2012 Opponent Preview: Minnesota

2012 Opponent Preview: Minnesota

Submitted by Heiko on June 26th, 2012 at 9:00 AM

Previously: PurdueIllinoisMichigan State, Nebraska

Minnesota

Glory days. Once upon a time Minnesota was pretty good at football. During head coach Bennie Bierman's 18-year tenure in the WWII era, the Gophers claimed five national championships and seven conference titles. A decade later (1960) Minnesota claimed another national crown under Murray Warmath. They won a Rose Bowl a year later. And then the bottom fell out.

Since then, no Gophers coach has recorded a winning record (including Lou Holtz, who coached there in 1984 and 1985) until Glen Mason, who posted .535 and their first 10-win season since 1905. No coach has since recorded a winning record, either.

This is a circuitous way to say WHY WOULD YOU FIRE HIM???

----------------------------

The actual preview part

1000-foot view.

The Metrodome, which unfortunately is not where this year's game will be played.

Last season sucked for the most part but ended with a ray of hope for the Minnesota football program. They stole a victory from Iowa and trounced Illinois, effectively ending GopherQuest, an unofficial pursuit to become the Worst Big Ten Team Ever.

So despite finishing 3-9, second year head coach Jerry Kill bought himself and his coaching staff time to rebuild the program. Whether Kill ever reaches the success of even the Mason era remains to be seen. He has a good track record as a coach, but taking a program like Minnesota from its previously moribund state into contention to even win the division will require a quantum leap. At the very least it will have to start with recruiting. For the Gophers, that currently isn't going so hot.

In the meantime Michigan fans can sit back and enjoy Minnesota's presence as the reputed "thorn in the side" of mid-major Big Ten teams -- the Iowas and the Illinoises, I suppose -- without Michigan itself being in any real danger of succumbing to the occasional upset. 

Here's hoping for a Minnesota victory on November 24. 

Schedule.

  • Aug. 30 (Thursday), @ UNLV
  • Sept. 8, New Hampshire
  • Sept. 15, Western Michigan
  • Sept. 22, Syracuse
  • Sept. 29, @ Iowa
  • Oct. 6, WIFEDAY
  • Oct. 13, Northwestern
  • Oct. 20, @ Wisconsin
  • Oct. 27, Purdue
  • Nov. 3, Michigan
  • Nov. 10, @ Illinois
  • Nov. 17, @ Nebraska
  • Nov. 24, Michigan State

Non-conference will be interesting only because Minnesota hosts Syracuse, who has a running backs coach by the name of Tyrone Wheatley. Other than that, there's not much reason to tune into any of their first four games unless you're so jonesing for B1G football by August you'll watch Gophers in Nevada on a Thursday night.

Not much is particularly notable about their B1G schedule. Having both Wisconsin and Nebraska on the road isn't ideal, but I don't really think anyone's expecting the Gophers to win either of those games regardless of location. Also, the last four games will be rough. 

Matchups to watch: at Iowa and Michigan State at home. Minnesota played both of those teams competitively last season and even managed to eke out the Iowa game. It will be interesting to see whether there is something inherent in the Gophers' playing style that's favorable against those two teams, who share similar systems, or whether they just played two really flukey games last year.

Minnesota should be able to get three wins out of non-conference and pull out a B1G win over Illinois (most likely) or Purdue or Northwestern (less likely).

This schedule is as favorable as: a half hour "hill workout" on a stairmaster.

----------------------------

X's and O's, Jimmys and Joes

Offense

No. 5 QB Marqueis Gray

Style: Spready McSpreaderson

Key losses: RB Duane Bennett (639 yards, 3.8 ypc, 3 TD), WR Da'Jon McKnight (51 rec, 760 yards, 4 TD), TE Collin McGarry (16 rec, 120 yards, 2 TD), RT Chris Bunders, RG Ryan Orton, C Ryan Winn.

Top returners: QB MarQueis Gray (50.7%, 1495 yards, 8 TD, 8 INT), WR Devin Crawford-Tufts (8 rec, 156 yards), WR Brandon Green (15 rec, 190, 1 TD), LT Ed Olsen, LG Tommy Olsen.

Everything anyone needs to know about Minnesota's offense begins with MarQueis and ends with Gray. Gopher fans say Gray is their Denard Robinson (or better than Denard Robinson). Really he's more their version of Devin Gardner, i.e. a super athlete with a less than accurate arm who's probably better off playing receiver if not for the dire QB depth situation.

Last year he ran Minnesota's offense about as well as you could expect him to. He started 11 games, missing the entirety of the Michigan game due to a broken thumb, and otherwise got spelled by backup QB Max Shortell in a three-game stretch before wresting the starting job back completely. With the help of some decent skill players like Bennett and McKnight around him, Gray put on a few commendable performances against Iowa, Michigan State, and Illinois late in the season.

The loss of Bennett, McKnight, and the entire right side of the offensive line means Minnesota should probably brace for some "growing pains" -- as Al Borges would say -- this season. They might be okay at receiver. They have a couple fast guys (Crawford-Tufts, WR Marcus Jones) who should be effective in the spread. The running back competition seems to be murky at this point, however. The Gophers don't really have a whole lot in the way of reinforcements since their recruiting hauls have been understandably meager the last few years. They're going to have to make up with heart what they lack in stars.

Unless the Gophers can get their other receivers and a running back to step up, it will be the MarQueis Gray show until he gets injured, at which point the Gophers should just crawl into a hole and hope they don't see any shadows next spring.

This offense is as frightening as: A one-legged pirate who became a one-limbed pirate after a recent case of gangrene. Fear level = Yarrr! (3)

----------------------------

Defense

No. 11 CB Troy Stoudermire

Style: 4-3

Key losses: S Kim Royston (123 tackles (2nd in B1G), 3.5 TFL, 1 sack, 2 PBU, 1 INT), MLB Gary Tinsley (87 tackles, 9 TFL 4 sacks, 3 PBU), DT Anthony Jacobs (26 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 sack).

