death by trident
As we draw closer to the fifth year gone by since Michigan has celebrated a win over Michigan State, those words alone make the statement of how important a win over State will be. November 3rd, 2007 was the last date that we could claim a win and we have seemingly heard about it every day since they got the first win in their streak. From Wikipedia –
After the game, Michigan running back Mike Hart called Michigan State Michigan's "little brother." "I was just laughing,” Hart said of Michigan State taking the lead. “I thought it was funny. They got excited. Sometimes you get your little brother excited when you’re playing basketball, and you let him get the lead, and then you come back and take it back." Mark Dantonio later responded to Hart's comment stating "I find a lot of the things they do amusing. They need to check themselves sometimes. But just remember, pride comes before the fall... This game is an important game. So they want to mock us all they want to mock us, I'm telling them: it's not over. So they can print that crap all they want all over their locker room. It's not over. It'll never be over here. It's just starting... I'm going to be a coach here for a long time. It's not over. It's just starting.
Since that game, Michigan State has averaged 31 points to Michigan’s 18. We lost to them in overtime in 2009, and they have scored twice as many points as we have in the last two years. This year will also mark the fourth year in a row we have played them that we have been ranked in the top 25. Their defense has been the key to victory in the last two years, keeping Denard in check; holding him to 3.3 yards per carry, and keeping his completion percentage to a mere 49%. They have managed to stifle Denard with their smothering defense causing 4 interceptions over the last two years as well. Their defense is playing well on paper, but there has already been some line-up shuffling mid-way through the year. Will Michigan be able to figure out the Spartan defense this year? I could say that this year will be different, as we have all said the last several years, but I won’t. We know that this is their Super Bowl. They live for that ugly statue, and keeping it in East Lansing probably means more to some of their fans than winning a B1G Championship. They aren’t going to win this year by outscoring their opponents; because their offense is terrible; they will only achieve victory by bludgeoning their opponents with a staggering defense. So what does Sparty look like this year on the defensive side of the ball? Here’s a peek at what we’ll be looking at come 3:30 on Saturday.
All Star Performers
Michigan State had a great defense last year. Period. They were intimidating and brutal. They were # 6 in defensive FEI rankings overall and #1 in the B1G. Other than tackle Jerel Worthy and safety Terrence Robinson, they returned almost all the key components from last year’s defense. An All B1G 1st teamer and potential first round cornerback Johnny Adams, three 2nd team All B1G players - defensive end William Gholston, linebacker Max Bullough, safety Isaiah Lewis, and two players with honorable mention – linebacker Denicos Allen and defensive end Marcus Rush. They have picked up right where they left off last year defensively and have only let 1 of their 7 opponents score more than 20 points. It was 27 in fact, and those all came in the first half. Versus Indiana. Enter the questions – Why the line-up changes? Why the concern by fans? Which players are being talked about being benched? Surprisingly, it is some of those same performers listed above.
Enter William Gholston. This was supposed to be the year for Gholston to step up and lead this defense, possibly on his way to an early exit into the NFL. So far his performance has been far short of the hype. He has recorded only 1 sack and 5 tackles for loss this year, and is projected to fall well short of his 5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss last year. Taken right from Gholston himself –
Gholston gave himself a "C" in grading his junior season thus far in telling ESPN.com on Wednesday he hadn't come close to reaching his standard of play, and it was clear after the Ohio State game that he was searching for ways to do better.
Mark Dantonio has felt the same way at times this year, even starting redshirt freshman Shilique Calhoun in favor of Gholston against Eastern Michigan, and in doing so leaving Michigan State fans puzzled as to what was going on with their overly-hyped all-star defensive end.
Gholston has not been the only one to feel the pressure of underperforming. STAR linebacker Chris Norman started this year as a team captain and first on the depth chart. He has managed to work his way below sophomore Taiwan Jones and doesn’t appear to be making his way back into Dantonio’s good graces anytime soon. It is not very common for a team captain to lose his starting spot so early in the year, but that event has symbolized how high the bar is set for this Spartan defense (some might even say it is too high).
Cornerback Johnny Adams has struggled as well, getting beat and looking lost at critical moments. Adams has fallen well short of expectations this year; he even has some Spartan fans calling for his head. This is probably not what the potential first round NFL draft prospect thought he would be hearing mid-way through the season.
Another team captain, MIKE linebacker Max Bullough has managed to rack up a ton of tackles, and leads all Spartans in that category, but has not recorded a single sack. His constant pressure and relentless play have not been rewarded on the stat sheet, forcing people to ask if something is different with him this year as well.
Even though the defense is performing well by some metrics, in fact even outperforming last year’s defense in S&P+ ratings, the lack of interior pressure and poor pass coverage in big play situations have some Spartan fans scratching their heads. The talent is there, the coaching is the same, and yet somehow it all feels problematic. Giving up 27 first half points to a team like Indiana is not something that they are used to. Maybe a closer look at the different units will give us a better idea as to why there might be cause for concern in East Lansing.
