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Friday, September 07, 2007

Run Offense vs. Oregon

This, at least, looks like an area of little concern. Oregon was shredded like whoah by the Houston Cougars last weekend, giving up 205 yards on just 22 carries to Anthony Aldridge and getting outgained(!) in a 48-27 victory. This was no fluke. In offseason scrimmages similar events occurred:
At the start of fall camp, Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti was asked about the apparent dearth of run-stoppers in his front seven.

"There's no cavalry coming," Aliotti said, acknowledging that the Ducks would have to try to stop opponents without the benefit of a run-stuffing body such as Matt Toeaina, Haloti Ngata, Igor Olshansky et al.

During Friday's scrimmage at Autzen Stadium, his defense not only couldn't stop ballcarriers but often failed to get a hand on them.

Running backs Jeremiah Johnson and Andiel Brown, as well as quarterback Nathan Costa, scored on runs of 69, 39 and 62 yards, respectively. All three were untouched.

Oregon was badly hurt by the loss of two big-time DTs from their 2007 recruiting class and the departure of Dexter Manley II, a rotation defensive end, in the offseason. It showed against Houston and is likely to show again against Michigan.

The run game was the one area Michigan fan's couldn't quibble much with after the Appalachian State game. Normally this would mean nothing -- grinding a I-AA opponent to dust is expected, after all -- but we are going to take what we can get. Aside from one Justin Boren bust on Michigan's second drive, the blocking was somewhere between good and excellent all day. Mike Hart must have had some sort of injury to miss sections of the second and third quarters, but a 54-yard touchdown run that will unfortunately not live in Michigan lore seemed to indicate he was fine. He should be 100% for the Ducks.

Key Matchup: Michigan versus its own playcalling. Fullback shuffles and a refusal to use play action were fine against a I-AA foe but even if Oregon is a terrible defense they'll have more size and talent than the 'Eers of Doom did. Plowing ahead on 2/3rds to 3/4ths of Michigan's first downs, as they did in the WVU game and many games last year, will hamper Michigan's offensive efficiency.

Pass Offense vs. Oregon

Was Mario Manningham eliminated by a 5'7" I-AA cornerback last week? Sort of, but not really. I counted four separate instances in which Manningham beat that guy downfield, but only one was accurate enough to be completed. This, of course, begs the question "why not try Arrington?" as Arrington would have dominated those midgets on underthrown Hopeful Jump Balls, but whatever. I'm rambling. Uh. Anyway: Oregon had a statistically excellent pass defense a year ago, but they did that on the wings of things like "Rudy Carpenter, 6 for 19 for 33 yards" and "someone called Carl Bonnell who is not Isaiah Stanback" and "14 total attempts for Arizona". Though Henne didn't exactly establish himself a Heisman contender in his first game, he's probably closer to Nate Longshore, John David Booty, and John Beck than the aforementioned trio. All of the latter trio had excellent days against the Duck defense foreshortened by the massive blowouts their teams were laying on them.

Herein lies a reason I may have been excessively optimistic about Oregon preseason and a major factor in that crazy Michigan + 8 line: that was all smoke and mirrors and the Oregon pass defense is ugly. Houston, breaking in a new quarterback for the first time since Kevin Kolb debuted against Michigan, was not a good test for this theory as two separate QBs completed a lot of passes for no yards -- screens, most likely -- and a pick each.

Given that Henne's off-ness is not likely to repeat, and this I do believe to be true, Oregon is ripe for the picking here, though it remains to be seen just how competent the right side of the offensive line is against actual live bodies.

Key Matchup: Henne versus inaccuracy. Michigan will ask Henne to complete two or three of those passes he missed against Oregon; I figure someone will be open. He just has to hit them.

Run Defense vs. Oregon

Oh, boy, this will be fun. Take Apppalachian State and upgrade everyone on the team to a D-I level player and make their tiny little darty guy the avatar of rage Jonathan Stewart is. And then put them up against Graham, Thompson, et al. Result: yikes. It was just Houston, sure, but Jesus H. Christ:
10Dennis Dixon151723114119.480
19Brian Paysinger2140141714
22Andre Crenshaw74814706.716
24Jeremiah Johnson117337026.419
28Jonathan Stewart147256704.824
Holy clodhopping hell. I guess you can argue that an 80 yard touchdown run by your quarterback tends to distort things, but raise your hand if you don't expect Dennis Dixon to rip off something like ten yards a carry. Right. That's what I thought.

