting, zone-blitz-in-a-bag 3-3-5 that actually works Denard might have struggles identifying who the open guys are going to be on straight dropbacks. Or he might not. I have no idea what a 3-3-5 is supposed to look like. Given my experience with the defense, everyone will be open by at least ten yards.
If that's not the case I'd like to see Michigan work the less-dangerous edges with the curl/flat and snag stuff Denard did last year, saving the over the middle passing for deadly play action. I'm not sure we'll actually get to see this. It's time to go back to Denard's well. Will Borges see it the same way?
Key Matchup: Denard versus The Return of Tacopants. Gotta throw it on target before we can talk about anything else.
Run Defense vs. San Diego State
This is going to be a problem. Eastern Michigan averaged 4.5 YPC without any semblance of a passing game, and while the run offense is the one part of EMU's team that isn't completely horrible we're talking about a bad MAC team running better than any Carr team ever did. Yerk.
With Cam Gordon "available" but not starting the personnel won't be much better. It may be worse. I have a credible report that Craig Roh suffered an upper body injury in the EMU game that won't necessarily keep him out but may limit his playing time and effectiveness. With Jibreel Black playing well that won't cause a huge dropoff, but it does kill off any hopes Black and Roh might see the field together.
Michigan's getting decent to good play from three of the four defensive linemen and problems from whoever isn't Martin, RVB, or Roh/Black. Will Campbell's playing time has gradually increased as it becomes clear the walk-ons are pretty much just walk-ons and not magical Kovacs walk-ons.
ATTENTION WALK-ON FAIRY: YOU ARE NEEDED ON THE DEFENSIVE LINE
The linebackers have been erratic. While they're not helped out by plays like the above or the all-too-frequent edge busts from whoever the SLB has been, Kenny Demens and Brandin Hawthorne had rough games against Eastern. Demens did play well against Notre Dame, for what it's worth, and his track record suggests he's pretty good. The bigger worries are at the other two spots, where Jake Ryan is learning but still gives up the edge way too often and Hawthorne shows potential… when he's not wondering WTF is going on.
Opposite this uneven bunch of good players, walk-ons, tiny guys, larger guys, and a smattering of freshmen is Ronnie Hillman, the nation's second leading rusher. If that doesn't mean much three weeks into the season, he was tenth a year ago as a freshman. He was sort of held in check against the better MWC teams, with 62 yards against BYU, and 54 against both Utah and TCU. I say "sort of" because the main problem for Hillman in those games was usage, not efficiency: he had only 38 carries. If you're scoring at home that's still 4.5 YPC—hardly a reason to starve the beast. Here is where I will abruptly gloss over the 228 yards against Missouri so no one gets too frightened.
Did that work?
No. All right, it shouldn't. SDSU returns four of five linemen and is running basically the same offense they did last year—a lot of variety, but a variety these guys are used to. Hillman can play, and Michigan's defense to date has been frighteningly erratic. SDSU just annihilated WSU on the ground. This is going to be a problem.
Key Matchup: Hawthorne and Demens vs counter steps and other misdirection. They've been late reading plays all year and late to the hole. Do that against Hillman and he's severely testing Jordan Kovacs's to-date pristine record of not giving up long touchdowns when they bust into your secondary.
Pass Defense vs. San Diego State
Ryan Lindley and his favorite target Colin Lockett
You are probably aware of Aztec senior QB Ryan Lindley, he of the massive passing yardage and low-level NFL buzz. Lindley has not quite picked up where he left off last year. His day against Army was Denard-2011-like: 8 of 18, 146 yards, 1 TD and no INTs. 8 YPC, sure, but alarming completion percentage and what's with the number of attempts?*
Last week Lindley got the attempts in buckets (37) and managed 273 yards with two TDs and an INT. Washington State is clearly not as awful as they've been—hammering a I-A opponent, any I-A opponent, proves that—but that was last year's #110 passing efficiency defense.
The jury's still out as SDSU hovers around 50th in passer efficiency early in the season. This is largely because of SDSU's receiver situation. The Aztecs lost NFL third-rounder Vincent Brown and running mate DeMarco Sampson, then lost their replacements to season-ending injuries. The leading returner at WR is Dylan Denso and his four catches; he's got nine already this year. Sophomore Colin Lockett is the current go-to guy with 254 yards in three games. He's a big play threat: along with his 21.6 yards per catch he has a kick return touchdown against Cal Poly. However, he's also a position-switch starter, going from the two-deep at corner to a starter at WR once the injuries hit.
Michigan's pass defense has either not had to exist or had to cover Michael Floyd with only the bruised ribs of Alex Carder in-between. They are clearly better than they were a year ago simply by virtue of defending some passes some of the time. Woolfolk's return and extra experience for Avery and Floyd gives the secondary some of that rumored depth stuff; the main problem has been in the nickel when Michigan brings in either a deeply unreliable safety or a freshman. Last week it was the freshman and given Thomas Gordon's strong play opposite Kovacs it will probably be the freshman again unless Michigan gets comfortable with flipping one of the veteran corners inside. Since the position requires more tackling, that would presumably be Floyd. The other options are tiny or wearing a big ol' cast.
Meanwhile, a series of zone blitzes nearly decapitated the aforementioned Carder and got nowhere against the veteran Notre Dame line. San Diego State's line is similarly veteran but presumably not as good. Can Michigan generate pressure from the front four? Can they get guys into the backfield on the zone blitzes? Ask again later.
