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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

We'll take a step back from the mindless (but fun!) Buckeye bashing to actually talk about, you know, the game, and we've got an enormous assist from Tom Orr. Orr is the man behind the Michigan Monday column at the OZone and a occasional sparring partner here. He's so credible that every column he publishes gets linked on Michigan message boards across the Internet. The replies are usually along the lines of "I know he is a Buckeye and thus destined for the fiery furnance, but that's a damn good column"--an accomplishment not to be taken lightly.

We've exchanged questions and answers over the past couple days. Tom's responses are so extensive and useful that I've broken them up into two posts so you can absorb them at a more leisurely pace. What follows is (obviously) part I. Part II is tomorrow.

You've watched every Michigan game this year. What were your personal expectations going into the season? Do you think Michigan has underachieved?

Going into the year, I thought this was a pretty typical Michigan team—probably two losses somewhere along the line, but solid on both sides of the ball. I also thought that there was a chance (not a great chance, but a chance), given their schedule, that they could run the table.
OSU at home, Penn State at home, Notre Dame at home, Minnesota at home… that’s the recipe for a great year. The only glaring landmine was playing Iowa in Kinnick Stadium.
Remember, before the year the trip to Madison didn’t look particularly daunting to most people, myself included.

Going on the basis of my expectation of a two-loss season, I don’t really think it’s fair to say this team has underachieved. There are people every year who think teams are going to run the table, then get all ticked off when it doesn’t happen.

This team had some question marks, especially on defense, and I don’t think perfection is a fair standard to hold them to. That was a miscalculation by the prognosticators, not a bad season by the team.

The notion of underachieving is particularly unfair when you consider the injuries this team has suffered this year. It’s pretty remarkable when you think about it; for at least a stretch of a few games, and in some cases for the majority of the season, this team lost its star tailback (Mike Hart), arguably its best offensive lineman (Jake Long), another offensive lineman (Mike Kolodziej), its biggest offensive play-maker (Steve Breaston, who I’m convinced was about 75% all year), one of its promising wide receivers (Adrian Arrington), its best defensive lineman (LaMarr Woodley), and three safeties (Ryan Mundy, Willis Barringer, Brandent Englemon). That doesn’t even get into losing Lawrence Reid in the spring, getting about a half of a season out of Gabe Watson, and all the other dings, bangs and bumps to guys like Jeremy Van Alstyne, Chris Graham, etc.

Looking back, I think this team has been more crippled by injuries than any Michigan team since 1984. That team never really circled the wagons and finished 6-6. This team is going into the final weekend of the season with the entirely realistic possibility of playing in a BCS bowl game.
I think the idea that they’ve underachieved is probably more than a little misguided.

Obviously the offense has been a major disappointment. In my tape reviews I've singled out Henne and the interior offensive line as the major sources of the problems. Do you think that's accurate?

I think the problems for this offense all start with that line, and again, some of that has to be chalked up to losing Long for most of the year (he still hasn’t played an entire game), and losing other guys for parts of the season. When you’ve got a guy like Rueben Riley playing right tackle, you’re going to have problems running the ball and protecting the passer, and that’s what Michigan had to deal with for a bunch of weeks in the middle of the season. Riley’s probably not a bad fit in the middle of that line somewhere, but he just looked completely out-classed against some of the better defensive ends in the league.

I think to some degree, Matt Lentz has followed David Baas’ footsteps as a guy who was highly touted, but sometimes failed to live up to the hype. Kraus (at center) has been banged up and is still in his first year as a starter. Henige at the other guard position has been okay, but far from outstanding. Stenavich has been pretty good, but he’s only one guy.

Michigan’s line is an above-average Big Ten unit, but they’re not anywhere in the neighborhood of some of the dominant, road-grader lines they’ve had in the past. That makes it tougher to run the ball, which in turn makes it tougher to throw the ball.

It seems like whenever Hart gets a handoff, he either gets hit at the line or about a yard or two downfield. To his credit, he gets low and drives through guys and always falls forward, so you look at the stat sheet and he’s averaging 4.7 per rush. But he’s really earning those yards.

In the passing game, Henne’s not getting hammered by pass rushers, but it seems like he’s getting knocked down a little more this year than in the last couple seasons (I don’t know if the stats will bear that out—it’s just something that has occurred to me at times this fall).

Certainly, Henne has had his struggles. He looked dreadful against Notre Dame and dreadful again in Wisconsin. He’s clearly got some mechanical issues that they’ve supposedly been working through (arm angle, release point and stride length have all been mentioned this year), but I remain convinced that Hart’s absence has had at least something to do with Henne’s issues.

