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Thursday, October 06, 2005

(note the apparent W: UFR O, Th: UFR D, F: Preview schedule has been re-arranged due to technical difficulties (forgetting to record the State game). Arrangements have been made and UFR will show up on Friday. Now: preview, though I feel naked trying to do this without having watched the tape. This is how Matt Hayes feels every day, I guess.)

Run Offense vs. Minnesota

Mike Hart! Yowza!

Or maybe not so really? Not that Hart isn't the sweetness, but Michigan's persistent inability to create holes on first down or pound out third and short is disconcerting. Hart had two long runs and singlehandedly ground out an impressive regulation-closing drive but was otherwise responsible for a lot of second and eight. Michigan State's tendency to pile players in the box and aggressively fill holes limited the average Hart run of the day but also allowed him to break a career-long 45 yard run and a new career-long 64 yard run when the Spartans let him through the first line of defense.

Those two long runs appear to be the difference between Hart and his backups--the little man has the vision and cutting to burn a defense dead set on aggressively shutting off the planned avenue of attack--and that combined with the re-emergence of a competent (and maybe even good!) Chad Henne makes the offense hum to the tune of nearly 500 yards.

The hum should continue. Good Henne and the return of the man with a plan (canal, Panama) should mean that the offense continues the trend of not sucking it started against the Spartans. The opponent on Saturday has yielded over six yards a carry to its two Big Ten opponents (newly spread-option happy Purdue and Penn State), neither of whom feature a back as good as Hart. As a result Minnesota is 85th in the country against the run despite playing Tulsa, Colorado State, and Florida Atlantic. They are ripe for the picking.

However, it's time to deal with the harsh truth: our offensive line can't run block consistently. Hart will make a lot of yards on his own, but too often he'll be turning zero into three instead of three into eight. Expect the running game to disappoint relative to Minnesota's previous impression of roadkill.

Key Matchup: Mike Hart versus The Hamstring of Woe. Yes, he is just that damn good, as they say, and if he remains healthy he should have another good day that would be better if he only had some blocking.

Pass Offense vs. Minnesota

Chad Henne stopped channeling the spirit of Hellen Keller for a game, though the Spartan defensive backs undoubtedly had something to do with the light that suddenly flooded the young man's eyes. The good news is that Minnesota, fresh off giving up 44 points to a Penn State team that regards such a number as a decent season total, takes a decidedly Spartan approach to pass defense: it prefers not to have one. Though their numbers to date are quite good (27th efficiency), they haven't played a team that has a quarterback half as good as the version of Henne we saw against MSU.

I have discovered the secret to not sucking at football!
Whether or not Henne's improved performance was due to the magical powers of Mike Hart redirecting his throws, a mechanical adjustment to his throwing motion, or having Terry Malone on the sideline saying things like "throw it at the guy! The guy with the open and the running and the hands, ng-hey," 25 for 36, 258 yards, and three touchdowns is pretty good. Yes, the coverage was virtually nonexistent all day long, but that was also the case against Wisconsin and Henne did not take advantage. Michigan State was a step forward.

Henne should take another against a Gopher secondary that was looking creaky to start the year and is now absent both starting strong safetyBrandon Owens--plowed by Michael Robinson against Penn State--and his backup. A true freshman will likely replace Owens. That sound you hear is likely the licking of chops. Michigan will continue to run the "long handoff" play where Henne steps back and immediately fires a ball out to whichever receiver happens to have a ten-yard cushion on a particular play, since I doubt any of the Gopher defensive backs are relishing the prospect of pressing Mario Manningham, but given the struggles the run game has undergone Henne's continued accuracy on the underneath routes Michigan will be running with frequency on third and five is critical. The opportunity for another 60-70% completion day will be there. Execution must occur.

Key Matchup: Chad Henne versus His Evil Twin II: Return To Splash Mountain. Michigan has played five games so far and in each game they have had receivers open time and again. Minnesota does not have the defensive backfield or pass rush ability to prevent this from happening again. Henne's accuracy returned to him against Michigan State. It has to settle in and get comfortable against Minnesota.

Run Defense Vs Minnesota

This section was going to be filled with accolades and a deep respect for the monstrous Gopher ground machine, but before that little encomium can proceed someone is going to have to explain 16 carries for 48 yards for one Erstwhile Heisman Candidate Laurence Maroney. Is it possible that the Big Ten has begun to figure out the Gopher ground attack? Maroney ran wild in the first half against the Boilers but was held largely in check in the second half save for a couple runs. He went nowhere against Penn State. Last year outside of a Mundy/Shazor "here's an 80 yard touchdown" gift the Gophers racked up just over 100 yards on 38 carries. The end could be near.

The Gophers run a scheme very similar to that of the Denver Broncos and their plug-whoever-in-and-go approach with light, athletic linemen who are suited to pulling across the formation and plugging linebackers in space. Greg Eslinger, Minnesota's perennial All-American center, is the rare man at his position who can pull effectively and lead the way for his tailback on sweeps. His ability to lead the play often means that defenders are outnumbered at the point of attack and Maroney is free to run. Speed, agility, and disengaging from your blocks are at a premium against the Gophers instead of brute force. The contributions of the defensive tackles are minimized and a premium is put on the ability of defensive ends to penetrate into the backfield and slow the play enough for the linebackers to converge.

