|WHAT|| Michigan (3-0) vs
West Lafayette, IN
September 23th, 2017
|THE LINE||M –10|
|WEATHER||high 80s, sunny
0% chance of rain
I have an aunt who works at Western Kentucky, and most years we go down there for Christmas. As a result I've seen a lot of WKU bowl games, which are odd things in odd places. You may remember this from the CMU-WKU Bahamas Bowl:
It is entirely appropriate that there are a dozen stand-alone versions of this on the tubes, all jankily recorded on someone's phone. WKU football is a trip. Most of the time it feels more like tennis than football: each defensive series is an opportunity to break serve as the score inevitably rises into the 40s and 50s. Coach Jeff Brohm never really left the XFL.
Anyway, now that guy is at Purdue and they're beating Mizzou 35-3. Good hire? Good hire. Enough to take down a vastly more talented foe in year one? We'll see.
At the very least they've taken this spread down, from –22 to the –10 you see above. This has moved the needle on the win-loss a fair bit. Bill Connelly's fancystats—which still appropriately build in a lot of preseason expectations—still have it Michigan –18, which is an 85% shot at victory. 85% feels pretty wobbly for a team that entered the season expecting this game to be a walkover.
Run Offense vs Purdue
McCollum followed Brohm to Purdue
No matter how good Brohm is it defies belief that he, an offensive guy, can overturn Purdue's horrendous run defense in a matter of months. Last year the Boilermakers were amongst the very worst in the country, finishing 123rd in S&P+. And that was with Jake Replogle, PFF fave-rave and projected fifth-round pick*, anchoring the interior. The coaching upgrade counts for something—maybe a lot—but not enough for Purdue to aspire to anything more than, say, 80th, when the dust settles.
The cavalry has not yet come. The swarm of grad and JUCO transfers Purdue brought in (11 in all) barely touches the front seven. WKU grad transfer LB TJ McCollum (65 tackles and 4 TFLs last year) is starting. The rest of the front seven are last year's guys, or guys who couldn't beat out the departed contributors. This should still be a disaster zone.
Results this year have nonetheless been an improvement. Louisville rushed Lamar Jackson 21 times and their running backs just 11 en route to 4.6 YPC. Missouri averaged just 2.9 YPC. Louisville's OL may be horrendous, Ohio did some work (4.9 YPC, is a MAC team), and Mizzou is a dead thing, so the jury is still very much out. You could say the same thing about Michigan's ground game, though.
One thing working in Purdue's favor are some Big Boys. Starting ILB Ja'Whaun Bentley is listed at 260 and plays like the brick you'd expect him to be, and if NT Lorenzo Neal is in the game Purdue can field a four-man line that goes 325-295-280-255, ie: an average-to-largeish DL. They generally stick with three down linemen because Neal is a true sophomore and "uninspiring space eater," per Ace—if forced into heavier duty he might be a guy who fades out due to a lack of conditioning.
Still, Purdue might be surprisingly equipped to go toe to toe with a manball offense. Ace was impressed with Bentley:
At 6'2", 260, MIKE Ja'Whaun Bentley looks like a defensive end at first glance, and he brings the wood against the run. He had seven TFLs last year despite missing three games to injury; so far this season he leads the team in tackles and has recorded two TFLs, five run stuffs, and two forced fumbles.
While he's not the most nimble athlete, which shows up when he drops into zone coverage, he diagnoses plays quickly and takes good angles to the ball—he always seems to end up in the pile. His goal line forced fumble against Louisville was a thing of beauty; watch #4 read the play in an instant, get to the hole with leverage, and stop the back cold in his tracks while knocking the ball free:
He's the best of a solid group of linebackers despite some issues in coverage. With Bentley's size, strengths, and weaknesses, the comparison to Mike McCray is pretty tight.
They have not seen one yet, and here Michigan has an advantage since they have gone up against consecutive 3-4s. They will seek to polish some rough spots down.
