|WHAT||Michigan vs Rutgers|
Probably New York, NJ
October 4th, 2014
|THE LINE||Rutgers -2|
|TICKETS||Currently 50 bucks|
|WEATHER||clear, 0% chance of rain
low 60s dipping to mid 50s, light winds
Rutgers is probably not real good. They've got quarterback issues up the wazoo, they lost 13-10 to a middling-at-best Penn State, they… uh… beat the team that just beat Utah at home a week after Utah blew Michigan out. I guess I'm sayin' there's a chance. Vegas is saying there's a downright fair chance. It doesn't feel like it, I know, but Gary Nova! Chin up, there's a good boy, let's march into that forest of bayonets like Englishmen.
We've heard nothing about Michigan's crew of walking wounded except some chatter about how the Peppers' injury was either fiction or had something else attached to it—Hoke's explanation that he was not on the sideline because of an injury he'd suffered in practice days prior was extremely weird.
PROBABLY IN: Raymon Taylor, who played last week. Devin Funchess is coping with an ankle thing.
MAYBE: Jarrod Wilson's supposedly on his way back soon.
PROBABLY OUT: Delano Hill, Erik Magnuson, Peppers, Desmond Morgan, Shane Morris.
Run Offense vs Rutgers
Hamilton (91) is the man
This does not appear to be a good matchup for a struggling rush offense after Utah's relatively diminutive line slashed past Michigan's OL far too frequently. Rutgers brings a similar approach to the table, deploying no one over 275 pounds on their DL. Star DT Darius Hamilton is only 255; their SDE is hardly bigger at 260, and they tend to run an under so that is a quasi DT.
Results have been uneven, but with Navy and Howard running triple option systems you have to take those games with a grain of salt when projecting to normies; meanwhile Rutgers has taken on Washington State—currently 125th in overall rushing yardage with under 20 attempts a game—and Penn State—currently 116th, with horrendous OL. They shut both those teams down spectacularly.
Their other game was against Tulane, and the Green Wave cut 'em up pretty good, getting to 152 yards on just 31 carries without bothering to excise sacks. I assume that Tulane is a much better rushing offense than Michigan since they put up 250 on Tulsa and 230 on Duke, albeit in losses, and those are actually okay teams instead of App State and Miami (NTM).
No, it does seem like the closest analogue we have is Penn State…
here's a great play to blow up a run and draw a hold by... some defensive lineman:
Even with the benefit of replay, I can't tell who did that.
The above is representative of what Rutgers did to Penn State's running game. Here's their starting nose tackle, Kenneth Kirksey, annihilating PSU's center so badly Bill Belton's only option is to make a futile effort to get the edge. At first this play looks like a well-timed corner blitz, but the corner shouldn't come into play—Belton can't hit the intended hole because WDE David Milewski got instant penetration up the gut. Rutgers makes up for their undersized front by shooting the gaps hard, and against PSU's line this led to great success.
…and while I think Michigan's OL is better than Penn State I'm not sure.
Michigan has struggled to pick up slants and stunts this year and Rutgers thrives on that; their defense is reminiscent of the Schiano-era Rutgers Ds that seemingly had eleven guys all the same size coming from anywhere. Doubtful Michigan can pick that up.
Michigan's ground game has had two modes this year: clubberation of the worst teams in D-I and massive struggles against anyone else. Michigan has barely poked its head above 3 YPC in games against Notre Dame, Utah, and Minnesota, and it's not like those are all powers. Minnesota gave up nearly 200 yards on the ground to Middle Tennessee State; WSU just about matched Michigan's output when they played (and beat) Utah last week, and WSU is one of the worst rushing teams in the country.
So while it doesn't look as bad as last year most of the time, we've seen enough data that we have to give up the "no seriously it's better give it time" ghost. It's probably not good. Better than we've seen? Maybe if the tailbacks' vision improves, but that seems like a futile hope at the moment.
A possible exception: the one bright spot against Minnesota was De'Veon Smith, who singlehandedly trudged Michigan to their only touchdown with Shane Morris on the field. He got one carry after that, because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Smith's a bit ponderous with his cuts but does a Hart-like job of lugging people downfield after contact and you think would be in line for more reps after picking up the vast bulk of Michigan's ground yardage on just 9 carries. Given Michigan's personnel decisions to date, you just don't know.
