Michigan vs Western Michigan
Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI
3:30 Eastern, September 3rd 2011
ABC/ESPN2/ESPN3.com (Coverage Map)
Run Offense vs. Western Michigan
Michigan returns Denard Robinson (who did this on his first collegiate snap, against Western, for the zero of you who need to be reminded), four starting offensive linemen, and a host of running backs of all shapes and sizes from a team that finished 13th in the country in rushing yards per game last season. The running game, especially Robinson's ability to be pure football magic, will still be the strength of this offense, even if the picture at running back isn't crystal-clear. I trust that Al Borges will find a way to get this offense to run for a bunch of yards, even if it isn't in the form of Denard left, Denard right, Denard up the middle.
Western returns all four starters on the defensive line, but one of those starters is a 6'5", 210-pound defensive end (Paul Hazel, #99)—I believe Taylor Lewan refers to those as "crippled runt donkeys"—and you can expect to see the Wolverines attack Hazel's side of the line with great frequency. The Broncos also must replace both of their starting outside linebackers with inexperienced true sophomores, although senior middle linebacker Mitch Zajac returns after leading the team with 97 tackles in 2010.
Key Matchup: The Interior Line vs. Western Michigan's Defensive Tackles.
The one area in this matchup where I can see the Wolverines getting tested is in the middle of the line, where WMU has a big pair of DTs who can slash into the backfield — 5'11", 303-pound Travonte Boles recorded 4.5 tackles for loss as a true freshman starter last year, while senior Drew Nowak (6'4", 292) tallied 6.5 TFLs two years ago before his production dropped off slightly last year. While these two aren't world-beaters, they'll provide an interesting litmus test for the undersized (at least for the MANBALL power run game) middle of the Michigan line, especially if Borges calls for a lot of man blocking.
Overall however the Wolverines should have a decided advantage in this category, and the key matchup could easily be "Denard Robinson vs. The Sideline." Seriously, Shoelace, please consider the sideline to be your friend, at least when it means avoiding a head-hunting defender.
Pass Offense vs. Western Michigan
The Broncos were mediocre against the pass last year, finishing 74th in the nation in opponent pass efficiency, but they struggled in their two games against BCS competition — Michigan State only threw the ball 22 times in a 38-14 victory, but managed 8.5 yards per attempt, while Notre Dame torched WMU to the tune of 299 yards and four touchdowns on 30 passes. They also got lit up by Central Michigan in a losing effort. The Wolverines should be able to throw for some yards early on, with the onslaught only stopping by virtue of mercy.
Western Michigan does feature redshirt senior free safety Doug Wiggins, who transferred from Miami (YTM) and started eight games last season, and sophomore cornerback Lewis Toler, who was named first-team All-MAC last year after recording an impressive 14 pass breakups. However the listed starter at the corner spot across from Toler is senior Aaron Winchester, who last season was Western's starting running back. He's also 5'6", so say hello to Junior Hemingway, jump-ball specialist.
The Bronco front four does present a decent pass-rush threat, with Hazel's eight sacks leading the way last year, including a 1.5-sack performance against Notre Dame, but Denard Robinson is pretty hard to track down — while the offensive line certainly deserves credit for allowing .85 sacks per game last year, Robinson's mobility had a lot to do with that number.
Key Matchup: Denard Robinson vs. Timing.
From last weekend's punt-tacular scrimmage thing:
Denard had a hard time finding receivers. A few crisp rhythm throws, a lot of ball-patting, scrambling, and difficult sideline improv throws. Not sure if that's on him or the WRs. Gallon twice ran comebacks that the quarterbacks expected to be fly routes, so they've got some pro-style sight reading in the O. Not functional sight reading, but sight reading nonetheless.
It would be nice if said sight reading was a little more functional, especially against a secondary so ripe for picking apart. It's probably going to take at least a few weeks for Denard to get down some basic timing with his receivers at full game speed, but with Notre Dame looming in week two, he needs to develop some go-to plays that can make the passing offense a threat. Since one-hand touch on the quarterback doesn't fly as a legitimate tackling method in real games, the hope here is that the passing game will open up as defenses have to respect the dilithium. Like every other team that's ever watched film of Denard, the Broncos will utilize "spies" on defense, but good luck with this:
“We got to have somebody that’s going to run him down, or get him before we have to run him down,” [WMU head coach Bill] Cubit said.