Fortunately, Michigan has two defensive ends who plain kick it at this sort of thing in Lamarr Woodley and 330-pound Alan Branch. Woodley's been effective all year in run support and Branch is going to be a star by the end of the year. Both are complete players capable of holding up at the point of attack and potentially pushing it back on a semi-regular basis. If they can win the battle with the very good Gopher OTs, Maroney will have his moments--I wouldn't expect 48 yards--but won't be able to grind out five and eight yards on a consistent enough basis to really light up the Wolverine defense. Michigan returns the core of the defensive line that largely shut the Gophers down last year plus a much-improved Alan Branch. Michigan should be able to keep Maroney contained, which should be enough to win.

Key Matchup: DEs Lamarr Woodley and Alan Branch versus Gopher OTs Joe Ainsile and Tony Brinkhaus. The key to stopping the Gopher run attack is getting penetration on the edges. Woodley and Branch have to stay upright and dangerous.

Pass Defense vs. Minnesota

Brian Cupito is much the same quarterback he was last year when he was sporadically effective, excellent throwing deep, and tended to toss 2-3 balls a game into sextuple zone coverage. Michigan's secondary has been a pleasant surprise but is certainly not all world. Minnesota's passing game is so intertwined with play action that you may as well just repeat the previous section here. If Maroney is running effectively and the safeties have to creep up into the box, Cupito will have the opportunity to hit his fast and large wide receivers deep. If Maroney is running effectively and the linebackers are forced to bite heavily on play action, tight end Matt Spaeth will be all alone on a sea of green with regularity. If Michigan knows when Minnesota is going to pass they're dead meat. The Gopher passing game is only effective in the context of its running game.

So, expect Cupito to complete a share of 20-yard daggers to unbelievably wide open guys downfield because of the respect that Maroney commands. When Michigan guesses right, though, Cupito will be hard pressed to figure out where he's going with the ball before Woodley and company are upon him.

Key Matchup: QB Brian Cupito versus DC Jim Herrmann. Herrmann's going to have to guess right on play action and use various zones to confuse the confusable Cupito. He'll throw a couple into coverage if Herrmann is doing his job.

Special Teams

Neither team has shown any tendency towards breaking long returns on a regular basis. One item of note is that Rhys Lloyd replacement Jason Gianni seems competent, having hit 7 of 9 field goals in his nascent career.

Key Matchup: Michigan Punt Coverage versus Please Don't Screw This Up.


The kitten god Gorgoroth is powerful but, like full frontal nudity in children's television, is best used sparingly so that when he is invoked he/she/it will not complain of a headache and fail to viciously smite the fetid opponents of our warrior-poets players. He/she/it will not be invoked this week, lest his/her/its power wane.

Cheap Thrills

Worry if...
  • We get outnumbered outside and Maroney starts off like he did against Purdue.
  • Henne's inaccuracy returns.
  • Our offensive line can't push around a Minnesota defense that yielded six kajillion rushing yards to Penn State's unhurculean offense.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
  • Hart exists.
  • Minnesota ends up in a lot of third and six-plus early on.
  • The Gopher cornerbacks appear as petrified of our receivers as the Spartans were.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 4 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for Maroney Is Good, -2 for 6 YPC Yielded(!), +1 for Despite The Independence of These Trials They're Still Due, -1 for Henne's Back, +1 for But Is He?, -1 for Well I Can Tell You That Mike Hart Is Goddamn Back, That's For Sure.)

Desperate need to win level: 8 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for We're Back In This Now, +2 for No Margin Of Error, +1 for The Jug, -1 for Dreams Already Dashed)

Loss will cause me to... shudder at the prospect of playing spoiler to Penn State; start scouting the sixth place Big Twelve and Pac10 teams for a potential Bowl match up in beautiful Chernobyl, Russia.

Win will cause me to... open up a table at the nearest gun & knife show to get rid of all this weaponry I probably won't be needing.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict: What to do? I pick a Michigan win, they lose. I pick a Michigan loss, they win. This is what I think: this is Woodley, Watson, and Branch's game. Minnesota will attack the outside consistently but Maroney, despite being awesome, isn't the kind of back who can suck our guys inside and break contain like Walker or Calhoun. If we jam up the intended lanes of attack he will go relatively meekly aside from three or four plays when he scares you to death. Cupito will make a number of good throws but also screw up consistently enough so that Michigan doesn't have to worry extensively about him. Minnesota's offense will score from 14 to 24 points.

Offensively Michigan should have their way with the Gophers much like they did last year when they racked up 518 yards but they have to avoid the killer mistakes that end long drives with no points which plagued them in the 2004 game and cost them the Notre Dame and Wisconsin games this year. Michigan should clear 30.

However, I am officially predicting that somehow Minnesota scores an extra 3,000 points, probably via lasers, and wins this in crushing fashion.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
  • Henne is back for real.
  • Maroney gets 123 yards.
  • 3,017-30, Minnesota.