Michigan State entered this season a projected juggernaut with an NFL quarterback and that ol' Spartan defense. While MSU is undefeated, it hasn't really worked out like that. MSU saw their marquee win severely compromised when Utah atomized Oregon at Autzen and then erased when Washington State beat the Ducks in overtime.
Meanwhile MSU has struggled to separate from a collection of teams that are Not Good. CMU was within a touchdown deep into the third quarter. Air Force outgained MSU by about 100 yards but repeatedly fumbled away a chance at the upset. Purdue came storming back from 21-0 to 24-21 and had two cracks at a winning drive. Rutgers led most of the way last week.
None of these teams are sneaky good. Oregon is currently the top-ranked MSU opponent in S&P at 64th. WMU and CMU look like MAC bottom dwellers. Purdue and Rutgers are Purdue and Rutgers. I guess we can give MSU a pass against Air Force because never schedule Air Force. But Michigan State looks vulnerable. Thus an approximately 14-point swing in the line from preseason.
Run Offense vs Michigan State
McDowell gets upfield in a hurry
(This preview ignores the Air Force game for obvious reasons. Never schedule Air Force.)
Michigan State's defense is, as always, highly aggressive. MSU has overwhelmed a number of very bad rush offenses; the last two weeks they have also parted like the Red Sea for long touchdowns. They want to be in your backfield on every play, but this year they don't have the secondary to back that up consistently.
MSU runs a lot of twist blitzes with their linebackers that see DT Malik McDowell roar upfield a gap or even two outside where he is nominally expected to be. This has killed Michigan (and a lot of other teams) for a long time. It'll be interesting to see how Michigan combats that under Jim Harbaugh.
We had a brief period of competitive football last week in which it looked like he wanted to spread a similar defense horizontally and run zone at it. That was only dubiously effective, as two big De'Veon Smith runs came when linebackers missed tackles at or near the line of scrimmage and several others were blown up. But by the time adjustments should have been made, Michigan was up 28-0 and thinking about this game.
Anyway. McDowell, Lawrence Thomas, and Shilique Calhoun are all penetration-or-death types; three-tech Joel Heath is more of an OL occupier. This can lead to some big gaps when someone roars upfield and Heath gets blasted back—to my eye he's not too good. The trick is getting through that gap instead of getting nailed in the backfield.
MSU's linebackers are all okay to good. They miss Ed Davis's playmaking presence but with Yet Another Bullough and Jon Reschke they hold it down just fine.
If Michigan tries to pop outside they are going to meet a version of the fate that Karan Higdon did against Northwestern. MSU will activate the playside safety as soon as Michigan shows run action. The difference here is that Northwestern has a very solid pair of safeties and MSU does… not. The entire MSU secondary struggles to tackle.
Add it up and it's still pretty good. MSU ranks 47th in rush defense on S&P, and while their plain old numbers aren't nearly as good you should remember that we are ignoring the Air Force game, a huge distorting factor.
Michigan's end of this has been solid and uninspiring. They've willingly flung their dudes into stacked boxes for big chunks of games, both to hone their players and run down the clock. An ever-shifting series of fancy plays has helped them keep their head above water, and a penetration-mad MSU seems vulnerable to Harbaugh's wham series plus the various traps Michigan's shown to date. I'm sure MSU coaches are aware of this as well, but there's only so much you can do to revamp what you do in a week.
Michigan's OL has rounded into a B or B+ unit featuring Mason Cole and Graham Glasgow as emerging stars; their blocky/catchy crew has been at about the same level. De'Veon Smith, Michigan's lead back, had a detectable limp after the Northwestern game but will play and will probably carry the load all day. His injury is one that lingers but you can tough it out, and Smith is a tough hombre.
Michigan is going to want to get reasonable gains when they are put under pressure and hit a few big plays. Like Northwestern, down-to-down consistency is going to be tough to come by.
KEY MATCHUP: MCDOWELL and CALHOUN versus WHAM and ASSORTED OTHER HARBAUGH GOTCHA PLAYS. The prospect of a coaching matchup that is even or even slants a bit towards Michigan is on the table. Wouldn't it be nice?
[Hit THE JUMP for NOT YOUR OLDER BROTHER'S MICHIGAN STATE SECONDARY and THE GUY ACTUALLY LIVING UP TO EXPECTATIONS]
sunny, chilly AM, mid 60s gametime, 0% chance of rain
Picture at right posted in a spirit of genuine love and admiration for Bo Cisek.
Run Offense vs Northwestern
Anthony Walker is not to be confused with Antoine
This has been up and down for the Wildcats. They've hampered Stanford and Minnesota (a combined 3.5 YPC after sacks are removed), but both Duke and Ball State gashed the Wildcats for more than five yards a carry, nearing 200 yards each. Duke's output was their best of the year on a per-carry basis; they just rushed for under a yard per carry in a 9-7 win(!) over Boston College. Ball State also just rushed for under a yard per carry against Toledo. They did not win.
So this is very different than Michigan's run D. It's not exactly bad. But it's not amazing. Northwestern is 44th in YPC allowed, and that's after facing the #35, #39, #83, and #109 rush offenses plus an FCS team. That is average performance against an average schedule. (For comparison, Michigan is fifth against #21, #32, #41, #84, and #115. IE: on another level entirely.)
Northwestern has a much more extreme version of the linebacker dichotomy Michigan does. Anthony Walker has been heroic this season, with a typical statline of 18 tackles, 3 TFLs, one baby saved from a burning building, and a PBU. Ace:
MIKE Anthony Walker flew under the radar heading into the season, but it's hard not to notice him now that he's amassed 44 tackles and 8.5 TFLs through five games for one of the most surprisingly strong defenses in the country. While he's a tiny bit undersized at 6'1, 235, he's got great athleticism for an inside linebacker, and his ability to read and react only makes it easier for him to shut down plays in a hurry:
Walker is at his best going sideline to sideline but he can also shed blocks and make plays between the tackles; he's also a solid cover linebacker.
The rest of their linebackers are nowhere near his level; I have seen them make weak tackle attempts in many games, get out of position, etc. After Walker, Northwestern's next two leading tacklers are the starting safeties. Only then do the other starting LBs come. Get Walker blocked and you can get to the secondary.
The Northwestern defensive line is fine. They're solid. They execute their assignments. They have something of a playmaker in Dean Lowry (4.5 TFLs). Ace compared him to Ryan Van Bergen and I think that's on point. I really liked RVB's game, but he's not Joey Bosa or Yannick Ngakoue. I am more optimistic about Michigan's ability to pound out yards against this defense than Ace is; the numbers for the season aren't great, and Minnesota's infinite offensive problems probably inflated the assets of the Northwestern D.
One particular third and short conversion was whistled dead despite Smith still inching forward with two different Wildcats hanging off him like 300-pound Christmas ornaments.
This is much the same crew he's going up against; if he can duplicate that performance Michigan has gone a long way towards winning.
That is somewhat likely. While Northwestern's taken a step forward on defense, it hasn't shown up too much in the run game; meanwhile this is basically the same Michigan rushing offense with a much better coaching situation. Consistent production is likely.
KEY MATCHUP: DE'VEON SMITH versus THE FLAILING ARMS OF THOSE WHO PLEAD FOR HIM TO STOP HIS BLOODY REIGN OF TERROR
[Hit THE JUMP for a SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE and a SIGN THAT NORTHWESTERN IS ALWAYS THEMSELVES]
Parking note sponsored by Park 'n' Party, which is your fancy same-place-all-the-time tailgate headquarters. They tell me they're now expanding into catering and equipment so they can accommodate all levels of commitment. They also say that if you wait you will not get parking and then you will wander the earth doomed for all time have to explain this to your spouse.
Meanwhile maybe Oregon State should go with some iconography, because logos don't seem to be going so well.
