Michigan vs Connecticut
Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI
3:30 Eastern, September 4th 2010
ABC/ESPN2 (Coverage Map)
Run Offense vs. UConn
With a stable of backs six-deep, a strong interior line, and a quarterback who runs on dilithium, the run game should be one of Michigan's strengths this season. UConn's starting defensive linemen range from the tiny (225-lb Trevardo Williams) to the light (255-lb Jesse Joseph) to the good-sized (both defensive tackles are in the 290s). If Michigan's offensive line has made the improvements we think they have, they should be able to push this defensive line all over the field.
UConn's front four is built for speed, rather than power, which might make outside running a little tougher, but the Wolverines should be able to generate a good push up front. At the second level, the linebackers are all seniors, and all have pretty good size. However, the man in the middle, Greg Lloyd, is an enigma. He started the fall at defensive end, then was lost for the season with an ACL injury. A couple weeks later, and he's the starting middle linebacker. Might that make him more tentative? On the weakside, Lawrence Wilson is an athletic 226 pounds, which should give him the ability to chase Michigan's quarterbacks around.
Key Matchup: Rich Rodriguez and Calvin Magee v. The Husky Scheme.
From a physical standpoint, Michigan should be able to move the ball on the ground against UConn. Randy Edsall's coaching staff is aware of this, so they'll throw some things at Michigan's offense (such as the scrape exchange, maybe some run blitzing) to offset that advantage. The offensive braintrust must know when these tricks are coming, and how to counter them.
The Huskies were subpar against scrambly types last year, with West Virginia's Jarrett Brown, Cincinnati's Zach Collaros, and South Florida's BJ Daniels having particularly good days with their feet. UConn is going to come up with some new ideas to prevent Michigan from repeating this success.
Pass Offense vs. UConn
UConn's pass defense had a world of trouble last year, particularly once starting corner Jasper Howard was murdered in October. Part of that was the competition (Cincinnati and Notre Dame were very good passing teams last year), but part of the Huskies' #85 ranking in pass efficiency defense was simply not being very good at football.
So, losing a couple starters to the NFL is a good thing, right? No? Robert McClain (7th round, Panthers) and Robert Vaughn (undrafted, Packers) are both out the door, and this secondary was bad WITH two future NFLers roaming it. The returning starters are redshirt sophomores safety Jerome Junior (listed at second-string on UConn's depth chart) and corner Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Moving on up into starting roles are junior safeties Harris Agbor and Kijuan Dabney, along with redshirt sophomore corner Dwayne Gratz. Both second-string corners are true freshmen.
The one area of pass defense that the Huskies did well in last year was getting after the quarterback. They finished 28th nationally in sacks, and Michigan's projected starting tackles aren't known for their pass-blocking skills. However, leading sacker Lindsey Witten is off to the Pittsburgh Steelers (undrafted), and with him go 11 sacks. Expect a step back in that department from UConn.
Key Matchup: Michigan's Receivers v. Getting Open.
There have been enough reports throughout the offseason that Roy Roundtree and Darryl Stonum in particular, and the receiving corps at large, have improved in catching the ball. We know Roundtree has a knack for getting open, but the rest of the unit has had its share of struggles.
This UConn secondary might be Michigan-level bad (does "true freshmen in the two-deep" sound familiar?), but it's up to the receivers to take advantage of that. If they can get open against a weak UConn back four, there could be plenty of room to run after the catch. That will back up the defense and open running lanes, which is where Michigan is going to do most of its damage in this game.
Run Defense vs. UConn
Now things start getting sketchy. UConn's offense, like Michigan's, should move the ball on Saturday. Randy Edsall's team last year focused on the rush, and they'll probably do the same in 2010. Jordan Todman is a tiny speedy guy, and should see the majority of the carries. Robbie Frey and USC transfer DJ Shoemate (a wide receiver-turned-fullback for the Trojans) should do a bit more of the pounding.
The Husky offensive line is experienced (two redshirt seniors, two redshirt juniors, and a redshirt sophomore) and big (they average over 300 pounds, and the right side, which I assume will be a focus in rushing, features a 325-pounder and a 333-pounder), just as you'd expect from a grind-it-out offense. Michigan's defensive front is bigger than last year, but they still have their work cut out for them.
Without knowing as much as we'd like about Michigan's scheme, we do know that the linebackers, on the whole, have been disappointing so far in their time in Ann Arbor. Obi Ezeh is the heaviest one on the team, but the mental game has never been all there for him, which means he'll probably be replaced by Mark Moundros in the starting lineup. Craig Roh, who will be a blitzing specialist, has added enough size to make him effective against the maulers up front.
Key Matchup: Michigan's Linebackers v. Their Performance To Date.
Outside of Roh (who could be considered a defensive lineman), the linebackers had a seriously disappointing 2009. Jonas Mouton regressed from a strong 2008, and Obi Ezeh didn't show the improvement we've been waiting three years for. Michigan won't win this game if the linebackers can't get their pads on Todman and wrap him up, because he has the speed to do serious damage once he's past them.