Nose tackles Anthony Rashad White and James Kittredge were given the task of replacing Jerel Worthy. This was a huge task because Worthy’s interior pressure was a big part of Michigan State’s successful defense last year. This pair of nose tackles, however, has not managed to record a single sack and has only 3 tackles for loss between the two of them. Not exactly carrying the torch very well, and are most likely the biggest weakness in this Spartan defense.
The other tackle, junior Micajah Reynolds, has been kept even quieter than his interior defensive line teammates; he has only one tackle for loss on the season and zero sacks to his name. Replacing Kevin Pickelman has been much more difficult than the Spartans would have liked. Pickelman was a solid performer last year with 4 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. Reynolds so far has only recorded 1 tackle for loss and has yet to record a sack. This has really given opposing teams some flexibility when blocking Michigan State this year that they didn’t have last year. His back-up, Tyler Hoover, has been nursing a calf injury since the Notre Dame game. This has hurt the Spartans depth at a position that could really use some help this year.
Having covered Gholston’s less than stellar year above, we’ll look at his cohort Marcus Rush. Last year Rush had 12 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. This year he has 4.5 tackles for loss and 1 sack half way through the year, and will potentially fall short of his performance last year. Whether he is a symptom of this or part of the problem is purely speculation. What can be said is that he isn’t generating the same presence that he did last year.
There are definitely some signs that point towards vulnerability this year. A big reason Notre Dame did well against State, was that they were undeniably successful on second down, in what might be one of the oddest stats of that game. The offensive S&P+ rankings by down shown here –
1st Down S&P+
2nd Down S&P+
3rd Down S&P+
With their success on 2nd down, Notre Dame was able to avoid the confusing blitz packages that Michigan State likes to throw at you on 3rd downs. When State did get pressure on Everett Golson, he was able to roll out and throw the ball away when he had to. Notre Dame was also able to use Pat Narduzzi’s aggressive play calling against them. They deployed delayed hand-offs as an effective counter to Narduzzi’s pressure – with a couple of those plays even getting some big yardage for Atkinson and Wood.
Michigan State utilizes a MIKE, SAM, and STAR linebacker – similar to Illinois. Unlike Illinois, State uses their STAR linebacker more like a linebacker than a safety; they are also bigger and more physical.
If Michigan throws bubble or jailbreak screens, the STAR will be the player mostly responsible for that assignment. The bubble screen was how starting STAR linebacker Chris Norman really lost favor with Dantonio during the Indiana game. Indiana’s bubble screens were successful in the first half because of a few things. State likes to keep their safeties deep. Indiana was getting Norman to bite on the fake running plays which forced the safeties to drop down and cover the bubble. This was how Indiana got some big yardage passing; without safety help over the top, Indiana took advantage of man to man coverage on several deep passes. Inserting the bigger, more physical Taiwan Jones paid off for the Spartans. He made better decisions than Norman, and essentially held the edge and the bubble screen in check. His play was singled out by Dantonio as the reason they kept Indiana scoreless in the second half.
Max Bullough, starting MIKE linebacker, is without a doubt the workhorse of this offense. He has also suffered this year statistically because of Michigan State’s inability to seal the edge. He is a wrecking ball when he comes through the middle of the line. Bullough was very successful at pushing the play outside to his fellow Spartans last year. This year as he plows through, mobile quarterbacks have had an easier time escaping his pressure and rolling out to keep the play going. With their outside linebackers and defensive ends getting sealed much easier this year, State is not getting the contain it needs to make a player like Bullough shine. This was how Braxton Miller was able to rush for more total yards in one game against State than Denard has rushed for in two. Rolling out or throwing it away will be critical when Denard has Bullough in his face.
At SAM for Michigan State is junior Denicos Allen. Allen was a solid contributor last year, but has suffered the same fate as some of his Sparty brethren; a significant drop in stats. His season might be more disappointing than Gholston’s so far, even given the lack of media attention he gets compared to Gholston. Last year he was a major threat in the backfield and terrorized opposing quarterbacks. In 2011 he racked up 11 sacks, 18 tackles for loss, and 7 quarterback hits - making him the most disruptive Spartan defender on the field. Half way through the year he has only recorded 1 sack, 4 tackles for loss, and has hit the quarterback 3 times. His performance in the Iowa game was a step up as he recorded 13 tackles, 1.5 of those for a loss, and even added an interception for good measure.
This is really the group that Denard needs to make look silly. Michigan’s offensive line should be able to contain Sparty’s defensive line, because that won’t be our biggest threat offensively. The linebackers keeping our short yardage plays in check will be. If the run game can’t generate yards, then expect Narduzzi to get pressure happy early on.
