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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Run Offense vs. USC

You may have surmised that I don't like this matchup, and I don't. Against UCLA the Trojans often featured two things that are bad for the old zone running game: linebackers comfortable in a stand-up role and a penetrating nose tackle. The end result is a 5-2 look that's perfect for combating a zone rushing game. It's no fluke that USC's run defense is 16th in the country. Their front seven is so ridiculously athletic their jerseys should say "OMG shirtless," especially because that would be some wicked irony.

There is the suggestion that a Michigan-caliber rushing game can slog ahead, though. Marshawn Lynch had a decent, if uninspiring, day in the Cal game, finishing with 88 yards at 4.4 per carry. Oregon State's Clinton Polk had 100 yards on 22 carries. Arkansas' bizarre multifaceted attack picked up 130 yards on 27 carries. If you believe Mike Hart is closer to those teams than, say, UCLA or Oregon, then you believe he's likely to have a typical Mike Hart day. The worst case scenario here is a game similar to Iowa or Wisconsin where Hart is forced to turn zero yards into four with irritating regularity.

Is there upside outside of that? Doubtful unless he minor injuries to Sartz and Cushing are serious enough to affect their play. I expect a number of plays where Hart is forced to dodge in the backfield, a few where he cuts back for good yardage, and an array of fairly successful draws, but it'll be a tough 30 carries an

Key Matchup: USC NT Sedrick Ellis versus Mark Bihl. UCLA's offense was almost singlehandedly disrupted by Ellis; Bihl's good but not that good.

Pass Offense vs. USC

USC cornerback Terrell Thomas is questionable with a dislocated shoulder. No one knows if he'll play or how functional he'll be if he does.

USC's defensive philosophy is bend, don't break. The Trojans rely on their pass rush and running defense to force a series of third downs, banking that an offense that has to convert three or four times on every long drive won't end up with many touchdowns. That's been the case much of the year. Precious few USC opponents have gotten past twenty points without aid from turnovers, special teams breakdowns, or -- in the case of Oregon State -- both. 13th in scoring defense, 20th in total defense, and 19th in pass efficiency defense, the Trojans have completed a remarkable turnaround from last year's glaring deficiency in The Greatest Team Of All Time Ever Ever (Ever!!!). Expect more of the same tomorrow.

That will put the onus on Henne's accuracy and Michigan's pass protection to keep Michigan rolling down the field. Watch for the post-wheel combination that got Adrian Arrington wide open a couple times against Ohio State (one was a 40-yard touchdown, the other overthrown) if USC tips cover-2 too often. Though I can never get this to work in NCAA 2007, the dual routes are designed to get the safeties biting on the threat of a Manningham post as Arrington inserts himself into the gap created 25 yards along the sideline. Henne's comfortable enough with firing posts and seams to Arrington -- remember the dart between three zone defenders against Penn State -- that if given time, he will find open receivers. With the Trojans intent on preventing the deep ball at all costs, hitting Ecker, Butler, and Arrington behind the linebackers will be key.

There's that time thing, though.

Key Matchup: Rueben Riley versus Cushing/Jackson. Henne on the move is Booty on the move: bad.

Run Defense vs. USC

But for the Ohio State game, this section would be a prophecy of doom for foolish Trojan running backs. Two ARRRRGH RYAN MUNDYs later, things are murkier. This is what we know: USC's rushing game, plagued by injury and youth, was mediocre this year. Nearly the definition of mediocre, actually, finishing 57th of 119 teams. In recent games against Cal, Notre Dame, Oregon, and Oregon State USC featured a merely functional run game. Gable or Washington would finish with 18 or 20 carries and around 80 yards; Washington broke a long one against Oregon to prop up his YPC; all told USC would usually end up with around 120 yards on 25 or 30 carries and they'd average about 4 YPC. All of this is average.

The outlier against UCLA may be instructive. UCLA held the Trojans to 55 rushing yards. Nominal starer CJ Gable averaged 2.7 YPC and nominal short yardage back Chauncey Washington got stuffed on a series of third downs before USC gave up and started finessing itself a few third down conversions. Perhaps it isn't fair to look solely at one performance against one of the top twenty rushing defenses in the country, but even after the dual Ohio State debacles Michigan is more than one of the top twenty rush defenses in the country: it's number one. Can USC replicate the spread-'em and misdirect-'em that got Pittman and Wells loose for long touchdowns? No. USC's limited itself to a fairly conventional set of formations this year -- ace 3-wide was their most common formation in the UCLA game -- more reminiscent of the Wisconsin and Iowa and Penn State offenses that Michigan swallowed alive than OSU's. (Not that the talent level is equal.)

If USC can spring Gable into a secondary featuring Ryan Mundy he's virtually guaranteed to take a terrible angle, but that's a chore and Willis Barringer is healthy again. Michigan should dominate.

Key Matchup: Branch and Taylor versus Short Yardage. USC was forced to throw, pitch, an finesse its way to what third and short conversions it could pick up because when they tried to line up and plow ahead they got stuffed. Along the way USC turned the ball over on downs twice. A duplicate performance would equal a Trojan loss.