The Wolverines' half of the Craft Beer Battle against the state of Oregon—winner gets to relocate the brewery of their choice—comes against Oregon State's Beavers. OSU (Not That OSU) got caught up in last offseason's weirdest set of coach swaps when longtime coach Mike Riley was somewhat inexplicably hired at Nebraska; Oregon State responded by pirating a discontent Gary Andersen from Wisconsin, who went and got Paul Chryst from Pitt, and then Pitt may have gotten the best coach involved in any of this by hiring Pat Narduzzi.
Andersen's got his work cut out for him. He inherits two defensive starters and is going with a freshman quarterback on a team that went 2-7 in the Pac 12 last year. Oregon State opened the year with a worryingly competitive win (13-7 deep into the second half) over Weber State, a 2-10 FCS team that doesn't even have its punter anymore.
Run Offense vs Oregon State
Jaswha James is the only returning Beaver starter in the front seven
While concern is clearly warranted, we are advising Michigan fans not to panic about Michigan's rushing performance against the Samoan-laden Utah Utes. If such a thing repeats against the Beavers it's time for the sackcloth and ashes. Oregon State was 87th in the country last year in rush defense and lost virtually the entire thing.
They've moved to a Real Actual 3-4 this year with 260-pound DEs and feature a safety-ish freshman WOLB. From the FFFF:
if you're wondering, the "Peko" at NT is former MSU DL Domata Peko's cousin
Even that white-spackled lineup might oversell Oregon State's returning experience. Jaswha James, one of two guys asserted as a "returning starter," only started 7 games last year. But you roll with what you've got in marketing:
James had 16 tackles last year and two TFLs.
That's a veteran front, which is good and not good for them. They're not freshman for the most part; hooray. Most of these guys couldn't start on a pretty bad defense that had every reason to start looking to the future about halfway through the year; boo. Also they are undersized at about five of the seven spots in the front seven, give or take a 233-pound ILB.
But things change so Oregon State could suddenly be good—Andersen's certainly a good coach. We didn't get much indication either way in the Beavers' opener, but Weber State did scratch out 4.8 YPC on just 15 carries. That's not good but neither is it definitive. OSU's best hope is probably that Peko, a JUCO transfer, is a revelation and he can disrupt Michigan's rather flailing guards.
As for Michigan, game one was confused and dispiriting. I thought just about everyone not named Glasgow was bad. Both guards got deposited yards in the backfield; Mason Cole struggled to block anyone on the sweeps Michigan had set up to break big; De'Veon Smith was all right but found maybe one or two cutback lanes the whole game and missed a couple of cavernous holes. We're going to see just how far a Harbaugh team can come over the course of the season, because they're not starting from a high point.
KEY MATCHUP: Tailbacks versus holes. I expect they'll be there because if I don't expect that I'm resigning myself to another season of painful, painful offensive football. Also, they literally have a 260 pound 3-4 DE named "Failauga."
So: Michigan is still looking for a back who can find gaps in the line that may not always be where they were supposed to be presnap. Drake Johnson may return; if so expect him to get a run out, and possibly lock a job down.
With major preseason matchup with Oregon, Villanova, and Syracuse out of the way, and tilts with Arizona and SMU remaining, this… is a game that is in the middle of those games. It is of little value as a win. It would be of incredible schadenfreude value as a loss, not to mention an albatross around Michigan’s neck come NCAA Tournament seeding time. So that’s your only real motivation here. You just need to work hard enough not to get fired.
It sounds like Derrick Walton will return, but how much he will play is unclear, especially if the game is not competitive for the full 40 minutes. DJ Wilson remains out.
THE LINEUP CARD
Projected starters are in bold. %Min and %Poss figure are from this season now—yes, there will be a fair amount of noise in these numbers for a while. The "Should I Be Mad If He Hits A Three" methodology: we're mad if a guy who's not good at shooting somehow hits one. Yes, you're still allowed to be unhappy if a proven shooter is left open.
Also known as “NJIT’s Offense” Volume shooter, mostly from deep. 48.3 eFG%
I have no valueable insight into Mr. Willis’s game
Splits between the three and four. three and the four. High 2pt%, good at drawing fouls. Lots of steals
Good 3pt shooter, but unrelated to Tevin, so relax
High block% and OR%. Coming off a battle with Christmas, this feels like a theme
A guy. He plays basketball
Splits minutes at the five, is 6’5. Good on the offensive boards.
Another guy splitting between the three and four
The New Jersey Institute of Technology is the only Division I team that is not affiliated with a conference. They are best known for inventing the idea of “technology” in the late 1980’s. Just trust me.
Despite being 2-5 on the year, they are actually not as terrible as one might think when they see “New Jersey Institute of Technology.” They beat Duquesne (#156 to KenPom), Lost to Marquette (#102) by five. At the same time, their only other win was over Maine (#337) by four, and they lost to UMass Lowell.
No graphics today. Golden Retrievers aren’t as good at technology as, say, the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Take advantage of size. As you may have noticed, NJIT is very widdle. Their effective height is 346th in the country, and that runs across all five positions. Half of their center minutes go to a guy who is 6’5”. You may see some significant MAX time for the last time in a while.
Get out in transition. NJIT turns the ball over on nearly a quarter of their possessions. Michigan should be able to turn those into a lot of easy buckets.
Don’t miss everything. It’s hard to see this one being competitive, but if it does end up anywhere close to being close it will be because MIchigan just can’t make any of their many open looks.
THE SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES
Michigan by 21.
I tend to trust KenPom here. And everywhere. But especially here.
In case you allergic to clicking: Jared Sullinger is an NBA lottery pick at center who is a monster at rebounding, shooting, getting to the line, and ORtg in general. It's worth noting that Sullinger's been in a bit of a slump of late. His two-point shooting has slid from 61 to 57 percent in the last few weeks.
Sullinger is surrounded by a bunch of bouncy wing types and 40-minutes-of-hell point guard Aaron Craft. While the bouncy wing types are a little inconsistent, the rebounding and defense they bring makes Ohio State extremely difficult to beat even when they're playing like crap on offense. They possess Kenpom's #1 defense, and their #13 offense isn't exactly terrible.
One thing has changed since Michigan's first matchup with OSU: they now seem somewhat vulnerable to getting pounded inside themselves after getting beat up by Michigan State in their own building. Applicability of this event to tonight's game: 0.0%.
Since squeezing Michigan into a panini press of offensive rebounds and despair… er. Since beating Michigan 64-49 at home in a game that was vaguely competitive until OSU started pulling away several minutes into the second half, OSU has
Beaten Wisconsin on the road in a close-ish game (58-52)
Edged Purdue at home (87-84) in a game where Purdue went nuts from three
Gotten horsewhipped by MSU at home (48-58) and
Churned out a 78-68 win over Minnesota.
That's seen the Buckeyes fall to second in Kenpom. Let's all point and laugh.
Conference four factors:
Off. Reb. %:
OSU's offense is pretty good at putting the ball in the net and then gets better when they get second chance opportunities you're undoubtedly sick of hearing about. The defense is all-around throttling.
OSU is only a mediocre three-point shooting team (7th at just under 34%) and takes very few as a result. They do give up a relatively high number of threes, something Kenpom is busy asserting is more important than actually being able to defend them. It seems like there's little actual ability in three-point D numbers.
Get insanely hot from three. Purdue's not much good this year and they managed to stick within three of the Buckeyes by hitting a mere 58% of their threes. They might have even won if OSU didn't hit 9 of 16 themselves.
OSU gives up a lot of threes and doesn't have a lot of control over whether they go down or not. Threes also lead to a lot of long rebounds on which Michigan's lack of size is less of an issue on the offensive boards.
Yeah, it's the desperate act of an overmatched team to close your eyes and hope you can make it rain from behind the arc. And? Michigan's not winning this game unless they have a significant advantage in threes made.
