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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Last in a series exploring MGoBlog's season previews. Previously: Dregs / Soft Nougaty Middle I / Soft Nougaty Middle II. Full Michigan postmortem coming over the next couple weeks, starting with a midweek Rose Bowl UFR not recommended for children and the elderly.


No headliners remain on the Iowa defense after two years in which graduation has taken Matt Roth, Jonathan Babineaux, Abdul Hodge, and Chad Greenway to the NFL, but the Hawkeyes have star power on the other side of the ball in Drew Tate (the flingingest quarterback this side of the Pecos), Albert Young, and Albert Young's cadaverous ACL. The offensive line is either experienced or OMG shirtless. The defensive line looks poised to resume the terror of the Roth-Babineaux days. The defensive back seven? Well, you can't have everything. There are indeed ominous holes at corner and linebacker.

Despite that, viewers should be prepared for a faceful of Tate this year.
I am thinking of starting up a new service to monetize the blog: each year I accept donations from fans of the three or four Big Ten teams that are getting a medium amount of top-25/Citrus-type hype. Whichever teams coughs up the least dough is treated to the full-on MGoBlog Inexplicable Mancrush season preview treatment and thus a disappointing season that ends somewhere around .500. We're two for two now. In 2005, I predicted that we'd all be eating oatmeal under pictures of our new Dear Leader Joe Tiller as Brandon Kirsch rocked our world and his OSU-M-free schedule en route to the Rose Bowl. Instead, Purdue went to the No Bowl. This year, I decided that Iowa was going to win the Big Ten (close! they were 2-6) and placed them #2 in my preseason Blogpoll.

In conclusion, I suck and am awful.

Betrayed! Drew Tate is the primary reason I was led astray. I was sold by his 2005 vivisection of Michigan -- a game the Hawkeyes somehow managed to lose despite Tate playing out of his mind -- and got caught up in, you know, the copious evidence that Tate was a killer QB:
Drew Tate is one of the best quarterbacks in the country no matter your preferred metric. He has the numbers: two straight years with around 2800 yards passing, a completion percentage hovering around 62 percent, and 22 touchdowns to only 7 interceptions last year. He has the accolades: two years on the All Big Ten teams. And for those who like talking in vague generalities, he is the very avatar of "heart" or "moxie" or whatever you people call it.
Tate must have gotten intensive offseason coaching from Courtney Sims, because he regressed badly as a senior. His interceptions shot up to 13; his touchdowns, completions, and yardage dipped despite having the exact same number of attempts his junior and senior years. Too often he would flash his essential Tate-ness only to throw a hideous Favre-ian interception or wildly overthrow or underthrow his receiver. I plead "inexplicable" here.

Right Idea, Wrong Guy. I closed my eyes and pointed at a melanin-deficient wide receiver to take up Ed Hinkel's mantel, but hit the wrong target:
Redshirt freshman Trey Stross is distinctly Caucasian and thus is guaranteed to be Iowa's annual Inexplicably Great White Receiver at some point in his career. It also helps that Stross displayed velvet hands and great leaping ability in high school.
There was no IGWR for Iowa this year -- no doubt part of their malaise, it's like Michigan without an Immobile Water Buffalo at QB -- until the Alamo Bowl, when Andy Brodell caught a couple short passes and shocked the distinctly melanin-blessed Texas secondary by running his pale ass into the endzone like he was Ted Ginn.

I think this was almost right-ish. I praised the Iowa offensive line's returning starters but worried about a true sophomore stepping into the most critical job on the line:
So those guys have a ton of experience if a fairly uncertain notion of where, exactly, they're supposed to line up before each play. Jones is the most talented, having burst into the starting lineup as a true freshman. He finds himself a preseason All Big Ten pick by The Sporting News (TSN, understandably confused, named him the fifth best guard in the country), Lindy's, and Blue Ribbon. Yanda and Elgin are both somewhere between competent to good. But there is the niggling issue of center and, oh, left tackle. ... True sophomore Dace Richardson is projected to start at left tackle. .... A large portion of the Hawkeye's success this year relies upon how effective last year's crash course as a collegiate lineman was.
Injury and the shuffling it forced opened holes all over Iowa's OL, but when healthy they were the portion of the team least likely to be a major issue.

