I think we can take a 3 of these games if we win the turnover battle. And I agree with Brian that Illinois looks like the toughest game out of these three, but I wouldn't have at the beginning of the year.
The Road Ahead: Penn State, Purdue, Illinois
UFR note: The first torrent didn't go up until yesterday afternoon, so I haven't embarked on my usual journey of discovery yet. The UFRs will be a day late. So in lieu of figuring out the tao of Demens I took a look at a couple games featuring teams in this critical upcoming stretch…
Purdue (vs Toledo)
I picked the game they lost by 11 to a MAC team and haven't seen them beat Northwestern yet. This is probably the worst game they'll play all year. Even so…
Jesus. Jesus, they're bad.
QB. Marve went out like EMU's quarterback did last year—untouched. He was facing a totally unblocked DT up the middle, FWIW.
Rob Henry, the guy Michigan will face, is very erratic. Many of his throws were wildly off target and his interception was completely doomed. He stared at a guy on a hitch route, decided not to throw it, kept staring at him, and then finally let it rip. A linebacker met the receiver and took it away.
Henry's main assets are his legs. He's a decisive upfield runner with good speed. This will be the closest Michigan gets to playing Denard Robinson this year—not very close at all. (Pryor is an entirely different animal, a tank more concerned with its paint job than anything else.)
Skill position melange. With Smith and Bolden out they're just guys. Dierking is obviously a bottom-three tailback in the Big Ten and their receivers didn't do anything of note. Cortez Smith dropped a couple balls.
Offensive line. Terrible. Toledo stoned Purdue short yardage thanks to their DT getting underneath the 6'6" Boiler center and discarding him. When Purdue went to stretch plays the Toledo DTs always got playside of their guys and forced the play back inside. Also, Boiler OL could not find a second level block for the world. When there were creases in the line most of the time Toledo linebackers would run right by ponderous OL and tackle after a few yards.
A couple exceptions came on runs by WRs right up the gut on the inside zone where doubled Toledo DTs got blown way off the ball. I have no idea how Purdue managed 220 yards on the ground; they had trouble with Henry on the outside.
In pass protection things were a little better but on Purdue's final drive Toledo ripped into the backfield and sacked Henry on consecutive plays. Those were just straight-up four-man rushes on which Toledo DTs and DEs smoked Boiler OL.
DL. Ryan Kerrigan is really good. I've seen him be really good against real teams, too—this is just confirmation. Purdue doesn't have much else on the line.
LB. Lost. Toledo is a passing spread with some read-option elements, and their quarterback found guys shockingly open on simple drag routes all day. Purdue had a knack for vacating the area directly in front of the quarterback's face. Junior linebacker Joe Holland stood out as not very good, as it seemed like every attempted tackle from him was run through. His coverage was dismal, too.
Toledo got a long touchdown on a read option keeper when the contain guy didn't contain and the safety jumped the handoff.
Secondary. As mentioned, a deep safety went off schedule and turned a twenty-yard gain into a 58-yard touchdown on a simple option keeper. I didn't look too closely at this group but Toledo was finding wide open guys 15, 20 yards downfield with consistency.
Overall worry level: I'll withhold final judgment until I see a couple more games but Michigan should shred this team; Henry won't be able to throw enough to keep up unless he gets radically better. FWIW, Toledo ran the midline a few times with good success. Maybe this is where Hope got the idea.
Penn State (vs Illinois)
QB. Bolden rolled out for one eighty-yard touchdown pass to Derek Moye; he completed 7 of his other 20 attempts for 62 yards. Illinois's defense didn't give him anything easy and he responded with hopeless checkdowns and lots of inaccurate balls. Penn State's completely abandoned running the quarterback as long as Bolden's in the game, by the way. Strange since he's plenty fast enough to do some damage in space.
RB. Royster is Royster, but he's got problems in front of him. He did seem to lack some of his old Hart-like spark, FWIW. Penn State boards are flying with rumors about him having issues.
WR. PSU's got two enormous WRs that aren't going to beat you deep much. Bolden must not be able to throw a fade to save his life, though, because not once did Penn State try to use the fact that they're rolling out two 6'5" guys on the outside to their advantage. Slot guy Devon Smith is a quick little YAC guy who I can see doing some damage against an erratic Michigan LB corps.
