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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Run Offense vs. Nebraska

Both teams enter the game at less than full strength. Mike Hart's high ankle sprain is likely to linger into the Alamo Bowl, limiting his effectiveness. He will probably go but will lack his essential Hart-ness. Kevin Grady and Jerome Jackson will probably see significant playing time. Starting LG Leo Henige is out; starting C Adam Kraus is questionable. On the other side of the ball, starting NU WLB Bo Ruud broke a bone in his arm and will miss the game. Backup defensive end Wali Muhammad is suspended for violating team rules. Both players will be missed; Ruud was Nebraska's second leading tackler and Muhammad was used frequently. Together they combined for 22 TFL.

It's unlikely that Michigan's line magically assembles itself into an overpowering unit over the span of a few weeks, especially with Jake Long limping around. He will play but he won't be 100% until next fall. Michigan's running game has progressed in fits and starts, playing well below expectations save for an shockingly effective outing against Penn State. Outside of that, the interior of the offensive line has been doing their best Al Montoya impression all year. Michigan will try to get to the edges and exploit Ruud's inexperienced replacement--Grady's favorite play is the pitch--but pulling Matt Lentz has been an exercise in futility so far this year and Kraus is either going to be watching or hobbling. The prognosis is dim.

Key Matchup: RBs Kevin Grady and Jerome Jackson versus NU's linebackers. The should be able to break a few tackles. They'll have to.

Pass Offense vs. Nebraska

The statistical strength of this team (aside from net punting) is the Nebraska pass defense, 12th nationally in efficiency terms. Unfortunately for the Huskers, that number appears to be a total mirage. Check the passing efficiency ratings of these opponents:
  • Wake Forest: 85th
  • Pitt: 59th
  • Baylor: 87th
  • Missouri: 83rd
  • Oklahoma: 93rd
  • Kansas: 110th
  • Kansas State: 73rd
  • Colorado: 68th
The two NU opponents that managed to finish in the top half of DI-A were Iowa State and Texas Tech. Against ISU the Huskers ceded 317 yards on 41 attempts; against Texas Tech it was 368 on 45. Thees ees not so good. What is good is the sack count: 46. With Leo Henige and Mike Kolodziej out and Adam Kraus questionable, Michigan may find itself under seige... again.

Michigan finished an uninspiring 51st in pass efficiency, but that was due in large part to Chad Henne's tendency to rifle balls to imaginary 11-foot-tall receivers, a problem that may be fixed. In his last two outings Henne's accuracy has improved radically. Granted, one of those games was against Indiana, but Henne was extremely good against an Ohio State defense that is among the nation's best. Insert a standard disclaimer about consistency and the grating lack of it here. Aside from Henne, the Michigan wide receivers are a very good group headlined by sticky-fingered Jason Avant. The only red flag is the offensive line. Again. Henne has been effective when given time to throw but erratic-to-horrifying when pressured.

Key Matchup: The interior offensive line versus NU blitzers. Leo Henige's valiant but ultimately subpar performance is replaced by human yo-yo Rueben Riley, who should be at least adequate. The tackles should do a good job holding off the defensive ends; if Henne is provided ample time he will have open receivers.

Run Defense Vs Nebraska

Cory Ross is Nebraska's leading rusher and projected starter. Ross is a tiny (5'6") waterbug type who had success when given room to operate against bad run defenses like Pitt and Wake Forest, but struggled against Kansas, OU, Colorado, Iowa State... etc, etc. Ross is averaging just under 4 YPC, but only rushed for just over 400 yards in eight Big Twelve games. Is this Nebraska? Apparently.

Gone are the days when the Nebraska ground machine threshed opponents from sea to shining sea en route to national championships, and how: the Cornhuskers are 110th in rushing yards. The mind boggles. This is not due to a Texas-Techian total run aversion offense,--the Huskers tried to run over 380 times this season but netted only 2.61 yards a carry--nor is this due to a slate of rough-and-tumble opponents. Nebraska is in the cotton-candy Big Twelve North, missed Texas this year, and faced a weak slappy-fighter's row of nonconference opponents in I-AA Maine, 4-7 Wake Forest, and national punchline Pitt. You can leave your trembling pants at home.

Michigan is not exactly Ohio State in the rush defense department, however, finishing the year a thoroughly meh 43rd nationally. Undoubtedly you've heard this before: Massey, weak tackling secondary, outside linebackers who think outside the box but run inside of it, etc, etc. Michigan is fighting with an arm tied behind its back, split evenly between good players (Watson, Woodley, Branch, Harris, half of Burgess) and bad (Massey, Graham, the other half of Burgess). But in the land of the legless the one-armed man is king. Or something.

