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Friday, November 17, 2006

Run Offense vs. Ohio State

I've made my case on this all week; this is no time to back off. While running last year was always doomed to futility, this year's Buckeye run defense -- while superficially impressive -- is not nearly to the standard of the 2005 unit. Meanwhile, Michigan's spent most of the year grinding out victories on Mike Hart's back. The zone plays I reviewed in the Texas and Iowa games were not universally successful but taken together they paint a picture of vulnerability. James Laurinaitis may have leather magnets in his hands but he is still hesitant and often slow to the hole. The Buckeye defensive ends are at times wildly irresponsible, but only when the expectation of a pass is there. Ohio State really only trusts two linebackers, Laurinaitis and Freeman. They can be had.

What they are not is a team that can be trifled with like Michigan has trifled with, well, everyone. Michigan cannot afford to plow into the line on every first and ten. Patterson and Pitcock are capable of getting play-killing penetration and OSU has been adept at getting its linebackers through the line with well-timed blitzes when they sniff out a stretch play. Getting those defensive ends to move upfield is going to require the threat of a pass. We need every fractional bit of expectation in this game and cannot afford to get predictable. So this prediction is tempered: don't expect a Ball State running game and don't expect a heap of success if we're intent on doing the same thing play after play. If the OSU defense is expecting run they can and will hold it down, especially if their DTs are slanting playside at the snap. If they're off balance we can get them blocked, get past the strength of their defense, and into the dodgy second level.

Hart should go for 100 or 110 or 120, but if he takes 32 carries to do it we will be in trouble.

Key Matchup: Third and short. This is not a matchup per se, but too many times this year Michigan has been stoned on short-yardage. The zone is weak when defenses are intent on overloading the box and shooting gaps, and we can't afford to have drives end on third and one since a couple will end on third and sixteen after a sack or a stuff or whatever.

Pass Offense vs. Ohio State

For all the well-deserved pub the Ohio State passing game gets, Michigan has turned in a quietly effective season. Though they're just 82nd in pass offense, divide by number of attempts and rejigger some math and they shoot all the way up to 25th in efficiency. That was done with only half a year of Mario Manningham and with Wisconsin's tough defense (#1 in pass efficiency D) substituted for Illinois' (#37, which isn't bad -- the Illini defense is the best-kept secret in the Big Ten). They face an Ohio state secondary with 21 interceptions and front seven with 33 sacks, but few tests against actually competent quarterbacks.

This matchup is a huge wildcard. Neither team has established much in this department unless you believe in mystic turnover juju etc etc etc. Chad Henne's functioned as an infrequently-deployed aerial freak show: COME SEE THE INCREDIBLE "FORWARD PASS"! MARVEL AT THE FAR EASTERN WONDER! His efficiency numbers are no doubt bolstered by the mindblowing confusion that propagates through a defense when Mike Hart doesn't get the ball. Meanwhile, search for quarterbacks who can throw on the Ohio State schedule and you get half a game of a battered Drew Stanton, the ghost of Drew Tate, and Brian Cupito. Survey says "I dunno."

What we do know, in bullet form:
  • Mario Manningham (default disclaimer: "if healthy") is a hell of a deep threat. Adrian Arrington and Tyler Ecker are reliable possession options. Steve Breaston is good at YAC and screens.
  • The offensive line has been good -- Michigan is 19th in sacks allowed -- but not great -- that number is generous since Michigan hardly throws. Jake Long is an eraser on the left side, but Rueben Riley is occasionally dodgy in pass coverage. The interior line has been okay but has missed a few blitz pickups.
  • Henne will occasionally throw an ill-advised ball but he is not the same quarterback he was a year ago. His accuracy, ability to read coverages, and pocket awareness have increased. Scot Loeffler has him toying with safeties. Due to his paucity of attempts no one has noticed this.
  • Ohio State has a ton of sacks but struggled to get to the quarterback in the Iowa and Texas games. Against Texas that was partially a function of Colt McCoy, who was almost exclusively limited to short throws, but Drew Tate had a ton of time to make his throws.
  • Brandon Jenkins is a physical corner who occasionally gets too aggressive. I can't tell if the hype is deserved or not.
  • Michigan drops everything.
So... what? Too many variables. Is the Michigan offensive line the caliber of (a healthy) Iowa's in pass blocking? Will we catch the damn ball? How good -- really -- is the Ohio State secondary and how much have they benefited from being way ahead in most games?

