As is MGoTradition, I'm writing the preview for the opener instead of Brian, who's probably
cackling with glee that he won't be blamed for any potential jinx in recovery from crippling carpal tunnel after typing up tens of thousands of words previewing this season. We'll be on our normal schedule, with Brian taking care of the preview, next week.
|WHAT||Michigan vs Appalachian State|
Ann Arbor, MI
August 30th, 2014
|THE LINE||M –34.5|
PBP: Beth Mowins
Analyst: Joey Galloway
|TICKETS||Still available for the low, low price of $27|
|WEATHER||mid to high 80s, windy, possible T-storms, 80% chance of rain|
Right: Appalachian State's new alternate logo is very, uh, Appalachian? Also very MS Paint. Also named Victory Yosef, which is just wonderful.
This is not a vintage Jerry Moore, FCS-title-contending Appalachian State squad, for a couple reasons. The legendary Moore is no longer ASU's coach—he retired after the 2012 season and was replaced by former Mountaineer quarterback Scott Satterfield. More importantly, ASU just wasn't very good in 2013, going 4-8 (4-4 Southern Conference) as a member of the FCS and losing 45-6 to a Georgia squad that had lost much of their offensive weaponry.
Now they've joined the Sun Belt, moving up to FBS play, and their radio announcer is looking for them to be competitive... in 2015:
App State announcer David Jackson on U-M radio show said 2015 is the year the Mountaineers should compete in all weeks in FBS level.
— Mark Snyder (@Mark__Snyder) August 27, 2014
Cripes, I'm deathly afraid to say anything here. You sure you don't want to take this one, Brian? No? Well, here goes nothing...
Run Offense vs ASU
Starting at nose tackle, a small bear.
ASU transitioned to a 3-4 defense last season, and the results weren't pretty up front. The Mountaineers ceded over 220 rushing yards per game at an even 5.0 YPC—and they actually fared marginally better against Georgia (127 yards on 4.2 YPC) than they did against their FCS brethren. Heading into this season they have to replace their most disruptive run defender, DE Adam Scott (NTAS), who led the team with 8.5 TFLs in 2013.
Only two players among the starting front seven on this year's depth chart finished the 2013 season as a starter—DE Deuce Robinson and ILB John Law—and ASU's two leading tacklers are gone. After injuries forced their hand, 330-pound behemoth Tyson Fernandez (pictured above) made a late-season switch from guard to nose tackle, started two of the final four games there, and now sits atop the two-deep (apologies, two-deep).
In addition to lacking experience and production, the front seven is quite undersized for a team running a 3-4 defense. Here are their listed starters up front:
- DE Deuce Robinson: 6'5", 260 lbs.
- NT Tyson Fernandez: 6'2", 330 (the obvious exception here)
- DE Ronald Blair: 6'4", 275
- OLB Kennan Gilchrist: 6'2", 210
- ILB John Law: 6'2", 235
- ILB Brandon McGowan: 6'2", 235
- OLB Kevin Walton: 6'0" 185 OR OLB Rashaad Townes (6'2", 205)
That is not a large group, especially on the edges—Walton is actually a converted safety. Simply put, if Michigan has trouble establishing the run against these guys, it will be a long season.
Key Matchup: Center Jack Miller vs. Fernandez. While Miller's had his issues executing his assignment, what's held him back most in his college career has been his size/strength. If he can hold up against a 330-pounder, that would ease some concerns about his ability to hold that job once Graham Glasgow returns to action.
[Hit THE JUMP for a totally reasonable prediction accompanied by totally reasonable, paralyzing fear.]
Pass Offense vs ASU
Again, the offensive line needs to prove its competence here, as ASU recorded just eight sacks as a team last year; the aforementioned Deuce Robinson tied for the team lead with two sacks last season. The guys to watch here may be those undersized outside linebackers, who trade off bulk for speed.
The secondary has some significant question marks. Both cornerback spots have co-starters on the depth chart. A true freshman, two-star athlete AJ Howard, will start at strong safety. Junior Doug Middleton shifts over to free safety after starting the last five games of 2013 at strong safety. For a group that finished 82nd in the FCS in opponent passer efficiency, that much uncertainty is obviously a major concern; Georgia torched them for 441 yards and 3 TDs through the air on 42 attempts in their matchup last season.
Even if ASU's defensive backs prove up to the task of covering Michigan's deep and talented group of receivers, they must find a way to generate something resembling a pass rush if they hope to slow down the Wolverine passing attack. Looking at what's returning up front, that seems like a tall order, but Michigan's offensive line seemed to create new ways to get Devin Gardner killed last season despite boasting two NFL tackles, so who knows?
Key matchup: RT Ben Braden vs. OLB Kennan Gilchrist. When I watched Braden in high school, I thought he struggled a bit against speed rushes off the edge, and those issues have shown up when he's seen the field in various scrimmage formats over the last couple years. Gilchrist is reportedly a speedy pass-rusher type, and while he didn't record a sack last year, he's gained 15 pounds and should be better-equipped to take on offensive tackles this year.