Top returners: CB Troy Stoudermire (24 tackles, 3 PBU, 2 INT, missed 8 games due to injury), WLB Keanon Cooper (77 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 sack, 2 PBU)

One major reason Michigan blew Minnesota out of the water last season was the absence of MarQueis Gray. Another, perhaps more easily forgotten reason is the fact that Troy Stoudermire was missing from the game as well due to a fractured wrist. Stoudermire was a converted receiver playing corner in 2011, but through four games he proved to be a pretty competent one.

While the loss of Gray obviously had the bigger impact, having Stoudermire in the defensive backfield may have kept Denard in the game longer and given Borges a better opportunity to test Denard's passing issues against a decent corner instead of pulling him after an impeccable first half and calling it a day. Could have helped with the first half against Northwestern is all I'm sayin'. Dawg.

This season Minnesota should be getting Stoudermire back from injury. Good thing, because the Gophers lose a big chunk of their defensive impact players. Like the offense, this defense isn't going to get by on talent; other than Stoudermire, you wouldn't call anyone else on the unit a "solid B1G starter."

That's not to say they aren't any good at all. If you take away the massive skewing effects of their scores vs. Michigan, Purdue, and Wisconsin, their defensive stats weren't all that bad, especially toward the end of the season. That is a rough estimate.

Even without massaging the numbers, Minnesota ended up above average in things like pass defense, which is to say that with the right coaching they can at least milk their talent to allow them to hover around mediocre in other categories as well. They'll have to start with the front seven -- they were horrible against the run last season, and Ace identified this obvious weakness in his FFFF, back when North Dakota State was averaging 5.0 ypc against them. Not good. 

This defense is as frightening as: A one-limbed pirate who contracted frostbite in his remaining foot due to his inability to put on socks. Fear level = Yarr? (2)

----------------------------

Predictions

Record: 4-8 overall, 1-7 B1G. 

Against Michigan: They might actually score a touchdown. Michigan will score fewer touchdowns. 31-7 Michigan.

Their chances of winning the B1G are as good as: A one-limbed pirate with frostbite completing a half hour hill workout on a stairmaster.

2012 Opponent Preview: Nebraska

2012 Opponent Preview: Nebraska

Submitted by Heiko on June 18th, 2012 at 5:09 PM

Previously: Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State

Nebraska

Dear Brian Santa, Ace and I thought it would be great if we could go to this game. We promise to be extra good this year.

Offense line matters. Toward the end of last season it became increasingly clear that you could use trench matchups (O-line vs. D-line, D-line vs. O-line) as a heuristic for how teams would do against each other. Which is to say that it wasn't a great year for the league's skill positions. 

Nebraska was an outlier. Coming into the season the Huskers were the B1G's version of Virginia Tech. They were loaded at every skill position save wideout, but they were relatively mediocre on the lines, particularly on offense. Their issues became pronounced on defense early in the season when DT Jared Crick got injured against Washington and on offense later in the season when injury robbed them of their starting tight end and a guard or two.  

By the time they got to Michigan they were doing things like this:

screencap via BWS

And then all of a sudden it didn't matter that they had a speedy running quarterback and a bulldozer of a tailback. The Wolverines defense could choke them to death three yards behind the line of scrimmage every other play. 

Nebraska finished fifth in the conference in yards per game (379.9 ypg, 66th nationally) and fourth in scoring (29.2 ppg, 49th nationally), which was disappointing given the preseason advertising. Part of that comes from the intangible aspects of transitioning into a new conference, but a lot of it had to do with the fact that their offensive line wasn't very deep or very good even though they got by decently in the Big 12 where teams generally sit back on defense and try to outscore you on offense. 

The point is the Huskers are going to have to recruit a lot more big uglies if they want to gain elite status in the B1G. So far they haven't really done that,

#5 Nebraska - 8 Commits
Name Position State Rivals Scout 24/7 ESPN
Marcus McWilson S OH 4 4 4 3
Josh Banderas LB NE 4 3 4 4
Tre'vell Dixon ATH LA 4 3 3 4
Christian Lacouture DE TX 3 4 3 3
A.J. Natter DE WI 3 4 3 3
Courtney Love LB OH 3 3 4 4
Greg Hart TE OH 3 3 3 3
Dan Samuelson OL IN 3 3 3 3

but I guess it is still only June.

Obligatory Taylor Martinez shotput Youtube clip:

If you ever want to know how to throw like this, grab a football and pretend there's a foot-long string connecting it to your ear.

The actual preview part.

1000-foot view.

I would get the presser transcripts done so fast if I were there.

Nebraska's B1G debut in 2011 didn't go completely according to plan. They lost three conference games -- at Michigan and at Wisconsin in spectacular blow-outs and vs. Northwestern in game that even Brady Hoke couldn't believe happened. Other than that they had the singular highlight of clobbering Michigan State. They also beat Ohio State, but I'm sure Huskers fans talk about what happened during that game the way Michigan fans talk about what happened during the Sugar Bowl. 

If the Huskers want to prove that their are truly of the B1G elite as they were billed to be, they need to put on a more convincing show and reach Indianapolis this season. They need their defense to stop underachieving, and in addition to to keeping their offensive line healthy, they need their offense as a whole to learn how to deal with adversity. Nebraska was frankly underwhelming on defense last season despite the number of star players, and their offense crumbled often on the road whenever they fell behind in the count. Much of that can be attributed to problems in leadership and coaching, so whether or not Bo Pelini is worth his paycheck, his evaluation period begins now. 

Schedule.

  • Sept 1, Southern Miss
  • Sept 8, @ UCLA
  • Sept 15, Arkansas State
  • Sept 22, Idaho State
  • Sept 29, Wisconsin
  • Oct 6, @ Ohio State
  • Oct 13, WIFEDAY
  • Oct 20, @ Northwestern
  • Oct 27, Michigan
  • Nov 3, @ Michigan State
  • Nov 10, Penn State
  • Nov 17, Minnesota

Another part of the problem last year was the scheduling -- Nebraska's B1G slate was ... shitty. The Huskers played all five of the Bigs: Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State, three of which were away games. No other B1G team faced more than four upper tier teams, even if you count Nebraska itself as one.