OL. It's shocking that a stable program like Penn State can have such a pasted-together line. I know they lost their starting RT for the year but the four guys on the line who weren't pressed into the lineup because of injury weren't much better. An early fourth and one:
That's four OL on three DL getting no push. Martez Wilson, the MLB, will shoot into a gap unblocked and tackle at the LOS. Penn State tailbacks had 64 yards on 20 carries and weren't obviously leaving a bunch of yards on the field.
DL. While other bits of the Penn State defense may be suffering, the defensive tackles are up to the usual standard. Devon Still and Ollie Ogbu were in the backfield a lot, and if they'd gotten anything from the linebackers they may have made it a game. Tough to judge the defensive ends. They were so injury-wracked that a 309 pound true freshman DT played a big chunk of the game outside. I'm not sure how close to the starting lineup #44 Kevion Latham will be against Michigan but I was not impressed with him.
LB. MLB Chris Colasanti is not up to the usual standard. He's slow mentally and physically and while he'd be an upgrade at M he's just a guy. PSU fans are pushing for hyped recruit Khairi Fortt to play more but he's got the same freshman issues big chunks of Michigan's defense does. When he was in there he was vulnerable to cluelessness against run and pass. Same goes for Mike Yancich, who abandoned a flat zone on one of Illinois's long pass plays.
Underneath zone coverage was atrocious:
That second and fifteen drag went for 18 yards, Scheelhaase's second longest completion of the day. That's starting linebacker Nathan Stupar pulling the Courtney Avery by turning zone coverage into man there; Sukay could not get an angle on the guy before the sticks.
Here's the exact same thing on another 18 yard pass that would be the first Illinois touchdown:
That's a result of DE Pete Massaro and Fortt dropping into the same zone. Clueless youth, but maybe not clueless youth that's going to play against Michigan.
Secondary. Cornerbacks had the day off against Illinois. Safeties were hard to tell because Nick Sukay tore a pectoral muscle and won't be playing against Michigan; by the time he went out Illinois was cruising and content to run. Drew Astorino didn't stand out good or bad.
Overall worry level: This may not be a representative sample of what Michigan sees from Penn State on defense. The Nittany Lions were down to Talbott-equivalents all over the field and their errors opened up large chunks of Illinois yardage. Still, the complete ineptness of the offense is stunning—their line cannot block anyone. If Michigan plays bend but don't break against Penn State it should work because eventually Bolden's going to get stuck in long yardage and he's uncomfortable trying to fit throws in windows. Meanwhile, the defense is obviously a step down from previous editions. How much of one depends on their health level going into the game.
Illinois (vs Penn State)
Illinois is a triple option team. They run it from the pistol…
… but their offense is 60% old-school Nebraska with a modern twist:
Scheelhaase is about Henry's equivalent on the ground, maybe a bit faster.
QB. Scheelhaase's passing ability is primitive. He managed to go 15 of 19 for 151 yards against Penn State but save a swing pass to Leshoure that Yancich busted that went for 32 his long on the day was 18 yards. Literally all routes were little hitches or drags. I'm not even sure if Scheelhaase looks deep, ever. This post (on the far right) on the earlier drag route is about to be a billion yards open:
Sukay is already heading towards the TE who Stupar is getting out of position on.
Scheelhaase's three longest completions were three-yard passes taken for lots of yards after the catch. His other completions averaged 6.9 yards. The book is clear: sit in zones and tackle.
RB. Leshoure is Yet Another Big Ten Back I'd Kill For. He's got a good size-speed combination. He drags piles and hits the holes hard. He doesn't have much shimmy, though—think a poor man's Edwin Baker. Leshoure backup Jason Ford is also pretty good.
WR. AJ Jenkins is the main target in the passing game. His ability to pick up YAC is impressive, Penn State had a tendency to leave crossing routes in the middle of the field shockingly open. Obviously.
OL. Not sure about the OL, which seemed to allow a lot of penetration from the DTs but since Illinois was running at the DEs all day it didn't matter. The Illinois passing game is all short stuff so Penn State did not have time to get pressure.
