he grew a beard
We're back with a trips formation.
Check out that guy lined up outside of Mathews way out there: that's a linebacker. He is on the LOS outside of a couple wide receivers. Weird.
Michigan will run a zone stretch, and Illinois will do what they did:
Again we see the backside defensive end crashing in with no thought for Threet. He can do this because Miller is shooting out to contain the QB, like we saw on the last play.
Also, check the linebacker, already flowing upfield as soon as he sees the play start.
Check the very top of the screen: if Michigan was to throw a bubble screen Odoms would probably get lit up, as the linebacker has used his advantageous position to hop past the wide receiver. This defense takes away all three prongs of the Rodriguez system.
But it doesn't take away everything. Look at the vast huge gaping hole between that linebacker and Miller. If Odoms was just to not go anywhere, or if he was to run a little hitch to the line of scrimmage, he would be wide open. Illinois's secondary is playing in the parking lot. If Odoms was to come in at the snap and establish a pitch relationship with Threet, there's no one to cover him on the option. This is not defeat for the zone read; it's just defeat for Michigan's zone read at this moment.
Anyway, McGuffie is forced to cut back because Schilling's been driven into the backfield…
… and gets smooshed.
The instant conclusion to jump to is that Rodriguez got beat. Illinois regularly deployed this gimmicky defense specifically aimed the staple of his offense. It has big gaping flaws in it that Michigan did not adjust to. They assumed Michigan would run on first down, put themselves in a position to stop it, and did; Michigan did not go to a throwing mode.
It's not that easy, of course, when you're a coach at a new school and you're using freshmen everywhere. Illinois, like Oregon, has guys who have been in this offense for multiple years and they pulled out a vast array of sleight-of-hand. Michigan probably doesn't have that rabbit in its hat yet.
Still… doing the UFR here was a sad trip into the recent past. At this point we know the line is better at pass blocking than run blocking—though Ortmann was way worse at guard than he was a tackle—and that teams are teeing off on the zone-read/bubble on first and ten; too rarely did we go away from that.
Hey, guess what? Michigan's run game against Illinois sucked donkey. This was partly Michigan's offensive line getting beat, but it was also partly Illinois outscheming Rodriguez.
To wit: first and ten on Michigan's second touchdown drive on the Illinois 25. Michigan comes out in a standard 3-WR set; Illinois has their base formation on the field with a linebacker over Odoms.
Michigan is running the same play Brandon Minor took to the house against Wisconsin; I've been terming it the "zone read dive" in the UFRs. Michigan will hand it off to McGuffie, using the zone-read induced delay on the unblocked defensive end to get out on the linebackers and shoot McGuffie into the secondary.
Problem: the defensive end couldn't give a crap about Threet. Here at the handoff he's already given up containment.
This is quickly followed by McGuffie getting swallowed whole. So Threet should keep it? Not so much, as Martez Wilson has hopped outside and Vontae Davis is crashing down, too. If Threet keeps it he's going to get tackled for loss, too:
(Also, note Molk's whiff on Miller, the only real execution issue on this play.)
And for the kicker, go up to that first frame above: that linebacker is right on the LOS, close enough to jump the bubble screen route if Michigan sets up to throw. They've got all the angles covered.
Except, of course, they don't. Michigan could combat this a number of different ways:
- Shoot Threet up into the hole originally designated for McGuffie. On this play it wouldn't work, but only because of the Molk whiff. If Molk gets a block that's into the secondary.
- Just run some play action. For Davis to get that close to the LOS he had to jump off Mathews as soon as he saw the zone read action; Mathews is now wide open.
- Throw a long handoff to Savoy. Look at the cushion, man.
They did none of these things. I've got another one of these coming in a little bit.
Earlier in the year this space featured a post detailing the carnage that had been wrought on the offensive line by poor recruiting, player development, and retention. As I was watching two sophomores and a redshirt senior who's not exactly ticketed for pro stardom, it occurred to me that the situation at LB was equally dire.
A season-by-season accounting with available players in bold:
2004 (would be fifth year seniors)
- Chris Graham didn't redshirt and is thus out of eligibility. Not that having him around would have helped much.
- John Thompson is the current starting SLB. He was a low-three star recruit.
- Brandon Logan is the only LB recruit in the class. A meh three star recruit, he was clearly not going to be a player from day one.
