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Friday, October 19, 2007

First, Alan Weymouth on the last game and the upcoming one:

People saying this was our most complete game of the season are spot on. I also have to say, DeBord called a pretty darn good game on Saturday. Run game showed a few new wrinkles...not many, but enough to keep Purdue off balance. The thought the passing game was very, very sharp and the staff adjusted quite well here.

Our madeover right side of the offensive line performed pretty well. I didn't see any mental gaffes on run or pass blocking schemes to note. With DeBord keeping the Purdue defense off balance, we didn't see nearly as much penetration this week. Purdue's front four weren't all that great though. I've a few concerns about Ortmann being able to handle some of the better pass rushers in the league, but I don't think we'll see one until later. Ortmann tends to be a little too tall and can get off balance. Schilling should stay at guard. I really think Schilling only needs to develop better strength to become one of Michigan's better guards.

The good Henne showed up this weekend as well, and that had more to do with our offense putting up points than anything else. He made good reads and even better throws. I still don't like the jump-ball tosses, but at least Manningham battled for the ball this week.

Defensively, the front seven was at it's best this week. I've been hard on Chris Graham, but his performance against Purdue was his very best. He's still not a top-notch tackler, but he got his man on the ground this week and didn't overrun anything. He showed up in the middle of practically every Purdue WR screen, move around the blockers and often made the stop...just what we're looking for. Ezeh also played much more decisively. The secondary was solid against what I think will be the best set of WRs we'll see until OSU. Our defense has come along way over the last five weeks.

This Illinois game really scares me. Coach Carr mentions playing assignment football, and this is EXACTLY what has to happen this weekend, and it's not exactly the strong suit of some of our players. Crable and B.Graham in particular really worry me in this game, because they still tend to "freelance" rather than play their assignments. Crable busted the only zone read play that Purdue ran last week, and if he can't get his crap together against Illinois, we'll have some problems.
I've watched the Illini play twice. Williams is a pretty good runner, and has a big arm, but he isn't a particularly good thrower.I haven't seen much of McGee, save for a few running plays. Our defense HAS to keep this guy from running us to death and make him execute in the passing game. It is imperative that we shut down the run game..both the zone read and the option Looks that they will give us. We'll have to stay in some version of zone for most of this game to allow the DBs to help contain the option.

True zone reads and options will leave the DE unblocked and QB will read the DE to decide to keep or handoff/pitch. Our DEs have to play disciplined football, and not get "sucked in" to taking the RB on zone reads or being too aggressive in taking the QB on the options. It's generally better on option plays to "string out" the QB and allow pursuit to catch up and take the pitch man. We may see some actual "Veer" offense from Illinois this week as well..with two RBs that the QB uses as options. Our LBs also have to make good, quick reads and fill gaps on the Zone plays...and fly to the pitchman on options. We haven't been real disciplined here in the past either.
Offensively, our biggest barrier is playing on the road, and the possible loss of Hart. If Hart is out, our staff has to design some stuff that makes use of Brown's speed. Even if Hart plays, having someone like Brown as a change-of-pace back would be really nice. I think Illinois' defense is okay. Nothing about it really stood out. Seemed to be decently coached, but lacking any true playmaker. We should be able to put 30 on the board if all goes well. Defensively, I really think 21 points is a reasonable expectation. We're capable of holding them to less if we get our crap together. If we let Williams run all over the place...well...there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Run Offense vs. Illinois

Mike Hart's availability is in question, and even though Carlos Brown showed some speed and the ability to not fumble every other carry last week, losing Hart would be a hammer blow to the team. There is no replacement for him, whether it's in terms of leadership, ball security, tough yards after contact, or thumping blitz pickups against potential All-American linebackers.

Illinois, of course, features J Leman and some other guys as part of a decently stiff run defense currently 27th in the country. A closer look shows they crushed Missouri and gave up slightly more than 4 YPC to the tailbacks of Penn State, Wisconsin, and Iowa. No long runs distorted those stats; neither did quarterback sacks factor in. This is a better than average, but not great, run defense.

One thing to look for: in this morning's VEQ Iowa blogger Oops Pow Surprise indicated that the Illinois defensive tackles were two-gap sorts of guys keyed on occupying blockers and allowing J Leman and company to flow to the ball unimpeded. That won't work against Michigan's stretch plays, as on them the very idea of a double is forgone for a sure attempt at the second level. Illinois will have to adapt its strategy to cope. These are untested waters and there's a chance the Illini DTs find themselves lumberingly ineffective, paving the way for an unexpectedly robust Michigan ground attack.

If Brown plays, Michigan figures to go to a pass-first offense with Brown as a secondary option (at least... you'd imagine, right?); I would look for a lot of draws to get Brown in space and a lot of plays with a lead fullback to help cut down on his occasionally questionable vision. One more item to look for given Brown's sojourn as corner this spring and his iffy blocking against Purdue: the deployment of someone else in obvious passing downs. It might be Moundros. It might be Hart -- even if he can't cut he can pick up linebackers.