It doesn't help Purdue that both of their ILBs are dinged up. McCollum has a hamstring issue; Bentley injury is undisclosed but Brohm did tell reporters that he missed some practice this week. Freshmen are potential replacements if either can't go. Brohm also suggested he might bump an OLB inside and run the 280-pound Robinson as an OLB. That means "play a 4-3" even if one of the DEs is standing up. The potential downgrade there sounds rather steep.
Whatever happens, it's likely to happen across the line of scrimmage. Purdue has just 1.5 non-sack TFLs. That is welcome news for Michigan and its tendency to get in second and forever. Faced with stunts and slants the OL has not yet picked up but capable of busting any particular carry into the open field, Michigan has been a boom or bust rushing offense facing boom or bust defenses. Purdue should be a less chaotic affair as the Boilers seek to bend but not break. Louisville, the only semi-functional rushing offense they've faced so far, had an above-average number of line yards (3.2 vs an average of 2.9) but couldn't pick up much of anything in the way of chunk plays. Ohio had a similar story.
*[Replogle missed three games last year with a head injury and decided to forgo an NFL career as a result. Thus "projected."]
KEY MATCHUP: MICHIGAN OFFENSIVE LINEMEN vs TWISTS, STUNTS, AND BLITZES. Purdue will throw whatever they've got at Michigan in this department. For them that's going to be an extra linebacker, maybe two, as they try to keep things from breaking big. That still gives them a lot of opportunity to re-gap their DL and hope an inexperienced OL follows them. This is the rushing offense's key matchup until further notice.
[Hit THE JUMP for THE ANTIBONE]
Pass Offense vs Purdue
Jallow is new to Purdue [Journal-Courier]
This should be welcome relief to the offensive line. Purdue has just one sack this year and is generally content to sit back and zone, per Ace—though it should be noted that "sit back and zone" is almost everyone's response to Lamar Jackson. Purdue doesn't have a standout pass rusher and isn't an Air Force-style attack defense; Speight should find more time than he has so far this year. Hopefully that will allow him to settle in and start confidently reading.
Here too one wonders how much progress Brohm can make in one offseason. Purdue was a triple-digit pass D a year ago(109th). Wake Forest grad transfer Josh Okonye and JUCO TJ Jallow, a "Last Chance U" alum, step into starting roles. That would be an alarm-bell situation for a defense that had expectations. Jallow, a cornerback, was thrust into the starting free safety role despite only arriving on campus this fall. Okonye was a part-timer at Wake Forest—which actually had a decent defense last year—but it's telling that he decided to move despite two starting spots opening through graduation. Wayne Lyons comes to mind.
Results to date:
Louisville: 30/46, 378 yards, 8.2 YPA
Ohio: 17/29, 223 yards, 7.2 YPA, 1 sack
Mizzou: 12/28, 133 yards, 2 INT, 4.8 YPA
Assuming that Mizzou is in a tailspin of suck, that looks pretty tractable. Ace's FFFF has a ton of zone featuring late-arriving safeties and linebackers taking iffy drops. This should be a game for chunk plays from the tight ends and Perry.
Or it could be another goon-fest. Michigan has been allergic to throws over the middle like Lloyd Carr's running the show. The extant TE hits have been mesh or Y-cross stuff where the target is exiting the space between the hashes. Slants have been nonexistent, and stick routes or hitches between the hashes equally absent. This might be a Pep Hamilton thing—I can't think it's an INT issue since Michigan has a returning starter who threw just seven all of last year. I don't know; I don't get it. Hopefully it's just an anomaly and Michigan starts hitting these things against a 260-pound MLB and a WKU transfer.
KEY MATCHUP: WELL, A LOT OF THINGS vs NOT GOING VERY WELL. WRs, Speight, blitz pickups: all of these have been suboptimal. I guess we'll axe the pickups since Purdue is less aggressive than previous opponents, so Speight and the WRs—any WRs getting on the same page would be lovely. At some point Perry has to have a 10-catch game.
Run Defense vs Purdue
Tario is the long lost brother of Mario and Wario
Don't be fooled by all the whiz-bang. This is not an old-style Tiller Purdue offense where the running game is a sideshow. Last year WKU was 13th in rushing S&P+ and 1st in success rate; primary back Antony Wales averaged 6.8 YPC on 237 carries. His backup had 7.3 YPC on 99 carries. The Hilltoppers got after it on the ground.