The matchups don't get any softer this season, but Nebraska will benefit marginally by having just two of those teams on the road and eight home games total. A well timed bye after Wisconsin and Ohio State should help the Huskers regroup for the bulk of the conference schedule. 

Even with a visit to UCLA in week two, I see Nebraska sweeping their nonconference opponents. They'll likely lose to Ohio State and one if not both of the Michigans, but any more than three or four B1G losses would be highly surprising. 

This schedule is as favorable as: Swimming 1000 yards, downstream.

X's and O's, Jimmys and Joes

Offense

"What was that?" "Idunno I've never seen that before."

Style: Spread/option, but a lot more option than spread.

Key losses: backup RB Aaron Green (105 yards, 4.4 ypc, 2 TD) , WR Brandon Kinnie (257 yards, 1 TD), C Mike Caputo, LT Yoshi Hardrick, RT Marcel Jones.

Top returners: QB Taylor Martinez (56.3%, 2089 yards, 13 TD, 8 INT), RB Rex Burkhead (1357 yards, 4.8 ypc, 15 TD), RB Ameer Abdullah (150 yards, 3.6 ypc, 3 TD), WR Kenny Bell (461 yards, 3 TD), WR Quincy Enunwa (293 yards, 2 TD), TE Ben Cotton (189 yards, 0 TD), TE Kyler Reed (257 yards, 1 TD). 

Nebraska's offense was a lot like Michigan's offense last year -- frequently unstoppable on the ground, temperamental through the air -- but not quite as good. Like the Wolverines, the Huskers were adjusting to a new offensive coordinator with a second-year starting quarterback who was equally capable of breaking open the game or inciting a fan to break his TV screen on any given play. 

Not much will change going into 2012. The offensive line may get better, which would allow Nebraska's talented and experienced backfield to do some fancier stuff, but the backbone of their offense -- option -- will be predicated on whether Taylor Martinez makes the right reads and decisions. Lots of offseason fluff has been devoted to his throwing mechanics and accuracy, which is silly. The bread and butter of the Huskers offensive identity is the option run game, and that's equal parts athletic talent/skill and decision-making. So far Martinez hasn't proven himself to be that good at the latter.

The good news for him is that Rex Burkhead, the quintessential workhorse that Nebraska can always feed the ball to from the I formation when all else fails, returns at tailback. The Huskers should be mindful of his mileage, though. 38 carries against Iowa was cool last season, but after Cody Green's transfer, Nebraska a high ankle sprain away from being Iowa.  

On the "needs improvement" list: receivers. None of the Huskers receivers were that good last season, and it's pretty safe to say they won't be unearthing any new talent this fall. Again, because of the nature of their offense and the play-action potential, it may be unnecessary, but preventing opposing safeties from sucking up against the run every play would make things a lot easier.

This offense is as frightening as: A musket. Fear level = 6.

-----

Defense

No. 94 Cameron Meredith

Style: 4-3

Key losses: DT Jared Crick, LB Lavonte David, CB Alfonzo Dennard, S Austin Cassidy (61 tackles, 2 INT)

Top returners: DT Baker Steinkuhler (25 tackles, 2 sacks), DE Cameron Meredith (56 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT), DE Jason Ankrah (17 tackles, 1 sack), LB Will Compton (69 tackles, 1 sack), LB Sean Fisher (21 tackles), CB Andrew Green (38 tackles, 1 INT), S P.J. Smith (33 tackles, 1 INT)

Nebraska's disappointing defense in 2011 was much weaker against the run (158.5 ypg, 64th) than expected. They suffered from the loss of DT Jared Crick, who tore his pectoral muscle against Washington and eventually sat out the remainder of the season after Ohio State two games later, but to be honest, they were underwhelming even before that happened. 

Against the past they fared okay (192.2 ypg, 19th), but you can mentally adjust that for how good you think B1G passing offenses were last year. 

This season they lose the stars -- Crick, David, and Dennard -- but return a solid squad. Cameron Meredith was impressive last year and should continue to trend up. There's not much to say about anyone else.

Perhaps the most intriguing development for this defense was the hiring of defensive coordinator John Papuchis to replace Carl Pelini prior to the Capitol One bowl. Papuchis was the D-line coach under Bo Pelini while he was defensive coordinator at LSU during the 2005-2007 seasons, the last of which ended with a national championship. The reuniting of the Papuchis/Pelini duo should rejuvenate the Huskers defense, and with a full offseason of coaching, there should be tangible results in 2012. 

If anything, it adds some oomf to recruiting, which means that Nebraska could be very good in a few years.

This defense is as frightening as: a 12-year-old kid who wets his bed, is cruel to small animals, and likes starting fires. You are a 28-year-old woman who reminds him of his mother. Fear level = 7, trending up with time. 

-----

Special teams

Loses ball in 3 ... 2 ... 

Key losses: No one important.

Top returners: K/P Brett Maher (44.5 ypp, 19/23 FG), KR/PR Ameer Abdullah (29.3 yards/kickoff, 7.1 yards/punt)

They should be really good! When they're not fumbling kickoffs.

*****

Predictions:

I would bring my fancy camera and take sweet wide-angle photos. If I were there.

Record: 9-3 overall, 5-3 B1G.

Against Michigan: Lincoln is a difficult stadium to play in, and Michigan has been pretty bad on the road, so I'll give Nebraska the edge for that. Without a Mike Martin ragdolling backup offensive linemen, the Huskers will probably put up more points than they did last year. Going out on a limb here -- if Michigan wins, it'll be really close, like 27-24. 

Their chances of winning the B1G are as good as: Swimming 1000 yards, downstream, in a race vs. Michael Phelps, who has just donated blood.