Key Matchup: Prescott Burgess versus Prescott Burgess; John Thompson versus Did Herrmann Watch The Iowa Game? ASSEMBLE YOUR OWN "RUN GAME KEY MATCHUP WITH THE FOLLOWING WORDS: "bounce contain OLB gash aaargh aaargh aargh."

Pass Defense vs. Nebraska

Nebraska QB Zac Taylor has been totally average so far: 56% completion rate, 16 touchdowns, 10 interceptions. He finished strong against CU, going 27 of 43 for 392 yards, but Colorado was going into turtle mode something fierce. They were vivisected brutally by Texas in their next game. He'll probably be operating in a lot of obvious passing downs after the run game fails to achieve, allowing the Michigan line to tee off on him and the defensive backs to tackle after seven-yard outs. Expect a lot of easy completions and a number of unforced errors.

Michigan actually finished the year with a pretty good pass defense--35th in efficiency--by sitting back and letting their opponents screw up until they really needed a killer fourth quarter drive. Lamarr Woodley, Pierre Woods, and Alan Branch got pressure consistently enough to disrupt most long drives and the three-deep zone prevented anyone from completing a bomb all year. This came at the expense of actually having someone within four yards of most short-to-medium routes. I doubt anything will actually change.

Key Matchup: Woodley, Branch, and Crable versus the NU OL. Nebraska yielded 33 sacks this year so there is definitely an opportunity for our line to disrupt their passing game, unlike our zone.

Special Teams

Nebraska's #2 in net punting! Yow! Punter Sam Koch has been murdering the ball, averaging 45.9 yards a kick. Only about 30% of his punts were returned. Steve Breaston not receive many opportunities to break a punt. He should get some kick return attempts. Almost all of NU's kickoffs are returned, though not very far (16.5 yards).

Kicker Jordan Congdon is 18-22, but it's an unimpressive 18-22. Oddly, three of his misses have come from within 20 yards. His season long is 41 yards. Sounds like Rivas: generally reliable on short kicks but a bit light in the leg.

Key Matchup: Um... like, don't screw up. Should be a push unless Breaston manages to crack one.


Kittens don't come out for double-digit spreads.

Cheap Thrills

Three Things I'd Like To See:
  • The continued emergence of Good Chad Henne.
  • Goddamned man-to-man coverage.
  • Rueben Riley looking capable for next year.
Three Things I Don't Want To See
  • A game close enough to lose in the fourth quarter.
  • The Aargh Zone.
  • Jason Avant's last game.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 3 out of 10. (Baseline 5; -1 for a Review Of The Record Indicates A Stunning Lack of Accomplishment, +1 for I Hope The Team is More Fired Up Than The Fans, -1 for I Can't Believe You Did That With Your Crappy Schedule, -1 for I Remember That Pitt Game Despite My Attempts To Forget It.)

Desperate need to win level: 7 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for 8-4 Does Look Much Better Than 7-5; +1 for OMG 1997 Decided On The Field)

Loss will cause me to... seriously consider the possibility that Bill Callahan is a better coach than Lloyd Carr.

Win will cause me to... camp out in front of Chad Henne's house with a playbook and a stern, let's-not-blow-next-year look in my face.

Sir! It's the Big 12 North... she's gone from suck to blow!
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict: I'm taken aback by what seems to be a flood of predictions that have Michigan winning by some ridiculous score like 38-13. That won't happen. The Nebraska defensive line has a distinct advantage against the porous, banged-up Michigan offensive line. Mike Hart is not going to be right. The defense has too many holes and coaching that's too conservative to pressure the Cornhuskers into mistakes. Michigan isn't going to cover a 13 point spread, let alone double it.

That said: Nebraska has been unimpressive against a wide array of teams that have ranged from suck to blow; they can't run on confused monkeys; their QB completes 56 percent of his passes; they're coached by Bill Callahan. This is a case of two teams with identical records but divergent schedules. Michigan has been enduring a Bataan Death March at half capacity whilst Nebraska has been stumbling drunkenly through a field of poppies, making throat-slash gestures at random magic goats. Michigan isn't good. But Nebraska is bad.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
  • Jerome Jackson is your leading rusher.
  • The zone continues in the face of all that is right and good in the world.
  • 27-17, Michigan.