Early returns at Purdue are middling, and even that is likely to be ephemeral. Tario Fuller, the main tailback, ripped Ohio for 142 yards on just 16 carries and had 90 on 19 against Mizzou. On the other hand, Purdue ran just 16 times against 57 passes in the Louisville game as they assumed they could not block the UL defensive line. They were correct. Despite the surprise nature of every run they couldn't crack 4 YPC.
This game is going to be like that Louisville game, only moreso. Purdue cannot hide their OL deficiencies on the ground, and they were miserably bad last year in every possible rushing stat. A productive day against a MAC school is progress; it doesn't have much bearing on what happens when Devin Bush, Mo Hurst, Chase Winovich, and Rashan Gary come to town.
Fuller's not bad, though. He's a lot like Karan Higdon, a tough, low-to-the-ground runner whose lack of size doesn't mean he can't grind out some yards after contact. He was little-used as a freshman a year ago, so these are our first looks at his ability.
This is probably more of a problem for the Boiler passing game than the ground game but this section comes first so: left tackle Grant Hermanns is questionable with a "sore knee"; Brohm says he's hopeful Hermanns will play. Hermanns already comes with a teal circle on the FFFF chart; if he's not 100% that matchup will go even worse than it originally projected to.
Brohm will eventually get this up and going and have a complete offense. It won't be this weekend.
KEY MATCHUP: MIKE MCCRAY wsg CHASE WINOVICH vs INEVITABLE EDGE STUFF. Cincinnati got some chunks when Michigan got edged, either by Winovich forming up to contain the QB when he was no longer the guy to contain, or the usual thing where McCray gets outrun to the edge. Fuller isn't the best guy to try this—he is no Ty Johnson—but it's the clear, and only, clear weakness in Michigan's run defense.
Pass Defense vs Purdue
Blough! Blough! Blough!
Well, here it is. Brohm is an Air Raid guy and his WKU teams lit it up. He's revived David Blough's career; he also pulls Blough in every game for Elijah Sindelar. Both are bad! Both are making it work because Brohm's offense, per Ace, is a terror:
Brohm's spread features a dizzying array of run-pass options, motion, misdirection, and straight-up gadget plays. They've managed to be good despite fielding two unreliable quarterbacks throwing to wideouts who, with one notable exception, can't seem to hang onto the ball.
Expect the kitchen sink as Brohm tries to take advantage of a vulnerable titan. Michigan demonstrated last week that they're very, very good at maintaining assignments in the face of a bunch of unfamiliar stuff; they also demonstrated a certain fallibility on one play in particular.
Also expect the kitchen sink from Don Brown. In the Louisville game Ace charted a whopping 5 BRXs between Blough and Sindelar, each of which was a potential (or actual) interception. Michigan's 3-3-5 allows them to send rushers from anywhere against a shaky offensive line—8 sacks ceded already and a below-average sack rate allowed despite a ton of quick stuff. If Hermanns is limited or even out they'll have to help the LT a ton against whichever DE is there, allowing Bush free rein on the inside.
Michigan will shut off the possibility of dumb screens to the outside by playing nothing but press; expect a bunch of tunnel screens as Purdue tries to exploit Cincinnati's most successful play. Brown will probably have a response, but he's either going to be compromising another portion of his defense (pass rush) or calling his would-be RPS plays and hoping he calls the same Tecmo play.
Straight up man coverage can be dangerous against an offense like Purdue's, which has a lot of switch routes that can function as rubs, so expect Michigan to alternate man and zone in an effort to produce those BRs that could be disastrous.
Michigan's secondary is still an open question. Brandon Watson's been challenged frequently and played well; both Lavert Hill and David Long have had their moments but remain largely untested. Fortunately, Purdue's WR corps has been ham-handed so far. Slot Jackson Anthrop will be a challenge for Michigan's box safeties, and that'll be the place Purdue makes most of their hay.