Johnny Adams was looking to improve his draft stock this year. So far he has drawn a lot of criticism, mostly from his own fan base. Having given up so many big plays and only intercepting the ball once so far, he hasn’t done much to deflect it. Some of the plays were not all his fault, (as documented above with Chris Norman’s woes at STAR linebacker), as some of Adams’ much needed safety help has not been present. However, that hasn’t been the case all the times he’s been burnt this year though. The first Notre Dame touchdown came when he lost track of where he was and let John Goodman score from 36 yards out. After Eastern Michigan recovered a Spartan fumble at the 23 yard line of Michigan State, it was Adams that gave up a touchdown to Eastern on the very next play to Eastern’s Donald Scott. In the same game he also lost coverage on a potential touchdown pass that would have put Eastern Michigan ahead in the 4th quarter; once again it was Scott; but he dropped the ball and Adams was saved a second embarrassment. Versus Ohio State, and only a few plays after Michigan State took a 13-10 lead on Ohio State, it was Adams that gave up a 63 yard bomb to Devin Smith – letting Ohio State claim what would be the game winning touchdown. Against Indiana he gave up a 33 yard play on the fourth play of the game. Later in the same quarter he gave up a 21 yard touchdown to Indiana’s Ted Bosler. Again, some of his problems have been his safety help, but not all of it has been. The fact is, Adams just isn’t playing as well as he did last year, at times even looking lost. Michigan State really doesn’t have another boundary corner as talented as Adams, so expect to see him continue to get starts.
The field corner for Michigan State is Darqueze Dennard. Unlike his counterpart on the other side of the field, Dennard has yet to record an interception. An athletic player that comes with a lot less fanfare than Adams, Dennard did manage to grab 3 interceptions last year; matching Adams in that category for the season. As the front seven continue to struggle to get pressure on opposing offenses, look for these two guys to be left in mostly man to man coverage.
Against Michigan Narduzzi will certainly not want to give Denard time alone to make good throws with proper footwork, and will most likely have him shadowed by a safety/linebacker. The corners will be on an island unless we come out throwing bombs (which we won’t….errr I hope to God we won’t).
This is a group that has missed free safety Trenton Robinson this year. Free safety co-starters RJ Williamson and Kurtis Drummond each have 1 interception to their name, but don’t possess the veteran skills that made Robinson an All B1G 1st Team media selection at safety last year. Williamson is a redshirt freshman and Drummond is a sophomore.
Strong safety Isaiah Lewis probably won’t get 4 interceptions this year to match his last year’s total. He only has one so far this year but he is the 3rd most active tackler on the Spartan defense. The 2nd Team All B1G player from last year has been a solid performer so far this year. The Spartans will need him to stay healthy as his back-up Jarius Jones is injured and probably won’t play in the Michigan game.
With such a high S&P+ ranking this year, and with almost all of last year’s stellar defensive performers back this year, you wouldn’t expect panic to be the emotion emanating from the East Lansing faithful. That isn’t the case though; because the offense is missing so much, the expectations were almost too high for this defensive unit. A group that lost a monster presence in the heart of their defensive line and a veteran safety that was adept at making plays, Michigan State has some issues that have been exposed this year. Bickering and blame have been really amplified because their offense woes; Dantonio is left to tinker and the defense is expected to be perfect. Under this intense pressure, the Spartan defensive starters have found themselves making mistakes this year that they wouldn’t have last year. So far they haven’t been able to pressure the quarterback much if at all. They are vulnerable in places they can’t afford to be, and this is causing them to give up game changing plays. Plays like Braxton Miller’s 63 yard game winning bomb; plays like Mark Weisman’s 37 yard run that set up the game tying touchdown; those plays were not something that the Spartan faithful were used to seeing last year, especially not with the game on the line. I don’t expect them to give up the DERPY plays that have cost them a couple games this year when they play us, but it has me wondering if my expectation might be wrong. Whatever it is with the Spartan defense that is off this year, it has presented the best chance for us to come away with a win and that ugly trophy in the last few years. Why do I feel that way? Let’s look at the stats a little closer and you will see what I found in my research that has me slightly optimistic.
The run defense has been really good this year. It certainly is not the reason that Michigan State is 4-3 right now. In fact, their rushing defense is better than it was last year and is good enough for 3rd best in the nation.
MSU 2012 DEF S&P+
MSU 2011 DEF S&P+
ND 2012 DEF S&P+
Ugh. Another year against a stellar run defense in green and white. It isn’t all bad though if we digest some of the numbers that Sparty has allowed so far. I also threw Notre Dame in for comparison because we were able to move the ball well enough on the ground in that game. While we only averaged 3.9 yards per carry, we did run for 161 and should be able to get close to that against Sparty; who is keeping opponents to 3.1 yards per carry. All our yards on the ground will be earned, but our persistence should be rewarded. As strange as this stat may seem, it also seems to be telling us the story of Michigan State this year. These are the teams that Michigan State has kept under 100 yards rushing – Boise State (37), Central Michigan (72), Eastern Michigan (46), and Indiana (35), which were all wins. They gave up the following yards to these teams – Notre Dame (122), Ohio State (204), and Iowa (123), which were all losses. For visual reference, this chart –
Team ranking by total yardage is in parenthesis. As painful as running it may look to us at times, we shouldn’t abandon the run game – it will eventually pay off. If ever there was a time to yell “JUST RUN DENARD” at your TV screen, this will be the week to do it.