Collapse, collapse, collapse. If the choice is between A) Sullinger grinding Michigan's thin post presence down, getting 57% twos off, and getting to the line and B) taking your chances with OSU's outside shooting, it's hardly a choice at all. Michigan will do what they've done all year, which is cheat like bandits against any and all post feeds.
Morgan actually did a good job against Sullinger last time out since he can front with less threat of getting beat over the top. No one else on the roster has much hope of doing anything other than being an annoyance, even if the temporary Smotrycz-Sulllinger matchups didn't go too badly last time.
Box out Lenzelle Smith and the rest of the world. David Merritt took on some of Michigan's defensive rebounding problems in a recent UMHoops post, pointing out Michigan's missed rotations when the above collapsing occurred. Those rotations left Lenzelle Smith (bottom of the picture) staring down the barrel at this:
The results were predictable. I think we've given up on the idea that Michigan's Stu-based lineup isn't going to get pounded on the boards but Michigan has to do better this time out. Hardaway is a big part of this as the second-biggest dude on the floor (and the guy not rotating above). Speaking of…
Win the mercurial shooter shootout. William Buford and Tim Hardaway Jr. have been plagued with inconsistency, except in Hardaway's case this is actually a way to say he's consistently been laying bricks. Hardaway got a little mojo back against Illinois and now finds himself one of just two Michigan players with a reasonable claim to being as athletic as his opponent (Burke is the other). It would help a great deal if Hardaway can score efficiently. He doesn't have to and probably can't go Brandon Paul; Michigan just needs him to hit open shots and finish better at the basket.
Oh, and rebound.
THE SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES
Yea, and it came to pass that a matured Michigan blogosphere had a month to survey an opponent for a BCS game, resulting in a flood of content that makes a preview superfluous. But lo, here it is anyway.
Run Offense vs Virginia Tech
SS/rover/CB/nickel Fuller is doing this at or near the LOS
VT's season is frustratingly devoid of opponents comparable to Michigan. Trying to draw connections between Georgia Tech's flexbone triple option and anything else is foolhardy; no one else on the schedule had a run game better than average.
This is almost literally true. Once you get past the other Tech, the next ACC teams on national rushing lists are VT itself and Maryland, neither of which VT played. #54 Virginia is the next-most-intimidating rushing offense on the schedule. Their quarterback netted 20 yards on the year and as a team they rushed for a full yard less per carry than Michigan. Other than GT's Tevin Washington, Tajh Boyd is the only athletic-ish quarterback on the schedule; he finished the year with under 200 yards rushing. Michigan has Denard Robinson and the #12 rushing offense in the country.
So… like, we just don't know. But here are the conference numbers all the same:
That's pretty good. You don't finish 15th in rushing defense without a number of quality performances. OTOH, in VT's four games against quality backs they got ripped three times by Clemson (The Sequel), Miami, and Georgia Tech with only one quality performance to offset that. Will that D be good enough against something not quite entirely unlike Virginia? This is the land of fan confirmation bias espectacularrrrrrr. Certainties are few and hope makes one vulnerable.
Given the way VT plays defense it seems like conventional zone reads and trying to get the edge will be sidelights to keep the Hokies honest if they're not shelved entirely. When opponents run a read, VT sells out on the tailback and sends their WLB/SS/CB nickelback rover guy at the QB. There is some debate about how good Kyle Fuller an d other VT safety sorts are in space. I'm on the "pretty good" side of the fence; Ace is less enthused. We'll see.
Presumably that evidence will come after Michigan tries the obvious thing to try: running it down Virginia Tech's throat. The VT DL is comprised entirely of underclassmen; their nose tackle is a freshman. Michigan has the Rimington winner, four returning starters, and the #12 rushing offense. Whenever anyone looks at these guys they come away with the same impression. BWS:
Defensive tackles. Soft. They were put on skates most of the game. Michigan's offensive line should manhandle these guys.
…the defensive tackles both are shoved right out of the hole, and the linebackers just aren't there to pick up the slack—the middle of that defense looked soft all game.
I punted on the Duke game but have watched a couple more outings by the run D and agree; Georgia Tech B-back David Sims (essentially a fullback) ground out 32 yards on 8 carries right up the middle largely because his guys in the center of the line were getting push.
Observers generally trash the VT LBs as well, but I'm inclined to see what look like issues with overpursuit and block-eating as 1) playing Bud Foster's style of defense in which the backside is always covered by a member of the secondary and 2) not being done any favors by their defensive line. It's hard to rack up big tackle numbers when you're always fending off a lineman releasing into the second level directly.
The recipe for success here is threefold:
Crush the interior line. Make VT cheat to it. QB iso is the best way to keep VT from getting their numbers advantage and exposing those noobs up the middle.
Get Fuller blocked. This is not going to happen often but when you can do it Fuller does not react well—he's still basically a corner—and VT relies on the Fuller guy always tackling.
MAKE PLAYS in space. We have the technology. We can juke them.
This is strength versus strength here; Michigan is better proven against quality competition and has a major asset poised to strike at VTs main weakness.
Key Matchup: Denard in open space against Fuller. This will happen, and Fuller is going to make some tackles in the backfield. Denard is another world from anyone the Hokies have seen this year, however, and if he WOOPs the guy in the hole the nature of the Virginia Tech defense means there isn't likely to be anyone else close by.
Pass Offense vs Virginia Tech
In efficiency terms, VT's pass defense (15th) is almost equivalent to their run D even before you take the usual Hokie sack parade (2.9 a game, 12th) into account. SOS concerns are less of a problem here: UNC, Miami, and Clemson all finished in the same YPA ballpark M did. Tech against those opponents:
That's a lot worse than I expected.
Even so, this is where Borges will earn his money. Virginia Tech has quality athletes all over their secondary; Michigan has middling speed at receiver. Separation will be at a premium and zone blitzing will be frequent.
VT does run a lot of man and matchup zone concepts vulnerable to getting RPSed by, say, a veteran West Coast coordinator with a bunch of cool stuff in his bag of tricks. While Clemson OC Chad Wilson ground out a 23-3 win the first time around without much in the way of efficiency, the second go-round saw nearly 500 yards of offense thanks in part to plays like this where Wilson exploited the man/robber combos VT loves:
As Ace says, "oops." Tajh Boyd was 20 of 29 for 240 yards and three touchdowns and no INTs after a ND-era Denard performance in game one: 13/32 for 204 yards and 1-1 TD:INT.
This is going to be a scheme matchup where Michigan has to threaten with Denard's legs and break VT keys to get guys open. We've seen Borges pull out multiple flood concepts, that delay stuff with Hemingway, bunch concepts, a zillion throwback screens, and even some QB Oh Noes here and there. That variety deployed sensibly has the potential to expose some of the holes VT's aggression leaves.
VT loves QB focused backside blitzes; Miami ended up handing off here but Duke was not so lucky on multiple occasions. Keep Denard in the gun and looking at those who would threaten him. There will be many of them coming from surprising places.
That is still a major concern. While Denard has flashed the ability to smoothly handle a blitzer up the middle over the last chunk of the season, the emphasis is on "flashed." Over the course of the season panic and bad decisions have been more common. A defense like this is going to test Denard's newfound ability to not throw multiple interceptions.
His late surge-type substance suffers from major sample size disclaimers. Setting aside the 21 attempts in the last 7 minutes of the Iowa game when Michigan threw the base offense out and Iowa's play was to bleed yardage, Denard threw 14, 16, 10, 18, and 17 passes the last five weeks of the season. His attempts have been largely comfortable ones in the context of the offense; his opportunities to throw interceptions have been massively restricted. If VT can expose him to crappy situations by shutting down the run game, there is a distinct possibility Michigan wakes the turnover demon.