Half understandable, half stupid. I liked Iowa defensive ends Brian Mattison and Ken Iwebema:
Junior defensive ends Ken Iwebema and Bryan Mattison were both disruptive forces as sophomores, combining for 19.5 TFL and 11 sacks. Iwebema found his way on the the media's selections for first team All Big Ten. While that may say more about the media than Iwebema in a year that featured Tamba Hali, Lamarr Woodley, and Mike Kudla, it does indicate his impressive talent.
IIRC, Iwebema suffered through some academic or disciplinary suspensions or demotions early in the season. Later, a shoulder injury sidelined him for a few games. The result was a disappointing three sacks in limited time. Mattison was excellent against Ohio State and Michigan but his 6.5 sacks were not enough to make up for the disappointing back seven. I gave the unit as a whole a 4:
A repeat of last year's performance will not be enough for the defensive line, however. Minus Hodge and Greenway and with shaky cornerbacks the line will have get more pressure on the quarterback against tough opponents than the did a year ago, when Iowa had one three yard sack against OSU and none against Michigan. If that happens again this year games against good opponents will dissolve into shootouts that Iowa would like to avoid.
You can replace "good opponents" in that last sentence with just "opponents." I thought the DL would be good enough to cover for the rest of the defense. It wasn't.

Just wrong.
The linebackers won't be a liability.
Wrong. They were. Iowa ended up 57th in rushing defense. Though Mike Klinkenborg had an awesome name and a lot of tackles, he and his compatriots made precious few actual plays: two sacks and around 20 TFLs for the entire unit. Many of their tackles were of the variety five to eight yards downfield. Many were missed. They weren't good.

But not quite as un-good as these guys!
Adam Shada... well... is from Nebraska, if you know what I mean. He would have to buck an awful lot of history for a guy from Nebraska to become a standout corner on the collegiate level, especially as an unheralded recruit. Many cite his three interceptions from a year ago as reason to believe in his ability, but interceptions are usually fluky events and should not be relied upon for projection. Meanwhile, Godfrey was bouncing to and from safety as recently as last year and seems to have moved to corner because Iowa has no alternatives. It is always, always, always a bad sign when a player goes from backup safety to starting corner over the course of one offseason. Mediocrity here would be great.
Shada, despite his essential Nebraska-ness, was Iowa's best corner. Charles Godfrey picked up Grant Mason disease and finished third on the team in tackles, a sure sign that you're excellent at giving up eight yards on third and six. He was awful. And though Shada was better, it was he who was fluttering at the edge of the frame when highlights of James Hardy's million-touchdown day were broadcast to a shocked Official MGoBlog Residence. The "2" bestowed was correct, though underrated when attempting to assess the team as a whole.

Worst what? Yeah, Iowa was three games worse than the "Worst Case" scenario presented:
Maybe the run defense disintegrates without Greenway and Hodge, but I doubt it. If it does then some wonky corners could make the Iowa defense eminently perforable again. Throw in a lot of drops from the wide receivers, the complete implosion of Richardson, and a lot of bad luck... and Iowa's still very good with a favorable schedule. 9-3.
Yeeeesh. But you know what's even more embarassing? This:
The only downers are a trip to Michigan and the shame that the national championship game is in Arizona instead of New Orleans, which prevents what would have been a beautiful joke about Tates and beads.
Iowa gets OSU in the most favorable spot possible and catches the Buckeyes early in the season when their defense still figures to be breast-feeding. Iowa wins that game, loses to either Michigan or one of the "probable wins" category, and coasts to the Rose Bowl at 11-1.
Coasts to the Rose Bowl! Never listen to anything I say again.

