First, Alan Weymouth on the last game and the upcoming one:
A really good win for us at Illinois, with Hart and Henne injured to varying degrees. The way the game began, I worried that our team might tank, they had every opportunity to do so, but continued to battle. I give the game ball this week to Ron English and the defensive staff, for keeping those guys together when it looked like it might get ugly.
Defensively, we still didn't do as good a job as I'd like in stopping the zone play up the gut. Our LBs are still struggling here. I didn't see anyone stop that play really well, until Johnny Thompson's third quarter slash and bash on 3rd down. Ezeh still responds to this one too slowly. Keep this in mind for the OSU game, we showed some vulnerability to the 3 WR set, with a FB and TB running ISO. Sweatervest will have that one in his back pocket for sure. I found it very interesting that Michigan kept six defenders in the box against many of the Illini run sets...like the above mentioned "I" formation, and the split-back, shotgun look that Illinois often runs the Zone Read from. They gashed us up the middle a lot with these looks, and we'll see it a lot over the next four weeks. MSU, Wisky and OSU will all attack us over and over again up the middle. I was very surprised that Illinois didn't keep after us there.We played the option game very, very well and I thought Crable played decently at DE and kept his responsibility. The only instance I saw where he lost contain was the first TD, and I thought he got held a bit on that play (along with not exactly attacking the outside shoulder of the OT).A great game from Brandon Harrison, who did a really good job on Benn. Harrison's tackling was crisp. The secondary in general played pretty well. I expected to see some open guys in the zone we ran, but they generally got their guy on the ground pretty quickly after the catch, and forced Illinois to execute well in the passing game.To be really good against these Zone Read teams, we've got to shore up the middle of the defense. All in all though, I'd give the "D" an B++ for the game.Offensively we struggled without Henne and our re-re-revamped offensive line didn't do anything for me this week. Ciulla, Boren and Schilling had some communication problems in pass pro on DT twists, and Schilling got smacked around a bit in this game. One thing to look for with the pass protection from Schilling is, he tends to turn and "run" with the DE instead of "sliding" without crossing his feet. If you slide, like guarding in basketball, it allows you to keep a firmer base so balance isn't as big an issue. When you "run" with the DE, you're generally asking for trouble. When I had a OL running instead of sliding, I always knew I had him dead to rights as there were multiple moves I could execute to get to the QB. Compare Long's technique to Schilling's. Again, I think strength is Schilling's problem. I much prefer the Long, Boren, Kraus, Schilling, Ortmann line to any I've seen.We missed Hart the most in pass pro. Neither Brown or Minor is even close at this point. Both had their moments at RB, but neither really got it done like Hart in pass pro. I wish the Michigan staff would install some quick pitches to Brown to really make the oppositions LBs think. He's so fast, that a zone pitch play (like we used to run with Grady when he was healthy) would force the LBs to fly to the outside to keep him from getting to the corner, and allow for some nice cutback runs. Notice on one zone play, we actually cut the DT loose, because we knew that he couldn't get to Brown in time.I think we'll see Mallett start this week against Minny. No need really to risk Henne. Hart will play, though I think he'll be limited to 15-20 carries (or 100 yards whichever comes first). [Don't know about this. -ed] Mallett's continued problems with the center snaps is disturbing at this point. I wish Michigan would just let him run the offense from the shotgun. Would be a nice change of pace and would help him get comfortable. The issue as I see it, is that he doesn't "ride" the C's butt with his hands, especially when the C has a tough block in the playside gap to make. It's probably not ALL Mallett's fault, but between a C who has never played the spot before, and a QB who hasn't taken many under the center snaps...well....Look for 20 throws or so from Mallet..and alot of running from Hart, Minor and Brown.
Run Offense vs. MinnesotaIt's difficult to overstate how bad the Minnesota defense is. So let's try some analogies.
If the Minnesota Defense was a presidential candidate:
If the Minnesota defense was an Atari game:
If the Minnesota Defense was an offense:
For seriouses, the Minnesota defense is approaching truly epic levels of suck. They are dead last in total yardage and 109th in scoring defense. But the rush defense is the strongest aspect of what defense they have -- see also "most disciplined Ron Zook teams" -- at a sunny 94th nationally. Heck, they only give up 5.2 yards per carry and held North Dakota State under 400 yards. I hear the North Dakota State team is comprised of actual bison, so that seems pretty good. This could be quite a battle.
