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Friday, September 22, 2006

Wait... it's Friday? We have a game tomorrow? God, I hope the players got over this BEAT DOWN thing quicker than I did.

Run Offense vs. Wisconsin

Michigan had its hands full last year despite Wisconsin starting freshmen along the DL and having no one of real note on the defense other than DT Nick Hayden. Then Wisconsin killed Auburn's grinding, Kenny-Irons-led attack. And then most of those guys returned. Now? Well, Justin Ostrowski's out but Jason Chapman played most of last year and has been effective if not thrilling. Outside linebacker Jonathan Casillas has 3.5 TFL already and looks like an active playmaker.

Do not expect easy going. It'll be a hard slog for the Michigan run offense. If Wisconsin stacks the box like Notre Dame did, they will stop the run about as well (remember that Hart had a lot of yards but Michigan averaged but 2.9 YPC).

A couple points in Michigan's favor:
  • There's no way a reasonable opponent can stack the line as much as ND did. Michigan got up by so much so early that it was correct in a game theory sense for Notre Dame to sell out on the run and for Michigan to run into it most of the time. When the score is close Wisconsin will have to hang back more because of that whole Manningham thing.
  • Wisconsin defensive ends seem to come in pass-rushing or run-stuffing varieties. There's no Abiamiri equivalent.
  • With Michigan in three-wide packages for much of the game Wisconsin will have to go to a dodgy nickel corner or tip their coverages.
Still: this looks like a game where Hart's line reads 28-96-1 TD. It won't be easy.

Key Matchup: Kraus & Bihl versus Hayden. Derek Landri caused a lot of problems versus Notre Dame with interior penetration, and Hayden is a better player.

Pass Offense vs. Wisconsin

Hey, I guess we do have one of these after all. It's Mario Manningham, and sometimes friends. Adrian Arrington is showing potential -- he had a great sideline catch against ND -- and Steve Breaston is still a YAC threat whenever he catches the ball, which is not as often as Michigan fans would like. Michigan's dirty little secret this year: Chad Henne has been really accurate. He hasn't thrown all that much and still has the occasional misread, but when he lets it go it's been on target much more often. A spate of dropped balls have kept his completion percentage low, but if you go beyond the numbers the difference is clear. 2005 Henne overthrows Manningham deep. 2006 Henne? Not so much.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin linebackers picked up four sacks and another half-dozen hurries against San Diego State. Bret Bielema's reputation for being a blitz donkey certainly seems justified and no doubt Michigan will see more of the same, as their defensive linemen have not proven they can get to the quarterback with regularity. Jamal Cooper might provide that edge-rush but may still be hampered by a shoulder injury. In the secondary, Wisconsin fans are excited about corner Jack Ikegwuonu, but he hasn't faced much competition yet. Behind him is little. Michigan should be able to get receivers open. Wisconsin hopes that when they do Henne is busy running for his life.

Key Matchup: Mike Hart versus Wisconsin blitzers. Michigan's first two drives versus ND were ended when Michigan blew blitz pickups. Later in the game, Michigan picked those blitzes up and the results: touchdown Manningham, touchdown Manningham, touchdown Manningham.

Run Defense Vs Wisconsin

Last year, Brian Calhoun shredded Michigan by bouncing almost every run outside into the open swaths of grass vacated by our incompetent outside linebacking. This year, Shawn Crable is playing like the Terminator, Prescott Burgess is catching touchdowns from Brady Quinn, and 240 pound Wisconsin tailback PJ Hill isn't likely to bounce anything anywhere. So last year does not seem particularly relevant.

What will be relevant: Michigan's first severe test against a team bound and determined to plow the ball ahead. For the first time this year DTs Terrance Taylor, Will Johnson, and Alan Branch will come under heavy fire. We only have scant evidence from the year to date that they'll hold up, as Michigan faced few conventional rushing plays in the first three games, but the early returns are good. Taylor and Johnson have already made more plays in the run game than Pat Massey did all last year; Branch has been outstanding against both the run and the pass. With Dave Harris proving himself an all-conference-level middle linebacker, yards up the middle will be hard to come by for Wisconsin. (Probably. There is that "not enough data" problem.)

Hill, like Ron Dayne, has merrily plowed over a series of frightened chipmunks masquerading as opponents coming into the Michigan game. He projects to meet the same fate as Dayne when he wanders into Michigan Stadium.