- Cobrani Mixon transfers to Cincinnati after a semester.
- Quintin Patilla moves to fullback, then transfers to GVSU.
- Obi Ezeh, a meh recruit, is the starting MLB.
- Jonas Mouton is a big recruit rated around #50 as a S. He is the starting WLB.
- Michigan's first JUCO in ten years, Austin Panter, arrives.
- Marell Evans is an unrated two-star with other offers from Temple and Buffalo.
- Brandon Herron is a meh three-star who redshirts; he hasn't been seen or heard from so far.
- Taylor Hill transfers.
- Marcus Witherspoon has Clearinghouse issues and ends up at Rutgers.
- JB Fitzgerald is playing on special teams as a freshman.
- Kenny Demens is looking likely to redshirt.
So, yeah… of course they're bad. Michigan has one four-star recruit on the roster outside of a JUCO and a true freshman, and has all of four guys with more than a year of experience in the program, one of whom has never threatened to get off special teams. So you're relying on either 1) an unheralded recruit being really good really fast or 2) all three of your upperclassmen being hits.
Neither one nor two has occurred, and finding a strongside LB next year is going to be problematic; the losses of Hill and Witherspoon are going to be damaging.
Update 10/7: Linked to articles on MD LB Jelani Jenkins (video interview), SC S Devontae Holloman, TX S Craig Loston, MN WR Bryce McNeal, SC DE Sam Montgomery, MI DT Will Campbell, video of OH RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. Moved 2010 MI WR Jeremy Jackson to committed on the nonexistent 2010 board.
Editorial Opinion: A mostly quiet week. MD DE Jason Ankrah and MD CB Travis Hawkins visited for the Illinois game, and there are a number of articles up on the recruiting sites about their trips. Sounds like Michigan has a decent, not great, shot at both. 2010 MI WR Jeremy Jackson, son of running backs coach Fred Jackson, committed last week, too.
Oh: Recruiting board lives here.
Michigan's in on three five stars: MI DT Will Campbell is widely expected to recommit; LA WR Rueben Randle is regarded as a longshot, and MD LB Jelani Jenkins is a mystery. Here's Jenkins after a recent win over DeMatha:
The Washington Post took the opportunity provided by that ESPN2-televised game to write up a mondo article on Jenkins and the immense pressure he's put under by the recruiting process. If you really want to parse finely, this could be construed as good:
And then there's Jelani's father, Maurice Jenkins, the finely dressed entrepreneur whose background as both an artist and architect best qualifies him to manage the whole process. He leaned against the fence surrounding Good Counsel's field 20 minutes before kickoff against Paul VI and watched his son run through pregame drills.
Minutes earlier, he had met with coaches from Notre Dame and Maryland who had come to watch Jelani. Hours earlier, he had spoken to UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel on the phone. Days earlier, he had chatted with a coach from Michigan, one of a handful of recruiters he said he's in touch with about once a week.
There is also more on The Matrix, the Jenkins family's highly elaborate school-measurement device:
In the following months, Maurice crafted a three-page matrix that reduced the recruiting chaos surrounding his son into a simple diagram. The columns list each school in nearly every division I-A conference. Programs that offer Jelani a scholarship are highlighted in yellow, which include nine Atlantic Coast Conference schools, six schools each from the Big Ten, Big East and Southeastern conferences, as well as four from the Pacific-10 and a pair from the Big 12. Notre Dame, an independent, also is highlighted.
The rows separate categories, such as diversity, U.S. News & World Report academic rankings, number of NFL draft picks in the past five years and graduation rates. "It gives us a snapshot of the things that are important to us," Maurice said of the matrix.
There is an engineer somewhere in that family, this I guarantee.
Earlier this year, MN WR commit Bryce McNeal announced he was still committed to Michigan but would take some visits, the hastily backed off that position. Now the visits are back on:
His recruiting could get interesting since he is committed to Michigan but still plans to take visits.
This obviously lowers the chances McNeal ends up signing with Michigan, but the announced visits are to Colorado and Minnesota… I'm not exactly writing him off.
FWIW, the rest of that mini-scouting report on McNeal:
ASSETS: Has excellent hands and change of direction. He also runs effortlessly after the catch.
AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT: He needs to be more aggressive and emotional, along with adding about 10 to 15 pounds.
