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Friday, September 23, 2005

Run Offense vs. Wisconsin

Michigan will probably run early and hope to have enough success to turn that "early" into "early and often." The statistics imply that this is suicidal, but they're extremely flattering to a UW front seven that will be getting its stiffest test of the year in this game. Wisconsin's yielding under 40 yards a game, but that's due in large part to Omar Jacobs being busy throwing for 458 yards and Temple being Temple. To their credit, the Badgers did shut down a UNC team that had a middling ground game in the ACC last year. Michigan's ground game has methodically crushed its MAC opponents--think Star Wars trash compactor scene--but was only okay against Notre Dame. Michigan gained over 4 YPC but that was greatly aided by a 30 yard reverse.

Injury woes have beset both teams. Michigan is down its best running back, tight end, and tackle; Wisconsin has lost a starting defensive tackle and its best defensive end, Jamal Cooper. This appears to be advantage Michigan, as the Wolverines have capable replacments in Max Martin, Kevin Grady, Tyler Ecker, and (hopefully) Mike Kolodziej while the Badgers are scrambling on the defensive line. A 225-pound true freshman steps into the starting lineup with Cooper out and the coaches may actually play OT Joe Thomas at DE if the need arises.

Expect to see Max Martin start; the uncertainty and youth at defensive end combined with budding star Nick Hayden at DT means that outside appears to be the place to go and the high-stepping, slashing Martin is the back to go there. Kevin Grady and Jerome Jackson will rotate in, sooner rather than later if the sweeps and stretch plays aren't working against the Badger D.

Key Matchup: TE Tyler Ecker and FB Brian Thompson versus Badger OLBs Dontez Sanders and Andy Crooks. If Ecker and Thompson can seal the somewhat undersized Badger linebackers they should have the edge when they want it, but neither has proven themselves to be a Dudley-level blocker.

Pass Offense vs. Wisconsin

If things had gone to plan against Notre Dame, this would be a glaring mismatch and evil cackling would substitute for serious analysis in this section. Wisconsin was absolutely torched by Jacobs for those 458 yards and 5 touchdowns and didn't do much better against North Carolina, ceding 281 yards and escaping a 300 or 350 yard day only because of several untimely drops by the Tarheel receivers. Cooper's loss is a big blow here as well as he was clearly the team's best pass rusher at this point in the season. Wisconsin starts a true freshman opposite senior Brett Bell, has lost the quietly spectacular safety play of Jim Leonhard, and has no surefire pass-rusher without Erasmus James and Cooper. They're vulnerable.

However--and unfortunately for small children in my immediate vicinity--the Notre Dame game did not go as planned. Chad Henne was pressured repeatedly by Irish blitzers. Late in the first half he got rattled and early in the second he threw the game in to the waiting hands of Tom Zibikowski as Michigan went down to dismal defeat. Presumptive deep threat Steve Breaston is the functional equivalent of Featherstone from Unnecessary Roughness at this point. Ruben Riley has definitively proven that as a tackle, he makes a fantastic guard.

So I won't say something as potentially stupid as "the real question here is how brutally Henne dissects the Notre Dame secondary," but I will tentatively assert that Michigan should be able to throw effectively against the Badgers as long as Henne keeps his cool and his line keeps his jersey relatively clean. Someone needs to step up opposite Avant this week--whoever the second WR is will be opposing a true freshman who's been annihilated so far this year. There's no time like the present.

Key Matchup: Mike Kolodziej versus Mysterious Tingly Illness. Michigan needs Kolodziej to return and keep the pressure off of Henne, who performs worlds better when he has faith in his pass blocking. Riley had trouble against Eastern Michigan. Whoever gets thrown out there in place of Cooper is probably at least that guy's equal.

Run Defense Vs Wisconsin

Falcon defense feels like a kitten!
Brian Calhoun's early season romp through the dandelion fields of Bowling Green and Temple is meaningless--those two teams may have the worst run defenses in I-A--but his performance against North Carolina is another matter entirely. 171 yards against any half-decent BCS team in your first game against a real defense is something to take note of, and take note we the watchers of the Big Ten have. Calhoun repeatedly darted through holes that didn't seem to be there, hitting the Tarheel secondary with authorita. In general he looks like a slightly bigger version of Anthony Davis with one major difference: he has a tendency to wear helmets and pads instead of street clothes when the game rolls around. He's good.