This is where Michigan State seems to be having the most trouble. I am hoping that Borges doesn’t take the bait and walk into the trap that Dantonio has set for him. The big pass play is on the table, the pressure hasn’t been effective this year, and the corners and safeties are having problems. Some of that could be that Sparty hasn’t been able to get pressure on the quarterback this year, thereby leaving the secondary isolated for too long. Some of it could be safeties making rookie mistakes, mistakes that Robinson wouldn’t have made last year. Whatever it is there is certainly something wrong with their ability to generate sacks. Last year Sparty led the B1G in sacks, this year they are dead last. When comparing the pressure aspect of State’s defense this year to last year’s Spartans and also to this year’s Golden Domers, we can see why there is concern –
Last year’s Michigan State was as good at pressuring the ball, and slightly better than Notre Dame this year. This year’s Spartans are only better at one thing compared with the other two squads – swatting down passes. The reason? Most likely because last year the opposing quarterback couldn’t throw it with his face in the Earth. I’m sure that Borges has this information and will be tempted to throw the ball a lot, but just writing that sentence makes me a little nauseous. Also, I don’t think we’re going to need much more than 20 points for a win, so hopefully a steady diet of Denard, Fitz, and Rawls is the meal that we are planning for. I think Michigan scores more than 20, but not much. I’m seeing computer scores of 27-17, and that seems like it might be a little high, I’m going to say 23-12.
After last week’s venture examining Purdue’s defense, I’ve decided to try my hand at creating a defensive preview each week for Michigan’s opponent. I will compound as many facts together about the opponent and try to give you as close to an insider look as possible. We’ll look at personnel, their defensive stats so far this year, and how they performed against Michigan last year. So here it is - I give you the 2012 Illinois Defensive Preview.
2012 ALL STAR PERFORMERS
It could almost go without saying that Illinois has missed their award winning defensive end this year, Whitney Mercilus. Mercilus was a unanimous 1st Team All American, a consensus 1st Team All B1G player, the winner of the Bill Willis Lineman Award, and also won the Ted Hendricks Award for best defensive end. His shoes would be hard for anyone to fill, and Illinois doesn’t have anyone who has remotely stepped up to that task so far.
It isn’t all bad though; returning for his senior year on the other side of the defensive line is consensus 2nd Team All B1G bandit, Michael Buchanan. Buchanan is rated as highly as the 2nd best DE in the draft, so he comes with great fanfare. Buchanan has picked up where he left of last year, being quite disruptive. He has 24 tackles, with 5 of those for a loss. He leads the Illini with 2.5 sacks, and 11 passes broken up (!). He even has an interception to his name which came in the 1st quarter versus Western Michigan in their season opener. Last week versus Wisconsin he recorded 5 tackles, 0 sacks, and was otherwise kept silent for most of the game. Not exactly the game changing performance Illinois needs from him and hopefully we’ll see a repeat performance this week. FWIW - he has been bothered by his leg, (he was questionable for the Penn State game earlier this year), so there might be something there.
Also returning this year is 2011 coaches’ honorable mention All B1G linebacker Jonathan Brown. From the WILL linebacker spot, Jonathan leads the Illini with 6.5 tackles for loss. He is 2nd on the team in total tackling, with 38, and also has 1.5 sacks to his name. Brown was also injured this year (a trend we will see throughout this preview), he was questionable for the Wisconsin game, but managed to play and record 9 tackles. Similar to Buchanan, he didn’t really change the game all that much. He is playing hurt according to Tim Beckman, and gave a gutsy performance though his injury. Those two have been the healthiest performers for Illinois, so that’s where we’ll stop this section. Let’s take a look at the defensive front a little closer.
So now that we’ve looked at Buchanan, let’s take a look at some of his defensive line teammates. Akeem Spence is a junior defensive tackle that appears to be a victim of the change in the Illini defensive scheme. Spence does have 27 tackles making him the 4th most active Illini player in that category. However, he has not been very disruptive in the backfield, recording only 2 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks this year. Spence is capable of plugging holes, but so far this year that’s about it.
Glenn Foster is the other starting defensive tackle and has been even less impressive than Spence. Foster has 13 tackles, with 2 of those for a loss, and has yet to record a sack this year.