Key Matchup: Borges versus Foster versus Denard's ability to figure out what's going on. We've seen plenty of hand-wavingly open dudes this year who have been ignored by Denard or Gardner in favor of fist-shakingly covered guys. If Borges can shake guys free Denard still has to find them and throw it to them.
Run Defense vs Virginia Tech
David Wilson is a scary tailback playing behind an iffy offensive line. When that offensive line can stalemate the opposition he slashes into and through the secondary. While I think highly of BWS's work, he cray if he thinks Wilson "doesn't have much speed" and isn't a damn good player. With Michigan's edge issues this year it will be a surprise if he doesn't bust someone to the ground en route to a 20 yard chunk.
Here we do have a couple of relatively close comparison points for the Michigan defense, which gave up 4.1 YPC over the course of the season. Miami and Virginia are very close to that average; BC and Clemson are a tenth or two worse. Those are the most comparable defense with conventional stats. In FEI Michigan (#17) is very close to North Carolina (#15). (FWIW, Clemson is 27, UVA 35, BC 41, Miami 67.)
Michigan should expect to give up about four and a half yards a carry with the bulk of the damage done by Wilson. If you think the Big Ten is significantly better than the ACC this year—something the Sagarin ratings believe and the Big Ten is busy disproving today, FWIW—you might downgrade that to Michigan's average.
That is the 1,000 foot view. From a matchup perspective, it seems like the interior of the VT OL is a weak spot that Michigan is well suited to exploit what with Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin hanging around in opponent backfields. Martin in particular has torn up substandard opposition in the back half of the schedule; he had a more even battle with Ohio Wesleyan's Mike Brewster in his last outing, but Brewster was a Rimington-finalist sort of guy. VT's interior line does not possess a similar player.
Ace highlighted the Clemson DTs' effectiveness in the ACC title game:
I noticed stuff like this against… like… Duke. Which is Duke. Wilson still ate up bunches of yards when he got to the outside and stiffarmed his way up to full rumble, but you've got to get there first. VT has shown some option and will undoubtedly try to find ways to avoid Martin's regular sojourns into the backfield. How Michigan handles that will go a long way towards determining who wins this matchup.
It is imperative that Van Bergen and Martin MAKE PLAYS; with Nate Brink out and Will Heininger likely sidelined Michigan will have to rotate Will Campbell and Quinton Washington at the three-tech spot. This weakens that slot and strips RVB and Martin of any possibility of relief. Expect a good deal of Michigan's nickel package with Ryan as a down lineman; VT runs three WRs out there most of the time.
Beyond Wilson there are two guys with more than a handful of carries. Senior Josh Oglesby is an uninspiring thudder averaging 3.7 YPC. QB Logan Thomas is 6'6" and relatively athletic; VT uses him on the inverted veer to pick up 5-8 mooseyards and deploys him as an automatic first down in short yardage. There's a big difference between third and one and third and two in this game.
Key Matchup: Ryan, Floyd, Countess, Avery, Kovacs, and other edge/alley defenders against Wilson in space. If Wilson's going to crack 100 yards it's going to come with two or three big chunk runs outside the tackles.
Pass Defense vs Virginia Tech
left bad. right good.
Logan Thomas is a huge dude with a big, accurate downfield arm. Think John Navarre, except driving around in a tank. When given time to survey he will set his feet and deliver strikes 15-50 yards downfield. On occasion he will throw terrible interceptions. This isn't a problem at the level Denard's errant throws are but it does exist.
Thomas's efficiency numbers are middling. He's 49th nationally; his YPA is slightly above average at 7.7. VT missed the three best pass efficiency Ds in the league but still played a ton of teams in Michigan's ballpark (37th). Results:
That is not much success against Clemson but good to excellent numbers against the rest of the reasonably good pass efficiency opponents. That may be because those teams all kind of suck. The datapoint we just got on Virginia (giving up 450 yards and 43 points to what was the nation's #104 offense) is not so encouraging for the ACC. Pay no attention to the Penn State behind the curtain or Braxton Miller going all Troy Smith last game.
The VT receivers aren't DeVier Posey and the threat posed by Thomas won't force Michigan into a one-off attempt to imitate Virginia Tech's defense, so hopefully the secondary will revert to its pre-OSU form in which big plays are rare and receivers are, like, covered and stuff. Thomas Gordon reclaims the starting free safety spot after Troy Woolfolk's torrid first half against OSU; he has been solid most of the year.
Even if that happens, Thomas has shown an ability to pinpoint seemingly covered receivers. Miami was totally horrible against the pass this year but 23 of 25 for 310 yards is eyepopping. The overall stats are misleading since Thomas's YPA is held down by VT's propensity for bubble screens. On actual pass plays he picks up big chunks.
Getting to Thomas is the best way to not get arcing deep balls rained on Michigan's face. While he has the raw arm strength to throw off the back foot, he is a large man with a long arm and slow delivery; he's not bad in motion but he's not lethally accurate.
Key Matchup: Martin/RVB/Roh/Ryan against the VT OL. While VT has not gotten much push up front, the line has kept Thomas clean much of the year. VT gives up just over a sack per game and that is with a ton of deep routes, a QB with a long delivery, and a healthy number of throws.
Virginia Tech's specialists.
This is a very strange thing to write in a preview about Virginia Tech, but after everything that's befallen the Hokies in the run-up to this game this probably should be a Michigan advantage. VT's first-string kicker got in jail and their second-stringer was sent home for missing curfew. The third string guy is all that's left; he was scheduled to take longer field goals tomorrow but now he's got everything. Brendan Gibbons isn't great shakes but he's at least got a decent track record under 40 yards this year.
At punter, meanwhile, Will Hagerup has struggled even when not immortalizing himself in the GIF seen round the world. He's still not a starting wide receiver, like Danny Coale. Coale will punt for VT tomorrow after their starter punted the Hokies into the triple digits. Coale's been surprisingly effective given the circumstances but has shanked a couple opportunities.
Returns… eh. VT and M are 99th and 100th in kickoff returns; they've been better on punts but both are still middling. While variance be variant, there's no reason to expect either return unit to have a huge impact on the game. Field goals and how far those punts travel will be bigger issues.
Key Matchup: Gibbons you have an advantage over the opponent?
first page of results for "Virginia Tech cat" for some reason
Michigan gets stuck on the field for long drives; with the line down two guys M will be susceptible to tiring.
Logan Thomas has time to throw downfield.
Special teams is not an advantage for some reason. I know, weird.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
Molk goes dancing on underclassman chests.
QB Oh Noes returns with authoritah.
Denard gets past the filling safety.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 4 (Baseline 5; –1 for Third String Kicker And WR Punter, +1 for Aggressive Blitzing Defense Did Okay In M's Last Bowl Game, +1 for Secondary Just Imploded, Reminding Me Of 2006, +1 for David Wilson Is The Truth, –1 for The Truth Can Only Do So Much When He's Dodging Two Guys In The Backfield, –1 for There Is Denard, –1 for Massive Trench Advantage On Both Sides Of The Ball, +1 for General Bowl Game Paranoia, –1 for Hoke Uber Alles.)
Desperate need to win level: 8 (Baseline 5; +1 BCS Win So Sexy, +1 for Would Be Fourth Time Since 93 Michigan Loses Fewer Than Three Games, +1 for Preseason Top Ten Hype, –1 for Wait Actually That Sounds Like A Bad Idea, +1 for Makes Alabama Seem Like Way Less Of A Bad Idea, –1 for Meaningless Garbage Exhibition Designed To Bilk People Out Of Money, +1 for Winning Is Fun.)
Loss will cause me to... eat nothing but turkey for the next month.
