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Friday, September 15, 2006

Run Offense vs. Notre Dame

All this has been discussed before, but to recap...

Evidence, scanty as it is, suggests this is a major advantage for Michigan. PSU's pitiful performance on the ground against Akron was followed by Tony "Definition Of Average" Hunt going for 6.2 yards per carry against ND. Georgia Tech was moderately successful on the ground as well, though their shotgun zone reads and QB draws bear little resemblance to anything Michigan will run Saturday.

Notre Dame's linebackers are fast but undersized and inexperienced. Travis Thomas was the backup running back (and apparently still is) until spring; now he is their starting weakside linebacker. And ND fans are talking him up as a conquering hero... well, we'll find out tomorrow. One thing the zone does is provide copious opportunity for linebackers to overrun the play. Fast, undersized linebackers just get further out of position when Mike Hart cuts all the way to the backside or Henne runs out on the waggle.

Notre Dame fans have talked up their penetrating defensive linemen but the stats put the lie to them. There are two TFLs amongst all of Notre Dame's defensive linemen, one of them a sack from Victor Abiamiri. Last year, Abiamiri had 7 TFLs on running plays, Landri 5, and the entire rest of the DL 2. Sometimes the stats lie, but in my observations of ND's first two games the only man liable to shed a block was Abiamiri. Notre Dame stopped the run when they overwhelmed the point of attack with numbers and infrequently otherwise.

Meanwhile, Michigan ran, ran, and then ran some more against Vanderbilt and Central Michigan, pounding lesser foes into submission with a steady diet of Bronco-style zone running. Questions at center and right guard have been answered ably by Mark Bihl and Alex Mitchell, and though converted guard Rueben Riley has been extremely iffy in the first two games he has a history of being an able run blocker. Mike Hart is healthy and has been impressive; Kevin Grady is much improved; Obi Oluigbo has proved a capable fullback. The results have been inspiring against teams that are not your typical tomato-can run defenses, if the early returns from Vandy's game against Alabama and CMU's statistics from 2004 are to be believed.

Michigan spent the entire offseason installing this package for this game. If it works, Michigan wins. If it doesn't, they lose.

Key Matchup: DeBord versus Minter. Properly timed blitzes have disrupted Michigan's zone in the first two games. If you sell out you will stop it. If DeBord is too predictable with his playcalling Michigan will be overwhelmed with numbers at the line and forced into too many second-and-longs to sustain drives.

Pass Offense vs. Notre Dame

Michigan's pass protection issues have been part missed assignments and part Rueben Riley versus McBain (CMU defensive end Dan Bazuin, who is really for realz). The good news: missed assignments are fixable. The bad news: Victor Abiamiri is McBain's extremely tan brother. Last year he had 15 TFL and 8 sacks -- Woodley numbers -- and he just wrecked Penn State's right tackle in ways that should not be seen by small children and the elderly. Is Riley better than that right tackle, who was starting his second game ever? Probably at least a little. But probably not enough to neutralize the one real playmaker in ND's front seven. Michigan will have to help him with TE chips or straight doubles and keep running backs shaded to his side when Michigan tries five- or seven-step drops.

That figures to be relatively rarely, but if Michigan pounds the ball sufficiently to force a Notre Dame safety into the box they'll have opportunities to make big plays in the passing game -- if Henne is given time to go deep. One thing to note: if eight in the box is coupled with corners playing soft, preparing for a three-deep zone, the simple "long handoff" WR screen will be extremely effective. Notre Dame corners are not good at tackling in space. They had problems containing Calvin Johnson on a number of simple WR screens and while he is a dominating man-beast of a wide receiver, he's not exactly Steve Breaston when it comes to ankle-breaking cuts.

The big fear is that Notre Dame sells out against the run, brings their corners reasonably close to the line of scrimmage, and dares Michigan to throw deep. We have no idea whether they can or not. Only Manningham seems like a reasonable option on the long ball, and the right side of the line has pass protection issues that are real and not fantastic. Plus, no one must be told of Henne's inconsistencies.

Key Matchup: Riley (and friends) versus Abiamiri. Here's a bold, stupid-pundit-style pronouncement for you: if Riley stones Abiamiri Michigan waltzes away with this game. If what I expect will happen happens, this is a dogfight all the way.

Run Defense Vs Notre Dame

Michigan's defense has been improbably perfect so far this year, having yielded a total of 58 rushing yards across two games. Football statistics often lie, though, and this is a case in which they have been naughty indeed. A bevy of sacks, one of which turned into a fumble stampede 40 yards into the Central Michigan backfield, have artificially depressed those numbers. The prospects for a repeat of those astounding numbers are low. Opponents have managed a good run here and there but these have usually been quarterback draws or scrambles. Running backs have found the sledding not merely tough but entirely impassable save for one Goddamned Counter Draw by Central Michigan that found Prescott Burgess out of position.

How is this, when Michigan featured a historically weak rush defense in 2005? Terrance Taylor appears set to adequately replace the production of Gabe Watson -- who was often in the doghouse and when out of the doghouse was often on the sidelines, asking for oxygen and pie -- as a penetrating bull-moose of a nose tackle. Meanwhile, the gap between Alan Branch and Pat Massey stretches from here to Alpha Centauri. Add in returning starters everywhere else and a new linebackers coach who chooses not to confuse the hell out of his charges and things are looking up.