Key Matchup: Mike Hart versus Angry Michigan Running Back Hating God. In comparison, little else matters. We'll also throw in a bonus key matchup: Illinois DTs versus Their Ability To Penetrate. Michigan has struggled with quick (relatively) little bastards thus far.

Pass Offense vs. Illinois

Illinois is blitz-mad and seriously iffy elsewhere. Colin chips in observations from the Iowa game:
Jake Christiansen was clearly not that good, but shredded the Illinois pass defense any time his offensive line figured out their blocking schemes, which they are clearly not good at doing. They blitz all the time, presumably because they figure 6 and 7-man zones aren't going to do much better. Behind these blitzes they play soft zone, I'd guess cover 3. They do blitz with some ingenuity and they do have the athletes to get to the quarterback, but they can't usually get pressure with the front four without some kind of snafu up front.
Shooting Blue provides some encouraging numbers:
  • Andrew Robinson, Syracuse - 17/26, 208 yards, 8 yards/attempt
  • Kellen Lewis, Indiana - 26/51, 263 yards, 5.2 yards/attempt
  • Anthony Morelli, Penn State - 21/38, 298 yards, 7.8 yards/attempt
  • Tyler Donovan, Wisconsin - 27/49, 392 yards, 8 yards/attempt
  • Jake Christensen, Iowa - 17/25, 182 yards, 7.3 yards/attempt
Yes, 4/5 games averaging 7.3+ YPA is an indication of some serious suck in your secondary, especially when quarterbacks from Penn State, Syracuse, and Iowa are featured. Chad Henne is way better than all these guys. The Michigan receivers are way better than everyone on those teams save James Hardy. Illinois' top corner is Vontae Davis, a freshman All-American a year ago but still just a sophomore; past Davis they've gotten little contribution
from an array of lightly recruited players.

Henne, meanwhile, has rebounded from an atrocious opening game and a half to pick apart secondaries in three consecutive games. He was nearly perfect against Purdue and is finally rounding into the form Michigan fans expected/hoped for going into the year. Obviously this is not a stable equilibrium yet -- there is always the chance for inexplicable regression given Henne's career to date -- but if there's an aberration in the last two years of Henne's career, stretching back to just before the 2005 Ohio State game, it's the poor play, not the good play.

Add in Mario Manningham's return to deep form, the emergence of Adrian Arrington as an all-around threat who can leap out of the stadium, and Greg Mathews establishing himself Avant 2.0, and there is a clear opportunity here to put up huge numbers here.

Key Matchup: Boren, Brown, and Butler versus Various Blitzers. Pick up the blitzes and there is no way -- no way -- Illinois covers Manningham, Arrington, and Mathews.

Run Defense vs. Purdue

Oh, the terrible danger. Illinois is basically the Appalachian State offense with an NFL-caliber running back and a faster, bigger quarterback. The Illini are eighth nationally in rushing offense, deploy the spread option to devastating effect, and are playing Michigan. Woe is very much a possibility.

Meanwhile, Michigan has recovered from its opening debacles to become a respectable defense, though the only spread option attack they've faced since was Northwestern's and the Wildcats racked up 300-some first half yards and sprung a 50-yard touchdown run from a slow backup running back.

The hope here is that the Appalachian State game was an anomaly borne of incredible arrogance on the part of the Michigan coaches -- the odd hopes we have -- and that Illinois won't be able to threaten the devastating passing game Oregon used to shred Michigan by air and land. Oh, and that the reinforcements on the defense will help it suck considerably less.

Expect a ton of zone from Michigan. It won't matter much if Michigan tips off its coverages like that because the Illinois receivers aside from Benn suck and so do the quarterbacks. If Illinois wishes to throw on first down, Michigan will welcome it.

Zone allows the cornerbacks to look into the backfield and react to the option. Iowa deployed its traditional 4-3 despite going up against 3 or 4 wide receivers much of the day; Michigan may choose to go with something similar, dropping Crable back to be a linebacker or, more likely, bringing in a full four-man defensive line and deploying Crable as a standup DE. Containment will be key: Crable has blown contain several times the past three weeks by collapsing on zone read fakes, allowing the quarterback to get outside of him. This cannot happen against Illinois.

Key Matchup: Chris Graham, Obi Ezeh, and Shawn Crable against Mental Implosion. As Alan says, option football is assignment football. Michigan has the athletes to keep up on the edges, but they are prone to mental breakdowns that will be deadly against Illinois.