MOST IMPRESSIVE PLAY: The first time he touched the ball was in the second quarter on a punt return of 25 yards and you could see he was just a natural running with the ball in his hands.
CONCLUSION: Even though he does not play in the highest level of football in Minnesota, you can still see a special athlete every time he catches a pass or returns a kickoff or punt.
How many more?
Varsity Blue wonders if the class is close to full…
With the recent commitment of Cass Tech's Thomas Gordon, it appears that the 2009 recruiting class is nearly full. Assuming William Campbell recommits to Michigan (which appears likely but certainly not set in stone), Michigan may save a couple slots for surprises from top prospects.
…but I say it isn't. My current count of open slots on the board is 20, and that's not counting a number of pretty obvious departures: a couple senior non-contributors with a fifth year of eligibility, some running back who finds himself on a depth chart behind up to nine others, and a certain tight end the coaching staff is fed up with. There will likely be another unexpected departure or two, bringing Michigan's total to around 25 and possibly even more.
Michigan has 18 commits at the moment. One man's semi-informed guess at the remainder of the class:
- Will Campbell.
- Two or three OL from the following list: Taylor Lewan, Quinton Washington, Travis Bond, and Chris Freeman.
- A third defensive end: Jason Ankrah, Sam Montgomery, Will Hill, or Mystery Recruit
- Another linebacker, hopefully Jelani Jenkins by maybe Mike Marry or Hawatha Bell.
- Two more defensive backs. Most likely: Vlad Emilien and some random corner. Also, the suddenly mysterious Dennis Thames is out there.
Helpful scouting-report type object on 2010 FL WR Ricardo Miller:
“The main thing that stands out about Ricardo is he is the best route runner I’ve seen in the entire state of Florida, which is impressive because we’ve got a lot of great receivers this year,” commented FlaVarsity.com publisher Michael Langston. “He reminds me a lot of (Mario) Manningham who used to be at Michigan.”
Suffuse yourself hey hey hey hey.
Seven minutes of Fitzgerald Toussaint highlights… NOW!
Etc.: SC DE Sam Montgomery still planning a visit.
Notes: Probably the biggest "wha?" in the poll is Cal's rocket sled to #13 after being omitted from the last poll. Take a look at the schedule: a loss to Maryland, then wins over ASU, Michigan State, Colorado State, and Washington State. The only non-BCS team in the bunch is respectable and there are a couple of wins over solid BCS programs. Yes, there is an inexplicable loss to Maryland, but scan down the list and you'll find a bunch of paper tigers and teams with equally inexplicable losses (hello, East Carolina!).
I just can't rank Auburn anymore when their offense is as dysfunctional as Michigan's and they're now a two-loss team separated from four losses by a gift touchdown and the lack of another Mississippi State safety. Read this and prepare to have your opinion of Tommy Tuberville lowered significantly unless you're a 'Bama fan, in which case read it and have your opinion confirmed despite the whole six game win streak thing.
BYU, IMO, is far too high, as Dr. Saturday points out that BYU's schedule is pretty weak: dead last to the computers. Yes, they've beaten UCLA and Washington, but UCLA and Washington are pretty bad. BYU isn't Hawaii last year or anything, but they're probably not deserving of #6.
I sort of missed that Oregon lost to USC 44-10; they won't be in the final poll.
If you happen to subscribe to every BlogPoll voter's RSS feed like I do this announcement will come as no surprise, but you're probably sane and thus do not so here goes: effective this week, the BlogPoll will appear at CBS Sports. An initial Monday poll is up right now, actually.
The process will go like this in the future:
- Bloggers post initial ballots by Monday at noon; this gets packaged into CBS's weekly poll feature.
- Readers at CBS will be encouraged to look at the various ballots and perhaps argue their case to non-believers.
- Revised ballots are still due at 10 AM Wednesday, and that's when the full poll will be posted with your standard commentary. This will happen at CBS.
This is something of a milestone for bloggers, as a mainstream site is partnering with a wide swath of the internet's wild west and giving some credence to the idea that maybe there is something different and, if not necessarily better, at least interesting enough to pay attention to there.
