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Thursday, November 15, 2007

It's VEQ time; you may remember Tom Orr from last year's edition. Tom is the Executive Producer of, a college sports, music and entertainment network that recently partnered with Fox News, and was the guy who wrote "Michigan Monday" for the OZone before the current guy who writes "Michigan Monday" for the OZone wrote "Michigan Monday" for the OZone. OZone.

horrible photoshop from Autumn Thunder.

So this is quite a comedown from both last year and, for OSU fans, last week. Not exactly the Game of the Century this time, but still for a shot at the Rose Bowl. I assume that most Ohio State fans are perfectly content with this state of affairs in what looked to be a "rebuilding" season?

For the most part, yes. I don't know how representative I am of the fanbase on the whole, but I don't think there was ever a time that I expected (like "this is GOING to happen") this team to run the table. I thought the five tough-ish games in a row, starting with MSU, would trip them up somewhere. There have also been signs of looming trouble for significant chunks of the season if you knew where to look. You've got elements of the fanbase that aren't ever going to be happy with anything less than an unbeaten season, but given where most people thought this team would be back in August, a shot at an outright Big Ten title and berth in the Rose Bowl is pretty good right now.

What are those signs of looming trouble? I'm looking at OSU's season stats and I see exactly one area of true concern: kick returns. Before the Illinois game, OSU hadn't played a close game except a fluke fest against Michigan State in which OSU dominated statistically before giving away two defensive touchdowns. From 1000 feet there doesn't look to be much to worry about.

It's sort of similar to last year when the stats said "this is an awesome defense!" but it really had some cracks. Watching the Penn State game, there were several times that Rodney Kinlaw -- who's not going to be confused with Herschel Walker anytime soon -- was able to rip off big runs. That's on a team where it never really seemed that the Buckeyes were that concerned with the opponent's passing game.

PSU didn't do anything too crazy, they just lined up, got blockers on the linemen and then got hats on the linebackers as well. It was a gameplan that Mike DeBord would have pulled out for a so-so opponent. Just pulling guards and running the old Power O or close relatives of it. Against a somewhat one-dimensional team, a great defense turns that into a 20 carries, 27 yards kind of night. Kinlaw finished with 14 carries for 81 yards and that was with him effectively taken out of the game in the second half because of a big deficit.

So what was the difference between that game and Illinois versus the Michigan State and Wisconsin games, in which Ohio State shut down two very good run offenses?

Illinois is kind of a different animal, since they run that spread option game. There have been a lot of theories bandied about regarding that game-- the fact that they went with three down linemen was one of them, the no-huddle look keeping OSU from rotating its defensive linemen out was another.

Personally, I saw a little bit too much hesitation out of some guys. The play that really sticks out in my mind was about a 3rd-and-3 on that final, soul-crushing drive where Williams kept it on that choice option. Marcus Freeman was out there unblocked but kind of just held his ground. He kept contain, but by the time he got Williams to the ground, he had fallen forward for a first down. It's odd to complain about guys playing assignment-sound football, but it just seemed like they weren't "turning it loose" like they could have. But unless Michigan has recruited a mobile quarterback in the last 15 years that I'm not aware of, that probably won't play too much of a role in this week's game.

More relevant is Penn State ability to get to the linebackers with blockers and effectively neutralize guys like Laurinaitis. That has always been the knock on him -- if he's unblocked, he's great, but he sometimes has trouble shedding blocks. The middle of the OSU defensive line is not great. There are great ends, but the guys in the middle are young and a little undersized.

Cartoon by Joel A Morgan

Penn State was able to exploit that, pulling a guard around to chip the D-linemen on occasion and also to pick up the 'backers. The Penn State offensive line isn't a bunch of world-beaters, but they're solid.

I can see Michigan trying that same strategy. If you see Michigan offensive linemen three yards downfield, picking up linebackers on running plays, that would be a bad sign for OSU fans.

My concern with the Michigan running game is it seems built to fail at this. Your undersized DTs will be allowed to slant to the ball, not driven back, in Michigan's zone game and Laurinaitis might not get blocked all that consistently with Michigan really struggling to find a right guard. Maybe Michigan will go away from the stretch -- they always seem to have a good gameplan for OSU -- but the run game as constituted seems ill-suited to exploit that potential weakness. Of course, Hart did have a very successful day last year. So I don't know.

Moving on: how is the secondary past Jenkins, who I assume will be matched up with Manningham all day? Adrian Arrington has been performing at a very high level so far; how are the second and third corners? The safeties?

Donald Washington has been pretty good all year on the other corner. He's a sophomore and while I think he's a ways from being a "shutdown" corner, he's not someone who's had fans cursing his name. Chimdi Chekwa has been something of a revelation as the nickelback. He's a redshirt freshman who came in with virtually no acclaim (I think he might have been a two-star or something like that) who has been a very consistent player this year. He won Big Ten defensive player of the week against Purdue.