Ohio State

Best Title Ever:
Ohio State: National Chumpions! ZING!
If you ignore the actual content of this preview and pretend that the entirety of my preseason OSU prediction was "national chumpions," then it's the most accurate preview of OSU anywhere. Unfortunately, I kept going.
So I guess it's somewhat logical that when Texas loses that Vince Young guy and OSU returns that Troy Smith guy you put OSU #1 to start the season, but, uh... nine defensive starters, one reliable kicker, and two first round draft picks on offense depart and that doesn't bother anyone? Ohio State -- Ohio freakin' State -- is starting a senior walk-on who has never played a down on defense at cornerback and this raises not an eyebrow? Okay then. I have a hunch that assumptions were made: the secondary will reload. The pass rush will continue. The linebackers will be equally fierce. Ted Ginn can be a primary threat as a receiver.

But I digress. If the media was replaced with a parallel-universe version of itself that senselessly overrated the defensive side of the ball and placed great emphasis on special teams and place OSU 15th or something this intro section would be all "but wait: Marcus Freeman, a mess of five defensive ends from which someone good will emerge, and a longstanding tradition of excellence on D." The Buckeyes have many alluring qualities that nearly offset that walkon-at-corner thing.

But not quite.
This looked way worse before the MNC game.

No doubt horrible bias. One of the assertions that haunted me through the season was this assessment of Antonio Pittman:
Right: not impressed by Antonio Pittman, much to the amusement of Ohio State fans. It's hard to judge his '05 season because there wasn't much data to be had against good run defenses. It appeared to me that he was good at running through big holes and falling down when contacted but struggled to make extra yards. He's not terrible, but I don't think he's anything that, say, Jason Teague wasn't. Ohio State fans fresh off the Mo Hall era may be confusing competence for superstardom.
Pittman was and is better than that, otherwise he wouldn't be off to the NFL. He definitively showed his speed a few times this year -- and let's not talk about that -- but more impressive was his patience setting up his blockers and understanding of how plays were going to develop. I underrated him at the beginning of the year.

Recycling the goat quote. Doug Datish has a career in broadcasting waiting for him if there's a God. Again IIRC, he was the Buckeye who let loose with some hilarious smack about Notre Dame late in the year -- sadly, I can't turn it up on Google... help appreciated. In the preseason he dropped this about Quinn Pitcock:
Datish describes Pitcock with the best quote I've seen in a long time:
"I've hated blocking Quinn since I got here," Datish said. "He's like a goat. I think his legs should be reversed because he’s got that weird leverage thing to them. I don't know if there’s anybody better in the country."
He's not much of a penetrator but he occupies blockers with the best of them. Patterson's numbers -- 7.5 TFLs and 4 sacks -- look good for a DT, but he played end last year. Three of those sacks came in the Michigan State game, when Stephon Wheeler went out and the Red Sea caved in on Drew Stanton. (On the fourth he bowled over Jake Long to sack Henne.) His move inside makes sense since he was oversized -- 285 pounds -- and not a threat to come around the edge at end. Inside he can use his push and technique to get into the backfield as others take the edge. He's sort of a poor man's Alan Branch.
While Patterson as a poor man's Alan Branch seems a highly adept analogy, describing Pitcock as "not much of a penetrator" but a guy who "occupies blockers with the best of them" is just wrong. I did pan the ineffective Jay Richardson and pump up Gholston:
The pass rush will have to come from elsewhere, probably Cass Tech alum Vernon Gholston. In '04 Gholston was a sleeper recruit described as incredibly athletic (I've seen this picture way too often -- some creepy guy at BuckeyePlanet used it as his sig) but equally raw. Two years later he's apparently progressed better than Alain Kashama did and fought his way into the starting lineup ahead of a couple highly touted recruits. OSU's proven that they can mold defensive linemen; with Gholston's evident natural ability he'll probably be good sooner or later.
So bully for me. This unit came in as a "4," and that was a fair reflection of their talent, IMO.