What they'll find is that the sausage is really close to the surface, with weird ballots and omissions and unabashed homerism and unabashed anti-homerism in the wake of humiliating defeat. They'll find that there's not a lot of room for strenuous disagreement between the BP and the AP because wins and losses rule all, unless you're a coach. They'll find a healthy skepticism for light schedules, tribes of resume-voting zealots. And hopefully they'll find intelligent coverage of their favorite team.
This would not have been possible without the enthusiastic support of voters new and old, even the ones I regularly battle over their voting philosophies, and I'd like to thank everyone for their participation.
Hello Vogrich. One bit of good news from the weekend: the basketball team picked up a commitment from IL SG Matt Vogrich, the #100 recruit in the country to Scout and #131 to Rivals. If this offer sheet is anywhere near accurate, he's more impressive than his rankings:
Vogrich said he's picked up offers from Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Northwestern, Baylor, Minnesota, Bucknell, Saint Louis, William & Mary, Valparaiso, Colorado, Iowa and Providence. Notre Dame, Michigan, UCLA, Stanford and Virginia are also in the picture.
Vogrich claimed he was down to Michigan and Stanford just before he committed, but that course of events leads me to believe Stanford told him they didn't have room. UMHoops has plenty more; he's supposed to be a bomber who's a power-mushroom version of Stu Douglass.
Michigan has one slot left in the class of '09 and is looking for a forward. Two names for you: unranked Will Barrett, who's deciding between Michigan and the Ivy League, and Aussie C Angus Brandt, a sleeper sort who's an AAU teammate of Vogrich and sounds like the better option. BONUS: as an Australian he has no conception of which teams are any good.
Old guys. Alumni cheerleaders rock:
ITYSO. After the Auburn trip I mentioned that Tommy Tuberville was Lloyd Carr and he was trying to turn Tony Franklin into Mike DeBord, but I had no idea how right that was. The always-illuminating Smart Football:
Every coach I speak to says the same thing: I don't know what they are doing at Auburn, but it ain't the Airraid. So what's going on? I'm not an insider, but my best sense is that the other coaches on the staff (including Tuberville) never bought into the system - maybe because Franklin did a poor job selling it internally, or maybe he thought he didn't have to - and now their offense is simply a muddle, a grab-bag of pseudo-spread garbage. This seems to be general sentiment among the smart money in football.
Relevance to Michigan: low, I guess.
Hockey! I missed the announcement that the game against Waterloo was moved up an hour, so I only saw half of the Sunday game, but I did take in the entirety of the USNTDP game.
Approximate forward lines:
Random Grab Bag (Lebler, Fardig, Ciraulo, Winnett, Wohlberg, Glendening)
- My main concern with this year's edition of Michigan hockey is the potential lack of a no-holds-barred superstar, something that hasn't happened in the ten years I've been following the team. Pacioretty would have been that guy if he had stayed; in his stead there doesn't seem to be that one guy you have to key on if you're an opponent.
- That said, if they can assemble a good third line this team will roll the lines and just depth-charge opponents into submission.
- One guy I'm keeping an eye on to see if he develops is Ben Winnett. He was a big scorer in junior and a fourth round draft pick, but had a meh freshman season with a 6-5-11. The initial returns were not good, with Winnett stuck on a non-scoring line and not doing much of note.
- If I had to bet I'd say the winners in the massive free-for-all to decide the bottom four forwards (I assume Miller and Czarnik are safely in) will be Winnett, Fardig, Naurato, and Wohlberg with Lebler and Glendening scratching out games here and there.
- Freshman defenseman Greg Pateryn got smoked on the Waterloo goal, allowing his man to drag the puck across his face and get to the net.
- To that point: I bet Pateryn gets the least the playing time this year amongst the seven blueliners. He looked far less composed than Burlon.
- Scooter was pretty rough against the USA team, coughing the puck up several times.
- None of the freshmen made much of an impression on me; a friend was impressed with Burlon and thought Glendening could be a find for a guy who's not getting much scholarship money.
This team is likely to be successful but it might be a team that wins a lot of games 3-1 instead of 5-3.
9/4/2008 – Michigan 20, Illinois 45 – 2-3, 1-1 Big Ten
Any attempt to list the full dossier of Michigan errors over the past few weeks would provoke a cascade of emotions from the reader starting with rage and ending with full-bore ennui. Along the way we'd touch grim sarcasm, depression, contempt, fatalism, resignation, dread, and a whole host of other things that in no way relate to happiness.