Tim Kynard has been starting at the other DE spot and has 9 tackles, 1.5 of those for a loss, and 0.5 sacks this year. It’s pretty safe to say that Kynard is no Mercilus. Even worse than the stark realization that Kynard is not Mercilus, is that Kynard was seen on crutches at the Wisconsin game, so it’s likely that Justin Staples will get the start versus Michigan. This only compounds the depth problems for Illinois on the defensive line after sophomore DT Jake Howe went out for the season with a broken arm. Howe was a backup for Akeem Spence.
There is also this: starting defensive lineman not named Michael Buchanan have amassed 49 tackles, with 5.5 of those for a loss, and only 1 sack this season. Versus Wisconsin, the Illini DL starters including players named Michael Buchanan recorded 14 tackles, 0 of those for a loss, 0 sacks, and broke up 2 passes. They didn’t pressure the QB much, if at all, and were slashed for pretty good yards on the ground. Expect Michigan to game plan away from Buchanan as he is really the only disruptive player the Illini have up front.
Having covered Jonathan Brown above, we’ll look at the other workhorse of the linebacker set. Illinois uses a safety/linebacker hybrid called a STAR, and their current starter at that spot is senior Ashante Williams. Williams leads the Illini with 41 tackles this year, has 0.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, 5 broken up passes, and 1 interception that he returned for a 60 yard touchdown versus Western Michigan.
At the MIKE position Illinois started the season fairly young. An injury to sophomore Houston Bates left Illinois even younger. His backup Mason Monheim is a true freshman but he has outperformed everyone’s expectations so far. For his performance against Penn State he earned B1G Freshman of the Week honors. He is second among all Illini players with 38 tackles, with 2.5 of those for a loss. He has also recorded 1 sack, 1 pass broken up, and 1 interception.
That is where the bright spots end for the Illini at linebacker, unfortunately. Similar to their defensive line woes - depth, injury, and experience will be a problem as the B1G season plods on. Out of the 6 players in the Illini two deep at linebacker, 4 are freshmen, 1 is a junior, and 1 is a senior; the backups to the freshmen are mostly freshmen. Between the depth/injury problems at DL and the depth/experience/injury issues at linebacker, long sustained drives will benefit the Wolverines as the game grinds on (IF Illinois could somehow manage to keep it close).
(CB) Justin Green and (S) Steve Hull
I will start this section with an update on Terry Hawthorne. For those that don’t know, Hawthorne was the Illini player who was taken off the field on a stretcher against Wisconsin. According to Illinois head coach Tim Beckman, Hawthorne sustained no serious injuries and was able to return with the team. Great news for what looked like a very scary situation.
With that said, Hawthorne will be replaced by a mix of senior Jack Ramsey and freshman V’Angelo Bentley. Ramsey has 12 tackles and 2 broken up passes and is a slight step down from Hawthorne. Bentley is very athletic and has the 3rd most broken up passes on the team, but is also a freshman with mostly special teams experience.
At the other cornerback position is “The Observer,” senior Justin Green. Green has 17 tackles, 0 for a loss, 0 sacks, 0 passes broken up, and 0 interceptions. His specialty appears to be watching receivers catch passes and then abruptly tackling them for good measure. He was a highly touted 4 star recruit but so far hasn’t lived up to the hype. In his 2 years starting at cornerback Green has yet to record 1 interception and has only broken up 7 passes in those same 2 years (!)
Losing Hawthorne takes the Illini from bad to worse at this spot. The only relief for Illinois here is that the cornerbacks probably won’t get picked on that much, as Michigan will focus mostly on the ground attack.
A sad safety, Steve Hull
Illinois could really be in a bad spot at safety, had their projected starters not returned, well one of them has returned, I think, wait…nevermind. Injury prone senior Supo Sanni and junior Steve Hull returning to the Illini starting lineup would help this group out, however Supo Sanni can’t make up his mind on which limb he should abuse from week to week. Will he play versus Michigan? I dunno, ask me after the game. Steve Hull looks very probable for the Michigan game though. The replacement safeties (Earnest Thomas, Tommy Davis, and
Pat Nixon-Youman*) have combined to record 59 tackles, 1 for loss, 1 interception, and 1 pass broken up. Not exactly a lethal group without Sanni and Hull, and not to say that Sanni and Hull are world beaters, but Illinois is slightly better with them FWIW. Against Wisconsin Illinois gave up a 62 and 59 yard touchdown pass. The big play should be on the table for Michigan if they get past the second level of the defense.
*In the time it took to write this report, Pat Nixon-Youman sustained an injury, seriously.