Win will cause me to... squint at the returning members of the defensive line until they transform into a competent unit, proclaim Big Ten championship is on the table next year. Also enjoy life.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
It's tough to get a grasp on Virginia Tech given their schedule, which is 78th by FEI's estimation. They played no one in the nonconference. They got blown out twice by Clemson. They missed the other winning teams in the Atlantic division. Their best wins are over 8-5 Virginia, 8-5 Georgia Tech, and 7-6 North Carolina. They played one-score games with Duke and East Carolina. They have the shiny record and a lot of shiny stats, but against who?
You can say something similar about Michigan, which missed Wisconsin and Penn State and played in a terrible edition of the Big Ten. They check in 55th. These are not teams that enter the Sugar Bowl atop a mountain of skulls.
We do have more evidence that Michigan is really genuinely good at a thing, though. Michigan's rushing offense was shut down by MSU and Iowa this year thanks to snap timing, an inability to combat blitzes up the middle, and a bunch of runs from under center. When this was not happening they killed people. Assuming these things do not recur, Michigan should grind out a solid day on the ground. Quality rushing offenses have gone for big yardage in three of four opportunities against VT's young, small DL.
VT, on the other hand, has just come off a game in which an athletic interior line demolished their running game. I'm worried about turnovers and Logan Thomas testing Michigan's suddenly vulnerable secondary deep; I'm confident that Michigan has a major advantage along both lines. In a game that figures to be contested on the ground that should be enough. Michigan's tendency to turn the ball over is offset by the various third stringers and WRs kicking for Tech.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
Michigan outrushes VT by 75 yards.
Denard passing attempts are under 20.
VT's goofy kicker specialists don't hurt them, because that's life.
Q: is "Embrace the Process" the world's worst motivational slogan or Ron English expressing disapproval of Brady Hoke criticism?
A: WHY DID YOU LEAVE TWO DEEP SAFETIES BACK AGAINST ARMANTI EDWARDS YOU TWIT
Run Offense vs. Eastern Michigan
Eastern's only games this year have come against FCS opponents, which tells you something about the program: they aren't even thinking about getting to six wins and a bowl game.
For what it's worth, EMU was 118th in rushing defense last year, giving up over 230 yards per game at over six yards per attempt. When Jerry Kill's NIU Huskies and their #7 rushing attack rolled in at the end of the season, the carnage was impressive: 544 yards and eight touchdowns. NIU averaged over 15 yards a carry!
Key Matchup: There is no key matchup.
Thing That Would Make Me Feel Better About The Big Ten Schedule: I'm not sure there is one. I'm sure we'll get a heavy dose of I-form. It'll be interesting to see whether or not Michigan can eclipse EMU's YPC average from last year from actual I-form running plays. Survey says… yes, but it will be close.
Pass Offense vs. Eastern Michigan
EMU's pass efficiency defense last year was somehow worse than their rush defense, finishing 119th out of 120. The only team worse? Jay Hopson's Memphis Tigers. EMU gave up 9 YPA, gave up 32 touchdown to two interceptions, and finished 118th in sacks.
Thing That Would Make Me Feel Better About The Big Ten Schedule: Denard accuracy.
This is the solitary thing Eastern is not atrocious at. They are far from good, but averaging 4.1 YPC is almost kind of okay—it's better than several Lloyd Carr offenses managed. I am not going to go into all the reasons this turns me into Brian Kelly.
/beats head against wall /feels strange kinship with Mike DeBord
Instead I'll emphasize that Eastern couldn't move the ball at all against even horrible BCS level competition last year (2.8 YPC versus Vandy) but that they did decently against the 2009 Michigan defense (3.7 YPC despite losing their QB and putting in a freshman Alex Gillett), which presaged a lot of nasty things. I'll be interested to see how wacky Mattison gets and what the effects are. I'd prefer a whole lot of vanilla just because it will conceal blitz packages for tougher opponents but also because Michigan needs work on being vanilla effectively.
Thing That Would Make Me Feel Better About The Big Ten Schedule: Will Campbell increases his share of playing time; Cam Gordon comes back and plays well; Brandin Hawthorne solidifies his spot at WLB; holding EMU to three YPC.
Pass Defense vs. Eastern Michigan
EMU just missed finishing in triple digits here, managing to creep up to 98th in passer efficiency. Gillett's numbers weren't that horrible—7.1 YPA—except when it came to interceptions, of which he threw 13 in 229 attempts. That's a significantly higher INT percentage than even Denard. Also he was horrible against decent competition, which Michigan may just be in the secondary.
Thing That Would Make Me Feel Better About The Big Ten Schedule: Lots of pressure generated by the defensive line.
Two games, no field goal attempts. I endorse this course of action.
Key Matchup: GIBBONS YOU PUT IT THROUGH THE UPRIGHTS AAAAAA
Double digit spreads against MAC teams don't warrant cat pictures until the current coach loses to one (or a Horror). This is Michigan.
Eastern Michigan gains any yards.
Eastern Michigan makes any stops.
Eastern Michigan does anything right at all.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
You think about last week's Notre Dame game.
You think about last week's Notre Dame game.
You think about last week's Notre Dame game.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 0 (Baseline 5; –1 for Eastern's run D, –1 for Eastern's pass D, –1 for Eastern's pass O, –1 for Ron English against a mobile quarterback, –1 for Of 17 Official Stats The NCAA Tracks Eastern Was In Triple Digits In 11 Last Year.)
Desperate need to win level: 10 (Baseline 5; +1 for NOT AGAIN GOD DAMMIT, +1 for Losing to Ron English With a Mobile Quarterback is Definitely a Sign of the Apocalypse, +1 for I'm Sick Of Showing Up In LOL Photographs On Black Heart Gold Pants, +1 for Indisputable Evidence The Curse Of Letting Bo Die Instead Of Sacrificing As Many Virgins As It Took To Get The Job Done (Sorry, School of Engineering) Persists Despite This Is Michigan, +1 for I Hate Old TJ Hooker Episodes.)
Loss will cause me to... wake up in former Soviet republic married to a goat and happy the only television in the country is hardwired to show old TJ Hooker episodes.
Win will cause me to... experience no emotion whatsoever.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Michigan wins by a lot.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
We run from the I on half of all plays.
Rawls debuts and does something cool, then disappears to the bench for the rest of the year.
Everyone reads way too much into whatever Will Campbell does.
The Only Colors has a preview from a Michigan State perspective that's essentially what I'd write if I was going to put one together. After a decent start Michigan State endured an awful 1-6 stretch that's put them behind the eight ball in the league and the (hypothetical) pairwise.
The last couple weekends they've recovered to split in the Showcase and against a decent Ferris State team, but the losses of Petry, Tropp, and Rowe have been too much for a talent-deficient MSU team to overcome. As long as Comley's around the Spartans are going to be bad or very bad when they only have two seniors and four draft picks. Both programs have fallen off from where they were ten years ago for the Cold War, which was a season-opener in October that saw #1 Michigan State take on #4 Michigan, but Michigan's fallen back from dominant to very good while Michigan State has turned into Northern Michigan, except Northern never ends up tenth in the league.
There's a big gap in the goal differentials:
MSU: 42 GF, 46 GA overall (2.47/2.71 per game), 23/29 in conference (2.09/2.63 per game) Michigan: 58 GF, 45 GA overall (3.22/2.50 per game), 38/26 in conference (3.17/2.17 per game)
Michigan's goal difference is about where it was last year (higher in conference but lower overall). Ours, on the other hand, has gone well into the red. This time, the records actually match the goal difference numbers, unlike last year where we finished 2nd in conference and Michigan was 7th despite a better goal difference.