Key Matchup: DE Lamarr Woodley versus OT Joe Thomas. The battle of the titans will be most relevant in the ground game. Wisconsin will no doubt try to involve the best player on their team in as many plays as possible; if Woodley does not disrupt plays off left tackle Shawn Crable will end up on the wrong end of a lot of collisions with Hill.

Pass Defense vs. Wisconsin

Maybe now we take it serious, yes?

Both Badger bloggers declared UW's fate in this department to be grisly, so who am I to disagree?

Stocco has been mediocre at best this year. Stripped of playmakers in the passing game, Wisconsin has struggled. Yes, you could have said the same thing about Michigan just one week ago, but remember how shocked everyone was? That shock will be tripled if Paul Hubbard gets loose for 140 yards and three touchdowns an an FBD.

Wisconsin's biggest loss in this department isn't Jonathan Orr or Brandon Williams, it's Calhoun. He (and Owen Daniels) also shredded Michigan aerially by taking a series of screens and dumpoffs for critical first downs. Both are gone, and Calhoun has been replaced by a lumbering 240 pound freshman. Hill does have six receptions this season but there's no way anyone his size can possibly live up to what Calhoun does: he just doesn't have the change of direction to make much after the catch. With Michigan's defensive line making deep balls chancy, expect the secondary to play aggressively and lock down UW recievers to a scanty few yards after the catch.

Key Matchup: Shawn Crable versus blitz pickup. Wisconsin's problems against Western Illinois have been documented in VEQ. If they have the same issues against Michigan, John Stocco is going to look like Brady Quinn.

Special Teams

I would like to point out that Garrett Rivas is 6/7 with one blocked field goal. And, yes, a blocked extra point, but it was good to get it out of the way against Notre Dame instead of a team that was a threat to come within 20 points of us. Wisconsin's Taylor Mehlhaff is similarly good but not great. He's 2/3 last year and was 14/20 a year ago.

Michigan figures to have an edge in the return game, as Steve Breaston is a proven threat. No one on Wisconsin has that sort of resume.

Key Matchup: Michigan versus hideous screwups. Oregon, Iowa, 2003.


Double-digit spreads don't get kittens. It's a rule.

Also: rain projected this weekend. Doesn't matter nearly as much on Field Turf but could lead to wackiness.

Cheap Thrills

Worry if...
  • PJ Hill gashes us up the middle.
  • The run game continues to struggle.
  • The run-run-throw-punt-ish playcalling from Notre Dame reappears in a closer game.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
  • Henne is protected.
  • Wisconsin seems stuck in third and long.
  • Zoltan starts realizing his space potential.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 4 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for But This Is A Respected Opponent, Right?; +1 for We Always Seem To Blow It; -1 for $#*!ing BEAT DOWN; -2 for You Want To Run? At The #1 Rush D?).

Desperate need to win level: 8 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for Let's Not Blow It, Kids; +1 for We Lost To Them Last Year; +1 for Seriously: Don't Blow It.)

Loss will cause me to... no way, man. Don't even. That would be totally lame.

Win will cause me to... forcibly restrain myself until the MSU game before seriously thinking national championship thoughts.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict: Well... I looked at the 14-point spread at the beginning of the week and was like O RLY? But as I think more and more about the game I think Michigan will beat that spread. My main assumption: Hill finds it impossible to run because Michigan is up in his face all day and he can't ever get the head of steam that rumbling backs Keith Jackson would assuredly refer to as a "hoss" need to be effective. What I've seen out of Terrance Taylor so far this year has been impressive. Will Johnson had one of the most critical plays of the ND game when he was the main impetus for a 3rd and 1 stoning in the second quarter that helped the floodgates stay open. And those guys are the two question marks on the line.

Stocco's been hideous to date and I can't see him converting enough third downs against our DL to drive Wisconsin down the field, especially because he can't rely on his skill position players to make yards Wisconsin doesn't deserve. This might seriously piss off the fine Wisconsin fans who stumble across this blog, but I'd be surprised if UW scored a touchdown without a short field provided by a turnover or a long return.

Offensively, it will be a chore. Bielema, like English, has a reputation for aggressiveness and has historically had great defenses. (Last year's debacle stands out as the exception in a dozen-year career.) If they stack the line, Michigan will travel only in fits and starts. Hurling it deep to Manningham is a good idea but a high variance one that is highly susceptible to an off day.

Still, Michigan will score in the twenties. Hart is Hart and Wisconsin's corners are still young and dodgy.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
  • PJ Hill averages 2.5 YPC.
  • Breaston scores.
  • 24-6, Michigan.