2012 Opponent Preview: Michigan State

2012 Opponent Preview: Michigan State

Submitted by Heiko on June 8th, 2012 at 2:05 PM

Michigan State

via BWS

Loves him that blitz. Recently Seth had the pleasure of spending some time at an airport with Michigan State LB Chris Norman. Norman, like any other high-profile athlete at a D-1 school, was well versed in giving vanilla answers to most questions about his experience as a football player, mostly some variation of "I'm just grateful for the opportunity, you know?"

No one had taught him how to respond to questions about the double A-gap blitz, though.

"Oh yeah, coach loves him that blitz!"

So I went back through the every snap videos from when they played Michigan in 2010 and 2011 to see exactly how much Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi loves him that blitz.

Two years ago it didn't appear much until the second half of the game. Aside from the two endzone interceptions, Michigan was having relative success moving the ball with quick passes and Denard being Denard. As soon as the Wolverines sputtered and fell behind and Denard got more and more beat up, however, Narduzzi got aggressive. He used the double A-gap blitz to disrupt the running game as well as prevent Denard from getting into a rhythm with longer downfield passes, and it was particularly effective because Michigan's receivers were dropping balls like pubescent boys late in the game, so they couldn't use quick passes to get around it.

Last year the Spartans applied the blitz early and often. They knew that Denard was still having issues with the pro-style passing schemes, and they knew Borges sure as hell wasn't going to be doing anything like throw a screen pass. The blitz stifled Michigan's ground game and forced Denard to throw downfield in the blustery trash tornado, which resulted in a stat line that was something like 9/21 for one miserable TD and 2 bona fide INTs (the easy one got dropped). It gave Rimington Trophy winner David Molk the worst game of his career. 

Water is wet. Since Narduzzi loves him that blitz so much, a dollar says Michigan will see it again. Obvious conclusion: Borges should design some plays to neutralize it. Please design some plays to neutralize it. Also, the offense should seriously spend some time changing up the snap count. 

The sun is bright. CB Johnny Adams has some serious 'tude. Dude gets pissy every time he gets blocked by Roy Roundtree. 

I am a jelly donut. Just wanted to reiterate what Brian said about Gholston not being that much of a factor in rushing the passer. Most of the time Gholston runs into Lewan and then makes a lackadaisical attempt to get around him. Maybe he was told to just contain Denard? Either way, hopefully this continues. His impact has been overstated by things he did after the whistle.

Surriously. Breaking news: Hoke takes the rivalry surriously. 

The actual preview part.

1000-foot view. 

Dear Trey Burke,

Michigan State has enjoyed a renaissance under Mark Dantonio with back-to-back 10-win seasons. With most of the starters returning from the B1G's most dominant defense, a lot of people have the Spartans pegged to beat Michigan for the fifth year in a row and win a B1G championship.

Can they? Michigan State has a lot of figuring out to do on offense if it wants to accomplish these goals. While talent may not necessarily be an issue, experience certainly will be as the Spartans break in a new quarterback and receiving corps. But questions on offense apply to every other B1G team in contention for the title, so while the Spartans don't possess an advantage, they aren't any worse off. 

Schedule. 

  • Aug 31 (Friday), Boise State
  • Sept 8, @ Central Michigan
  • Sept 15, Notre Dame
  • Sept 22, Eastern Michigan
  • Sept 29, Ohio State
  • Oct 6, @ Indiana
  • Oct 13, Iowa
  • Oct 20, @ Michigan
  • Oct 27, @ Wisconsin
  • Nov 3, Nebraska
  • Nov 10, WifeDay
  • Nov 17, Northwestern
  • Nov 24, @ Minnesota

One noteworthy thing about Michigan State's schedule is that their bye won't be doing them any favors. They'll have made it through most of their B1G schedule before the break, and afterwards they'll be facing (just) Northwestern and Minnesota. This is important because the Spartans generally make pretty good use of their off week. Last year they were able to rebuild their offensive line in time to beat Michigan. 

The Spartans have tough nonconference opponents in Boise and Notre Dame but benefit from facing them at home, where they've been undefeated for two seasons. Their only significant road games are at Michigan and Wisconsin, so despite a nonexistent bye, Michigan State will enjoy the benefits of facing most of the tougher opponents in East Lansing. 

Their schedule is as favorable as: Sitting in I-94 traffic two exits from the nearest bathroom. It's okay, the only thing you had to drink was ... that 20 oz bottle of Mountain Dew half an hour ago. Uh oh.

*****

X's and O's, Jimmys and Toms

Offense

If Dayne Crist and Dan Persa had a baby together.

QB Andrew Maxwell takes over for the recently drafted Kirk Cousins. Maxwell has been in East Lansing for a while -- he's a redshirt junior -- but no one really knows anything about him. He appeared exclusively in garbage time last season (18/26, 171 yards, 1 TD) and was held out of Michigan State's spring game due to injury. The general opinion on him is that he has a better arm than Cousins, but it remains to be seen whether he has the same leadership skills and "intangibles." For what it's worth, he was a four-star to rivals back in the day.

At running back the Spartans return LeVeon Bell (948 yards, 5.2 ypc, 13 TDs) but lost Edwin Baker to the NFL. Bell's the tall one (6-2, 237 lbs) in case you get your Michigan State running backs confused like I do all the time. He's not as wiggly as Baker was, but he's a big homerun threat. Behind him is Larry Caper (116 yards, 3.9 ypc, 1 TD). While Caper's carries were limited last season with Bell and Baker splitting most of the work, he's a guy to keep an eye on. You can watch Troy Woolfolk bounce off him in 2009 if you're into reliving the worst moments of the RR era. 

The Spartans ground game lives and dies by its offensive line no matter who's carrying the ball, and last season it wasn't very good. They averaged 3.9 ypc, which was 77th nationally and worse than Illinois, who also had O-line issues. Michigan State returns most of its linemen this season, so the unit should improve, though the ceiling may be somewhat limited. Tom Dienhart from the B1G Network seems to think they're the best in the conference. That probably says more about the conference than it does about the Spartans.

And finally the receivers. They could be the most talented group of receivers in the B1G, but they're also the most inexperienced, since they're all either freshmen (Aaron Burbridge, Monty Madaris), transfers (DeAnthony Arnett), coming back from injury (Bennie Fowler, TE Dion Sims), or had four catches all last season (Tony Lippett).