This should be high variance. When and if Michigan can latch onto the little buggers on the defensive line and the Knights' backup MLB does not fit correctly, Michigan will have big avenues to attack. (That they still might ignore, of course.) Rutgers is going to do its best to confuse an easily confused line, though, and that should result in more TFLs. If I had a nickel for every TFL boy Stephen Ross wouldn't be the only guy getting interviewed by the WSJ about this let me tell you…
Key Matchup: Hamilton versus Michigan interior linemen. Hamilton has 6 TFLs already and is by far the most disruptive player on the Rutgers D. Michigan's interior line… is probably better than their tackles?
[Hit THE JUMP for the REST of the PREVIEW]
Pass Offense vs Rutgers
Devin Gardner will take the helm again after Michigan went with Shane Morris for most of the Minnesota game. Morris quickly proved himself overwhelmed, but Michigan stuck with him until one half after circumstances dictated his exit and one play after they demanded it.
Michigan decision to play Morris, and then continue to play Morris well after he'd demonstrated himself to be well below even a broken Devin Gardner's competence level, was inexplicable. So at least that's good news? With Gardner in the game Michigan has a chance of moving the ball.
To do so they're going to have to protect their quarterback better than they have to date. Rutgers leads the nation in sacks with 21, and while your usual SOS objections apply, Michigan fans have learned that even playing not so good teams does not necessarily mean you're going to put their quarterback on the ground. Michigan, meanwhile, has allowed ten sacks so far. That's good for a tie for 83rd. So… that does not look promising.
When opponents do get balls off things tend to go well for them. Washington State put up almost ten yards an attempt on route to a 532 yard, 5 TD, 1 INT performance; Christian Hackenberg put up 7 yards an attempt despite having to deal with that offensive line.
Meanwhile, Rutgers is a bit banged up. Starting FS Johnathan Aiken will miss the first half after getting ejected for targeting last week. His projected replacement, Delon Stephenson, has been upgraded to probable on the Rutgers injury report, and with his back up a walk-on he's likely to go. Head coach Kyle Flood said something about how injuries other than Myles Nash were improving to the point where he didn't think they would "impact the depth chart." The top four corners are also probables on the injury report, but should be able to go.
Key matchup: Gardner versus himself. Just once I'd like this to be Gardner versus nature.
Run Defense vs Rutgers
5'8" Desmon Peoples takes over the feature back role
Injury has hewed down star Knights tailback Paul James, which could have a major impact on the game. His absence hasn't made a major statistical dent yet but he was widely regarded Rutgers's best offensive player and the step down to next-man-in Desmon Peoples is notable. Peoples is a scatback type; James was the whole package.
It's still hard to read Rutgers's proficiency here. They struggled badly against Howard and Penn State, tore up Navy and WSU, and did okay against Tulane. Penn State forced Rutgers into a 50/50 split between run and pass that had disastrous consequences; everyone else has eaten 40-56 Rutgers carries as Nova is used strictly as a keep-em-honest option.
This is going to be a major key, then. Michigan had done very well until the Minnesota game, when a combination of getting' manballed for the first time after four straight spreads to open the year and existential ennui saw Michigan collapse down the stretch. it was deep into the third quarter when Shane Morris saw a batted pass returned for a pick six and a 20-7 lead, whereupon the starch went out for the remainder. Despite breakdowns before that they'd only given up 13 points—not ideal, hardly a disaster.
So keeping in this game is going to be important. The offensive issues the last couple years have caused the defense to fall over once the opponent pushes it to ten points and the last shreds of belief exit the side of the ball that had any to begin with. Oh, and also exhaustion.
As long as the teams are fighting for something and the offense is staying on the field for chunks of time this should be at least a draw, and likely something where Rutgers finds itself in a lot of third and mediums trying to dink another day.
Key Matchup: Linebackers and DBs versus tackling Peoples.
Pass Defense vs Rutgers
I'll just put this here:
Gary Nova is massively erratic and remains so, but he's putting up equally massive numbers this year, averaging 10.5 YPA(!) and completing 63% of his passes. Things went… poorly against Penn State what with the 5 INTs and 6.2 YPA; against the rest of the Rutgers schedule he has been a low-frequency, high-efficiency option.
