|WHAT||Michigan vs Western Michigan|
|WHERE||Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mi|
|WHEN||3:30 Eastern, September 5th 2009|
|THE LINE||Michigan -13|
|TELEVISION||Nationwide on ABC|
Run Offense vs. Western
If Michigan wants to win football games this year, especially starting a freshman quarterback, they are going to have to run the ball well. As detailed extensively here and at Varsity Blue, they went from a horrible running team at the beginning of last year to an average-to-good one after the Penn State game. Returning every contributor from the offensive line with another year in the offensive system and the weight training program can only help.
The Broncos weren't particularly adept at stopping the run last year, ranking 62nd in the nation despite facing buzzsaw offenses like Idaho (#74 in rushing), Tennessee Tech (#95 - in Division 1-AA), Temple (#109), Ohio (#79), Buffalo (#75), Central Michigan (#72(!)), and Rice (#62). The Broncos did also face a couple top-30 teams, and some that were vaguely around the 50th percentile. Still, they gave up some serious rushing yardage to some bad teams. Michigan should have the talent advantage over every single one of those moribund teams and everyone the Broncos played against last year except Illinois (who the Broncos took down) and Nebraska. I say "should" because of last year.
That brings us to the horror show that is Western's front seven. The top two defensive ends and the 2nd and 3rd defensive tackles are gone. Cody Cielenski—all 274 pounds of him—is the only returning starter. That much turnover on a line that wasn't very good last year, could spell trouble for the Broncos' ability to defend the run.
The linebackers aren't quite as inexperienced, with 5th-year senior Austin Pritchard returning. He was second on the team in tackles last year, and was named first-team all-MAC. He'll be joined by Mitch Zajac and Justin Braska. Braska is a classic linebacker, while Zajac is the new-model converted-safety-type who can play in space, and will likely be a bigger hindrance to a spread team like the Wolverines.
Key Matchup: Michigan's Interior Offensive Linemen v. The Second Level. With an inexperienced defensive line facing Michigan's now-seasoned OL, the Wolverines in the trenches should be able to execute their initial double-teams and move up to the second level. If their athleticism is such that they can get blocks on linebackers and even secondary players, it could be Big Play City for the Michigan offense. Otherwise, it could be a grind-it-out kind of day, which might not be the best-case scenario for Michigan with Brandon Minor dinged up.
Still, Carlos Brown and Co. should be able to move the ball on the ground with, no matter what.
Pass Offense vs. Western
If Western's run defense was pretty bad last year, their pass defense was downright terrible. Facing the same motley crew of offenses, they finished #102 in the nation in pass defense. 9They were a more respectable #62 in pass efficiency defense.) That indicates they were in lots of shootouts last year (a couple) and games in which the opponent was trying to mount a comeback (a couple more).
The Bronco defense soared to those heights despite two players selected in the NFL Draft in Louis Delmas (2nd Round to the Lions, still technically in the NFL) and EJ Biggers (7th Round to the Buccaneers). I think it's safe to say that you can't expect WMU to replace two NFL-caliber players at one position group. Ohio State they are not. The lone returning starter is strong safety Mario Armstrong.
For Michigan's part, they're trying to erase the memory of a horrible passing game last year (#108 in the country). It's not like we'll be sending out a juggernaut against the Broncos' depleted corps. However, their must must must be an upgrade at quarterback, if only because there was no place to go but up. Tate Forcier will hopefully justify his reputation as a robo-QB, and all will be well as Junior Hemingway, Greg Mathews, and Martavious Odoms can stride from one end of the field to the other with ease.
Key Matchup: Michigan Freshman/Sheridan QBs v. Their Inherent Freshman/Sheridan Qualities. Western's secondary isn't going to be all that good. Their defensive line will only be able to provide a little bit of pressure. The main thing that can stop the Wolverine offense here is shooting itself in the foot. First-game jitters for the freshmen may lead to a little bit of that, and we all know what Sheridan can (or more accurately, can't) do.
The runner up in this category was Michigan Receivers v. The Dropsies. There have been some reports of mild problems in this category, and there are few things more frustrating than a wide open receiver droping a pass.
Run Defense vs. Western
Western has had a prolific offense in the Bill Cubit era, but they haven't been doing most of that work on the ground. They were 28th in total offense last year despite finishing #96 in rushing. Their lack of rushing yardage, however, wasn't always for lack of trying. They tried with little success to pound the ball against Nebraska and Illinois. It will be interesting to see if that extreme pass skew holds up this year; Western has experienced running backs and offensive linemen and a green receiving corps.
Michigan's defense, on the other hand, is a wildcard. Hell, we aren't even positive what the schemes are going to be. Brandon Graham and Mike Martin are the anchors of the DL, and Ryan Van Bergen should be decent unless he has leverage problems with his height. The Western offensive line is pretty big, however, and they could wear out Michigan's DL, especially with the lack of depth Michigan has. Oft-MGoMaligned Obi Ezeh could be vulnerable in space. Brandon West and Aaron Winchester are the type of little darters (Winchester much more so) that have given him trouble in the past of the variety "Ezeh totally overruns the play (-1)."