I think, given games versus Northwestern and Iowa, that if Henne is given time he will find holes in the zone. I think he'll throw a lot of accurate balls, and I think Michigan's receivers will drop a few. The victory here -- and probably in the game -- comes down to a couple things I don't know. Will Henne throw that bad pass into coverage? And will he take advantage of his downfield shots?

Key Matchup: Rueben Riley versus Vernon Gholston. Gholston's their only real edge threat. They move him around but I assume they'll avoid Jake Long most of the day, leaving Riley an ultimate test. The question isn't "does Riley get beaten" but "how much and how damaging." In the past against foes like Abiamiri the answer has been "twice-ish and not very." I'll take that.

Run Defense vs. Ohio State

Every time Ohio State lines up under center and runs the ball I will say a little prayer of thanks. I expect I will get to say three or four of these. I mean, really, you'd have to be astoundingly colossally stupid to line up all tough and try to run on what's statistically the most dominant run defense since 1959 when you're like fifth in passing efficiency. But Ohio State will have to keep Woodley, Crable, et al, honest. So there will be things that are not passes. We will call them runs.

A fair number of them will either involve or feature Troy Smith if Ohio State's game plans against Texas and Iowa are any indication. Ohio State would repeatedly line up in an odd empty set with two tight ends to one side against Texas and run a quarterback draw (note: not Incredibly Surprising; Smith would also throw); the Longhorns would defend this well. Against Iowa the speed option -- coupled with option fakes -- would pick up big chunks of yards when Iowa couldn't deal with the pitchman. While he's no longer much for scrambling, instead preferring to buy time for his receivers, Smith will have to be accounted for on 8-12 designed runs.

I hesitate breaking out "Dayne" when mentioning Antonio Pittman since he's much faster than the fat thumping backs that Michigan swallows whole, but there's a kernel of Dayne-hood in his style. Pittman's smart about blocking, patiently waiting for holes to open up and then bursting through them, but he isn't much for juking guys in the secondary or bowling over people for yards after contact. If Michigan can get to him -- and indications are they will -- he is not a magician. However, if we accept the conventional wisdom that Ohio State will spread the field and throw a lot Pittman is liable to find a hole on counters, draws, and that fake WR screen thing Ohio State runs. With Michigan in a 3-3-5 there's going to be the occasional crease in the line that Pittman can exploit for a good gain, should Ohio State choose to try it. They'll want to in an effort to get Terrance Taylor on the field on non-obvious passing downs instead of Shawn Crable, a dangerous blitzer with the speed to run Smith down. An intermittently effective running game from the spread will be key to keeping Smith upright.

The odd thing is that while Pittman seems well suited to this sort of zone-read attack, Ohio State hardly used it against Iowa or Texas. They actually had a nasty case of Michigan-itis where lining up under center was far more likely to be a Pittman or Wells run than dropping back into the shotgun. Shotgun runs were almost universally quarterback draws or option plays. Indication Pittman's not actually comfortable with that style of running, or just sandbagging? We'll find out Saturday.

Key Matchup: David Harris going sideline to sideline versus Pittman. If Ohio State chooses to line up in a conventional form and run it's doubtful they get anywhere unless Pittman suckers a linebacker inside and bounces out like he did constantly against Iowa. Michigan proved vulnerable to this sort of thing last year but has strung out virtually every wide running play it's faced this year.

Pass Defense vs. Ohio State

This has been where Ohio State is deadly. Smith's can move the pocket and throw accurately on the run. Ginn can get behind any cornerback you care to name. Gonzalez is probably better than Ginn. The third and fourth guys and fifth guys are all 6'3" and can run. Our nickel corner is 5'8" and our dime back... let's not talk about our dime back. (For one, Michigan hasn't gone to dime all year. For two, hypothetical dime back is safety Ryan Mundy, not the guys who got toasted versus Ball State.)

The recurring nightmare in my game scenarios looks much like one of those Ball State disasters: pressure comes around the corner (along with an uncalled hold on Crable, natch), flushing Smith out. Gonzalez or Ginn or whoever breaks his route deep, catching the corner and safety flatfooted: long touchdown on a broken play. This is the "AAAH! COBRAS!" of my game theorizing. Once Smith escapes and starts running around like a 1920s cartoon character with windmill legs, anything can happen and not much of it is good. I have nightmares of Smith pulling off a Penn State play that wins him the game and the Heisman and there's nothing except a faint hope that Crable can get to him that gives much peace.

So... yeah, other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, the play seems okay. I've watched a lot of Ohio State's passing game and when pressured and contained Smith is mortal. When Smith isn't in a designed run he's unlikely to take off. He prefers to survey the field until the last possible moment. If he has to he'll flush from the pocket but the goal is to give his receivers time to get open. It's a little odd. He's vastly more mobile than someone like Anthony Morelli but sometimes he forgets that.