The guy to watch is Brett Perlini, a seventh-round pick of Anaheim who's Michigan State's leading scorer with an 11-5-16 line. Big and talented, he's the kind of player Michigan's finesse defense might have issues with. Daultan Leveille is a first round pick of the Thrashers and while he hasn't lived up to that hype in three years at State he's extremely fast and is the Spartan best able to take advantage of the Olympic sheet. Derek Grant is Perlini's setup guy and an Ottawa draft pick; past that the Spartans have diminutive senior Dustin Gazely, who is all right and has 5-6-11, and a bunch of guys named Chelios who are marginal players. Shut down the Spartans' top line and they have very little else. The only D who gets involved with the offense is Torey Krug
Michigan State goalie Drew Palmisano is having an okay year. He's about average in save percentage; given what I've seen from him in the past I'm betting he's facing an inordinate number of good shots.
I summarized the season to date earlier in the week and nothing's changed since then. To recap: Michigan isn't the team that went 10-10 before the break last year, but it's not the team that tore off ten straight to salvage an NCAA bid, either. It's a version of last year's team that's a little older and better. They spend most of the game in the opponent's end unless they're playing elite competition, get a lot of goals they don't really mean to score, and lack the top-end scoring star Red's teams have been built around for ages. When Berenson admits his group is "blue collar," you know there's a lack of flash. Yea, it is so.
They're still not bad or anything, but it doesn't look like this group is going into the NCAA tournament expecting to make a Frozen Four. Hoping, probably. Not expecting.
Hogan has earned the start this weekend, which may presage a shift in Michigan's goalie strategy long term. Two years ago Michigan split time between Hogan and Sauer, with Hogan taking over in the second half of the season. I wouldn't be surprised to see a repeat in the cards, with Hunwick getting a few games here and there.
"Now we don't have to worry about the sun or the rain or wind or snow or bad ice or good ice. Now we can just worry about playing hockey," he said. "We know the environment, we know the scenario is unique, but I think the novelty is wearing off a little."
MSU will have one practice outside today.
You may notice the threatening chance of rain above. The temperature is excellent for December… unless it rains, in which case everyone is going to be thinking of the 2008 Northwestern game and wishing it was 25. There are different forecasts at different sites. Weather Underground says there's a 20% chance of snow, which would be fine. The Weather Channel says a 30-40% chance of rain/snow, which would be miserable.
IANA meteorologist but it given the temperatures—barely above freezing and way colder in the cloud layer—and the dew point, which some guy on Yahoo Answers said had to be below freezing, it'll probably be a wet snow that melts when it hits. This section is evidence of a diseased mind.
Anyway, Weather Underground also says winds will be in the 10-14 MPH range, which may be enough for the CCHA to stop the game midway through the third and have the teams switch ends. This did not happen in last year's game against Wisconsin despite Michigan's request (Hogan's crease was faulty), but the CCHA's on top of things.
This is a game Michigan should win by putting Hagelin and company out against Perlini and relying on those guys to overwhelm the slower MSU team with their skating. Lines two through four are major advantage Michigan and the game should be largely focused in the MSU zone when they're on the ice.
Michigan has a hard time turning possession into goals, however, and plays a large number of games against obviously inferior competition that they can't break open because of their lack of firepower. They just did it twice against Ohio State, struggled to finish off Lake State, etc. If they played this 100 times Michigan might win 60 with 20 ties and 20 MSU wins, but they're only playing once, so here's a stupid prediction of a 3-2 Michigan victory and snow.
Right: meet the only context in which this is 100% appropriate.
Livebloggin' is in effect starting maybe a half-hour before the game.
And here's where the problem kicks in: how does one preview a soccer game? Stats are sparse on the ground, there's not a clean division between units that allows for easy compartmentalization, I haven't seen Akron play and have rarely seen Michigan, and while I am outstanding at Football Manager—truly righteous—most of my skill comes in identifying hot young talents other teams are content to give away for peanuts.
Let's start with what we know: Michigan's last loss was against this Akron team. It was not a pretty one. Michigan got clunked 7-1—Akron's biggest margin of victory on the year. They also lost 1-0 in a spring exhibition at the Silverdome.
Ives Galarcep's most recent MLS draft "Big Board" has Akron players at…
1. Darlington Nagbe, M/F 2. Perry Kitchen, DM 3. Kofi Sarkodie, DR 5. Darren Mattocks, F 8. Zarek Valentin, DC 18. Anthony Ampaipitakwon, M 25. Michael Nanchoff, ML
…this is seven of a starting eleven in the top 25. Michigan has one player, Justin Meram, at 25. (In the comments, a "Seth Brokekicker" admonishes Galarcep for hyping Meram up when he's needed on campus next year.) Someone asks about Soony Saad and Galarcep says he's on the 2013 board.
I bet not even Jamiemac of Just Cover can find a line for tomorrow's game, but if he does Michigan will be an impressive underdog. Akron is be the #3 seed and while Maryland was the #2 and beat Akron 3-1 in an exhibition last spring it's hard to find a reason Akron wasn't far and away the #1 seed in the tournament if they don't manage a single loss against Cleveland State(!) in late October. Their schedule wasn't great and as a result their RPI was fourth. Michigan's was worse. Before the tournament they were third in a stretch of Big Ten teams ranging from 12 to 15; Indiana was 12th and first in the league despite going only 9-7-2 against D-I.
One man's scouting report follows. This guy has seen three games this year, has not had the benefit of replay except once, and is not Zonal Marking, so bear with me.
Anyone will tell you that Michigan's strength is in their attackers and this is true. Freshman Soony Saad is the nation's second leading scorer and rookie of the year with 19 goals; he's a crafty shooter who scored from his own half this year and scared the hell out of UCF's goalie when he tried it again in Michigan's tournament opener. Strike partner Justin Meram is a soccer version of TJ Hensick or Mike Comrie, a gifted dribbler and accomplished sniper who's all right physically but will not wow you. At the UCF game a friend of mine turned to me and said in all seriousness "he's better than Robbie Findley," and I thought to myself "this is literally true." When in doubt Michigan chucks it up to Meram and hopes he can run onto it.
Soony's brother Hamoody alternates between a central attacking midfield role (Michigan plays with a dedicated destroyer behind him, relieving Hamoody of many defensive duties) and a wing spot, where he interlinks with both forwards. He's often the player who touches the ball right before the guy who gets the assist. He's not as much of a threat with the ball at his feet as the two strikers but is good at getting them involved in space.
The two wingers are usually senior Alex Wood and sophomore Latif Alashe; Alashe is more immediately impressive but Wood was the guy who sprung Meram for the tying goal against UCF. Alashe deflected the winner into the net. Those five attackers are the strength of the team.
On defense it's considerably wobblier. The defensive midfielder is redshirt junior Adam Shaw, who is a gritty, gritty man. By this I mean "5'8" and not very fast." He makes up for this by being dogged. The word just sort of leaps into your mind as you watch him play. That kid—dogged, that kid. He could be to be a weak link against a rampaging Zips midfield. With Hamoody Saad upfield and multiple Akron players capable of dropping into the hole or effectively transitioning into attack he's going to have his hands full unless Michigan makes a tactical change.
The defense has scared me in games against mediocre opponents this year and was obviously gunned down in spectacular fashion in the game against the Zips earlier in the season. Since it is my fate to not like the left fullback on any soccer team I've ever watched I haven't been a big fan of Chase Tennant; he was pretty weak in two of the three games I saw and while he was better against UCF he still gives away possession flamboyantly. He's not an offensive threat.
Right back Jeffrey Quijano is a senior who fought through a challenge for his job and reclaimed his starting spot midway through the season. He's prone to leave his feet in bad situations but is much better on the ball than Tennant and can be a threatening presence down the wing. Quijano scored one of Michigan's goals against Maryland and put Meram's on a plate after slaloming through several defenders. (Or so Goal.com says. I have no idea since I was at the basketball game.)
The central defenders are okay. I like Kofi Opare better, as he seems less prone to misjudge long balls and better at developing possession from the back. Brian Kemczak is his running mate and has come off like Jay Demerit—solid defensively but a hoofer as soon as it touches his foot. I have gotten a sense of vague disquiet whenever the ball is bouncing around the box and can't tell if that's justified or just how I watch soccer.