Contain and discipline will be key.
Key Matchup: Michigan's Defense v. Getting Off The Field. As long as the Wolverines' defensive line doesn't have to play too many snaps, especially consecutively, they should be pretty good. This was a huge issue last year, when they'd force a third and long, and then allow the offense to convert.
Pass Defense vs. Western
This is the segment of the review were Legitimate Fear strikes Michigan fans. Tim Hiller has been prolific in his career to date and is one of Mel Kiper's top five senior quarterbacks. (Don't take that to the bank: Curtis Painter was Kiper's #1 at this time last year.)
There are some reasons for optimism here;
- Hiller is coming off offseason ACL surgery and is not necessarily in peak physical form.
- Western lost most of its receiving corps. Gone are 3 of last year's top 4 options. Juan Nunez returns as the team's best deep threat, but he's one of the very few guys left. Freshman Ansel Ponder should be a top target for Western, with good hands and enough speed to possibly get deep. The Broncos do have a number of tight ends that they may use as well.
Michigan's secondary, however, is about as inexperienced as the Bronco receivers. They won't be tested as much as you'd think, because most of Western's passes are caught within a few yards of the line of scrimmage. That does mean Michigan's linebackers, notorious for their inability to defend the pass, will have to make plays. This will be an early test for Michigan's revamped, speedier linebacker corps and their underneath coverage.
Key Matchup: Brandons Graham and Herron v. Western's Tackles. If Tim Hiller has time to throw the ball, he will find an open play and make a play. That's what 5th-year seniors do, especially those who are coming off all-conference season last year. Michigan needs to make sure they don't allow Hiller that time to make passes.
Both Western's kicker (John Potter) and punter (Ben Armer) return. Potter didn't kick enough field goals and extra points to register any higher than 16th in scoring from last year's MAC ledger. He was decent in his freshman year, and should improve as a sophomore.
The punting game was not so kind to the Broncos last year. They were 97th in the nation in net punting, with Armer barely eclipsing the 40yds/punt mark. If Michigan's returners can hold onto the damn ball, there should be some pretty good opportunities to get serious field position.
For Michigan's part, there is Space Punter and the Unknown. Olesnavage has never kicked a field goal or extra point, and his first real contribution to the team may have to come in crunch time. There is the slight relief that he beat out a scholarship guy in Brendan Gibbons, but I guess Jason Gingell had beaten out Bryan Wright before The Horror, as well.
Key Matchup: Olesnavage v. Angry Michigan-Hating Upset-Minded God. The past two years, Michigan has suffered humiliating upsets because of key missed field goals. If Michigan starts giving away points in special teams, we might be headed for an unfortunate repeat.
Hey, you know what didn't work out last year? Lack of cats.
- The linebackers and secondary look inept in covering the short passing game.
- Either Michigan freshman QB gets hurt, leaving Sheridan as the only viable backup option.
- The offensive line's reported improvement isn't really really obvious.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Michigan can get to Hiller over and over again.
- Tate Forcier looks as good against the Broncos as he did against backups in the spring game.
- Michigan linebackers are sniffing out the screens.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 3 (Baseline 5; –1 for You Have No Men Larger Than Minor On D, Let Alone Linemen, –1 for Still Have Pretty Decent MAC record, +1 for Sheridan Shall Be Sighted, –1 for But Not Much, +1 for Oh Lord Some Safety Is Going To Head Asplode Me.)
Desperate need to win level: 10 (Baseline 5; +5 for Duh.)
Loss will cause me to... Relive the depths of 2008, probably hear all week about how RichRod is sooo fired.
Win will cause me to... Breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to a year of potentially-competent football.
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, Western's offense is good, and Michigan's offense is an unknown trending towards good. One team will probably put up decent numbers in order to win.
Offensive shootouts, of course, are typically decided by a couple key plays on defense. Be it a moment of general freshmanity for Forcier or Robinson, or a big sack by Brandon Graham to change field position, one mistake by either offense could decide this one. Considering Michigan's better overall talent level, it should be the Wolverines coming through with a big play.
Offensively, Michigan is still an unknown, mostly because of projected improvement at some positions (offensive line) and youth at another (quarterback). If Brandon Minor was fully healthy, I'd feel much better about this one, as we could probably RAGE down their throats all day. Even if he plays, though, he might be limited. That means a more diverse offense is probably necessary to find any success. That, in turn, means trusting unproven quarterbacks, which generally scares the hell out of me.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Michigan executes a running play longer than 58 yards, their long last year. (It was Threet's gallop against Wisconsin.)
- Tate frustrates the hell out of fans at least once, but excites them more times than that.
- Hiller gets sacked at least three times.
- Michigan, 31-21. [Editor's note: put me down for 34-20.]
[Aaaaand we're out.]