Mark Moundros, former walkon and converted fullback though he may be, has been praised all offseason by the likes of Rich Rodriguez, Greg Robinson, and his teammates as someone who 1) plays with a physical edge and 2) understands the game, and is willing to work in the film room on schemes. If he supplants Ezeh, He's less physically talented, but also less likely to make Michigan fans groan with a poor play.
Pass Defense vs. UConn
Rich Rodriguez expects the Huskies to use play-action as a basis for their pass game, as they did last year. With a trio of inexperienced defensive backs patrolling (not including hybrids), that should scare the living daylights out of you, the Michigan fan. There are a couple reasons for optimism, I guess.
Zach Frazer, the less impressive UConn quarterback last season, has been named the starter. Since then, Cody Endres has been suspended, so he won't be an option if Frazer struggles.
UConn graduated its top two receivers in Marcus Easley (a fourth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills) and Brad Kanuch.
That's it though, and the deep threat of Easley has been replaced by fellow speedster Kashif Moore. Tight end Ryan Griffin is available to get open over the middle for 30-yard touchdowns on third and 26.
MIchigan's scheme will be to play soft and give up some of the underneath stuff in order to avoid the Huskies going deep. With the roster as thin as it is, that's probably a good idea. GERG will probably also dial up some different pressure packages to take a bit of heat of the defensive backs.
Key Matchup: The Back Seven v. Broken Tackles.
If you allow an opposing offense to complete short passes, you'd damn sure better keep the gains to a minimum. Yards After Ezeh And Williams were huge last year, and with reports of iffy tackling in the fall scrimmage, that can't happen if Michigan is to win this contest.
Sophomore Dave Teggart returns to kick the ball, though he was iffy last year. He'll probably continue improving, so don't expect field goals to give the Huskies any trouble.
Punter Desi Cullen is out the door, leaving an unknown. With him, UConn was 24th in net punting last year, which is bound to take a step back. Michigan's punt return teams, of course have been nothing to fear. Tony Gibson has been newly-appointed the Special Teams Coordinator in the offseason, and having a single coach focused on the special teams game (at least in part) might improve that.
On the other side of the ball, UConn's return game has been outstanding the past couple years. Three different Huskies returned kicks for touchdowns last year, and all of them are back this season. They'll look for a new punt returner with the departure of Robert McClain, but I suspect they'll have some decent options there. Kickoffs into the endzone and punts with a lot of hangtime will be key.
Key Matchup: HOLD ONTO THE DAMN BALL.
Come on, could it have been anything else?
The Wolverines re-open the Big House, Brock Mealer leads them out of the tunnel, and they're looking to (finally) break through under Rich Rodriguez. But those intangibles seem a little... tangible.
oh I'm so happy
UConn can generate more than one big play on the ground or through the air.
The offensive tackles get Michigan's quarterbacks killed.
Special teams seem... special.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
Michigan ends up with a positive turnover margin.
Patrick Omameh and Steve Schilling are blocking downfield for a ballcarrier with a lot of daylight.
The young corners look anything better than competent.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 5 ([Ed: Baseline 5, +1 for Aigh Woolfolk, +1 for Aigh Everyone Else In The Secondary, +1 for Srsly, -1 for Leadership Doesn't Shred Secondaries, -1 for UConn Loves to Grind, -1 for And They Can't Defend Athletic Spread Quarterbacks And We Have A Cheetah Strapped To A Jet Engine And Dropped Of A Plane.)
Desperate need to win level: 11 (Baseline 5; +1 for Season Opener, +1 for Brock, +1 for Stadium Opener, +1 for Let's Keep The Wolves At Bay For Like 30 Seconds, +1 for Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want This Time, +1 for If The Stadium Sets An Attendance Record We'll Set The DNTW Record)
Loss will cause me to... Start worrying (for real this time) about Rodriguez's job security.
Win will cause me to... Immediately shift my terror complex from UConn to Notre Dame.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
This game looks to have the makings of an offensive shootout unless GERG Robinson is a miracle worker. Both defenses are expected to be subpar,
WesternUConn's offense is probably good, and Michigan's offense is an unknown decent trending towards good. One team will probably put up decent numbers in order to win. (Yes, this is almost verbatim from last year's Western Preview).
The question then, is which offense can better take advantage of the opposition's defensive weaknesses. Both offenses should be solid all around, but better in the running game, and both secondaries are weaknesses. I'll take Michigan's front 6-7 over UConn's front 7 though, partially because the UConn D-Ends are nowhere near big enough to hold up at the point of attack, whereas Michigan's are 285 pounds a pop. The Wolverines should also be more confusing in their pressure schemes.
The turnover battle will be where this game turns. The Wolverines have been awful the past two years, finishing in the bottom 20 each season. If they can at least break even this game, It's hard for me to see something other than a win. If they come out in the positive (and don't give it back in special teams), it could be a very good day indeed in Ann Arbor.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
Michigan plays all three quarterbacks if the game isn't in doubt in the fourth quarter. Denard Robinson will lead the team in rushing...
...but two other Wolverines score rushing touchdowns.
The defense successfully executes the "bend quite a bit" tactic, giving up more than 200 yards through the air.