His worst games have come on days when Hart is not playing; you can chalk that up to some mental dependence on Hart or the fact that his absence allows defenses to focus more on the passing game, but I think there’s a definite link there.

I know you’re not a big believer in that “security blanket” theory, but we keep hearing how Hart is such a commanding presence in the huddle, and how guys look into his eyes and get inspired… blah, blah, blah. If there’s any truth at all to that, one would think that when he’s not there, there would be some negative effect from the loss of that presence/ those eyes… whatever.

[Indeed I don't necessarily buy a correlation between Henne's accuracy and Hart's presence but I do think that his absence has hurt the blitz pickups and allowed opponents to focus more on coverage. I just don't think when Henne throws he's subconsciously aware of Hart's absence. -ed]

Ohio State's defense has been almost entirely impregnable save for that strange 31 point outburst by Minnesota that featured 396 yards for Brian Friggin' Cupito. How the hell did that happen? Is there anything there that Michigan will be looking to exploit?

The Minnesota game was sort of a weird confluence of circumstances that added up to an ugly performance.

For one, the defense was obviously keyed primarily toward stopping the run, leaving the corners out on islands on a lot of plays. Also, Minnesota’s receivers (especially Ernie Wheelwright) are tall, and can create matchup problems on jump-balls, even against a 6-foot-1 corner like Ashton Youboty. Add in the fact that Bryan Cupito played the game of his life and you have a recipe for an offensive explosion.

I haven’t watched that tape since the week of that game, but I remember one of the times Youboty got beat, he tried to jump a quick out, and the guy gave him double-move and got deep for a big play. On at least one of the deep balls, Cupito just shot-putted one up into pretty good coverage, and the Minnesota receiver came back and made a great play (that was the one that got them down to the 1 and set up a touchdown). It wasn’t like he was constantly missing tackles or getting toasted deep on every other play.

Of course, what set that up was Minnesota’s ability to run the ball. Maroney had a long run and put up 100 yards before the half. That forced the Buckeyes to dedicate more guys to stopping that run game and left them vulnerable deep.

Certainly, Michigan will be looking to do the same this week. If they can get Hart established early, that could set up some big plays in the passing game.

Michigan State did the same thing, running the ball decently early then using the eerily-accurate Drew Stanton to get it downfield. If Henne plays the way Stanton did in that first half, there’s no way to defend it.

You can throw on this defense, but you need to be able to run the ball a little, and your quarterback needs to be pretty accurate. Stanton carved this team up because he was hitting guys on the numbers all day and getting time to throw.

Last week another pretty good quarterback, Brett Basanez, had about three good minutes, then spent much of the rest of the day running for his life, throwing into tight coverage and piling up wildly unimpressive numbers.

The defense is not consistently terrible like Michigan State’s, but if you can do certain things well, you can attack them.

It seems like Ohio State's extremely thin at corner past Youboty. Tyler Everett's a converted safety and then you guys have who exactly?

A true freshman named Malcolm Jenkins has been playing a lot this year. He didn’t play last week, and was shuffled down the depth chart this week, but if he can go, he’s a decent cover guy.
You’ll see Brandon Mitchell, who’s one of the backup safeties, on the field as the nickelback Saturday. There’s another true freshman, Jamario O’Neal, who has played on passing downs this year.

Generally, I would guess that the defense is going to try to keep its strength (the linebackers) on the field as much as possible, even if it means playing a 4-3-4 consistently against a three-wide receiver set.

You might not see much of that cornerback depth unless someone gets hurt.

Michigan's running game has been good with Hart and mediocre without him, but this week they're clashing with an entirely different animal than your Northwesterns and Indianas. Assuming Hart is fully healthy, how do you think he'll do relative to last year (around 3 YPC for 60 yards and one 40 yard screen)?

I’m not necessarily the person to ask, because I didn’t think Chris Perry was going to be able to run on the Buckeye defense two years ago. However, assuming Hart is 100% or close to it, I think he would be hard-pressed not to match or top last year’s numbers.

There is a significant question in my mind about just how rusty he’s going to be, and how healthy he is. I know he’s probably running in practice all week, but the holes he’s seeing on Wednesday are going to look a lot different from the size of the holes he’ll see Saturday (at least I sure hope they do). He’s still relatively young and has really never gotten himself into a groove at any point this season.

Still, he’s a good back. As I mentioned before, he’s going to fall forward for a few yards even if you hit him right in the hole. If this defense form-tackles all afternoon (they have shown that they know how, but occasionally forget), they could contain him, maybe even holding him to 75-100 yards.

If Hart gets more than 130 yards, Michigan almost certainly wins.

Tomorrow: more!