I don't necessarily buy the theory that Michigan will be more prepared to face Oregon's spread rushing attack than Appalachian State's because they are nearly identical. Oregon is a spread option run team that runs a zone read all the time, and the zone read is a basic play Michigan should already know how to defend given their run-ins with Texas and Northwestern and etc etc etc. No, Michigan was not taken by surprise. And, no, there's no reason to expect improvement. Chris Graham is a senior; Johnny Thompson is also in his fourth year in the program. The light, if it's not already on, is not likely to pop on now. Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh may offer some hope (in Mouton's case, if he's healthy enough to play) and the potential return of Brandon Graham from an ankle injury that limited his time against the 'Eers of Doom may help, especially if they make the 3-3-5 that did so well against spread rushing an option again, but I expect horror on an epic scale.

Key Matchup: Taylor and Johnson versus Oregon interior line. These two have to make more disruptive plays for Michigan to get Oregon in advantageous down and distance situations. If Michigan can't do it, they'll get tired in the pounding heat and there are evidently no backups.

Pass Defense vs. Oregon

Anyone who kept an eye on over the offseason probably knows about Dennis Dixon's inexplicable sojourn into minor league baseball this summer. Dixon, a talented player prone to baffling mental breakdowns, decided to pass up the chance to Akili Smith some poor team into drafting him and instead hit like .200 in summer league ball. This is not a wise decision, I think, when last year you got yanked for Ryan Leaf's untalented younger brother because you threw more interceptions than touchdowns.

Aside from the whole buckets of interceptions thing, though, Dixon was a prolific passer at times last year: 61% completions, 341 yards and two touchdowns in Oregon's "win" over Oklahoma (albeit with two interceptions), and 263 yards and two touchdowns against Cal (albeit with three interceptions). However, after that Cal game his productivity evaporated. He could not crack 150 yards passing the rest of the season, threw nine interceptions to two touchdowns, those against Portland State and BYU, and generally was the main reason Oregon's talent-laden offense clattered to a spectacular halt as the team imploded over the second half of the season. Against Houston he was infrequently deployed but effectively so: 9 for 15 with two touchdowns and 134 yards. And no interceptions, even.

Still, Dixon's proven little other than he's extremely effective at winging balls directly into defenders hands. He's exactly like that Appalachian State guy in that respect, and Michigan should dare him to throw the ball.

Key Matchup: Safeties versus falling down. The best way to turn a crappy passing attack into a great one is to turn a five yard completion into a 70 yard touchdown.

Special Teams

Oregon kicker Matt Evensen might be pretty crappy: prior to this year he was called upon to attempt twelve field goals across two years. He made five of them. He was two for two against Houston, but there's the possibility of a miss or two here. Oregon was a dangerous punt/kick return team a year ago (29th and 19th, respectively) and has an advantage over Michigan's non-Breaston return units.

Key Matchup: Let's block some blockerguys.


Kittens, don't fail me now.

Cheap Thrills

Worry if...
  • We get gashed early; more running equals more time on the field equals exhaustion equals more running.
  • Henne's still off.
  • Just worry.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
  • Dennis Dixon finds himself rattled and in full-on interception mode.
  • Um... we bring up a safety and we find a couple linebackers? And fairies descend from the sky bearing a time machine we can use to go back to a time before this all happened?
  • Screw it, I like the fairies thing. Let's do that.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 I Was Already Frightened; +1 for AND THEN WE LOST TO A I-AA TEAM, +1 for THAT RUNS THE SAME OFFENSE OREGON DOES, +1 for AAAAAARRGH, +1 for IT BURNS!!!!!!).

Desperate need to win level: 3 out of 10. (Baseline 5; -3 for It's Not Like It Can Get Any Worse, +2 for Mike Hart Deserves Better, -1 for If I Get Emotionally Invested God Will Smite Us Again, +1 for Those Are Some Ugly Uniforms, Though, Shouldn't God Smite Them?)

Loss will cause me to... yawn, create detailed post about Michigan's coaching search, have inexplicable heaving sobs at various times during the week. (Note to mom: kidding!)

Win will cause me to... yawn, create detailed post about Michigan's coaching search, privately concoct ridiculous national championship scenarios.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict: Unpredictable shootout coming with lots and lots of running. Presumably Michigan wises up too late about the dare-them-to-throw thing and gives up a touchdown or two aerially just to spite my assertions about how Michigan should play this game. Offensively, I don't think Henne was that bad against Appalachian State and the have no answer for Hart. Up and down it goes; in the final estimation I believe Michigan will piss away a field goal here and a touchdown opportunity there as Dixon runs to his heart's content and Michigan comes up with another loss.

The wildcard here, though, is turnovers. Oregon is liable to lose a lot of 'em, and if M ends up +1 or +2, which seems fairly likely, they should be in to win.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
  • Oregon goes with the neon yellow helmets, green jerseys, and white pants.
  • Henne looks much better, like 65% plus Manningham touchdown better.
  • 34-32, Oregon.