That combined with Michigan's struggles against similarly darting backs Garrett Wolfe and Darius Walker have led many to regard this game ominously, but I think the run defense is coming around. Walker ripped off a lot of his longer runs in a three wide set which Michigan chose to oppose with six guys in the box--there's small chance of a similar formation drawing a similar reaction given Alvarez's propensity for grunting pig-sooey ball and Stocco's general shakiness. Towards the end of the game when Notre Dame was going to run and Michigan knew it, Walker was stuffed repeatedly. David Harris is a night-and-day improvement from Scott McClintock at middle linebacker and the new starters on the outside are beginning to settle in and play solid assignment football. The run defense is going to be okay.

Calhoun will get some yards, maybe even 100 of them if Alvarez keeps feeding him the ball, but 170 is unlikely and a 200+ yard downfield romp is out of the question, especially with safeties who have shown a tendency to tackle things. Wisconsin will probably 'win' this battle, but it won't be a blowout.

Key Matchup: Gabe Watson vs. Lloyd Carr's doghouse. Watson apparently caught 90% of the flak from the first, awful game against the Huskies and has found himself playing strictly backup minutes in the last two despite the fact that he has a higher rate of making plays than starter Pat Massey and erstwhile starter Will Johnson (replaced by Alan Branch this week)... combined. If Carr continues to short his playing time because Watson is fat and happy instead of slightly less fat and mean, he's cutting off his nose to spite his face, especially given Massey's tendency to crumple at the line of scrimmage at Watson's tendency to drive his blocker three yards backwards.

Pass Defense vs. Wisconsin

I've gone on record suggesting that John Stocco is the crappiest crapperback in all of crappyland, but he's not a total incompetent and can hurt Michigan if they get caught expecting run when Wisconsin passes. Brandon Williams, Jonathan Orr, and Owen Daniels are all at least competent and Williams and Daniels may actually be rather good--it's hard to tell in the Badger offense. That said, there's a lot of uncertainty on the offensive line outside of Thomas and Raiola and time the pass will probably be limited if the line performs anything like it did against North Carolina, when Stocco was repeatedly hurried by a probably-not-great UNC defensive line. Given the play of Alan Branch, Lamarr Woodley, and (fingers crossed) Tim Jamison plus a surprisingly competent Wolverine secondary, it is extremely inadvisable for the Badgers to put themselves in obvious passing situations. They will not go well for the home team.

If they're throwing on first and ten, second and five, and third and three, however, they can and will be effective, especially with play action given the fact that Michigan has to respect Calhoun's running. Owen Daniels is probably going to be a bit of a thorn given the Michigan linebackers' inexperience and that Calhoun guy. He'll be open, and if Stocco can hit him a few times Wisconsin will have something going. The threat of the run will be what opens up an effective passing game for Wisconsin. It won't be consistent enough to roll up and down the field but Stocco won't be completing 30% of his passes for 2 yards each.

Key Matchup: SLB Prescott Burgess/MLB David Harris vs. TE Owen Daniels. As mentioned above, Daniels is a threat over the middle on play action.

Special Teams

Each team has a big return against a team that doesn't really count--Brandon Williams against Temple and Steve Breaston against Eastern--and has some moderate threat in the return game plus solid but unspectacular kickers. This is a push.

Key Matchup: Michigan's Historic Special Teams Idiocy vs. My Continued Sanity. The common thread of the road opener loss thing has been OMG DISASTER special teams. If it happens again, expect this blog to abruptly change from something fairly erudite and witty into insane ranting about how football should eliminate special teams altogether and possibly tar and feather anyone who tries to block a kick.


I still don't believe in them, if you must know.

Cheap Thrills

Worry if...
  • Kolodziej does not play.
  • It looks like another day of light duty for Watson.
  • Michigan's contain problems continue to burn them--Calhoun is the kind of guy who can exploit that.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
  • Martin gets the corner a couple of times early.
  • Wisconsin can't seem to avoid second and ten.
  • Someone not named Avant starts catching some passes.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 6 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for road opener, +1 for sort-of-night game, -1 for historic lack of Barryball success v. Michigan, +1 for injuries, -1 for their injuries.)

Desperate need to win level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 break this road opener thing, +2 we can't go 2-2, +2 we can't go 2-2 going into East Lansing.)

Loss will cause me to... er. I'd stay away from the immediate vicinity of any campus belltowers.

Win will cause me to... start panicking about Drew Stanton.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict: Victory. But not an easy one.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
  • Calhoun gets 80-90 yards.
  • Ecker has another 6-7 catches.
  • 24-17.