So let's skip it and just say there have been a lot.
It seemed like youthful nerves or inexperience in the first couple games. Against Notre Dame it seemed like the usual screwing over by Angry Michigan Ball-Oiling God. And, hey, we beat Wisconsin and the negative events therein were supplanted in our minds by the Thompson return and the unlikely Threet gallop and so on.
All of it could have been unfortunate randomness. The true abilities of Michigan's team would be unleashed as soon as they stopped turning the ball over every ten seconds or busting coverages that left, say, a guy running wide open downfield on fourth and ten. If they don't put themselves in a 21-0 hole against Notre Dame, if they just complete those bubble screens, if they don't suck on this play or that play &c &c &c.
As more evidence piled up it became harder and harder to justify the vague hope Michigan was a competent team stuck in Charlie Weis's body (it's like Innerspace except there's no machine to shrink you), but we endured. We are fans. Until such time as you declare EVERYTHING TO BE BROKEN because THIS IS THE WORST TEAM EVER and EVERYONE MUST BE FIRED NOW NOW NOW, people strive to find whatever hope they can. And also: how can kick returners just flat dropping the ball be a replicable event? Seriously. I want to know this.
But now it's pretty hard to come to any conclusion other than "they just suck." The last straw on my pet camel's back was Steven Threet dropping back to pass with Michigan down 45-20. Untouched, he cocked his arm to throw and fumbled backwards for the fifth time in approximately four games of play. This, like Ryan Mallett's mystifying inability to receive a snap, is now an event that will happen on a depressingly regular basis. There are similar events scheduled all over the field—especially in the secondary, where someone (Charles Stewart) has miraculously supplanted Stevie Brown as the whipping safety du jour.
We've passed the point where these things could be random chance. It's just a bad team. This revelation will probably be met with "duh" from everyone who's not a Michigan fan, what with skill positions that usually read junior, freshman, freshman, freshman, freshman, freshman and a coaching transition and, oh, I don't know, the nation's 110th best turnover margin. But, hey, we beat Wisconsin and for sports fans even lead balloons float when filled with hope.
My balloon is now filled with a sticky gray-green substance that smells like sewage and glows when the moon is gibbous. Saturday's event was tough to watch. While the long term outlook isn't affected much by the pratfalls to date, it's still no fun to watch 25-point beatings. Sadly, I just want to fast forward to 2010.
- I think Juice Williams may have the greatest ball fakes I've ever seen live. You know that thing where the cameraman follows someone who ends up not having the ball and freaks out when this becomes clear? I did that on like half of Illinois' runs. It was really annoying when I'd be watching the running back get tackled for no gain only for Williams to have the ball and run for a first down.
- Missing Hemingway and Stonum was a big deal, since it's obvious why Savoy can't get off the bench. Apparently the TV guys criticized the coaching on his long-bomb drop; I think the more plausible explanation is that a redshirt junior who hasn't seen any time is probably not very good.
- Holy Lord did Michigan get jacked on at least three different pass interference calls. Greg Mathews was obviously hit early on an unsuccessful third down conversion. Illinois got bailed out on third down by a PI call on a ball yards behind the receiver. Donovan Warren got shoved not once but twice on a downfield jump ball and drew no flag. The first two either ended Michigan or extended Illinois drives. The latter set up a third and two instead of a second and seventeen; the next play was the dagger Williams scramble.
- Michigan again used that goofy formation where Greg Mathews is 1) split out and 2) covered up by a receiver outside of him. They ran twice for minimal yardage. WTF?
- Despite Odoms' fumble he should definitely keep the return job. He consistently broke through the first wave of defenders and acquired Michigan excellent field position. The fumble just appeared to be a guy putting his helmet on the ball, which usually can't be helped.
- Perhaps the most disturbing event on the day was Illinois dominating the Michigan offensive line. The Illini had been shredded by all previous opponents. The offensive line is going to be an anchor around this team's neck for the remainder of the year.
This preview relies heavily upon Drexel's Illinois scouting report, which you should read in its entirety.
Run Offense vs. Illinois
When the internet proclaimed J Leman linebacking God a couple years ago it was based more upon his sartorial choices than anything else, and when Leman went undrafted that seemed to be that. Just one American Hero with an American Flag Tie, but not that much of an impact on the actual field.