Lack of depth, lack of talent, a new system that isn’t working, and player health are all problems for Illinois. Buchanan and Brown are studs; the rest of their defense is either injured, confused by the new scheme, merely serviceable, just plain bad, or inexperienced (or some combination of a few of these). Illinois could be in for a long and painful B1G season. Their fans are already feeling it; just listen to the pain only half way through their season from A Lion Eye –
This season gets a D so far. The only thing preventing an F was the opening win over Western Michigan. We haven’t been anywhere close in our three losses. Only the second quarter against Louisiana Tech could even be considered competitive. And the Charleston Southern game doesn’t count. (By the way, Charleston Southern’s losing streak is over. They beat Shorter University, a school that just made the jump this year from NAIA to Division II. And Charleston Southern only won 23-20. At home. Against an school transitioning from NAIA. They’re the worst team we’ll face in the next 50 years.)
There is growing frustration in the fan base about their inability to get pressure on the quarterback.
109th nationally and last in the Big Ten in sacks allowed. So why do we find ourselves in so many third-and-long situations? And why are our opponents in so many third-and-short situations? We can’t get to their quarterback, and they can easily get to ours.
There is also blame being thrown around, as Illinois is not used to being blown out by more than 17 points. For the record, they have been blown out by 17 in all of their losses this year. Once again, credit to A Lion Eye for documenting the last four 17 point losses –
11/26/11: Minnesota 27, Illinois 7
11/12/11: Michigan 31, Illinois 14
10/16/10: Michigan State 26, Illinois 6
10/03/09: Penn State 35, Illinois 17
That’s it. Under Zook the Illini may not have been out for world domination, but they usually made you earn it. Illinois went from being a decent running team that relied on their defense to keep them in the game, to a poor running team that has trouble keeping the offense off the field.
So how can Michigan attack the Illini defense? Take your pick, either option is quite appealing. We’ll start with the rushing defense. Here is a chart showing rushing yards allowed versus opponent and the opponent’s rushing yardage ranking (in parenthesis).
- I gave Western Michigan 0 yards, even though they had a negative day (-6) without adjusting for the sacks. With a negative number it made the chart look strange and I couldn't figure out how to fix it, so yeah.
- The average ranking of Illinois opponents for rushing total yardage is 65. Illinois is ranked 38th in rushing defense, but that comes with the disclaimer that their opponents haven’t been very good at running the ball this year.
- The toughest opponent they have faced has been Louisiana Tech (18th in rushing offense), Holding them to 119 yards should be commended, except that Louisiana Tech torched them for 284 yards through the air, so a running game wasn’t really a necessary part of their strategy. Also Louisiana Tech has 5 wins and 0 losses which should also be commended, except their 5 wins came against the likes of Houston (2-3), Rice (1-5), Illinois (2-4), Virginia (2-4), and UNLV (1-5). Virginia just got torched by Duke, yes Duke. If you are counting Illinois and Virginia as your quality wins, then using rankings is probably a moot point.
- Illinois is giving up 100+ yards to everyone who is not Western Michigan or otherwise listed an FCS school. Michigan is not Western Michigan or an FCS school; we should use this to our advantage.
- Illinois gave up 173 yards to Wisconsin who has Montee Ball and James White. They also gave up 173 yards to Penn State who has Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton. All of these guys are great quality backs, but Wisconsin and Penn State are also the 86th and 91st teams in total rushing yards to date.
- Watching the Wisconsin game gave me hope that Fitz can take on a more North-South running approach, as the holes that Illinois left open were wide and obvious.
- For Wisconsin, Ball averaged 6.1 YPC and White averaged 7.0 YPC, and the long was only 23 yards. Their numbers aren’t skewed by an 80 or 90 yard run, which tells us that they gashed them for 7 to 10 yards all day long. Watching the replay on BTN2GO confirms this.
I present to you the chart for Illini pass defense; each team’s ranking is in parenthesis.
- The average passing yardage ranking of the Illini’s opponents thus far is 49. On average they have given up over 200 yards per game through the air. Illinois is 63rd in passing defense so far this year.
highlightlowlight for their secondary was giving up 254 yards to a former walk on quarterback last week. Wisconsin ranks 101st in total passing yards and this includes their “Air Raid” attack on a helpless Illinois secondary.
- The only team that Illinois kept to less than 100 yards passing was an FCS school.
- The only team that is not an FCS school that Illinois kept to less than 200 yards passing was [this portion intentionally left blank for future opponent].
2011 MICHIGAN OFFENSE VERSUS ILLINOIS DEFENSE
Fitzgerald Toussaint 192 yard rushing party! That was basically the ball game as Toussaint filled a major gap when Denard left with an injured wrist. With the stellar performance by Toussaint, Hoke was able to leave Gardner in the game and not risk aggravating Denard’s wrist more. A 65 yard TD by Fitz highlighted his performance and his 7.1 YPC on the ground paved the way to an easy Michigan victory. Michigan went through the air 15 times, only completed 8 passes, but got big yardage each play. Both Robinson and Gardner averaged over 9 YPC with two of Michigan’s receivers averaging over 20 yards per completion (!). Illinois gave up 139 passing yards, 223 rushing yards, 3 rushing touchdowns, 1 passing touchdown, intercepted 1 pass, and recovered 2 fumbles.