Their offense is as terrifying as: A six-pack of expensive craft beer that has been discovered sitting in the garage for an unknown period of time. Fear level = 5 +/-3. 

-----

Defense

White pants after labor day was a bad choice.

Michigan State lost Worthy and S Trenton Robinson but return nearly everyone else on what was already one of the B1G's best defenses in 2011.

Formation notes: State plays a pretty standard 4-3 with a "star" LB/S hybrid position. 

On the defensive line the Spartans return DE William Gholston (67 tackles, 16 TFL, 5 sacks) and DE Marcus Rush (55 tackles, 12 TFL, 4 sacks). Both are coming off breakout seasons and there's no reason to believe they won't continue to run up their stats. DT Anthony Rashad White (25 tackles, 4 TFL) will play nose, and at 6-2, 320 lbs, White will be a force in the middle. DT Tyler Hoover will fill in at the 3-tech. He's the only question mark on the D-line since he's a converted defensive end and missed most of last season due to a fractured rib.

The real strength of this defense is in the linebacking unit, where Michigan State returns all three starters from last season: Denicos Allen (83 tackles, 18.5 TFL, 11 sacks) at SAM, All-B1G Max Bullough (89 tackles, 7 TFL, 3.5 sacks) at MIKE and Chris Norman (76 tackles, 6.5 TFL) at the WILL or "star." These guys are used very aggressively and account for most of the bad things that happen in the backfield. 

The Spartans secondary should also be the best in the B1G this season with CB Darqueze Dennard (42 tackles, 3 PBU, 3 INT) and All-B1G CB Johnny Adams (51 tackles, 6 PBU, 3 INT) and All-B1G S Isaiah Lewis (74 tackles, 3 PBU, 4 INT). The loss of Trenton Robinson could be significant, however, since he was reputedly a Kovacs-type leader for the secondary.  

Their defense is as terrifying as: Blue Cheese that has been sitting in the garage for an unknown amount of time and is now mostly green. Fear level = 9.

-----

Little giants.

K Dan Conroy (17/23) returns for his redshirt senior year as one of the best kickers in the B1G.

*****

Predictions

Record: 9-3 overall, 6-2 B1G. There are a bunch of tossups, but I feel like they'll split Boise/ND, Michigan/Wisconsin, and Ohio State/Nebraska. 

Against Michigan: If Maxwell and the receivers pan out, Michigan will be in for a rough game. I don't think anyone really thinks any of the O-line and D-line matchups go in Michigan's favor. There is also that silly stat that people say every year about "whoever gets the most yards on the ground in this rivalry will win," which, if you buy that sort of thing, doesn't bode well for Michigan either. It is at home, so the Spartans won't be able to get away with too many shenanigans, but that's little consolation when you wake up in the middle of the night in a pool of sweat because you were having nightmares about little green men piling on top of Denard and twisting his head off.

Recruiting, though. Man I love me that recruiting.

Their chances of winning the B1G are as good as: Making it to that bathroom before you piss yourself. 

2012 Opponent Preview: Illinois

2012 Opponent Preview: Illinois

Submitted by Heiko on May 31st, 2012 at 5:11 PM

Purdue Errata. Several MGoUsers, including one (TMill) whom I suspect is Travis Miller of Hammerandrails.com, pointed out last week that Ralph Bolden tore his ACL for the third time during the Indiana game. He's probably not going to be playing much football for the Boilermakers this season. 

That pink thing in the middle = why the Boilermakers can't have nice things.

Also, Sean Robinson moved to linebacker, which brings Purdue's QB count down to a whimpy nine.

*****

Illinois

Standin' arrow straight.

Not that talented. HailtotheOrange.com recently wrote a post to dispel the myth that Ron Zook was a great recruiter who was otherwise a horrible coach. They go through the recruiting rankings during Zook's tenure and find that it started off strong before tapering off after 2008. 

I don't know what he was pitching to kids when his team was in the gutter the first few seasons, but the 2006 class ranked 30th in the nation and 4th in the Big Ten.

2006, 2007, and 2008 were similar, and those were the years that gave them four-/five-star players like Martez Wilson, Arrelious Benn, Corey Liuget, and Graham Pocic (older brother of super 2013 LSU LT commit Ethan), not to mention some under-the-radar types like Whitney Mercilus and Mikel Leshoure. 

2009 gave the them a bunch of guys who ended up transferring. Illinois spent 2010 at a three-star resort, which caused them to them dip below Tim Beckman's Toledo in recruiting class rankings (70th and 68th, respectively).  

Conclusion? Whatever positive effects of the Beckman hire on the coaching and decision-making side of things may be mitigated by an impending "empty cupboard" syndrome.

But still pretty talented for now. ALionEye.com lays out the NFL draft stock of last year's defensive starters. Five returning players have strong draft potential. 

Completely unrelated. ALionEye's list of top-five QB recruits in recent memory from Illinois  includes one Jeff Hecklinski (emphasis theirs -- Aaron Bailey is their most recent QB commit):

In the last 30 years, I think the order of “top-5 Illini QB recruits” goes like this:

1. Jeff George
2. Juice Williams
3. Aaron Bailey
4. Nathan Scheelhaase
5. Jeff Hecklinski

Yes, our Jeff Hecklinski!

He ended up choosing Western Illinois State over the Illini, and there he became the second QB in school history to throw for more than 5,000 yards. 

The actual preview part

1000-foot view. 

Illinois's 2011 campaign began with so much promise. At one point the Illini were bowl eligible and 6-0 along with conference champ Wisconsin and Sugar Bowl champ Michigan. Ron Zook, who job had been under intense scrutiny for some time, was saved.

But then Illinois's offense stopped scoring, and the team stopped winning. They remained bowl eligible but fell to 6-6 and ended the regular season in disgrace after getting curbstomped 27-7 by a 3-9 Minnesota team. Zook fired; Beckman hired.

