Preview: Wisconsin Comment Count

Brian September 26th, 2008 at 2:09 PM


Run Offense vs. Wisconsin

It took all of three games for the M-Den to start selling Sam McGuffie jerseys, and the off week has allowed Carlos Brown and Michael Shaw to get healthy. Could… maybe… good happen?

Against Notre Dame, Michigan alternated gashing runs with stuffed plays that were often mental errors on the part of various blockers. Notre Dame then ran out and ceded 200-some yards to Javon Ringer, but 63 of those were on a long carry late when Notre Dame was playing aggressively in the faint hope of getting the ball back on a three-and-out. Before that they had contained Ringer pretty well. They might not be completely atrocious on defense.

Wisconsin, however, is an entirely different ball of wax. This clip from the recently-posted Wisconsin scouting report is worrisome:

#91 [DT Jason Chapman] and #92 [DE Matt Shaughnessy] are their best players on defense.  They are extremely quick off the ball and were very good at disrupting Fresno's zone running play.  91 is DT and just blew by people several times.  He was also offsides two or three times, so I think we will get some easy 5 yard gains here and there.  But Molk has got to be quick end get off the ball with power this week.  This guy cannot spend the afternoon in Michigan's backfield or we will not be able to run the ball.

Michigan spent much of the ND game effectively doubling whichever DT was lined up to the playside, getting enough depth on their push to wash out pursuing linebackers. With Chapman appearing to be more of a penetrating, risk-taker sort there could be an enormous amount of variance in the effectiveness of run plays: when he loses his gamble he could run himself right out of the play or end up pancaked downfield; when he wins McGuffie is going to have to deal with a guy in his face far too often. Bruce Ciskie, meanwhile, is extremely concerned about Wisconsin's linebackers and their angles of pursuit. There appears to be some chance Michigan's run game functions decently.

However, I'm not super enthusiastic about that chance. In 2006—the year that Michigan's zone left was at maximum effectiveness—Wisconsin slashed into the Michigan backfield time and again and it was only the ineffable brilliance of Mike Hart that prevented a dozen TFLs. That was the same defensive philosophy and even some of the same players—Chapman and Shaughnessy have been around forever—Michigan will face tomorrow. Here's the UFR from that year:

Michigan spent around half of its first downs running into eight guys and another chunk running into seven from a three-wide set, which is functionally equivalent. Fully 20(!) of Michigan's 26 plays on first down were runs*, which is a big flashing sign that says "BAD OLD DAYS" to me. A big reason that Hart's YPC average to date is somewhat disappointing is his frequent deployment into obvious rush defenses. He's still doing his thing, but a combination of bad blocking and predictable playcalling means he's dodging tacklers at or before the line of scrimmage instead of three yards downfield.

The end result was a lot of plays where Hart turned something that should have been zero yards into four.

Can McGuffie do that? I don't know. I think he's much less likely to burrow forward for positive yards in bad situations and that Michigan will be facing a lot of long-yardage situations if he's dodging guys before he gets to the LOS.

This will be an interesting test for all sorts of Michigan-affiliated players: McGuffie and Shaw and various linemen going up against a tough Big Ten defense and Rodriguez and Magee, given a bye week with which to implement some counters, traps, and other plays that hope to play off of Wisconsin's tendency to aggression.

Key Matchup: I'm a broken record here, but: the interior line against Wisconsin's DTs. Michigan won this battle handily against Notre Dame and now takes up a more formidable foe.

Pass Offense vs. Wisconsin

Steven Threet's radical maturation into an honest to God quarterback gives Michigan hope for the future and a fighting chance going into Big Ten season. He's a freshman, though, and the rest of the year figures to be something of a roller-coaster.

Against Notre Dame, Darryl Stonum, Greg Mathews, and Martavious Odoms were the main options. Odoms got open consistently on wheel routes; Mathews dug out a number of tough balls and almost hauled in a spectacular touchdown; Stonum was the beneficiary of some attention paid to Odoms. All three seem like potential playmakers, and then there's the somewhat injured Junior Hemingway. There appears to be a lot of available talent in the WR corps if Threet can maintain his level of performance.