The absence of James and presumed competence of Michigan's defense (yes, even after the Minnesota game) should force Nova into a more prominent role… and that also brings his offensive line's pass protection into play. They've only given up six sacks so far but Ace's closer look revealed some serious issues:
Here, Johnson is beaten immediately off the snap and has to take a holding call even though Nova gets the ball out very quickly:
Here he gets embarrassed by Zettel on a spin move that flushes Nova out of the pocket, leading to a fumble that Nova was fortunate to recover.
A combination of Nova's erratic decision making and their line's tendency to let people zip through makes heavy reliance on the passing game a danger.
As the numbers suggest, occasional forays into the air do seem to be highly effective. Rutgers' main weapon there is Leonte Carroo, "currently on track to be the greatest receiver in Rutgers history." Carroo is on route to a massive year; he's already got 475 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns.
Carroo already looks NFL ready and has the long leaping frame that you look for in receivers. He'll be Michigan's biggest test at WR since Will Fuller.
There almost isn't a #2 WR. The guy with the next-most catches on the year is averaging the nine yards a pop that is the mark of a screen merchant; there's a guy with nine catches, and then it goes four five four, that sort of thing. It's Carroo and then whoever else happens to catch the QB's eye. Michigan fans watching Gardner try to get the ball to Devin Funchess constantly will be familiar with the setup.
Michigan's main goal here should be to get to Nova by hook or by crook and see what happens; throwing in a lot of zone blitzes where unexpected guys might show up underneath Carroo also seems like a way to profitability. Michigan needs to get as much disruption from their DL as Penn State did. Before last week I would have told you that was pretty likely. I still think it is probable.
Key Matchup: Gary Nova versus I AM GARY NOVA LORD OF CREATION WHO CAN DO ANYTHING WATCH ME FIT THIS BALL INTO A WINDOW SO SMALL THAT
but I don't liiiiiiiiike tackling defensive backs
Rutgers has had some punting issues. They've rotated a couple guys who don't get much distance and they're allowing a lot of returns—8 on 22 punts despite a team average of under 40 yards an attempt.
Kicker Kyle Frederico is middling. He'll miss the occasional attempt from inside 40 and he's never hit from 50+; it is possible he lets Michigan's defense off if they get a stop that gives him a reasonably long kick.
Primary returner Janarion Grant has taken kicks and punts back for touchdowns; he averaged a quality 9.2 yards a punt return last year. While Rutgers hasn't done much in this department in 2014, the combination of Hagerup's line-drive punting and Michigan's NFL-style coverage has bit them in the last two games (and would have bit them even more against Minnesota if their returner could actually field a punt more than one out of every three times).
Key Matchup: Grant versus the second wave.
What's there to worry about? This is the worst case scenario.
Seriously, find me a worse case that is at all reasonable. There isn't one. The only things worse involve the airshow being an Al Qaeda plot.
So just be chill, man, here at the bottom of all things.
I know it can get worse, but we will still be at the bottom of all things.
By going lower we remain stationary.
It's very zen.
Cackle with knowing glee if..
You want to leave the comfortable bosom down here in the earth and re-enter the realms of suffering.
We have transcended suffering and achieved the mute blankness of nirvana.
Except when inadvisable punts happen.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 7 (Baseline 5; –1 for Gary Nova Threw 5 INTs Against Penn State, +1 for And They Almost Won, +1 for They Lead The Nation In Sacks, +1 for And Our Offensive Line Is Rather Sieve-Like At The Moment, –1 for Vegas Thinks It's Close, +1 for Oh Man The Day When I'm Like "+2 Versus Rutgers Gives Me Hope" Has Arrived)
Desperate need to win level: 3 (Baseline 5; +1 for I'd Like Devin To Prove That The Slap In The Face He Endured Last Week Was Unjust, –1 for This Team's Reasonable Upside Is 7-5, –1 for I Fear Reaching That Reasonable Upside Will Not Result In A Coaching Change, –1 for I Am A Rock Way Down In The Hole I Cannot Hear You Or Feel Your Heat, I Am Slowly Melding Into The Rock, –1 for Meh)
Loss will cause me to... get fewer complaints about next week's coaching candidates post.
Win will cause me to... feel good for Devin.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
One day in spring
I said to myself
Why didn't you lead a rural life
I went down to the river
It said to me
I am ceaseless and unchanging
As long as the snows keep coming
The day is warm, and ominous
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Michigan held under 100 yards rushing, leading to a lot of Gardner Do Somethings
- Michigan is negative in TO margin.
- Rutgers, 24-21