Beckman wasn't received by a whole lot of enthusiasm. Other names mentioned during the coaching search included Kevin Sumlin and Butch Jones; Beckman was not the sexiest of the bunch.

HailtotheOrange called him the "MAC coach du jour," which he was. Personally I don't think there's anything wrong with hiring former MAC coaches.

CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW sonofabitch headset's not working again.

Beckman's 2011 Toledo team was one bad read away from upsetting Ohio State in the Horseshoe and ended the season tied at the top of the MAC-West standings.

Much like how the feelings of uncertainty following Brady Hoke's hire at Michigan subsided to cautious optimism, at least the blogosophere seems to have gradually warmed up to Beckman. He's off to a good start in recruiting, garnerning 10 recruits thus far including the aforementioned third-best Illinois QB recruit over the last 30 years. While recruiting success doesn't always translate to on-the-field success (see Zook, Ron (and yes, I will continue to stick to the idea that Ron Zook recruited well)), his track record indicates that he can coach.

Also, having 13 returning starters in 2012 including RS junior QB Nathan Scheelhaase certainly won't hurt his chances. Their B1G schedule sort of sucks, though.

Schedule.

  • Sept 1, Western Michigan
  • Sept 8, @ Arizona State
  • Sept 15, Charleston Southern (this is a school?)
  • Sept 22, Louisiana Tech
  • Sept 29, Penn State
  • Oct 6, @ Wisconsin
  • Oct 13, @ Michigan
  • Oct 20, BYE
  • Oct 27, Indiana
  • Nov 3, @ Ohio State
  • Nov 10, Minnesota
  • Nov 17, Purdue
  • Nov 24, @ Northwestern

With seven home games, it's not the worst schedule ever, but visiting Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State on the road within a month can't be that fun. 

Illinois looks to have one loss from the non-conference schedule and about three from its B1G road games. It has a shot at beating either Penn State or Purdue at home but probably not both. Minnesota is an enigma. Indiana will be a great midseason morale boost.

Illinois's schedule is as favorable as: A sunny day to a ginger.

*****

X's and O's / Jimmies and Joes

Offense.

Illinois ran a manbearspread during the Zook era with a mobile quarterback handing off to thumping tailbacks. Passing wasn't a huge emphasis, but when they had the talent, the Illini liked to go vertical. 

Beckman probably won't change things up much on offense. He ran the spread at Toledo because that's what all the Davids do. I don't think he'll shy away from some of the manball things that he'll be able to do now that he's coaching somewhat of a Goliath.

At quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase (63.2 pct, 2110 yards, 13 TD, 8 INT) returns for his third year as starting QB. He's fairly mobile (624 yards, 3.3 ypc sacks included) and has an accurate arm. Not that I know a whole lot about quarterbacking, but my criticism of him has always been his inability to use his dual-threat abilities to his advantage. In all the games I watched of him last year, he was either obviously passing or obviously running. Unlike Denard or Braxton Miller, he wasn't very good at threatening one while doing the other. 

Reilly O'Toole (59.7 pct, 270 yards, 1 TD, 4 INT) will be Scheelhaase's backup. While his numbers aren't impressive since he had only spot duty for most of the season, O'Toole proved himself a worthy second string at the end of the season when Scheelhaase struggled.

The Illini lose starters Jason Ford and Troy Pollard at running back, but I don't think Illinois fans were particularly happy with either of the two last season. In their stead Donovonn Young (451 yards, 5.2 ypc) will carry the mantle. At 6-1, 215 lbs, he fits the mold of his more productive predecessors.

Like at nearly every other B1G school, things get hazy at receiver. ALionEye is really high on sophomore Darius Millines (218 yards, 11.5 ypc, 1 TD) who sat out most of last season due to injury. Beyond him there's just a bunch of guys you'd give smack on the "possession" label if you were being polite. None of them really impressed during the spring game.

Offensive line is the real question for the Illini, though. A dysfunctional offensive line in 2011 was primarily to blame for their six-game losing streak, and they're not getting much help in 2012 with a couple departures and the returners unsure about their ideal position. 

So there you have it. Terrifying offense? Hardly. By not being coached by Zook, however, they have the potential to be average. 

This offense is as frightening as: A small rock. Fear level = 3. (1 = Threetsheridammit; 10 = Oregon/USC/Wisconsin Frankenoffense)

Chargin' from the gate.

-----

Defense.

Illinois has one thing going for it. It's called Chicago.

I'm being facetious again.

Also, defense. Against teams not made out of tiny track stars coated in butter, Illinois's defense has been pretty terrifying for the past couple years after a rennaissance under defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. It has been one of the best in the country in statistical categories like sacks and TFLs thanks to a ferocious defensive line that had first-round NFL draft picks with sweet names like Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus. 

Unfortunately for the Illini Koenning is gone. Beckman offered him to stay, but he declined and instead left to become co-defensive coordinator at UNC, a position vacated oddly enough by new Ohio State DC Everitt Withers. 

But that's neither here nor there. In comes new DC Tim Banks. While Banks doesn't have the greatest pedigree (2010-2011 Cincinnati was his most prominent stop), I am going to judge him only by whether he takes Koenning's system and ... leaves it the hell alone. 

Also by whether this defense is any good in two years after all the current stars leave.

Michael Buchanan, on left

Defensive line will be anchored by DE Michael Buchanan (62 tackles, 8 sacks), who impressed during the spring game, and DT Akeem Spence (69 tackles, 2 sacks). It will be very good, and both are likely to be drafted at some point in the near future. 

As an aside, ALionEye wants defensive line to be Illinois's thing:

I’ve always wanted us to have a thing. Wisconsin has a thing. Penn State has a thing. We need a thing.

But you already have a thing. 

What is Michigan's thing, by the way? Oh right. The Team.

At linebacker Jonathan Brown (108 tackles, 8 sacks, 1 INT) will quarterback the defense from his station in the middle. Last year he and his fellow backers were a superaggressive unit, which probably explains why a middle linebacker has 8 sacks and 1 (knee to the nut-) sack. This made them prone to misdirection. 