I didn't notice much about goalie Chris Blais but the guy next to me at the UCF game muttered something to his friend about how he had "frankly been a weak link." That guy sounded like he really liked Prairie Home Companion and said something patronizingly moralistic about a yellow card he thought had gone to Soony Saad for rolling around theatrically after someone had stepped on his foot. Said yellow had actually gone to his brother for dissent. So take that with a grain of salt. I thought he could have done better on the UCF goal, which pinged around the box and probably should have been fisted away*.
Miscellaneous bits. Michigan is very good at set pieces. Soony Saad is a bomber who's a threat to score by shooting; Hamoody takes the corners and usually drives hard in-swingers. He was the motive force behind Michigan's game-winner against UCF when he swung in a terrific ball that was headed for the net and just needed a tiny deflection to wrong-foot the goalie. It reminded me of David Beckham's World Cup goal against Paraguay:
In this case the touch was from a Michigan player; on both the initial ball did 90% of the work.
Michigan did catch a bout of short corner disease against UCF, so be warned.
Search me. They're really good, tied for the national lead in scoring at 2.65 goals per game (tied with most recent Michigan victim Maryland) and sixth-best defensively, ceding just 0.63 per game. Michigan's at 2.17 and 1.42, respectively, so they're close to the Zips on the front line but not so much on the back. If you take out the Akron game those margins get way smaller, but hey—we're playing Akron.
"They're very opportunistic," Tulsa coach Tom McIntosh said. "And they are very good on set pieces. They don't need many chances for goals. The problem is we got two goals down, then we had to chase the game. This is not a team you want to chase a game against."
Michigan can vouch for that. There's an interview with a couple recent alums that is beyond boring.
Keep an eye on Akron forwards Darlington Nagbe and Darren Mattocks, midfielder Perry Kitchen and defenders Kofi Sarkodie and Zarek Valentin; Michigan forwards Justin Meram and Soony Saad; North Carolina midfielder Michael Farfan; and Louisville defender J.T. Murray. The national semifinals will be broadcast on ESPNU and ESPN2 on Friday, with the final being shown at 4 p.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2.
I'll go with Akron to win it all. Coach Caleb Porter has had the most talent in the country for a while now, and all he needs to validate his program's success is an NCAA championship.
Soccer predictions are even dumber than football ones, which are dumb but I feel I have to do. But: given the previous matchup, the ridiculous concentration of talent on the Akron roster, and the feeling they're the heavy favorite to win the entire tournament, I'm not expecting victory.
On the other hand, Cal almost ended them in OT and soccer specializes in WTF moments. Back in 2002 I've got no idea what's going on when I turn on the TV in Ireland and catch Manchester United playing the improbably-named Zalaegerszeg. Man U dominates but never cracks the defense and then in stoppage time this happens:
This would not be anywhere near as titanic an upset, obviously, but it's tonic for anyone looking at 7-1 earlier in the year and wondering how the rematch could play out the other way.
*(If you're looking to start a soccer blog you could do worse than "Fisted Away.")
**(Prepare to experience the odd frisson of a relevant Grant Wahl tweet in a liveblog, kids.)
Michigan's rushing offense failed to find the big play against Michigan State despite being a step from it a half-dozen times; down two or three scores for most of the second half they abandoned the run. The numbers came down from the stratosphere, but they weren't shut down, or close to it. Michigan's performance to date against BCS opponents:
They were contained.
Indiana's terrible and UConn a major disappointment. Michigan did about what Wisconsin did against MSU and obliterated a Notre Dame rush defense that's not great but seems at least decent. They've played the #6, 14, and 25 rushing offenses in the country plus three other BCS teams and are still keeping their head above water in the rankings. They're tied for 56th in YPC, 0.02 behind Penn State. Even if you take out Denard's 87-yarder, Michigan averaged 5.0 YPC against Notre Dame.
So, yes, Michigan is pretty good at running the ball this year. They are about as good at running it as Iowa is at stopping it. The Hawkeyes are currently #2 in rushing D, #4 in total D, and #1 in scoring D. Their results against BCS opponents:
Though the Hawkeyes have been unyielding the only team they've played that can run even a little bit is ISU, the nation's 63rd-best rush offense thanks to a demolition job on Texas Tech. Arizona is 92nd and passed the ball almost 70% of the time in their first two Pac-10 games. And the debacle that is Penn State's offense is 85th; Illinois just held them to 65 yards.
The jury is still out. While their numbers are strong enough to suggest they're better than, say, Michigan's rush defense they could be on par with MSU or Notre Dame. (Arguing against this: even accounting for strength of opposition the Iowa rush defense is 3rd nationally in the Mathlete's PAN metrics.) Last year Iowa was 34th in rush defense and gave up 205 yards to Michigan at 4.7 yards a pop.
This year they return the entire line but lose two of the three linebackers. MLB Jeff Tarpinian was not on the depth chart earlier this week due to a Minor-like assortment of injuries but could give it a go; if he can't his replacement is either a fifth year senior who hasn't played much in his career or a freshman. Meanwhile Michigan has changed quarterbacks (massive upgrade), replaced Minor with a platoon of Shaw and Smith (significant downgrade), and added Taylor Lewan, David Molk, and Patrick Omameh to the offensive line (significant upgrade). You'd think Michigan could at least match last year's performance with an eye towards another YPC.
Schemes will be a major complicating factor. I'll be interested to see what, if anything, Iowa does to adjust to the Denard Robinson show. Last year they sat two safeties back and let Denard run his QB lead draw over and over again on his late touchdown drive. Iowa was protecting a two score lead and had not spent time preparing for the Denard offense, so adjustments and aggression were thin on the ground.
This year Iowa knows what they're getting in Denard, and they've had a bye week to work on defending him. Will they sit back like Michigan State did and hope to stiffen in the redzone, or will they start running scrape exchanges and blitzing? I'm guessing Iowa—which loves playing a simple base D well—will start with the former and move to the latter if it's not working.
Key Matchup: Michigan coaches finding ways to option the ball into Denard's hands. DR's the best running back Michigan has but Iowa will be solid enough to handle or keep down most plays that are conventional QB runs; they can bend but not break well enough to put Michigan behind in the race to 30 points. Big plays are probably going to come from Denard on plays where the guy containing is containing the RB. As a bonus, optioning off one of Iowa's defenders means not having to block someone on that defensive line.
Think Oregon and Illinois: midline and veer.
Pass Offense vs. Iowa
Tyler jimmer-jammin' Sash
Denard's grim day against Michigan State combines with the terrible interception against Iowa last year to dampen expectations. Despite those unfortunate events, however, Robinson is still 12th in passer efficiency. Iowa's defense is better (10th) but here they've had the luxury of taking on the 106th, 110th, and 115th most efficient passing attacks nationally. In their one game against a quarterback capable of doing something other than soiling himself, Nick Foles was 28 of 39 for 303 yards. That's a healthy 7.8 YPC.
Relevancy? Slight. Foles is a pocket bomber. Denard is a magic elf reliant on breathtakingly wide open receivers and a healthy dose of screenage for his numbers. There is some slight relevancy, though. The Mathlete has the Iowa pass defense at 0, average nationally.
FWIW, last year Forcier and the receivers imploded in this game; this was probably his shoulder injury's apex.
Here the interesting bit is how much pressure Iowa gets on Denard. Their vaunted defensive line has not racked up a ton of sacks—they're middle of the pack—and Michigan opponents have been cautious with their rush except in obvious passing situations. Iowa figures to rush four most of the day as they play zone and contain; straight dropback passes will be rare and depend heavily on freshman Taylor Lewan and journeyman Perry Dorrestein facing down a challenge an order of magnitude greater than any they've faced before. A dollar says that Robinson finds himself under seige from the Iowa DL when Michigan is off schedule and cannot mount a credible threat to run.