Defense. Defensively, also hard to tell since Penn State is decimated. Martez Wilson finally has acquired a clue to go with his intimidating physical ability; he came on a blitz designed to blow up play action and showed up in Bolden's chest frighteningly quickly. On the line, Clay Nurse and Corey Liuget are legit playmakers.
Bolden's inaccuracy has something to do with the Illinois secondary. You can never tell about these things for sure but I think a reason he threw a lot of inaccurate passes were guys getting in the way of short routes and knocking off the timing—Bolden doesn't have the experience to adjust yet. Another set were deeper throws on which Bolden's first read was covered. His instinct seems to be "let's see if I can fit this in a tiny window and my receiver can make a spectacular catch."
Dreads. Illinois has fewer players with dreads but they make up for it by having the dreads guys have crazy Marley dreads that end up halfway down the kid's back.
Overall worry level: The Illinois offense moves the ball based on your mistakes only, which means Michigan will have a frustrating day but maybe not one that sees Illinois put up 30 points. Third and long will mean lots of guys in zone and checkdowns Michigan will have to tackle; getting them there will mean implanting Kovacs's brain into the rest of the D.
Defensively, I'm more alarmed by what the Illinois defense did to the MSU run game than anything that transpired here. There is no comparison between the Penn State OL and the Michigan OL. They're clearly good, though, and this should be the toughest game in the upcoming stretch.
I think we can win these games even if we're turnover neutral. If we start losing the TO battle however to quote Stanley "Bad things man, bad things."
to beat us if we play poorly. LeShoure is a beast and Scheelhaase can be effective against our defense if we bring our 'B' game. Which is a good defenses 'C' game. Not that I have wished ill upon our Big Ten Brothers, but knowing the troubles Purdue and Penn St. have had has led me to go buy some ChapStick because I've been licking my lips so much thinking about these next few games...
I'd say your assessment is spot on; while they did play better (perhaps significantly) in the wins over Northwestern and Minnesota, the basic points still hold. There isn't much talent left on offense, and the defense consists of KERRIGAN SMASH and ugh.
Special teams: mixed bag. Carson Wiggs has distance (his career long is 59) but sometimes struggles with accuracy (missed from 35, 37, and 18 this year). His average kickoff reaches the 4 (Purdue's website actually provides average kick length, which is cool) ... and there endeth good news. Kick and punt coverage and return teams struggle: their longest punt return this year is 6 yards. Yes, 6. Most of the punts from Wiggs and Cody Webster haven't been returned, but the average on the returns is over 11 yards. The Boilers average under 18 yards per kick return and allow 25.6 per return ... so in this game, unless Purdue's FG team is on the field, hide your eyes.
The midline reportedly came about from OC Gary Nord calling a few friends in the business ... once Marve went down, they realized that a pass-heavy offense wasn't a good idea (as you have seen), so Nord wanted to find what might work. A cynic would say that the call went something like this: "Hi, my offense sucks. Can you fix it for me?" Thus you see some of the option plays Purdue has been running ... I wasn't aware of those being a significant part of the package with Marve at QB, so either they practiced different things already or this touches on some of what Henry ran in high school.
Michigan should have no problems scoring on Purdue - basically, the offensive plan should be to identify where Kerrigan is on each play and neutralize him. If Denard reaches the secondary, WOOP.
On defense, Purdue will get yards, but they aren't likely to break something big. A normal Purdue offense isn't built that way - the Tiller/Hope version of the spread is death-by-crossing-routes - and there are few speed threats, if any, who are healthy enough to pose a challenge. Given that Henry is quite inaccurate (65% against Minnesota translates to something like 52% against a I-A school), there is less to fear in the secondary than against any opponent other than Penn State, perhaps. (Purdue's favorite pass play now is "Hope the pass is deflected to a streaking receiver that everyone on the defense will simply watch.") If they don't get caught by the option stuff, there should be lots of second- and third-and-long situations.
This game should be an easy win for Michigan ... Hope has done a decent job piecing together what he can from the remaining talent at his disposal, but none of their wins have come against teams with the offensive firepower that Michigan has.