Maybe not so much on that second play, but nearly every other big Fitz gainer happened because of linebacker confusion or overpursuit.

Unless the Illini linebackers are getting coached differently this season, Borges would do well to use the same game plan with lots of spread and read option concepts. 

Finally, the secondary returns both cornerbacks -- Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green -- despite losing all-purpose secondary player Tavon Wilson to the NFL. These guys were fourth in the nation pass defense last year, so even a modest dropoff in production would still make them very good.

This defense is as frightening as: A large rock. Fear level = 8. (1 = GERG 2010; 10 = Greg Mattison 2010)

Carryin' the weight.

-----

Special Teams.

K Derek Dimke (8/9) graduated. He missed once all season (42 yarder @ Penn State to tie the game), but it was the 42 yarder at Penn State to tie the game. 

Otherwise Illinois was really bad on special teams last year. They had no return game, and they punted exclusively at inopportune times. 

Yeah, that's how we all feel.

*****

Predictions

Overall record: 6-6 overall, 3-5 B1G ... maybe 7-5, 4-4.

Against Michigan: 23-10 Michigan. Don't ask me how, but it's probably going to be ugly.

Their chances of winning the B1G are as good as: A ginger trying to get a tan.

2012 Opponent Preview: Purdue

2012 Opponent Preview: Purdue

Submitted by Heiko on May 24th, 2012 at 3:38 PM

For each week until the season starts, I will preview one of Michigan's opponents beginning with B1G teams. I'm saving non-conference for last when they will be much more relevant; B1G previews will have the same amount of handwaving now as they will have in August. 

Purdue

 

Holy crap Quarterbacks. For the past couple years Purdue failed to pray adequately to their Angry ACL-hating God, and they paid dearly for it. The PTSD from the experience was so severe that they now have eight quarterbacks on the roster.

Eight!

Hammerandrails

“Wow, we go 8 deep at quarterback. Now thats some good ACL blowout insurance.”

(It's also good Snake-Oil insurance, btw)

They return Robert Marve, Rob Henry, Caleb Terbush, and Sean Robinson, the first three of whom have significant game experience. So obviously for the class of 2012 they went out and signed four quarterbacks.

Wait, wha--? How do you even do that? Did these guys not know about each other when they committed? Because that would make it really awkward on the first day of fall camp.

Bafflement aside, I was just thinking that if only they had two more QBs, per modern journalistic convention I would have to use numerals to express the number of quarterbacks on their roster. Which would be nerd-cool.

No way …

Actually it's 10.

Austin Parker (http://www.purduesports.com/sports/m-footbl/mtt/parker_austin00.html)
Erich Berzinskas (http://footballrecruiting.rivals.com/content.asp?CID=1316762)

Also, Dolap McCarthy was a QB before switching to WR and 2012 commit BJ Knauf will play wide receiver at Purdue but played at quarterback this year in high school.

Eight scholarship QBs and two walk-ons. If every one of them tore an ACL, they could still fill out a two-deep with the remaining healthy knees.

Anyway, the end of the story is the Boilermakers are doing one hell of a job living up to their “Cradle of Quarterbacks” moniker. They have employed a pair of rabbits to make these guys, and they are going to make for one hell of a sextuple pass play.

The actual preview part.

1000-foot view.

First of all I need to apologize to the Purdue fans who got offended when I said last season that they played in three games after which fans stormed the field. That number is actually one -- the OT win over Ohio State -- and I guess, as Michigan fans, who are we to blame them?

This season the Boilermakers are embracing their darkhorse candidacy for the Woody Division title. It’s a dark, dark horse considering where they ended up last season when their 4-4 B1G record came third to Wisconsin (6-2 B1G) and Penn State (6-2 B1G) in their division. That gap was a mile wide considering that they would have needed two more B1G wins against much stronger teams (Iowa, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin) just to tie.

But with Ohio State out of the running in 2012, Wisconsin rebuilding, and Penn State recovering, this might actually be Purdue’s shot. They return 15 starters, good for top quartile-ish in the nation and 3rd in the B1G. More importantly, they return nearly all of their playmakers from 2011. Only two players from that team got drafted -- 5th and 6th rounders -- and both of them were offensive linemen.

Proof it happened once, at least.

Schedule?

Schedule.

  • Sept 1, Eastern Kentucky
  • Sept 8, @ Notre Dame
  • Sept 15, Eastern Michigan
  • Sept 22, BYE
  • Sept 29, Marshall
  • Oct 6, Michigan
  • Oct 13, Wisconsin
  • Oct 20, @ Ohio State
  • Oct 27, @ Minnesota
  • Nov 3, Penn State
  • Nov 10, @ Iowa
  • Nov 17, @ Illinois
  • Nov 24, Indiana

If Purdue doesn’t get six wins out of this schedule, it wouldn’t be for a lack of planning. While Marshall and -- I can’t believe I’m saying this -- Eastern Michigan aren’t quite the body bag games they once were, I didn’t know until now that Eastern Kentucky did anything other than give high schoolers credit for correspondence courses in things like Health and US History.

Road games at Notre Dame and Ohio State seem like automatic losses. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Penn State will be home games for the Boilermakers. All three will likely be favored against them, but since those teams each have some figuring out to do between now and when they visit West Lafayette, at this point (you know, three months before the season starts) it’s probable that the Boilermakers might eke one victory out of this group.

Visiting Iowa seems 51/49, advantage Purdue, since the Hawkeyes return QB James Vandenberg, C James Ferentz, and WR Keenan Davis and then about 10 guys whose names I don’t even remember reading. Maybe I'm underrating the Hawkeyes, though. They do do things like “be physical” and stuff, and they’re replacing offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe with a radical young maverick who will bring Iowa’s historically punt-first attack blazing into the 21st century. For those of you who don’t know who Greg Davis is, I’m being facetious.

Back to Purdue, their other road games at Illinois and at Minnesota seem imminently winnable, although the Gophers ended last season on the upswing, and it’s hard to tell what Illini will do with “coaching.” Assuming that neither program figures it all out this season, the Boilermakers should at least be able to grind out both of these the ugly way. The B1G way. The American way.