2012 MICHIGAN OFFENSE VERSUS ILLINOIS DEFENSE
Your Second Half Quarterback?
Look for a similar game plan as last year. Michigan will give Illinois a heavy dose of running. If Michigan doesn’t turn the ball over, this might be over by the 2nd quarter. If that happens, Bellomy should get some snaps, and we should see more of Thomas Rawls. Computers are projecting a 38-14 final score; there isn’t anything that I found in my analysis that would make me think otherwise.
Previously, I had discussed the Purdue front seven, Dispelling a Myth: Purdue's Front Seven, I thought I would take a look into the secondary and see if there was anything interesting.
Ricardo Allen is one of the two starting cornerbacks for Purdue. Ricardo is a 5’9” 186 lb junior from Daytona Beach, Florida.
Some of his career highlights include being tied for the all-time record at Purdue for interceptions returned for touchdowns with 3. He started 12 games for Purdue in 2010 as a true freshman and was second team Freshman All-American by Rivals and Scout.com. In 2011 he was a coaches second team and media honorable mention for All-Big Ten.
Here is how he has fared in his 2 years versus Michigan. In 2010 he returned an interception for 94 yards and recorded 8 tackles. In 2011 he didn’t get many chances to intercept the ball as Michigan only threw the ball 17 times. Not throwing a pick to Allen was good, but sadly Michigan did throw 2 interceptions in 2011 to his teammates. Denard and Devin took turns gifting Purdue with 1 interception each.
So far in 2012 Allen has 16 tackles, 1 of those for a loss, 1 interception returned for 39 yards, and 1 broken up pass.
At the other corner position is Josh Johnson. Josh is a 5’11” 195 lb senior from Dade City, Florida.
Some of his career highlights include causing 2 forced fumbles in 2010, he also led the team in passes broken up with 9 and intercepted the ball 2 times in 2011. He was on special teams in 2009 as a freshman and started at cornerback 23 times in 2010 and 2011.
He has done well versus Michigan in the 2 years he has played us at the cornerback spot. In 2010 he intercepted the ball and forced a fumble. In 2011 He had 5 tackles and 1 interception. Let’s try not to make it 3 years in a row this guy gets a pick fergodsakes…
So far in 2012 Johnson has recorded 16 tackles, 1 of those for a loss, has 2 interceptions, 6 passes broken up, and 1 fumble recovery.
Another cornerback to watch for is up and coming redshirt freshman Frankie Williams. Frankie is a 5’9” 186 lb 3 star athlete from Tampa, Florida. He has been impressive this year for the Boilermakers recording the second highest amount of tackles on the team. His 19 tackles, 1 interception, and 2 passes broken up this year should earn him a lot of playing time versus Michigan.
Both of Purdue’s starting cornerbacks have faced Denard Robinson before, and both of them have recorded picks. They know his tendencies and hopefully will not be tested much early on (if at all). All of Purdue’s corners run around a 4.5 second 40 yard, so we won’t have a speed advantage. However, Purdue will give up a lot of size to Gardner and Jackson, so that should make some interesting matchups outside.
While Purdue’s cornerbacks are well experienced with Michigan, their safeties are not. Both are fairly inexperienced overall, and have seen the field very little in starting roles. They are both sophomores and will probably be tested early and often.
Taylor Richards is a 5’10” 192 lb sophomore free safety from Lake Mary, Florida. Richards appeared in 10 games last year as a true freshman, none of which he started, recorded 7 tackles on the season, and saw limited action. Saturday will be the first time Richards has started versus Michigan, so I don’t have any stats for him from last year’s game.
So far in 2012 Richards has recorded 8 tackles, ½ of those for a loss. He also has ½ a sack and 2 passes broken up. Not exactly a game changer so he will surely get picked on. Richards will need to make some big plays early in order to force Michigan to go through the middle of their defense. Without contain on the edges and over the top, Michigan can run around Purdue all day, just as they did last year.
At strong safety the Boilermakers have Landon Feichter. Landon is a 6’0” 189 lb sophomore from Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Landon was a walk on in 2010 that did not see any action and appeared in 13 games in 2011. He did record 25 tackles in 2011, 22 of them solo. This will be the first time Fiechter faces Michigan, so there aren’t any stats to show.
So far in 2012 Feichter has shown some flashes of brilliance, recording 16 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 2 passes broken up. Even with the 2 interceptions, I can see this young player being tested by Borges, anyways. Let’s hope he doesn’t pass.
I am anticipating one of these guys( or maybe both) getting burned for big yardage at least once or twice, due to their inexperience. Feichter’s 2 interceptions are concerning, so there is that. Purdue will need their safeties to step up in their secondary, just as much as their linebackers will have to do the same in their front 7. If the two of those groups underperform (linebackers and safeties) expect an easy game. If those two groups step it up a notch, and create a couple plays, it could get pretty hairy.