The safeties were one of the bigger concerns with this team coming into the season. Both Anderson Russell and Kurt Coleman are sophomores, and having two underclassmen back there can be a recipe for the types of plays that lead smartass bloggers to name unflattering statistics after guys. [Who, me? -ed] Both have been pleasant surprises this year. Russell was off to a nice start in 2006 before he hurt his knee. His recovery was one of the big question marks this summer, but he's been good. Coleman, too. Frankly, if either one of them boxed at all, they're the kind of guys you would hear about incessantly. They're not infallible, but before last weekend's unpleasantness, the longest run the defense had allowed all year was a 28-yarder. I'll give you 10 guesses and you won't figure out who it was.

Amir Pinnix?


Jake Locker?

He had a 20-yarder, but nope.

Joe Tiller?

Close in the "likeliness" category, but no. Would you believe Anthony Morelli? It was a busted play, to say the least.

I don't believe you. I'm sticking with Tiller.

Right, I don't want to talk about this but it appears we have to: the pass rush. Fifth in sacks. Vernon Gholston. Etc. His matchup against (presumably) Steve Schilling gives all observant Michigan fans the heebie jeebies. How ugly will this be?

The pass rush has been good-- 10 sacks against a pretty good Wisconsin line. Much of that comes from outstanding defensive ends. Gholston is the one who gets a lot of pub and he's a great pass rusher, but having guys like Cameron Heyward (Ironhead's son), Alex Barrow and Robert Rose out there has helped keep those guys fresh. They've brought pressure quite a bit this year, as Jim Heacock is prone to do, so guys like Laurinaitis and Larry Grant have five sacks and Anderson Russell has three. For whatever questions there are about the middle of the D-line, the ends have been superb.

I'm with you -- I assume that OSU will try to get Gholston against Schilling as often as possible. Given that, and your documentation of Carson Butler's attitude toward blocking, I would think you might see Gholston in the backfield on more than one occasion, even if Michigan does keep him in to help. I know Hart's a good pass blocker, but I haven't seen that much of Brown or Minor in that role. Are they going to be useful, or is Michigan going to be forced to keep a fullback in there on most passing plays?

I assume Hart will leave the game only if shot, stabbed, drowned, poisoned, shot again, and guillotined. And then he'll have to aggravate his ankle sprain. (Hey, a guy's gotta sleep at night.)

Minor's been better than Brown in pass pro -- Brown was a HS QB and spent much of spring at CB -- and has been okay.

What's your general feeling for how Michigan will move the ball? Will the run game be effective? Can OSU crush Henne regularly enough to stop the offense? Will the corners win their battles against the Michigan receivers?

Assuming Hart plays-- and I completely agree that he's out there unless his leg falls off-- I think Michigan will be able to run it somewhat effectively. The fact that he's presumably not 100% probably lowers the "worst case scenario" from Biakabutuka to Perry, but that's still something Michigan fans would obviously take.

Not to go all Lee Corso on you, but I would expect a fair amount of screening, draws and long-handoff throws out of Michigan, since I think that they know they won't be able to keep the pass rush off Henne all day. Stopping the Michigan receivers has as much to do with the Michigan QBs as it does the OSU corners. If they decide to honor Tacopants on senior day, it's not going to make a damn bit of difference.

I have no idea what to expect out of Henne. He went ballistic against MSU for a quarter, but has looked positively dreadful at times as well. You know what you'll get out of Mallett -- lots of bad stuff mixed in with the occasional "holy crap, what did he just do?" piece of magic. Jenkins is very good, and should prevent Manningham from absolutely blowing up, but if Henne is throwing those ridiculous deep balls and dropping them in Manningham's lap (as he can on occasion), there's not much you can do to stop it. Arrington's pretty much the same. Neither guy is going to go "Braylon in 2003," I don't think, but a 100-yard day for Manningham and a 75-yard day for Arrington are certainly reasonable.

Mallett is not a real concern. He plays extensively, M loses. Analysis over. As for Henne, it's impossible to tell what to expect. After he returned from his first injury he was very good, then he was okay-awful-great in the MSU game. It's an enormous wildcard. The game hinges on his performance more than anyone else's, IMO.

Okay. Other side of the ball. Boeckman: Bellisari or Krenzel or Hoying or what?

He's a Krenzel-type, with a better arm. He has shown some mobility the last couple weeks-- something that we kept hearing about but never really saw much in a game until recently. For a guy John Navarre's size, he's pretty nimble.

Here comes the caveat: he seems to have these "uh oh!" moments where he channels Bellisari or the Stanley Jackson that you knew and loved so dearly 10 years ago this week. He made some really dumb plays against Michigan State that turned a blowout into a very close game. He seemed a little jittery in the pocket last week as well, at times dancing around when there wasn't any imminent danger.

He also has a little bit of the Rex Grossman "screw it, I'm going deep" mentality that has gotten him in trouble a few times. He will stand back there, stare down a guy, then throw it 50 yards downfield and watch the safety come over the top to pick it off or make a play on it. His pick on the last possession last week was a perfect example. OSU was down 7, he had tons of time and just needed to put a drive together. He had a checkdown guy open and decided to heave it instead, getting picked off.

mindblowing animated gif from Michigan Against The World.

He's been in the system for a million years (he gray-shirted in 2003, redshirted in 2004 and is now a fifth-year junior) but he's still a first-year starter. He's going to make mistakes, especially if you pressure him. I expect Michigan to have a very aggressive defensive gameplan.