Key Matchup: Cornerback du jour (Floyd?) over the top on Lockett. Given Michigan's success to date with press coverage on deep throws and their weakness against the running game, they will go to their heavy blitz press package and dare Lindley to beat them over the top with receivers who should be who-dats. Winning the battle with Lockett one-on-one allows Michigan to focus on the short stuff and Hillman and maybe slow this offense down enough to where it sputters.
*[The SDSU-Army game was a Life On The Margins hall of famer. SDSU ran just 43 plays and picked up under 300 yards; Army had 84 plays and 446 yards. So of course SDSU wins.]
Michigan still has no field goal attempts unless you count a glorified extra point at the end of the EMU game, which is fantastic. They've found a punt returner in the suddenly-better-than-competent Jeremy Gallon, and that's where the good news ends. Kickoff returns and coverage have been dismal. The punting has been mediocre, though I'm of the opinion the return to the dino-punt is allowing opponents return yardage they wouldn't otherwise get. Hagerup returns, but he returns next week.
The opponent is middling in most categories. They do have a kick return touchdown, but it was against Cal Poly and is of debatable meaning. Their main advantage is (as always) at kicker, where they have a guy who puts it through the uprights. Abelardo Perez was 17 of 22 last year, though he's missed two of his three attempts in 2011.
Key Matchup: GIBBONS YOU PUT IT THROUGH THE UPRIGHTS AAAAAA
what I see when I look in the mirror
Lockett is legit and too fast to stop over the top without help.
Michigan isn't refining the stuff that doesn't work out of the playbook.
Denard's still flinging it everywhere but the girl.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
SDSU's teeny DEs can't hold up over the tackles.
The zone read continues to amaze and mystify.
Michigan's zone blitzes return to effectiveness.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 4 (Baseline 5; +1 for Hillman Is Better Than Eastern Running Backs, +1 for Lindley Can Throw And Probably Won't Try To Throw To Michael Floyd, –1 for Actually Even Though Michael Floyd Isn't In The State That Might Not Be A Bad Idea Given The State Of SDSU's Receiving Corps, +1 for Irrational Flashback To Previous Close SDSU Game Against Much Better Michigan Team, –1 for Vegas Has Our Back By Two Scores, –1 for Denard How Does SDSU Defend It Not Well, –1 for Seriously Look At That Army Game.)
Desperate need to win level: 8 (Baseline 5; +1 for Insane Person Kyle Turley's Revenge Would Be Annoying, +1 for But I Like Thinking Nice Things About Michigan Football, +1 [UPDATE: I meant to finish this five hours late] for Being Ranked Is Nice, +1 for Niceness Is Nice And Nice, -1 for Reduced Risk of Kyle Turley Murdering Entire State.)
Loss will cause me to... show up at the postgame press conference with a fistful of postage screaming "RETURN TO SENDER."
Win will cause me to... be mildly encouraged about something but still deeply suspicious that 2011 is just 2010 and 2009 with a less annoying media environment.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Will Michigan be able to run, run, run, run until SDSU has to freak out about it? I kind of think so but I'm wary given the Gator Bowl, when an attacking, gap-sound defense crushed the Michigan ground game. But then I'm all like Army 400 yards, and Washington State being competitive on the ground. This should be an old-school bludgeoning as long as Borges keeps it restricted to the stuff he knows they can execute.
If that happens and Michigan can hit some RPS+3 plays as a result they can keep ahead in this game. If they can't, they're in trouble. Hillman is going to rip off big runs on M. Resign yourself to this. They're going to spread the D out and hit those misdirection plays the linebackers have been vulnerable on all year and test out that freshman nickelback. And Lindley will hit the open guys who will be open.
Michigan will do well to bend but not break here, getting good safety play from Kovacs and Gordon and picking the right spots to get SDSU behind the chains with press man and the right blitzes. Keep the big plays to a minimum and make them bleed out field goals on you.
Survey says… possible. I've got less faith in this ground game than people only attending to last year might since it seems committed to chucking away a half-dozen downs per game on something or another that this line isn't very good at and therefore think Vegas is optimistic. In keeping with the 2010 and 2009 theme, this is the stomach-churner in the fourth quarter that keeps you undefeated but makes everyone very nervous.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
There is no screwing around with the idea that Denard is not the offense against an opponent the coaching staff respects. He has another 20 carries and 150 yards.
Kovacs cracks double digits in tackles, most acquired as he slices Hillman down after a ten yard gain.
Zone blitzing does not phase SDSU's OL—they're used to it—and Lindley has a high completion percentage.
If the offense does not turn the ball over they should outscore this team. I guess the big question is how well will the defense play? If the defense plays well I could see a potential blow out. If the defense plays so/so we should out score them and win by 6 to 10 points. Only way for an upset would be an offense that turns the ball over and does not score many points. I think the defense will play well enough but not great and the offense will score points. Both DROB and one of the other backs should both run for over 100 yards!
Michigan needs to come out with sound strategy (Borges: after 3 games you know what works and what doesn't and what we need 'moar' of) and execution (Offense: no turnovers or penalties) in the 1st quarter or they'll be in trouble. I don't like the idea of Denard passing (in this offensive scheme) for a comeback.
C'mon, boys. Let's get it done to keep the mojo going! Go Blue!!
"If you shoot me, you're liable to lose a lot of those humanitarian awards."
That game against Army wasn't a fluke, that was just Lindley being Lindley away from the sun-kissed shores of Southern California. Basically, Lindley (road version) is Denard 2011 with the mobility of Charlie Weis after a big Thanksgiving dinner (miss you big guy XOXO).
Hillman will get his yards (I predict 150+ and 2 TD's) but Lindley will continue his poor road play and UM will win by at least 10 points.