Key Matchup: Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor versus falling over untouched in the backfield 30 times.
Actually... no. Down this road things like Ball State happen. Revising:
Key Matchup: Boren and Schilling versus penetration. Boren's gotten much better in recent weeks while Schilling seems to have regressed; throughout the year the two kids have been at fault for most of the missed blocks, though, and progress would be nice to see going into the closing stretch.
Pass Offense vs. MinnesotaThe Gophers are no better here than they are against the run, currently 113th in pass efficiency defense and 119th -- dead last -- in pass yardage defense despite playing a comical parade of nonconference creampuffs. They've benched a senior cornerback in favor of a third true freshman in the secondary; this will be the worst secondary Michigan has faced by far.
Meanwhile on the defensive line, Willie Van De Steeg, 2006's lone bright spot with ten sacks, has been out or limited much of the season. His availability remains in doubt; even if he goes he will not be 100%. Without him, Minnesota has had no pass rush whatsoever. They have just six sacks in eight games. Any Minnesota player who lays a hand on a Michigan quarterback should be given warrant to celebrate like he's a Notre Dame quarterback completing a pass.
Much hinges on Henne's availability. He remains questionable with a shoulder separation; given Minnesota's general putridity Michigan is unlikely to risk his health. Expect Mallett and a maximum of 20% first down passes, many of those safe, as Michigan shuts down and tries to pound out a victory without getting anyone hurt or giving Minnesota life via interception.
Key Matchup: Mallett versus The Unbearable Boredom Of Repeated Handoffs.
Run Defense vs. MinnesotaOn the other hand, the Gophers' offense has made an impressive transition from Glen Mason's grinding power game to one of those damn spread things. Minnesota is currently doing better on the ground this year (36th, 4.8 YPC) than they did last year (42nd, 4.3 YPC), although those numbers will slip considerably once they face the defenses of Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. (Well... maybe not Wisconsin.)
Running back Amir Pinnix is no Maroney or Barber but he's not bad, either. He's been limited in several games recently -- there was a four game stretch with at most five carries -- and has split time with Duane Bennett and Jay Thomas. A potential monkeywrench: Gopher QB Adam Weber has 401 rushing yards this year. He's averaging more than 10 carries a game as Minnesota uses him to exhaustion.No one back is crushing the competition, but each averages at least 4 YPC. It's a decent, if inept opponent fattened, rushing attack that attacks Michigan's traditional weaknesses.
Michigan, meanwhile, has struggled mightily against the zone read all year long. Though Rashard Mendenhall was held under 100 yards, that was only because Illinois limited to 18 carries. On those carries he picked up 85 yards and was rarely brought down anywhere near the line of scrimmage unless Illinois was pinned inside its five and lined up in a come-and-get-me power set. Michigan's linebackers continued their struggles. One bright spot was quarterback containment: save one 23-yard Juice Williams scramble when Michigan suckered freshman defensive tackle John Ferrara on the zone read, Illinois quarterbacks were reduced to handoffs and pitches. The option was contained; Mendenhall was the only real threat.
Key Matchup: The Usual: Michigan linebackers versus hesitancy, fullback blocks, misdirection, and inability to get off their blocks.
Pass Defense vs. MinnesotaRedshirt freshman Adam Weber has performed adequately, if not well, (58%, 6.6 YPA) thus far but for one niggling detail: boatloads of interceptions. Weber has 15 already against a wide selection of the worst defenses known to man. He a loose cannon at this point in his career, not particularly accurate or sane. Weber's YPA and sack numbers (Minnesota is 5th in the country) indicate a ton of screens, short passes, and three-step "drops" (scare quotes because Minnesota operates a shotgun spread), throws he should be more accurate on. General expectation: Curtis Painter last year.
You may recall enormous wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright, the brobdingnagian revelation as a freshman who never progressed despite looking like a walking blueprint of an NFL pro-bowler. He's gotten better and could be the target of a Patented Jeff Bowden Hopeful Downfield Jump Ball or three, but the #1 reciever for the Gophers is sophomore Eric Decker, well on his way towards IGWWR* status. (With the carnage at Iowa and the recent emergence of Decker and awesomely named Logan Payne, the question has to be asked: did Minnesota hijack the secret Des Moines lab where these guys are genetically engineered?) In the brief glimpses I've seen of Decker, he's basically Payne: sneaky fast, sure handed, and a heady hard working guy who has a mind for the game and just coincidentally happens to be white.