Uh, in a word: no.
This isn't all Leman's departure: OMG shirtless recruit D'Angelo McCray transferred to—hey, wow—Eastern Illinois this offseason and DE Sirod Williams was lost for the season with an ACL injury. Meanwhile, OMG shirtless recruit Martez Wilson is lapping up that good Zook coachin':
According to veteran Illini beat writer Mark Tupper, Wilson was "repeatedly out of position" in last Saturday's loss to Penn State. …
Though he's as physically gifted as any player the school has ever had, Wilson still isn't playing the way Zook had hoped he would. It isn't a lack of effort. Or ability. Or mental preparation. …
"Potentially, as an athlete, he's as good as I've ever seen. But as a linebacker, he's still not there. He's middle of the road right now.
Against the real teams on their schedule (and, uh, Eastern Illinois), the Illini have been shredded in a way that indicates serious issues. Drexel:
PSU was able to blows them off the ball most of the game. They were a little better against Missouri, but nobody really stood out to me the way Wisconsin’s guys did. … I think they will probably blow up a few plays here and there, but they don’t seem like a group that’s going to control the line of scrimmage all day. They are better than ND, but I will be disappointed if we don’t run the ball consistently on Saturday.
Illinois is heavily into slants and stunts and Michigan should come ready with some counter action.
This should be closer to Notre Dame than Wisconsin, especially if Illinois goes with a cover-two look to back up this:
The linebacker moves might not be as apparent this week, because Illinois figures to play just two linebackers and more defensive backs in a "nickel" look against Michigan's multi-receiver spread offense.
Notre Dame spent its day against Michigan in a 4-2 nickel, too, and relied on an array of corner and safety blitzes to provide another guy in the box. Sometimes this worked out for a three- or four-yard loss; other times McGuffie just skated into the secondary.
As a bonus for Michigan's chances, n00b safety Donsay Hardeman has leapt into the starting lineup largely for lack of a better option. Illinois Loyalty suggsted Penn State attack the safeties:
We're all excited that Donsay Hardeman is finally going to get some playing time, but he has zero experience, and the rest of the crew has had some serious issues with being in the right place at the right time. That, and tackling.
There were many times against Notre Dame—playing the same 4-2 nickel with the same dodgy defensive line and okay-not-great linebackers—that the only thing standing between Michigan and a long touchdown was the outstanding play of David Bruton and Kyle McCarthy.
I know this is going to sound crazy after the game we all just lived through, but I think Michigan can take these guys. I mean, everyone else has. If Wilson's in the game, look for some misdirection, as he has a tendency to get wildly out of position.
Key Matchup: Everybody now! Molk, Moosman, and Rotating Right Guard against the Illinois defensive tackles. Michigan won this battle authoritatively against ND and lost it authoritatively against Wisconsin. Rodriguez was specific about this in the press conference: it was "embarrassing" that Michigan couldn't get to the second level. They've got to fix that; sounds like that's well within reach.
Pass Offense vs. Illinois
Illinois year to date:
This is not particularly inspiring, but Steven Threet is no Chase Daniel and may not even be Darryl Clark. Drexel says that Vontae Davis is a fine corner but "other than that, they don’t have anybody that is good in man coverage." We already mentioned the safeties as an issue in the run game, but here's the houdini bit: Illinois Loyalty was actually suggesting Penn State attack the safeties via the air. Drexel echoes:
I think we will be able to get an easy one down the sideline. The safeties are not quick to get to the sideline if there is a vertical threat down the seam. If we get a player in the flat to hold the corner, and a guy down the side line and down the seam, somebody will be open for a big play.
Michigan's been close several times this year, mostly to Greg Mathews, but hasn't taken advantage of the opportunities presented themselves either because Mathews is still a little gimpy or Threet's a little off or the general bloody-mindedness of the universe decided that the refs would call that quasi-catch against ND incomplete. They will have more opportunities this week.
BONUS possibility for aerial happiness: though Illinois is 31st in sacks, all but two came against the goofballs on the schedule. Those two sacks against Penn State and Missouri came on 65 attempts. This is not a good ratio.
Meanwhile, Steven Threet regressed badly after an outstanding game against Notre Dame. He was errant, hesitant, and sometimes threw directly at people in the wrong jersey.