Pass Defense vs. USC

Projected Michigan dominance against the USC running game won't mean that much because USC uses the run to supplement its potent passing game even when they aren't playing a team that just got torn to bits by Troy Smith. The $64,000 question: what the hell was that? Spread and destroyed, the Michigan secondary limps into the Rose Bowl befuddled and suddenly shaky-looking. They face giant, sticky-fingered Dwayne Jarrett and yappy, meh Steve Smith. Alarm! Loud noises! Ack!

Michigan's best defense against the pass will come before Booty ever lets the ball go. Second in the country in sacks and featuring the Lombardi award winner, the Michigan pass rush plays Jarrett/Smith to USC's suddenly alarming offensive line, who decided that blocking UCLA defensive ends was strictly optional. Booty was forced to step up time and again; when he did the result was invariably negative for the Trojans: checkdowns on third and eleven, errant passes, and punts. This is not a situation like Michigan faced against Smith, where he can wander outside of the pocket and casually toss 25-yard daggers downfield. Ohio State's great weapon against the Michigan D was their ability to neutralize the Michigan pass rush with one player, Smith. USC does not have that, and they do have their own "Ack!" in this department: flaky RT Kyle Williams. Mr. Williams: Mr. Woodley. Dance.

In response, USC should go to a short passing game. Jarrett's a slant machine, a physical wideout who gets position on virtually everyone and uses his huge body to shield the defender from the ball. It's difficult to defend; the key will be getting USC in situations where the slant is not an option.

Key Matchup: Woodley, Biggs, Jamison, and Crable versus Booty, Stationary. The recipe spelled out by the UCLA game is simple: make Booty uncomfortable in the pocket. When he's forced to deal with pass rush he has eyes only for his checkdown.

Special Teams

These have been a surprising negative for the Trojans. Bush-less, they've averaged less than seven yards a punt return. They're 75th in net punting and have ceded a couple game-changing returns in losses to Oregon State and UCLA. Michigan has the advantage here, though it's a small one since Steve Breaston is constantly under siege from unblocked gunners.

USC does have a capable kicker in Mario Danelo, who was 13 of 14 on the season.

Key Matchup: Breaston versus Argh Gunners. USC's been susceptible to big punt returns at times this year, but aside from a touchdown against Indiana and an anomalously big game against Wisconsin, he's been quiet on returns because more often than not he's getting run over as soon as he catches the ball. But you knew that already.


Anyone notice that there was a fair bit of slipping around in he UCLA-USC game? Anyone notice the site of that game? Apparently, the Rose Bowl replaced its turf around the same time Ohio State did and the problems were similar, though of lesser severity. More than once Booty dropped back to pass and lost his plant foot when he tried to move up in the pocket. Apparently grass like, sets and stuff -- don't ask me -- but it might be relevant.


Cheap Thrills

Worry if...
  • Vince Young shows up.
  • Hart's bottled up enough for USC to leave two safeties deep.
  • Booty is suffered to stand and survey.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
  • Michigan defensive ends warp around USC tackles like the last game USC played in the Rose Bowl.
  • Steve Breaston is all like "hey, I remember this place, this is where I'm awesome."
  • Vince Young shows up... and plays for us!
Fear/Paranoia Level: 7 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for West Coast Pain, +1 Bowl Pain, +1 for Specific USC-Related Pain, -1 for You Know I Think We're Just Better This Year).

Desperate need to win level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for Rose Bowl, +1 for Last Time We Had A Really Satisfying Season Brady Was The QB, +1 for Media So Irritating If Lose, +1 for USC Fans Eeeeeritate, +1 for It's Still The Rose Bowl)

Loss will cause me to... wander around, ripping eyes out of USC fans' eyesockets.

Win will cause me to... remember what it's like to end a season on an up note.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict: these teams are mirror images of each other: big honkin' pocket passers at quarterback, a rangy possession guy and a quicksilver deep threat at wide receiver, a junior left tackle projected in the top ten of the NFL, a right tackle everyone's terrified of, intimidating run defenses, severe pass rush, and maybe some questions at corner. USC doesn't have Mike Hart, but they don't have Ryan Mundy either.

I can't tell you if USC's defense is so intent on preventing the big play that they never bring a safety in the box without bailing their corners and playing three deep -- because I assume they'll bring a safety up at least sometimes -- but if they are... that doesn't seem like a good idea to me. Time and again this year a safety aggressive in run defense has been the only thing between Hart an consistent, gashing cutbacks. That's opened up Manningham and his double-move arsenal. When the Michigan offense has been effective, it's because opponents have been forced to pick their poison between the thousand papercuts of Hart and the Elliot-Smith-knife-to-the-heart of Manningham. That's difficult for anyone to defend

Michigan's image in the mirror is just a little bit more intimidating in all aspects. USC has a very good rushing defense; Michigan has the nation's best. USC has an intimidating pass rush; Michigan is second in sacks. USC has a rifle-armed pocket passer; Michigan's is in his third year of starting. USC has running backs, I guess; Michigan has Mike Hart. USC has a clear advantage at safety but nowhere else. It'll be a good, tight game, but I think the Michigan pass rush versus the USC offensive line is more of a mismatch than vice versa, and that's the most important matchup in the game.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
  • Arrington has a big day.
  • Booty is sacked five times.
  • 27-20, Michigan.