[Ed-S: Bumped to Diary. FWIW here's Michigan's OL versus those guys last year:
|Lewan||7||1||6||Would like to see him more involved somehow.|
|Barnum||3||2||1||Also picked up a –2 on the last play he was in on but I didn't hit him for it since he was obviously injured.|
|Molk||15||2||13||Even got a killer reach block for old times' sake.|
|Omameh||13||7||6||Had some issues with Short.|
|Huyge||7.5||2.5||5||Easy time on the edge.|
|Schofield||5.5||10||-4.5||Big step back from two weeks ago. Did get a thumper late.|
|Mealer||0.5||-||0.5||On last drive charted.|
|Watson||3||-||3||Got in on some of the edge bashing.|
|Koger||14.5||2||12.5||Completely clobbered his DE whenever asked to.|
|TOTAL||69||27.5||72%||Moore put up a –1, FWIW. Strong day almost hitting 3:1.|
|Protection||22||6||79%||Team 3, Toussaint 1, Schofield 2. Big bounce-back.|
|RPS||20||9||11||Throwback screens always work.|
So Short caused some problems for the guards and will again; the rest of the guys did okay]
So last year Michigan had 339 yards on the ground versus Purdue. Fitz had a career day in which he ran for 170 yards on 20 carries. Denard passed the ball 14 times and completed 9. Never did he seem pressured very hard. Now this year some of my friends are nervous about Purdue and their front 7, so it made me curious enough to look into it a little farther.
So let's look at their personnel first. Of course any discussion about Purdue's defense begins with their potential first round draft pick - Kawann Short. The 6'3" 315lb senior tackle leads the team in sacks at 4, has recorded a respectable 9 tackles (7 of those for a loss (!)), and has one pass deflection. Also worth noting is his 3 (!) blocked kicks already this year - Short is disruptive, to say the least. Ryan Russell is a 6'5" 275lb sophomore, and has been disruptive as well. He has recorded 13 tackles (4.5 of those for a loss) and 2 sacks so far this year. Bruce Gaston is a 6'2" 303lb junior tackle who has chipped in 8 tackles, half of those were for for a loss. So they have the ability to put pressure on you from the middle and the end.
At linebacker, the Boilermakers lost Dwayne Beckford just before the season started. Beckford was the team's second leading tackler last year but was told to pack his bags after his 4th (!) arrest since 2011. Will Lucas, a 5' 11" junior, is the team's leading tackler with 25 and has also recorded one sack. Joe Gilliam is a 6' 1" 227lb sophomore that has chipped in 15 tackles (of which zero were for a loss). Not the most disruptive linebackers you will find, but serviceable nonetheless.
So there are some good to playmakers in their lineup, but even their own fans are worried about whether or not they can maintain tough defensive play for a full 60 minutes. Here's a quote from Boiled Sports after the Marshall game -
Tim Tibesar's defense has been good when it's needed to be, but consistency is still tough to come by
Read the whole article here - http://www.boiledsports.com/2012/10/distant-replay-purdue-marshall.html
Something else I found interesting was comparing how Purdue's run defense ranked versus their opponent's opponents defense (?). I'm pretty sure I said that wrong, but here's are the charts of Purdue's opponents and how they performed against their other scheduled opponents (better way to say it?) Anyways....rankings are determined by yards per carry.
Although Purdue's numbers look good, Tennessee-Martin held Eastern Kentucky to less yards per carry than Purdue. I'll repeat that because it is worth repeating. Tennessee-Martin held Eastern Kentucky to less yards per carry than Purdue. Tennessee-Martin also did not give up a rushing touchdown to Eastern Kentucky. Next up for Purdue was Notre Dame.
This is the game that is driving the hype. While this game is a stellar performance by the Boilermakers, I would probably apply a jet lag/Ireland factor here on Notre Dame's flat performance. Even then FWIW, Notre Dame hasn't done well rushing the ball at all this year either (unless you count Navy), so there is that. The following week we can see why there is concern about consistency in the front seven.
Purdue gave up slightly less yards than Ball State and just as many rushing touchdowns. Giving up more yards and more yards per carry than Illinois State and just as many touchdowns. Looking at their last game, you could say that Purdue did well by keeping Marshall under 100 yards, but a further look at Marshall's rushing performance tells a different story.
This shows that Marshall doesn't run the ball well, unless they're playing Rice. Purdue also gave up 70% of the yards that West Virginia did in half the amount of carries.
So while I was hoping to debunk Purdue's front seven, it looks like they are pretty legit. Well...sometimes. So which version will show up on Saturday? If we get the Notre Dame version we will be in for a long day on the ground. If we get the Eastern Michigan version, Denard and Fitz should have an easy day. I'm hoping for the latter, obviously.