You can't ask your defense to do the impossible, coach. You just can't. Cubit should know that better than anyone, as the article linked above is all about how Denard's First Run is still the stuff of legends in Kalamazoo.
Run Defense vs. Western Michigan
Western Michigan's running game was, frankly, pathetic last season — they averaged just 3.9 yards per carry as a team. A part of this is due to the team allowing 2.5 sacks a game, but the bigger issue was giving now-cornerback Winchester more carries than any other running back despite his paltry 2.9 ypc. Quarterback Alex Carder led the team with 109 attempts and six rushing TDs, but finished with just 226 yards — again, sacks were an issue, but his legs are not a lethal weapon by any means. Taking over the starting job is sophomore Tevin Drake, who averaged 10.3 yards per carry (!) last season on 40 carries. All but eight of his yards, however, came against Ball State, Akron, EMU, Kent State, and Bowling Green — he struggled to find room on four carries against Notre Dame, the only other team against whom he appeared. Expect redshirt sophomore Brian Fields (6.5 ypc in 2010) to see a fair amount of action as well.
An even greater concern for the Broncos is their offensive line, which already had just two returning starters (including ex-Wolverine Dann O'Neill, who will line up at right tackle) and now is dealing with injuries to two projected starters on the interior of the line. Western is now forced to start two JuCo guards in their first year with the program, and this isn't exactly a supreme vote of confidence from their head coach:
"I'm not losing any sleep at night, but we know it's a concern," said Cubit, who considers Uitalia perhaps the best athlete WMU has had on its offensive line in his coaching tenure. "We've got to make sure we don't put those guys in tough spots."
Prepare for MARTIN SMASH.
Key Matchup: Michigan's Outside Linebackers vs. Losing Contain.
Michigan will be breaking in a pair of new starting outside linebackers themselves, and I still have nightmares of Jonas Mouton WHY DID YOU GIVE UP THE OUTSIDE WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYY.
Cam Gordon and Mike Jones are your starting outside linebackers; Gordon is at his third position as a Wolverine in three years, while Jones missed almost the entirety of 2010 with a broken leg. With the exception of Thomas Gordon at free safety, I'll be watching this pair more closely than any other Wolverine defender, especially with a couple big-play threats (at least against MAC competition) at running back for WMU. Michigan should be able to shut down Western's rushing attack, and the only way they don't is if the outside linebackers don't do their jobs.
Pass Defense vs. Western Michigan
Kalamazoo Gazette reporter Graham Couch thinks the best quarterback in the state will be on the field on Saturday. He also thinks that quarterback is Western's Alex Carder. He is hilariously wrong:
That is literally the dumbest thing I have seen written about football in the state of Michigan not related to Rich Rodriguez. In games against ND and MSU last year Carder averaged 5.4 YPA—Threet/Sheridan numbers—and threw two TDs to three interceptions. He had 104 yards on 33 attempts against Idaho in a 33-13 loss. Playing a MAC schedule he finished 35th in passer efficiency. Cousins was 18th and Robinson 20th playing in the Big Ten.
This is not a surrounding talent issue. According to Couch WR Jordan White "would be an All Big Ten wideout." He proved this by averaging a whopping 10.5 yards per catch against MSU and Notre Dame. But sure, a MAC team with a better quarterback than Kirk Cousins and Denard Robinson and an All Big Ten wideout went 6-6 last year in the MAC.
That's not to say Carder is terrible—he threw for 30 touchdowns against 12 interceptions and should improve in his second year as a starter—but he is capable of turning the ball over six times against Toledo. The Broncos do return two senior starters at receiver in White (1,378 yards receiving in 2010) and Robert Arnheim (235 yards last year after posting 759 in '09), but they lack a true deep threat and no tight end caught more than nine passes for them last season.
The Wolverines, of course, get Troy Woolfolk back from the Tragic Leg Explosion of 2010, and the secondary can do nothing but improve from last year's craptastic performance. Do not make me feel terrible for writing that sentence, Michigan, or this will be a very, very long year. If nothing else, the front seven should be able to get some major pressure on Carder against that extremely inexperienced offensive line, which should help bail out the pass defense
Key Matchup: Troy Woolfolk/Courtney Avery vs. Jordan White.