Ohio State will force him to remember by rolling the pocket. On the run Smith is deadly and rollouts are always tough to pressure. Michigan does have the advantage of having seen every permutation of the quarterback boot in football, -- one of the side benefits of having hideous death wolverines on the defensive line -- however. By Michigan State and Iowa they had devised schemes to get David Harris and Shawn Crable on the perimeter; while they didn't rack up sacks they did deliver punishing blows to Stanton and Tate. Still, defending the rollout is going to be very difficult.

Key Matchup: Pressure is everything. I don't think that's a surprise. This defense is based around the idea that you can't block the front four or six or seven or whatever. Smith has shown that he will sit back and pick zones to bits when given time. With his newfound reluctance to run, and Michigan's successful spy scheming keyed by bullet linebackers, allowing him to survey the field is obviously the poorer option.

Special Teams

Kickoffs. Advantage Ohio State. Garrett Rivas took over for Ross Ryan midseason and has been underwhelming. Very few Michigan kickoffs go for touchbacks and the coverage teams have had issues in the Central Michigan, Penn State, and Indiana games. Meanwhile, half of OSU's kickoffs are touchbacks. The good news for Michigan is that the Buckeye kickoff return team hasn't blocked anyone to date, though they can reasonably claim to be lacking practice.

Punting. No doubt this will get me skewered in Zoltan's mighty jaws... but I wouldn't mind seeing Ross Ryan if Zoltan is going to keep punting 38 yard line drives with "Ted Ginn 65 yard touchdown" tattooed all over them. Ryan is the least inspiring punter in history but his punts are nigh unreturnable. They also have the strange power to cause Ted Ginn fumbles. Me likey.

Unfortunately, AJ Trapasso kicks the ball a long way and allows few returns -- only a quarter of his punts -- though those returns do average a fairly healthy nine yards. Breaston is not likely to have much in the way of punt return opportunities.

Field Goals. Fairly even. Rivas is a consistent, if uninspiring, kicker who is reliable inside 45 yards but lacks a big leg. Counterpart Aaron Pettry is 8/11 in his first season as the starter. Buckeye fans are panicky about this, which only serves to remind you that there's some sort of devil's bargain going on with the OSU program.

Key Matchup: Our punter versus Hideous Line Drives. This is a slight advantage OSU because we hate the idea of Steve Breaston returning punts and OSU is much more likely to break a long punt return, or any return at all.


I saved this all year.

Godspeed, gentlemen.

Cheap Thrills

Worry if...
  • Our corners show an indication that they will be letting receivers behind them.
  • The dropsies strike again.
  • Mike DeBord calls zone left on the first play of the game...
Cackle with knowing glee if...
  • ...unless it gains eight yards.
  • Pat Haden jumps in the broadcast booth to dejectedly exclaim "oh, wide open."
  • We treat the Ohio State offensive line like everyone else.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +5 for Uh... DUH.).

Desperate need to win level: Infinite.

Loss will cause me to... I don't know, you know? 11-1 is no shame, nor is going on the road and losing to the #1 team in the country. But 1-5. So close after last year. It'll all seem so unfair.

Win will cause me to... I think I'll probably sit in the stadium for an hour.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict: Midwest Bias says it best:
What's the most you can say about a rivalry like this, that doesn't have a high probability of making you sound stupid a few days later? "Both teams are really really good, and something strange and/or totally unexpected will probably happen over the course of the game"? Pull a Cutman and say, "One team is going to win this game, and the other will almost certainly not"? The Game largely transcends logic and expectations.
So... right. I think we can run and I have a suspicion we can pass, but not with the sort of consistency we'll need to drive the ball down the field. On the other side of the ball, I see games like we've seen to date: a quarterback running away from angry men, a stuffed runs interspersed with the occasional deeply irritating five or eight yard gain. The difference between Ohio State and everyone else will be the frequency with which Smith turns a running quarterback into a fifteen-yard completion instead of a sack.

This is what I think the game comes down to: who completes more bombs? Both teams have lived on the long ball this year. Both have receivers who can get open and quarterbacks who excel at the deep ball. Michigan has a tiny advantage here with Trent and Hall, both guys who can run stride-for-stride with anyone, and a defensive line that's more likely to prevent Smith from launching his deep balls. But the margin is razor thin.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
  • Secret weapon TYLER ECKER.
  • I don't get the crap kicked out of me.
  • 20-17, Michigan.