When Michigan is on schedule things will be in Michigan's favor because of the run threat. Still, Iowa will be far less vulnerable to Michigan's mega play action game than opponents to date. They have a two-deep system, they have veteran safeties made of grit and mandibles, they have film of the stuff Michigan's done for huge touchdowns. If they can avoid bringing down a safety to combat the run, Denard's numbers will be efficient but not amazing.
Key Matchup: Denard's deep accuracy versus Whatever That Was. If Michigan's going to win they're going to have to take advantage of an open receiver downfield or three. His close-range accuracy is probably going to be fine; the past couple weeks he's missed a lot of guys deep.
Run Defense vs. Iowa
Hopes that the run defense was significantly better than the pass defense went out the window during a dispiriting day against Michigan State. After holding up well in the first quarter a series of zone stretches broke it either very big or sort of big throughout the rest of the game, leaving Michigan with truly ugly numbers:
Michigan's hung on against their other three BCS opponents but I'd be remiss if I failed to mention two different UMass backs nearing 100 yards; Michigan's defense is terrible in all phases.
So it's time for changes. Michigan coaches have promised to take the enigmatic Kenny Demens out of mothballs in the hope that he can be less of a spectator than Obi Ezeh. Only the enigmatic Kenny Demens can tell you whether or not he will be, and he only speaks an ancient Sanskrit dialect.
As far as Iowa goes, Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God is two tendons away from being as wroth as Angry Michigan Secondary Hating God, which is wroth indeed. Jewel Hampton tore his ACL for the second consecutive year and Brandon Wegher went on a vision quest, leaving Adam Robinson the only scholarship non-freshman available. You probably remember Robinson from last year's game; he was the guy who played more in the second half and had 70 yards on ten carries. Yay!
Iowa's two games against Arizona and Penn State had outcomes between mediocre and terrible. Iowa tailbacks had 36 yards on 17 carries against Arizona; Robinson managed 95 on 28 carries against Penn State. They did obliterate Iowa State but Michigan's rush defense is 55th, not 102nd. Penn State is sort of a good comparison here. They're 51st after giving up buckets of yards to Illinois and Alabama; the Illinois game found the Nittany Lions injury-wracked.
Michigan will probably be worse than PSU was, but if it's not by much—say 120 yards on 4 YPC instead of 3.4—that will be a win for the beleaguered defense and should result in a number of real live stops. Robinson is significantly smaller than the MSU guys and won't be able to drag piles as far or stay up when Cam Gordon delivers the shoulder block from hell. He's still pretty good, though, and will do damage.
Key Matchup: Kenny Demens versus Whatever The Hell It Is That's Been Keeping Him On The Bench. I'm rooting for disgust at Michigan's talent identification so hard this weekend.
Pass Defense vs. Iowa
All right, fine, more of this "detail" you're always clamoring for: Stanzi is back. He is the Stanzi of last year minus the free seven points handed out to each team before the start of the contest (the pick six against Arizona wasn't his fault). He is full of America, and he is third in passer efficiency. Given a tough situation down many, many points on the road he led Iowa most of the way back against a good pass defense and finished 18 of 33 for 278 yards. Michigan does not have a good pass defense.
The closest comparable to Stanzi on the schedule is the guy Michigan just played: Kirk Cousins. Cousins isn't a superhero but he's a veteran guy with good accuracy and a good deep ball. Michigan may be less susceptible to play action since the Iowa ground game doesn't figure to be as potent and the freshmen corners won't be given one-on-one coverage deep with James Rogers back, but when Stanzi drops back to pass bad things will happen. He was robotic against Penn State early, when Iowa ran out to the two touchdown lead they nursed through the second half.
Michigan's best hope here is getting to Stanzi. Iowa's last-ditch bid to re-tie the Arizona game ended with four straight sacks (one was erased by penalty) and Iowa's average in that department despite passing only 40% of the time. A scenario where Martin, Roh, and Van Bergen make regular trips to the Stanzi Rib Motel is possible.
If that is not the scenario that transpires, Stanzi's going over 300 yards and we'll all start gnawing whatever is handy. Table. Blanket. Whiskey bottle. Misplaced baby.
Key Matchup: Cam Gordon versus big long touchdowns. He must bounce back or we dead.
Michigan is still not good. One positive: Will Hagerup is moving away from his freshman jitters and Michigan has achieved mediocrity in net punting despite getting one blocked. Kick and punt returns are still poor; kickoffs are still poor; field goal kicking is a wasteland.
Iowa has a significant advantage in returns, but their special teams were the primary reason they lost to Arizona. They had a punt blocked and allowed a kickoff return TD. Their punter is great but thanks to that block they're well below average in net punting; their kicker is a freshman who is 2/3 on the year.
When there are punts Iowa has a slight advantage because their return situation has been better and their punter more consistent; kickoffs are probably another small Iowa advantage since Michigan can't get them deep; field goals bleeeergghgh.
Key Matchup: STOP KICKING THE DAMN BALL
Shaw is not healthy and getting the majority of the carries.
Taylor Lewan's quick start is brought to a crashing halt by Clayborn and Co.
Um… defense stuff.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
Kenny Demens is some kind of crazy gamer who hates practice.
Iowa does not adapt to the spread.
Crazy new package is crazy new and good and they've got something for the second half.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 7 (Baseline 5; +1 for Hey This Is Basically Michigan State Again, –1 for But That Game Coulda Shoulda Woulda Been Competitive Without Denard's Very Bad Day, +1 for Denard's Very Bad Day, –1 for Vague Unsupportable Feeling That Iowa's Defense Is Quaintly Outdated Re: Spread, +1 for Stanzibombs Away, +1 for Arizona Won By Doing Crazy Special Teams Things And Our Only Equivalent Is Missing A Field Goal Spectacularly)
Desperate need to win level: 8 (Baseline 5; +1 for Must Kill 2009 == 2010 Meme Please, +1 for Would Put Rodriguez Well En Route To Sticking Around To Kill People With Denard The Next Two Years, –1 for Would Be A Totally Understandable Loss, +1 for But Man Don't We Need A Crazy Upset, +1 for Bowl Eligible, Baby)
Loss will cause me to... spend two weeks putting everyone who says "2009 == 2010" on my naughty list.
Win will cause me to... buy tickets to every bowl game with a Big Ten tie-in.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
IME, the game hinges on how effectively Michigan can run the ball against an intimidating-looking defense that's a paper tiger on… uh… paper. Iowa State and Arizona both threw the ball most of the time; Penn State is incompetent. They haven't faced a running spread team this year; last year a significantly weakened Michigan team put up 200 rushing yards. It is possible that Michigan comes out with a bunch of new stuff and gashes Iowa by optioning off that DL and getting to a questionable situation at middle linebacker. Iowa could just be an okay rush defense and Michigan could be the hot ninja stuff we've all been watching.
I don't think that's the case. Though the Hawkeyes will give up yards and points they won't give up enough to combat what should be another frustrating day defensively, where the defense looks competent for stretches here and there in between crippling big plays. Stanzi and company against this secondary is going to be trouble.
Michigan's best bet on D is for the run defense to be considerably better against Robinson than it was against Michigan State and for Iowa's coaches to run or die trying. Then maybe the Iowa offensive line will be porous and the receivers have an off day.
I wouldn't be surprised to see Michigan win, but I'm not expecting it. Special teams are the final dagger. Michigan will probably have to be +1 in TO margin to win.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
Hopkins: six carries.
Kenny Demens is way more aggressive than Ezeh, resulting in a couple plays where Adam Robinson is stuffed and at least one 20-yard gain directly attributable to him. Ezeh still gets most of the playing time.