As far as Wisconsin goes: Michigan fans will be familiar with Detroiter Allen Langford, who's been decided average in his career to date. He is a senior with multiple years of starting under his belt, though, and will probably be at least all right. His bookend is not Jack Ikegwuonu by some other guy named Mario Goins. I don't think anyone really knows much about him yet, including Wisconsin.

Wisconsin year to date:

Team Cmp/Att Yards YPA TD-Int
Akron 22/37 227 6.1 2-0
Marshall 24/45 239 5.3 0-3
Fresno State 15/27 225 8.3 1-1

That's one okay performance, one great one, and one kinda-dodgy one. I think there's more raw ability in the Michigan skill players than there is in the Wisconsin secondary and if they run the right routes and Threet gets them the ball they can have some success. Wisconsin's pass rush hasn't been great and Michigan's pass blocking has been surprisingly good.

Also: with Wisconsin sticking to base sets most of the time, there should be some opportunity for Martavious Odoms to get loose on the perimeter.

Key Matchup: Odoms versus linebackers. Michigan has to make Wisconsin pay if they're going to stick in their base sets.

Run Defense vs. Wisconsin

Two weeks ago I wrote this in the Notre Dame preview:

The run defense is not as good as you might think it is, as the avalanche of sacks the team has unleashed distorts those numbers considerably. Miami’s lead back averaged 3.7 yards a carry and Utah’s main two guys combined for 94 yards on 21 carries, 4.5 per. That’s slightly harsh because both teams occasionally used their quarterbacks as runners and got stuffed doing it, but the point stands: this is not the country’s fourth-best rushing defense.

It's not like Michigan's rushing defense was a disaster against ND, but it wasn't exactly inspiring; Michigan performed on a par with SDSU and considerably worse than Michigan State. Time and again Johnny Thompson lost his battle with the fullback.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin is Wisconsin, the ultimate beef machine. Their linemen: large. Their tailbacks: large. Their fullback: large and actually named "Rentmeester." Their intent: to run straight. Their success so far:

Opponent Rushes Yards YPC
Akron 63 404 6.4
Marshall 40 160 4.0
Fresno State 39 154 3.9

Hey… that doesn't seem so imposing, especially when you consider there are no sacks in those numbers. Okay, so they smoked Akron but we're talking about Akron here, and if Michigan holds Wisconsin to 150-some yards on the ground they probably aren't racking up a million billion points against Warren and Trent and company. Well. Maybe they aren't.

I just don't see it, though. Notre Dame is not good at the smashmouth thing and did all right. Wisconsin is and projects to do better than all right. I'd be happy if Michigan turned in numbers comparable with Fresno State above.

Key Matchup: Ezeh and Thompson against the fullback. I bet Wisconsin follows the same tack Notre Dame does, doubling the hell out of the DTs and relying on the LBs to mess it up.

Pass Defense vs. Wisconsin

Allen Evridge tore it up against Marshall, completing 17 of 26 for a whopping 308 yards—11.8 YPA(!). Against Akron he was mostly a spectator (ten attempts) and against Fresno State he was thoroughly meh: 12 of 24 for 143 yards.

Of course, a hefty chunk of whatever struggles Evridge is having are due to the absence of all-universe tight end Travis Beckum. Beckum should be ready to terrorize Michigan linebackers on Saturday. In his absence Wisconsin's leading receiver is the other tight end (Garrett Graham), and their second-leading receiver is the other other tight end (Lance Kendricks), which kind of wraps up Wisconsin's offensive philosophy in a neat little bow.

The outside wideouts are Kyle Jefferson, a slow-ish guy but a rangy leaper dangerous on downfield jump balls, and little speedster David Gilreath. They have a total of eleven catches between them so far. No offense to either of those guys, but I don't think either is much of a worry.

Michigan's pass defense has been pretty good outside of the pair of HOLY GOD WHAT ARE YOU DOING errors the safeties turn in every game. Against Miami, Michigan got away with it. Against Utah and Notre Dame, not so much. Morgan Trent isn't great but he's solid. Donovan Warren is verging on avoid-at-all-costs territory, IMO.