I repeat myself, but: since exiling Stevie Brown to the bench and Johnny Sears to a Cheech & Chong marathon, the Michigan secondary has emerged into a solid unit. Freshman Donovan Warren blew a coverage last week and linebackers jumping little flare routes opened up a number of underneath routes for Illinois wide receivers, but most things longer than a few yards were well covered. Meanwhile, Michigan is 12th nationally in sacks largely because of Shawn Crable and Brandon Graham. Minnesota won't provide many opportunities to add to that total. Solid tackling on short routes and properly reading screens will be key. Put Minnesota in third and long and it's punting time.
*(inexplicably great white wide receiver)
Key Matchup: Donovan Warren versus WR screens. Warren's been a dodgy tackler thus far. Minnesota will probably try to exploit this with their bubble screens.
Special TeamsKickoff coverage could be frustrating again. Minnesota has a kick return touchdown from Jay Thomas, albeit one against Florida Atlantic, and is currently 18th in kick return average. (They do get to practice it an awful lot.)
Minnesota punter Justin Kucek kicks it deep (almost 44 per) but often outkicks his coverage. Michigan has no one capable of exploiting that; expect a number of 10-yard Greg Mathews returns. The Gophers have only attempted four field goals all year, missing half.
On the Michigan side of things, Zoltan The Inconceivable continues to hypnotize opponents into muffed punts and roughing the kicker penalties. He launched a 67-yarder with no return last week, and the only thing holding down his average are the many times he's been asked to drop balls inside the ten, something he does with consistency. Hail Zoltan.
KC Lopata might not be Mike "Ted" Nugent, but indicators are his initial might stand for Kicking Competency, something not found during the mercifully brief Gingell era. He's been all right on a series of short field goals.
Key Matchup: Michigan kick coverage versus Thomas, et al. It's been awful so far this year.
IntangiblesTwenty-four point spreads do not warrant kitten talismans.
Cheap ThrillsWorry if...
- Hart and Henne don't play... and neither do Carlos Brown, Brandon Minor, or Ryan Mallett. Or Jake Long. Or KC Lopata. Or Zoltan The Inconceivable.
- Michigan keeps getting gashed up the middle on the zone read.
- Every kick return ends up on the Michigan side of the field.
- Michigan doesn't turn the ball over four times.
- Our linebackers start reading and reacting quicker.
- The Brown/Minor combo starts looking very doable for 2008.
Desperate need to win level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for This Would Be More Humiliating Than Appalachian State, +1 for I Am On Record Saying Firing Mason Is Really Stupid, +1 for The Jug(!), +1 for If We Lose To This Team We Are So Screwed For The Rest Of The Season, +1 for Oh God, The Kittens, The Horrible Kittens)
Loss will cause me to... look, I was in Phoenix visiting my grandmother. I couldn't have smeared anyone's car with goat feces, and I have no idea what you are insinuating. No, this isn't a bomb. Yes, it's red and composed of sticks and ticking. It's an egg timer. What?
Win will cause me to... WOOO SUCK IT MINNESOTA WOOO NOT SO HOT WHEN YOU'RE NOT PLAYING ON ICE, HOSERS!
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
It's not often a schedule featuring a I-AA team and Eastern Michigan offers up an opponent clearly worse than both, but this is it. The worst defense in the country keeps getting younger and more befuddled. Michigan could probably call out the play it's running before every snap and still pick up 5 YPC. Inexperience and error on the part of the backfield will probably submarine a drive or three; Minnesota might back into another stop or two. Michigan should go up and down the field otherwise.
Offensively, Minnesota actually has a chance to move the ball. Weber will carry it more frequently than either Illinois quarterback did, and given Michigan's general weakness against rushing quarterbacks -- one admirable job of containment does not overthrow years of problems -- there's a distinct possibility of two or three frustratingly competent drives from the Gophers, though a couple of them are likely to end in interceptions. Michigan's defense isn't as good as Ohio State's, but it's rapidly developing into something that's not far off. Some crumbs here and there but no real danger.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- No Hart, no Henne, no Manningham.
- No problem.
- 38-14, Michigan.