Indiana will lose just because.

Their schedule is as favorable as: Getting dealt pocket jacks.

X’s and O’s

Offense

  

Henry, Marve, TerBush

Purdue runs the spread, so they will use lots of shotgun, zone running, quick passes, receiver screens, jet sweeps, that sort of thing. The Boilermaker offense is less predicated on a running quarterback compared with Oregon’s or Rich Rod’s spread, but some athleticism is asked of their signalcaller, whoever that might be out of the 10 on their roster. A guy like Dan Persa would be the perfect QB for their system.

That said, Purdue likes to run the ball with their running backs and receivers. Zone running and receiver end-arounds and jet sweeps form the basis of a ground game that averaged 4.4 yards per carry in 2011, which was on the cusp of being top third in the FBS.

The Boilermakers return top running back Ralph Bolden (674 yards, 4.6 ypc, 6 TDs) who was limited while recovering from ACL surgery last year, so if anything he should be more productive this fall as their every down back. He’s not particularly big (5-9, 190 lbs) or fast, but he can juke!

Purdue's highlight reels are crowdsourced. Literally.

Can juke.

Behind him is Akeem Shavers (519 yards, 4.7 ypc, 6 TDs) who looks to be a quality backup who might end up pushing Bolden for carries. Shavers is a little bigger (5-11, 203 lbs) than Bolden, but the two seem to fit similar roles.

They’ll be running behind an offensive line that probably has a little bonding to do in the offseason. As I mentioned earlier, only two Boilermaker players (LT Dennis Kelly and RG Nick Mondek) got drafted this year, but both were linemen. The other guys that are returning are reportedly learning new positions, so offensive line development will be something to keep an eye on throughout fall camp and the non-conference.

At quarterback Purdue has three guys who have had significant starting experience. Caleb TerBush (62%, 1905 yards, 13 TD, 6 INT) ended 2011 as the nominal starter with Robert Marve (56%, 633 yards, 4 TD, 5 INT) working from a backup and situational role while rehabbing his ACL. Rob Henry (2010: 53%, 996 yards, 8 TD, 7 INT) sat out for the entirety of the season because of -- what else? -- ACL stuff.

The three signalcallers are reportedly neck and neck after spring practice, but the smart money is on TerBush to take the first snap against Eastern Kentucky. Marve might have an edge in athleticism but hasn’t quite had everything upstairs in order. Henry has been out for a year and wasn’t that good when he was healthy.

Either way, the Boilermakers’ innumerable and interchangeable QBs will be throwing to a WR corps that has some soul searching to do. Their top two guys, Antavian Edison (44 rec, 584 yards, 3 TD) and OJ Ross (33 rec, 356 yards, 3 TD), are sorting through legal and academic issues respectively, so at the moment their return is not guaranteed. That leaves Purdue with KR Raheem Mostert, who has yet to catch a pass from scrimmage.

Purdue’s offense is as frightening as: Shotgun pellets fired from a paintball gun at five yards. Fear level = 3 on a scale from 1 (New Mexico) to 10 (Oregon).

*****

Defense

Boilermaker Tackling Fundamentals 101: Grab on to the metal thingy.

Despite not being known to excel on this side of the ball, Purdue has produced a number of talented players in recent years and look to have a few potential stars on this year’s squad. The Boilermakers return most of their defensive line and secondary. Things may get dicey for them if none of their inexperienced new linebackers step up by September, but mediocrity at that position would still make for a unit that could end up in the top half of the B1G.

Purdue played a base 4-3 defense last year and didn’t do anything too funky with it. How quaint, I know. This year they have a new defensive coordinator in Tim Tibesar who spent the last three seasons in the Canadian Football League, who has reportedly tried implementing a 3-4 in closed practice.

 

… GERG, is that you?

Yes, that is a stupid idea. 

As far as the defensive line goes, 1st team All-B1G DT Kawann Short (54 tackles, 17.5 TFL, 7 sacks) passed up the NFL draft to play his senior season in West Lafayette and anchor the line. If all goes well he could hear his name during the first round in 2013. Around him are two solid returnees in DT Bruce Gaston (29 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3 sacks) and DE Ryan Russell (32 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 sack). This defensive line should end up being excellent by most standards, particularly in the middle. Why the Boilermakers would want to take any of these guys off the field in favor of a linebacker is beyond me. 

The secondary will be one of the better ones in the B1G, too. 2nd team All-B1G CB Ricardo Allen (79 tackles, 3 TFL, 4 PBU, 3 INT) is a proven commodity, and he’ll benefit from playing another year opposite CB Josh Johnson (63 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 9 PBU, 2 INT), who is also an active B1G corner. Despite losing WHODAT safety, they return WHODAT safety and seem to have a good nickel corner in WHODAT, who had a strong spring game.

So the linebackers … Nobody really knows anything about their linebackers, but five bucks says opposing teams will combo block and option the crap out of this group.

The Tibesar fellow thinks he should have four of them on the field, though.

Their defense is as frightening as: An accordian -- with a nice, soft crumple zone in the middle. Fear level = 7 on a scale from 1 (GERG ) to 10 (Alabama) if they stick with the base 4-3; 4 if they switch to a 3-4.

*****

Special Teams

They lose Punter/Kicker Carson Wiggs (19/25) to graduation. He was their best kicker in school history. They will have to replace him.

Raheem Mostert will probably continue to return kicks and stuff.

That's pretty much it.

Predictions

Their record will be: 7-5, 4-4 B1G (see above)

When they play Michigan: It could be close if Michigan still can't figure out how to get their act together on the road, but Michigan's ground game will eventually overwhelm their linebackers, and Purdue simply won't have enough playmakers on offense to keep up.

Their chance of winning the B1G is as good as: Raising their bet on pocket jacks. Indiana folds; Ohio State gets caught playing with jokers; everyone else calls. An ace and two kings appear on the flop … Michigan State goes all in.