The pass rush got shut out against Notre Dame largely because of some crazy max-protect sets and a big lead that allowed Notre Dame to forgo risk for the rest of the game; before that Michigan's defensive line had been murdering guys. They'll probably get back to that against Wisconsin's relatively lumbering line.

The big concern here is play action that fools the linebackers or safeties (or the linebackers and safeties) and gets tight ends wide open over the middle or one of the outside guys open deep. This should be a major advantage for Michigan if Wisconsin ends up in a long-yardage situation.

Key Matchup: Ezeh and Thompson and Mouton versus the tight end and the other tight end and the other other tight end, especially on play action. Also Brown. I expect a lot of robber zones from Michigan in an attempt to close down the inevitable gaps that will open up between the linebackers, who I guarantee will get sucked up on play action, and the safeties. This is tight end playground.

Special Teams

Wisconsin's kicker is pretty good, 4/5 on the year with his miss coming from beyond 50 yards.

Meanwhile, KC Lopata has been pretty good so far and Zoltan the Inconceivable has been excellent. Michigan's punting has been a huge net positive. Returns have been complete disaster; expect a rotation of punt and kick returners until they find someone who can run forward with the ball.

Key Matchup: Michigan returners versus HOLY GOD JUST CATCH THE BALL.


noplacelikehomegarfield minus garfield 

Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • Chapman slashes up into McGuffie right from the start.
  • We don't see some improvement from the linebackers when they take on Wisconsin's fullbacks.
  • Evil Threet returns.

Cackle with knowing glee if...

  • Michigan busts out aggression-killing misdirection early and often.
  • Success with Odoms forces Wisconsin to go to a nickel.
  • Michigan feels it can play really aggressive with the safeties and gets away with it.

Fear/Paranoia Level: 8 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for We Are Unprepared To Stop The Beef Machine, +1 for This Is Probably A Much Better Team Than We've Faced So Far, –1 for But We've Got A Quarterback!, +1 for But What Are The Chances He Doesn't Screw Up?, +1 for I Hate These Matchups ).

Desperate need to win level: 7 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for The California Raisin Bowl Is Slipping Away, +1 for 1-3 Would Not Be Particularly Fun, –1 for But 2-2 Wouldn't Be That Much Funner, +1 for If We Win We Can Woo Rose Bowl Hope For Like A Week)

Loss will cause me to... cancel those hotel reservations in downtown Detroit.

Win will cause me to... woooooo Rose Bowl baby!

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

I don't think this is a good matchup for Michigan after watching Johnny Thompson get smoked by ND's fullback time and again. Wisconsin will have some success on the ground, suck up Michigan defenders, and then hit a long ball or three to Beckum or one of the outside guys; the rest of their yards they'll grind out on the ground. They'll probably get to the mid-to-high twenties.

Michigan, meanwhile, will probably get a reality check after the offense looked shockingly effective against Notre Dame. This is the kind of team that can make Michigan's patchwork offensive line look patchwork, and while I expect the offense won't revert to the ugly ways of the first couple games neither will it move up and down the field as smoothly as it did versus ND. A big play or two, one or two effective drives, and

This game isn't completely out of the question for Michigan as long as what we saw two weeks ago wasn't a mirage, but I think they have get one more big break than Wisconsin to win.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:

  • Threet throws at least one ugly interception.
  • The defensive line returns to its rampant ways in the pass rush.
  • Wisconsin, 24-17.



September 26th, 2008 at 2:30 PM ^

Michigan has got to have something(s) special for Beckham. Last season I nearly put my head thru the wall when Michigan, being Michigan, started out trying cover Beckham with just a LB and got in an unrecoverable-from hole. At half, they had a new plan--too late. He's the only passing threat. Treat him as such until Wisconsin proves otherwise.

In other news, my eyes are so tired from editing this horrific scientific document that I misread spectator as spectacular but more importantly I substituted maturation with masturbation. Horray! And congratulations go out to Steven Threet for his 'radical masturbation' (?)!