Branch and Taylor have made the few conventional running attempts they faced this year futile and project to do so against Notre Dame as well. Perhaps a team dedicated to pounding running drives could wear out the relatively thin DTs -- only one backup, Will Johnson, has figured into the gameplan before garbage time -- but with Notre Dame likely to feature spread formations with frequency, Michigan will put out a 3-3-5 with regularity to reduce their exposure.

Key Matchup: Shawn Crable and Prescott Burgess versus Walker bounce-outs. There figure to be quite a few. Crable and Burgess have to be in the proper positions to contain them. Outside linebackers are rarely blocked when plays intended to go inside suddenly pop outside, so it's all a matter of running down the slow-ish Walker. Crable is a bullet and should do fine, but Burgess struggled a year ago and has already made a major mental error overcommiting this year. He could get victimized.

Pass Defense vs. Notre Dame

The choice is clear: sit back and be diced, blitz and have a chance. That is, unless the front four gets consistent pass rush all by its lonesome but while we're ordering up fanciful pipe dreams I'll take a million dollars, a tipsy and lonesome Elizabeth Hurley, and a banana split. Not necessarily in that order.

Fortunately, Michigan seems inclined and able to blitz. They've done so with frequency this year: three members of the secondary have sacks and Shawn Crable crosses the line of scrimmage more often than not. Frequent blitzing and the all-around impressiveness of the defensive ends have netted Michigan defensive ends seven sacks, giving them a total of ten in just two games. Just Vandy and Central, of course, but certainly an indicator that Michigan has decided to pin their ears back and come after quarterbacks. That total is nearly half of last year's 24 after only one sixth of the season. Brady Quinn will not have Penn State Backfield Tea Party on Saturday.

That will leave Michigan open to two separate and distinct modes of attack: screens to Darius Walker and bombs to presumably single-covered, towering wide receivers against whoever isn't Leon Hall. Quinn will no doubt mix in a fair number of intermediate passes, but the bet here is the Irish offense will be closer to Georgia Tech than Penn State. 10, 11, 12 play drives are highly unlikely. 14 points? Probably not. Notre Dame missed two shortish field goals versus Georgia Tech and one would assume some of the glitches that plagued them on the road in their opener will be resolved for their third game of the season at home. Even an aggressive, excellent Michigan defense is going to give up a number of long plays: perfectly thrown seam routes, bombs versus overmatched corners, and times when Michigan blitzes into a screen or calls a soft zone in fear of one. Notre Dame will take big chunks of yardage a number of times and score on those drives.

Key Matchup: Shawn Crable versus Whoever Tries to Block Him. Michigan coaches have been talking up his pass-rushing ability since the spring and have used him as a blitzer and defensive end on passing downs, but the guys with the sacks are Rondell Biggs and Lamarr Woodley. Crable's been effective when deployed but Notre Dame is a step up. He must get to Quinn.

Special Teams

Michigan's kickoff coverage has been bad, but Notre Dame doesn't have anyone to return them, really, though slot receiver David Grimes returns from injury and if healthy may pose a problem. Punting seems even; Michigan should have an edge in the return game with Breaston... if he ever gets a chance to return a punt.

Field goal kickers: Rivas has a track record of being all-right-but-frustrating, ND newbie Carl Gioia is 2/4 with all four attempts coming from within 42 yards. Slight advantage Michigan.

Key Matchup: Field goal kickers versus their own idiocy. Gioia is unproven; Rivas has a history of missing field goals at exactly the wrong time. This game will be close. If a kicker botches something, it'll be critical.


Anyone else think Notre Dame's redzone offense might be kind of suspect in relation to Michigan's? One thing a punishing ground game is nice for is first and goal from the eight. No? Just sayin'.

Also: kittens. We're just about fed up with the performance of kittens after last year. They get one more chance, then it's seppuku time:

That's right: MGoBlog kills this kitten if Notre Dame wins.

Cheap Thrills

Worry if...
  • First-down runs get stuffed with regularity.
  • We don't get a pass rush.
  • We fumble four times, there's a phantom touchdown, a deflected pass caught for a touchdown, and God himself comes down to play tailback.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
  • They bring eight in the box and it doesn't matter.
  • Brady Quinn gets happy feet.
  • Henne turns in an OSU-esque performance.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for 2004, +1 for 2002, +1 for Road Opener, +1 for Rueben Versus Abiamiri, +1 for What Is This Program Cursed Or Something?).

Desperate need to win level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for We Are The Last Best Hope To Prevent Weis Media Bukkake, +1 for Nothing Good Has Happened Since This Blog Started (No Offense, Mario); +1 for You Remember 7-5, Right?; +1 for I'd Like To Open With A Road Win Once Before I Die; +1 for Did I Mention The Media Bukkake?)

Loss will cause me to... drink heavily, cry myself to sleep, and wake up chained to a bed in Bangkok.

Win will cause me to... drink heavily, drive to South Bend, and personally give the finger to every resident.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict: Michigan runs a lot. They pass some. They move the ball consistently but only punch a few drives in because of breakdowns from Henne, drops from the wide receivers, or penalties. Notre Dame, on the other hand, has difficulty moving the ball consistently but hits a number of big plays. It all adds up to a close game late in the fourth quarter. Rivas from 35.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
  • Woodley is neutralized.
  • Hart goes for 150.
  • 27-24, Michigan.