Complicating matters will be absences at receiver. Greg Mathews will play but is still hobbled by an ankle issue. Junior Hemingway is out with mono, and Darryl Stonum is expected to miss the game for violating team rules. Carson Butler has apparently worn through Rodriguez's patience and we'll be seeing a lot of freshman Kevin Koger.
That says more of Toney Clemons and Zion Babb to go with Mathews, a heavy dose of Martavious Odoms—if they can get him to run the right routes—and possibly some additional screens, except Michigan sucks at screens.
Drexel says that Illinois' alignment should open up the bubble variety, though:
The way they align against trips and five wide will give Michigan an advantage for the bubble screens. To twins they will play the corner over #1 but will split the distance between the tackle and #2 with the outside linebacker. To the trips they will put a ban over #1 and #2 and a safety deep over #3. It is hard for the inside defender to make a play on the bubble screen in this alignment, and I expect to see Michigan try to exploit this.
Threet's accuracy on bubble screens has been horrible, though, and so has the blocking out there. Now we're down to a gimpy Mathews, a freshman tight end, and maybe Toney Clemons… I seriously hope this was a major focus in practice this week.
This will be erratic, especially with Michigan's #2 and #3 receivers out. Illinois will probably put Davis on Mathews all day and take their chances with the vaunted Threet-Zion Babb hookup. I'm hoping for zero interceptions, a 50% completion rate downfield, one big play, and for the love of God some accurate bubble screens.
Key Matchup: Martavious Odoms versus linebackers or nickel corners or whoever. You can see that Michigan really thinks Odoms can be an effective part of the downfield passing game but route issues and Threet's inconsistency have hampered their efforts to get him the ball. To have a big day in the passing game, Odoms has to be a factor. I suggest that one of the big plays we can go after is that wheel route we like.
Run Defense vs. Wisconsin
Last week I referenced the Notre Dame preview, noting that the rush defense's true ability level was pleasantly obscured by an avalanche of sacks and predicted Wisconsin to do "better than okay," pegging Fresno State's performance—allowing 154 yards on 39 carries—as a decent benchmark for the D.
The results, excluding four sacks for 20 yards:
That is indeed better than okay and a little short of Fresno State but the numbers are potentially distorted by one long run on third and short from John Clay. I continue to maintain that this rush defense isn't as good as the stats (#16 currently) suggest; they're not exactly bad, either.
It remains to be seen exactly how relevant Michigan's performance to date is against Illinois. Of Michigan's four opponents, two are (mostly) conventional I teams and a third, Utah, runs a spread in formation only, deploying two mondo power backs and largely eschewing quarterback runs. Juice Williams and Illinois are a different sort of offense entirely.
As to that offense, Drexel's scouting report on the Illini indicates we should have an advantage in the trenches:
Missouri consistently pushed these guys backwards and blew up their inside and outside zone plays. Penn State also pushed them around for the most part, but Illinois ran some counters and traps to punish them for getting up field. They are athletic enough to get down field and get a block. They also seem to have their timing figured out a little better than Michigan on their chip blocks in the zone scheme. …
The Badger O-Line looked to work to the second level and absolutely bury linebackers. The Illini seem to just try and get in the way of linebackers. It looked much easier to shed their blocks than the Wisconsin O-line.
An advantage in the trenches is nice but Illinois has attacked the edge frequently, and with uneven success:
Penn State's run defense isn't what it used to be with the defensive line attrition they've suffered and Sean Lee's ACL tear, but Michigan hasn't proven it's that much better year to date. I am especially leery about Michigan's oft-confused outside linebackers against the option and Juice Williams in space, though I do submit that Jonas Mouton is probably better prepared than most to track down Williams on the edge.
Pass Defense vs. Illinois
Everyone knows superfreak Arrelious Benn, who's the kind of receiver that can turn a Juice Williams into a multiple touchdown-throwin' guy, and against real defenses. Think Braylon Edwards paired with freshman Chad Henne. The rest of their receivers are just "okay" according to Drexel, and everyone else.
Juice Williams, meanwhile, is still pretty much Juice Williams. The Big Ten shuddered after his 451-yard, 5 touchdown performance against Missouri, but then he did this…
…and everything seemed okay. Benn is his one true love: he averaged 27.5 YPC against Penn State, netting 110 yards; Juice's other 20 attempts collected 73.