Run Defense vs ASU
While the Mountaineers ran the ball on a little less than half of their snaps last season and gave a decent chunk of those carries to their quarterback, there's no question running back Marcus Cox (above) is the star of this offense. Cox rushed for 1,250 yards and 15 touchdowns on 5.1 YPC in 2013 on his way to finishing second in the voting for FCS Freshman of the Year. He's bulked up to 5'10", 200 pounds over the offseason, so he's got the size to run between the tackles if there's room.
That might be a big "if" considering the matchup of Michigan's potentially formidable defensive front against ASU's offensive line. The Mountaineers list co-starters at center, right guard, and right tackle; according to their game notes, ASU's O-line and tight ends have an average size of 6'3", 276 (Michigan's check in at 6'5", 290); senior right guard Alex Acey stands at just 5'11", 270, and he's a co-starter expected to keep guys like Willie Henry from bulling their way into the backfield. I wish him luck.
ASU will probably try to keep Michigan's defensive front honest with some quarterback runs from Kameron Bryant, but they might not be particularly effective. With sacks removed, Bryant averaged around 4 YPC last season and couldn't get anything going on the ground against Georgia—Cox was also bottled up in that game, netting 59 yards on 23 attempts.
Key Matchup: Michigan's DTs vs. ASU's interior line. This is another matchup that U-M should dominate, especially with a bull-strong tackle in Henry going up against interior linemen he straight-up outweighs. Being able to trust the front four to limit ASU's running game could be a major key to slowing down the Mountaineer passing attack, which heavily features short, quick passes, including a lot that go to the running back.
Pass Defense vs ASU
Despite dealing with a lot of injuries up front last season, ASU put together a respectable, effiecient passing game while limiting opponents to just 20 sacks on 437 drop-backs. In fact, Bryant put together a record-setting season, setting the school mark with a 71.2 completion percentage; he also had the most passing yards by a sophomore in school history (2,713) despite not starting until the fifth game of the season.
Bryant must cope with the loss of his top two receivers from 2013, however; no returning wideout cracked 300 yards last season. ASU lists four different starting receiver positions, and they're manned by a group with spectacular names: Malachi Jones, Jaylen Barbour, Bobo Beathard, and Simms McElfresh. SIMMS MCELFRESH. Your argument is invalid.
Out of that group, only Jones (6'2") isn't listed at 5'10", and nobody looks like a viable deep threat—Jones and Beathard both averaged under 10 YPC last season, while McElfresh recorded the longest reception among returning receivers at 39 yards. ASU can get bigger by putting 6'4", 245-pound H-back Drew Bailey out there, but he looks like he's just a blocker with nine career receptions in 26 games. The tight end, Drew Burns, is a decent safety valve who may be underutilized—he had 22 catches for 205 yards and a TD in just nine appearances as the nominal starter at the position.
The dangerman here is Cox, who's the team's leading returning receiver (43 rec., 559 yards, 6 TDs) and most dangerous big-play threat; he does a lot more than just haul in screens. If Greg Mattison gets caught being too aggressive, Cox is the most likely beneficiary.
Key Matchup: Frank Clark vs. ASU's OTs. The Right To Rush Four™ starts with Clark, who still needs to prove that he can consistently get to the quarterback on his own. If Michigan can get a solid rush with their front four, they can keep close tabs on Cox when he slips out of the backfield; if that happens, ASU will have a tough time making any big strikes down the field.
If there's a group that rivals the receivers in Name Of The Year potential, it's the special teams, though they get a boost from the aforementioned Bobo Beathard returning both kickoffs and punts—he averaged 22 yards on seven KRs last year and didn't return a punt.
Zach Matics will handle placekicker duties for the first time after serving as the kickoff specialist last year. Walk-on Bentlee Critcher is the star of this group after a freshman year in which he averaged 45.9 yards per punt; he pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 15 times and had 18 boots of 50+ yards on 51 punts. He must make sure he doesn't outkick his coverage, however, because JABRILL PEPPERS.
Key Matchup: Jabrill Peppers vs. The Crushing Weight Of Expectation.
WE SCHEDULED WHO NOW?
- The offensive line looks like last year's offensive line
- Michigan can't establish a consistent pass rush
- Non-Glasgow walk-ons don't get on the field in the fourth quarter
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Derrick Green turns the outside linebackers into a gooey paste
- Nobody screams around the edge and plants a helmet in Devin Gardner's ribs
- Willie Henry tallies a sack by literally throwing a guard into the QB
Fear/Paranoia Level: 10 (Baseline 5; +5 for I REMEMBER LAST TIME, EVEN THOUGH THIS SHOULDN'T BE AT ALL LIKE LAST TIME)
Desperate need to win level: 10 (Baseline 5; +5 for NEVER AGAIN)
Loss will cause me to... openly weep in the press box.
Win will cause me to... shrug, go home.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Michigan has a huge edge in both size and talent, and this time around they should win the coaching matchup, as well. Even with the offensive line being, well, that, the running game better damn well work with a running back who outweighs both starting outside linebackers. As long as the defense doesn't allow Cox to break multiple huge plays, this will be a comfortable win. Please don't kill me.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Michigan rushes for 200 yards. The sky opens. Angels sing.
- Frank Clark gets two thunderous sacks.
- At long last, Dennis Norfleet scores a touchdown, some way, somehow.
- Michigan, 39-11.