KEY MATCHUP: MICHIGAN'S SECONDARY vs TACKLING. There will be screens. There will be dink routes. Michigan's goal is to set up third-and-anything and make Purdue convert with a shaky running game, and getting guys down after they get their five yards is step one.
Kicker is an open question for the Boilers. JD Dellinger was just 10 of 14 last year, finishing 95th in expected points per kick. This year he's 1/3, with junior Spencer Evans 2/3. Anything other than a chip shot looks like a 50/50 shot for Purdue. Evans has taken over KO duties and is putting 74% of those in the endzone; don't expect fireworks there.
Weirdly good news for Michigan: punter Joe Schopper is launching bombs this year, averaging 48 yards a pop on 12 punts. Donovan Peoples-Jones has been excellent at fielding long ones and returned one for a touchdown last week, with a second impact return later in the game. Schopper was at 41 yards a pop last year and will likely come back to earth somewhat as the season goes along; he is liable to set Michigan up for an explosive play in this one. Five of his punts have been returned for 9 yards a pop.
Purdue has done zilch on returns so far this year. They did zilch last year, too. This should be a major advantage for Michigan as long as Will Hart doesn't add to his list of shanks.
KEY MATCHUP: AHHHH YOU CONTINUE CATCHING THE PUNTS AND RUNNING THEM A LONG DISTANCE
- Michigan still can't get Perry and their tight ends heavily involved.
- Purdue runs a triple reverse fake flea flicker wheel route.
- Speight doesn't improve.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
Peoples-Jones fields a 50-yard punt.
Michigan caves the pocket in constantly.
Purdue's defense is still last year's Purdue defense.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 4 (Baseline 5; +1 for They Made The Tecmo Bowl Play Work, +1 for They Scared Louisville Pretty Good, +1 for It's Gonna Get Bahamas Bowl Up In Here, –1 for You Can't Fix That Defense In Nine Months, –1 for Pick Sixes Are Waiting To Happen, –1 for Converted CB JUCO Starting Safety, +1 for It Is A Road Game That Will Be Kind Of Road-Like, Unusually, –1 for Thumbnail-Deep Pundit Class Have Declared This Upset Alert, –1 for Dinged LT Against A Michigan DE)
Desperate need to win level: 10 (Baseline 5; +1 for Still Unranked, +1 for Still A Double Digit Spread, +1 for I Shudder At My Mentions Even If We Win, +1 for Losing Is Bad, +1 for Real Bad).
Loss will cause me to... campaign for Jeff Brohm to take the Florida job.
Win will cause me to... same, but jollier.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
The line move feels like an overreaction to some early events for both teams. Michigan's redzone O is orders of magnitude worse than the worst-case scenario and this makes things look bad; Purdue has caught a number of breaks that makes them look more improved than they actually are. Louisville outgained them by 150 yards and lost two red-zone fumbles; Mizzou imploded. Purdue made a great hire and is certainly improved; Michigan's defense should be a reality check all the same.
Despite having a polar opposite offense I'd expect kind of the same thing that Air Force managed: a few chunk plays when Michigan gets in the wrong coverage and gets a guy rubbed, or they bust on a trick play, with a lot of not much in-between. Purdue's offense will be more likely to grab 15 yards at once and more likely to end up in third and forever. The end result should be the same, with Purdue getting some more yards and maybe a few more points because this game won't be as short, in terms of possessions.
On offense... ugh, I don't know anymore. I'm going to Officially Give Up On Wilton Speight because that seems like the best way for him to snap out of his funk. It is done. I disavow all positivity about Speight, and expect an erratic outing that Michigan rescues with some broken tackles against the secondary.
The ground game should be consistently productive as Michigan plays a defense trying to contain and not be the worst P5 team by a mile. They might not get the big chunk runs, but second and nine is not going to happen much. Expect Michigan to go over 200 yards on the ground, and punch it into the endzone with frequency.
Special teams should help Michigan distance themselves.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Michigan scores a defensive touchdown.
- They're good in the redzone.
- Michigan, 39-22