Michigan has had a fierce pass rush year to date, and spent large parts of the final drive against Wisconsin rushing three and getting to Evridge. Defensive ends Tim Jamison and Brandon Graham have been beasts except when blocked by six guys at a time, like against Notre Dame. Michigan is seventh nationally in sacks with 3.25 a game.
Williams' mobility might be a problem, but if three or four rushers are getting to him there should be enough guys in short zones to contain him adequately. The bigger issue will be when Williams breaks contain and Benn breaks downfield; that combination can turn a broken play into 30 yards faster than you can say "bip."
This is going to be a high variability area. The Illinois offense and Williams' running ability demand safety attention on a lot of different plays, potentially opening up Michigan to exploitation when one of the guys bites at the wrong time. Benn will run open deep at least a few times unless we get super lucky. It will then be up to Williams to hit this open Benn, which he has been inconsistent doing. Much will hinge on four or five moments when a Williams pass arcs through the air, seeking Benn deep.
Key Matchup: Stevie Brown and Trent/Warren bracketing Benn. If he's open we're in trouble; if he's covered we might still be in trouble. The over/under for big Benn plays in this game is 1.5; anything less and I think we're good.
Michigan has been totally erratic here. KC Lopata has been reliable, hitting four of five with a 52 yarder in the mix. Zoltan The Inconceivable has been great to the point that I plan on breaking down his epic spaceness in the near future, but a number for you: 41.63. That's Michigan's net punting, and that's #6 nationally.
Everything else has been a toxic disaster zone. Not only are Michigan returners fumbling the ball away at least twice every game, but even when they get the ball in their hands they are instantly swarmed by unblocked opponents: 111th in punt returns. 103rd in kick returns. Jesus hamburger in a biscuit hell.
Illinois, though, hasn't been much better. Their net punting is 88th; if the current averages hold up every time the teams exchange punts Michigan will be picking up nine yards. Their punt return game is 94th, their kick returns 72nd. Kicker Matt Eller's been okay, hitting 5 of 7 so far.
Key Matchup: I SWEAR TO GOD JUST KNEEL IT IN THE ENDZONE *#$&#$#$#.
- Anyone fields a kick.
- Threet stars out like he did against Wisconsin.
- Our linebackers get confused and let players outside of them.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Illinois' nickel gets gashed like ND's did.
- Odoms runs the right routes.
- The punting matchup is as lopsided as it appears. No, seriously, this is a huge silent advantage for Michigan.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 5 out of 10. (Baseline 5; –1 for You Beat ULL By Three!, +1 for We Beat Miami By Ten And Threw A Party, –1 for Good God They're Swiss Cheese Against The Run, +1 for Lingering Anti-Spread Paranoia).
Desperate need to win level: 7 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for This Is Winnable And We Need The Wins, +1 for 2-0 In The Big Ten And Maybe We're On To Something, +1 for Keep The Mojo On The Gogo, –1 for But Yeah We're 2-2 And Probably Headed Somewhere Uninspiring)
Loss will cause me to... cancel the hotel reservations in Detroit that I canceled at halftime of the Wisconsin game and remade immediately after.
Win will cause me to... woooooo Rose Bowl baby!
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Brace yourselves: I think I talked myself into it. Vegas has us a small favorite and that seemed preposterous but as I started looking at things this seems like the sort of team we can have success against, because first and foremost they have a sketchy defensive line, and second and secondmost they have a sketchy defensive line.
I think we'll see the return of the run game that was functional to excellent against ND, and that should give Threet some more time to settle down and hit a few passes. You don't give up the sort of yards Illinois has without having serious systemic issues that don't go away in a week. We aren't going to
Defensively, I don't fear long drives, as Michigan should be able to stuff third downs on the regular. There will probably be a couple sustained drives but it shouldn't be a regular occurrence. I do fear big plays: Benn running open past Brown or Warren, Williams juking Thompson and screaming into the secondary. I am prepared to live with three horrible events. More than that and we're in trouble.
Also I fear anyone returning a kick or punt.
But… I think we win. Somebody shoot me.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Brandon Minor gets at least half the carries and someone breaks off a long one.
- Mike Martin has a major impact as the 3-3-5 NT.
- Michigan, 27-23.