Pass Defense vs. Illinois

Juice Williams is the worst quarterback Michigan will play this year unless his freshman backup Eddie McGee enters the game, in which case it'll be a close runoff between the two. Williams is completing 55% of his passes this year -- up from last year's incredible 39% -- but is averaging just 5.2 YPA and has five interceptions to five touchdowns. Every once in a while they'll run play action and try to hit Arrelious Benn deep, but other than that Illinois mostly passes only when they have to, and that poorly.

Meanwhile, the Michigan secondary has shaped up considerably since the post-apocalyptic Oregon game, with a major assist from Brandon Graham and a newly slavering defensive line. Michigan held down CJ Bacher and the suddenly unstoppable Northwestern offense, forcing a quartet of second-half turnovers, and completely destroyed Curtis Painter and Purdue. Neither of these teams is exactly... uh ... Kentucky (it's a weird year in college football), but then again neither is Illinois.

Michigan will probably sit back in a soft-ish zone much of the day and zone blitz heavily, attempting to confuse whoever's chucking ducks into interceptions and bad reads. Benn will get several shots at long receptions; Michigan will be playing off; the big danger is that the powerful Benn pulls a Braylon on one of the jump balls hurled skyward.

Key Matchup: Morgan Trent versus Arrelious Benn. Historically, Trent has been very difficult to beat deep. If Michigan can rely on him to deal with Benn without a safety bracket, things get much easier up front.

Special Teams

Benn returns kicks for Illinois; the winning margin against Penn State was a kickoff return score. Meanwhile, Michigan's kick coverage has been atrocious and its attempts at mitigating said atrocity have been equally atrocious. With opponents generally starting at the 30 or beyond and a dangerous returner to deal with, expect popups and squibs. Heck, kicking it directly OOB doesn't seem like such a bad deal these days.

Kyle Hudson is averaging under 8 yards per punt return and is no threat to do anything except catch a punt and run into a nearby player.

Illinois punter Anthony Santella sucks; Illinois is 98th nationally in gross yards an 111th in net. Greg Mathews is unlikely to get any return opportunities, as he'll usually be fair-catching 34 yarders. Kicker Jason Reda is a perfect 9 for 9 on the year.

Key Matchup: Kick coverage versus Benn. Or kick coverage versus upbacks.


Cheap Thrills

Worry if...
  • Hart's on the sideline, obviously.
  • Our defensive tackles are as ineffective as they were in the first two games.
  • Mendenhall gives you flashbacks to Jonathan Stewart.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
  • Illinois blitzes don't get there.
  • Illinois is consistently in second and long.
  • Henne is on.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 8 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for Ack Spread Option, +1 for Ack Ack Run-Heavy Spread Option, +1 for Oh, God, What About Hart, +1 for And It's A Road Night Game, -1 for They Throw Like Jimmah).

Desperate need to win level: 8 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for Win This And We Play OSU For The Rose Bowl, Basically, +1 for Hart Can Win The Heisman If That Happens, +1 for I Am Going And Don't Want To Ruin What Should Be A Nice Weekend)

Loss will cause me to... be not at all surprised that we got shredded by a spread option team.

Win will cause me to... consider going to Wisconsin. But probably not.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Two competing historical trends with Lloyd Carr teams are at war: 1) Michigan can't stop the option to save its life, especially if that option comes from a spread shotgun, and 2) one dimensional offenses die against Michigan. This is a defiantly one-dimensional spread option attack; I don't know what to do with this.

Michigan seems somewhere between Wisconsin's suddenly nonexistent run defense and Iowa's traditionally responsible, veteran unit and will probably cede yards in chunks but get enough stops to put Illinois in passing downs regularly. I figure Michigan gives up one or two big plays, allows one distressingly impressive touchdown drive, and otherwise gives up a first down here or there, maybe a push into field goal territory, but mostly forces punts. The Illinois passing game is just too awful to have sustained success against a team that is probably not going to get run over like it's Indiana.

On offense... urg. At this point I believe Hart will be considerably limited. I do have enough faith in the common sense of the Michigan coaches to take one look at the last scholarship running back on the roster, the Illinois secondary, and Manningham/Arrington/Mathews/Butler/Henne and decide that without Hart they will put the game on their senior quarterback. They did not do this in the awful first half against Northwestern because they did not have said senior quarterback; they faced a similar situation last year at Penn State -- also a night game -- and came out slinging. I believe they'll do this again, and have much more success against a team with a secondary much flimsier than Penn State 2006 and much more reliant on blitzing to get pressure. I do expect them to try out the stretch a few times early to see if those two-gap tackles can adapt; we are not likely to see a ton of running unless it's effective early.

The quarterback numbers above indicate Michigan will have success doing this. If Michigan picks up the blitzes effectively, they win comfortably.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
  • Hart does play a bit, mostly on third downs as a blitz pickup guy.
  • Henne busts 300 yards and hits a season-high in attempts.
  • 31-21, Michigan.