So that leads into the next question: how has the line been in pass pro? Last year, of course, it all ended in tears against FLorida. This year they've been well above average. Blitz pickups been solid? How has the interior been? Michigan has a couple of pretty solid pass rushing DTs in Brandon Graham and Terrance Taylor.

The offensive line has been very good for the most part. I don't think a four-man rush is going to create too much havoc. You know about Boone and Barton-- both tackles are certainly above-average at worst. The middle of the line has definitely been better than Michigan's this year. Jim Cordle, the center, is an interesting story. He's right-handed and broke his right thumb earlier in the year. His solution: he just started snapping left-handed and didn't miss any time. The coaches said they've never seen a guy who could make that switch with such ease. [You are looking LIVE at Jim Cordle's hand!... We know, Tom. -ed ]

Both TEs, especially Jake Ballard have blocked well, and the backs are all okay too. Maurice Wells (if he plays) is actually a much better blocker in pass situations than he tends to get credit for. Michigan is going to have to blitz to get to Boeckman consistently. They will be able to get there if they bring enough guys-- the only question is how much they trust their corners. Really, I don't see them having much of a choice.

Please consider that Michigan has been not bad with the sacks itself this year. And didn't Boone have troubles against edge-rushers before?

No question, the middle of the Michigan line is strong. Last year, pass pro was a HUGE concern of mine going into the game -- especially blocking Woodley. Boone looked lost in the national championship game, but then again, everyone did. I don't know that Michigan has a Jarvis Moss, though. Brandon Graham is a very good player, and he could present matchup issues, but I still think that OSU will be able to get to Henne more consistently than Michigan gets to Boeckman. I could be wrong.

Sure. So, then... Beanie Wells versus a Michigan run defense that's been consistently soft up the middle. I can't imagine this being anything other than a decided advantage for OSU. This is where you agree with me:

Yup. Chris Wells has been dinged quite a bit this year-- he had some ankle issues earlier and screwed up his thumb more recently. He wore a soft cast to interviews on Monday, but both he and Tressel swore it was a precautionary thing just to keep the swelling down. He is an absolute load-- I'm not sure who to compare him to. Well... other than another top-ranked back with size and speed who had some occasional injury problems during his OSU career earlier this decade. Even that's not quite right.

If he can play the whole game, I think OSU wins, and I think he's the player of the game. The other backs (Mo Wells and Brandon Saine) also aren't 100% this week. Mo Wells left the stadium in a boot after some Illini player rolled up his ankle last weekend and Saine had a mild concussion. Both are supposedly going to be able to go this weekend. Saine is an absolute burner who has developed into a nice little receiving threat out of the backfield. They may try to hit him on a wheel route at some point on Saturday. That could be a matchup problem for Michigan.

Boy, I can't wait to see Chris Graham covering that.

And, drumroll... a prediction?

This is where I warn your readers that I predicted something like 17-13 OSU last year, and that two years ago I thought OSU wasn't going to win a close game-- they came from behind to win by four in the final minute.

Well, we still need something on the record.

I think Hart plays extensively, I think Henne plays extensively. I'm operating under the assumption that neither one will be 100%, but will still be serviceable. If he was 100%, I don't think I could say for sure that Hart wouldn't crack 250 yards. [!!! -ed] I just don't think he will be full-go. He's still good for 90-120 yards, even on a bad ankle.

Henne... again... who knows? Worst-case scenario? He turns into fourth-quarter against MSU Henne and puts on a show. Realistically, I think he's going to have some trouble throwing the deep ball accurately with his shoulder in whatever condition it's in. That enables OSU to pressure the run game more than it otherwise might be able to.

On the other side of the ball, the OSU coaching staff has occasionally strayed from the run game to their detriment this season. I don't think that happens this weekend. Chris Wells goes for 30 carries, 160 yards and a couple scores. Boeckman makes one "what the hell is he doing?" play that puts my remote control in mortal danger, but finishes with about 175 yards and a score. Assuming a healthy Chris Wells and a less-than-healthy Henne and Hart? OSU 27, Michigan 20.

All right, there you go. One final question: any gut fieelings on which juniors go and which stay?

I think Jenkins is probably gone -- he's likely a top-15 pick. Gholston is probably also gone, given the significance the NFL puts on pass-rushing defensive ends. Laurinaitis... I mean, he's not the unstoppable force of nature that Brent Musberger acts like, but he's probably a late first-rounder. Tressel has been pretty consistent with advising guys who project in the first round to go. Alex Boone? I would lean towards him staying, but that's not based on anything in particular. Marcus Freeman almost certainly stays. Brian Robiskie is hard to guess on. He's 6-foot-3, which isn't huge, and he's not a total burner like Ginn was, but he's a solid guy with decent hands who does a lot of the little stuff like running good routes and has a higher-than-normal football IQ because of his dad. I would guess that he's maybe a late first-round guy like Tony Gonzalez was a year ago. He's probably somewhat borderline to go. It may depend on how the season ends.

Thanks to Tom, and I hope you get anthrax!