September 26th, 2008 at 2:38 PM ^

i will say that if Wisconsin thinks it has to defend our base 3 WR sets with 4-3, then we'll be getting a leg up.  being able to go with quick slants and screens early that are low risk and high variance could give us a break we need.  if Wisconsin's in Nickel and says "beat us on the ground" i'll be worried, because our OL (while seemingly good sometimes) is, as you say, patchwork.  give me 30-21 Wisconsin.


September 26th, 2008 at 3:08 PM ^

How completely, wonderfully counterintuitive. Has any team, ever in the history of maize or blue, ever defended pass first against Michigan? My head is spinning. Can you imagine a defense saying to DeBord "beat us running because you assuredly ain't gonna do it passing"? Would he have said 'don't mind if I do!' or been 'forced' to call 56 str8 passes? 


September 26th, 2008 at 3:12 PM ^

Bielema instructs his DL to hit Ortmann in the elbow at every opportunity until he is forced to leave the game. Ferrara comes in.

Michigan can't run on WI unless/until Threet makes them pay with pass completions at least 10-15 yards downfield. Michigan should throw first and let that try to open up the run.

Have Brown shadow Beckum/TE. That should be virtually his only assignment. Bring Harrison down for run support - he's really good at slashing through seams and getting to the ballcarrier. Keep our CBs in man-to-man. Tell Trent and Warren if they can't cover the WRs alone then we can't win. Period.  We "should" be able to keep their running game manageable IF we can keep our front 7 plus Harrison in the box. 

U of M in TX

September 26th, 2008 at 3:24 PM ^

I am hoping that Rich Rod used the off week not only to rest some injured players, but also to come up with a gameplan to beat Wisky.  This would be a nice change of pace to the "Avalance" offensive mentality.  From what I can tell from Rich Rod's previous experience is that we will have a gameplan, that when executed properly, will give us a great chance at winning the football game.  Lets hope we can get the execute part of it done and stay away from the footballs with Crisco on them.


September 26th, 2008 at 4:41 PM ^

Under Bo, Mo, and Lloyd the odds of seeing new wrinkles in a big game from either side of the ball were pretty tiny. RR's reputation being what it is, I'd bet alot of fans are hoping and expecting something different on offense against Wisky, but given the youth of the team I don't know how reasonable that is. My concern is with the defense anyhow; it really didn't do much to keep us in the game against Utah and ND. Sure, the turnovers put the D in bad field position a bunch of times, but a strong defense has to stop somebody in critical situations regardless of field position. I think we're going to upset a ranked and favored team at least once this year, but this game might be too early. W 34 M 16


September 26th, 2008 at 5:27 PM ^

I don't like this analysis becuase it assumes that we should be playing Wisconsin's game.  But that is precisely what RR should not do and will not do IMO.  If Wisconsin can get their big, slow DLs past our patchwork OL, run McGuffie and Shaw to the outside so they can use their speed.  Hit as many screens as possible to take advantage of our outside slot recievers.  Just bring everything to the outside.  That's what the spread is all about.  

Defensively, pack 5 guys up front to stop the run.  Have 2 guys watch their TE and single cover their slow recievers.  Blitz more often.  Just disrupt them and they'll stall.  They're not an explosive offense.  We have the playmakers to do this.  This doesn't have to go past the DL/DE positions.  

I am a lot more optimistic about this game.  I think the entire point of RR is to not match traditional Big Ten style play but rather to change it with the spread.  If their guys are stronger, use guys that are FASTER.  That's the entire point of the spread.  Put it this way, when Michigan's offense is out there, who will have the faster playmakers.  They will all be on Michigan's side of the ball.  I have confidence this advantage will be expolited.   


September 26th, 2008 at 5:41 PM ^

I want to believe this, but I don't think I can just yet. I think Brian made a great point when he said that we'll need to get at least one more break than Wisconsin does to win this game. We just don't have the experience to use the spread the way we're supposed to yet.

Once the system is installed and we've worked out the kinks, I think that's exactly how it's supposed to work.