Animal, etc. Your opinion of my opinion in this section will closely track with your opinion of my opinion about James Laurinaitis (totally overrated):

There's going to be a dropoff here or I'm taking my blog and going home. Freeman should be at least good, though he may be playing out of position due to shortcomings in the other two linebackers. Dispatch blogger Heath Schneider theorizes that the LB switch means Kerr is doomed and true freshman Ross Homan will end up starting once his hamstring injury is healed. Buckeye fans are salivating over Homan but the gurus were pretty meh about him and as a true freshman recovering from an injury if he starts it's a bad sign for this year.

Laurinatis obviously shows a lot of potential to start in front of highly touted JUCO recruit Larry Grant, but he's not AJ Hawk. If he is I'll cry. Kerr... who knows? I have my doubts about him. I think Grant's recruitment -- JUCOs are unusual at OSU -- speaks to question marks about the depth, especially outside, and there's a fair chance that this unit ends up disappointing. Freeman and the rep Tressel and OSU have earned keep this at a three, but it's not all roses and reloading here.
Kerr was indeed a weak spot, often kept off the field by nickel packages, Grant, and Homan. Freeman did not live up to the hype I and recruiting gurus provided; Laurinaitis exceeded it, though not to the extent Brent Musberger and silly awards committees would have you believe. All told there was a major dropoff, though soft competition and boatload of turnovers disguised that somewhat. Still: Mike Hart finally got loose. PSU, Texas, and Iowa (to an extent) all ran effectively against the Buckeyes. Tim Tebow, when not getting stomped on, was bulling his way forward. This was not the Hawk crew. And thank God for that.

Not so good. The Buckeye secondary was projected as dire; it was not. Malcolm Jenkins, dismissed in the preview...
True sophomore Malcolm Jenkins "wants to be in contention for the Thorpe Award this year because it means he will be helping the Buckeyes win," which is nice but fanciful. He was a meh recruit two years ago thrust into action as the Buckeyes nickelback due to a severe lack of depth in the defensive backfield. ... He was invisible during the games I saw. That's to be expected for a middling recruit pressed into service as a freshman but it also indicates that Jenkins has a way to go to replace the services of Youbouty. He'll improve, but to improve enough to be an impact corner would be a major leap forward.
...emerged as one of the Big Ten's better corners (though he's clearly a notch or two behind Justin King and Jack Ikegwuonu amongst those returning next year) and took that "major leap forward." Projected disaster and former walk-on Antonio Smith, his partner, was all right, though torched against Michigan.

Overall... Summary section:
Given the schedule the offense probably will be statistically explosive. Only four teams figure to have defenses that can even think of running with Ginn, Smith, et al. Given Tressel's tendency to play Lloydball in tight spots, though, the Bucks might not get all they might out of said really fast guys until the need to score is clear.

The defense is going to drop off significantly. This should not be a controversial statement when one of the most dominant Ds in recent college football memory loses nine starters and figures to start a secondary with almost no experience whatsoever. If Gholston does not produce, OSU is going to find itself exposing that secondary by blitzing or allowing itself to get picked apart. I find myself torn: it seems improbable that the OSU defense is going to be mediocre, but it seems equally improbable that patchwork secondary is going to be anything but.
And I said they'd go 10-2. This was obviously a couple games short, though within the bounds of Best Case/Worst case. I do think the D dropped off immensely, but a weak schedule and a ridiculous spate of forced turnovers at opportune times served to conceal the weaknesses therein until OSU's final two games of the season. I vacillate between these two scenarios for next year's OSU team:
  • All of OSU's returning starters will improve and they'll regain their badass D of '05.
  • Laurinaitis' strengths are wiped out because OSU hasn't recruited anyone capable of replacing their two defensive tackles. The turnovers dry up. The secondary is still pretty good, but a critical weakness in the middle of the field forces safeties up to help with the run and it's average.
Dunno which of these I think yet.