Hey, an actual matchup! While they aren't Montana-to-Rice, as Graham Couch would have you believe, Carder-to-White is still a dangerous and established combination. We'll see if Greg Mattison decides to just stick Woolfolk, his top corner, on White all game or if he lets Avery get a crack at him in coverage as well, but either way we'll get a decent gauge on how much those two have improved since the last time we saw them suit up. If T-Wolf locks down White, then there's a shot the Wolverines have a passable number one corner, which would be more than welcome. If Avery knows where to be in zone coverage and continues to show he's solid in man-to-man, we may even have two passable starting cornerbacks. Hooray!
Western Michigan has a solid kicking game, with two seniors returning at the specialist positions — kicker John Potter (10-12 FGs, long of 42 last year) and punter Ben Armer (40.6 yards per punt). The Broncos had three different players who returned either 13 or 14 kickoffs last year, with the most successful being senior receiver Dervon Wallace, who averaged 27.2 yards per return and took one back to the house. Jordan White handled the punt returns and averaged an unremarkable 6.1 yards last year, and he's ceded the top spot on the depth chart to 5'5", 160-pound running back Dareyon Chance.
Michigan has Brendan Gibbons kicking, true freshman Matt Wile punting, and Jeremy Gallon returning kicks. When the Wolverine special teams are on the field, I will not be breathing.
Key Matchup: HOLD ONTO THE DAMN BALL.
Also, KICK THE DAMN BALL BETWEEN THE UPRIGHTS.
Carder-to-White actually resembles Montana-to-Rice
The Broncos find room to run on the edge
Denard Robinson is still throwing routes that the receivers aren't running
Cackle with knowing glee if...
You be like dang
Denard repeats the '09 run, just over and over
Someone in blue makes a field goal
Fear/Paranoia Level: 2 (Baseline: 5, +1 for We Have No Idea What the Offense Will Look Like, +1 for Same With the Defense, -1 for Alex Carder is Not Joe Montana Regardless of What Insane Beat Reporter Claims, -1 for We Did This Two Years Ago, -1 for 210-pound Defensive End, -2 for They're Starting Two JuCo Guys Against Mike Martin and RVB)
Desperate Need to Win Level: 10 (Baseline: 5, +1 for First Game of the Hoke Era, +1 for We Don't Lose to MAC Teams Not Named Toledo, +1 for It's Western, For Goodness Sake, +1 for Please Don't Do This to Me, +1 for Seriously, That Mascot is Blatantly High and We Can't Lose to a Team Whose Mascot is Horse Towelie)
Loss will cause me to... Question Dave Brandon's "process" again, and likely lose my press credential after just one game in the, er, process.
Win will cause me to... Continue to not be able to focus on anything except the Notre Dame game no matter what I'm doing.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Simply put, I'll believe a MAC-level team can slow down Denard Robinson when I see it. Al Borges may try to establish a pro-style passing game and some between-the-tackles running from the tailbacks, but if things don't go well, he's got one hell of a backup plan — unleash Shoelace. The offense will put up points, and it will just be a matter of when, how efficiently, and by what means. If it's with precision passing and Mike Shaw breaking runs with Denard under center, cackle away.
The defense may have some trouble early on with Carder, despite my derision, but I can't get the thought out of my head that when the team had an entire fall camp to prepare for UConn last year, they somehow held a future BCS team (Big East shenanigans be damned) to ten points. That was last year's defense with GERG at the helm. This year's defense would've been greatly improved even if Greg Mattison didn't leave one of the NFL's best gigs to come back to Ann Arbor.
I don't think this one will be close, so therefore—thankfully—special teams should not matter much except to help us all sleep well at night. Or not. Probably not. But we can hope, right?
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
Junior Hemingway has at least 100 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
Denard Robinson carries the ball ten times, a few of them on broken passing plays, and leaves the game (healthy, please) by the second half.
Thomas Gordon comes away with an interception and doesn't give up any big plays. I'm totally asking for it with this one.