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Friday, November 09, 2007

The interrogated this week is Bruce Ciskie, voice of Minnesota-Duluth hockey (go Mascots!) and Fanhouse contributor. He's not pictured. Or he might be the woman on the right. But probably not.

So, first: can you give us an injury report? Langford and Chapman are out. Is Vanden Huevel going to play? What about Hill? Who replaces them? And are any of these losses/potential losses damaging?

Hill sounds like a gametime decision...again. [Status is now "not likely to play." -ed] I can't imagine that they're being truthful about his injury when it's going on three weeks for a "bruised foot". I hope it's nothing terribly serious, but I am starting to fear that it's worse than they're letting on. Vanden Heuvel sounds like he will be able to play. Jake Bscherer probably starts at RT, and if Saturday is any indication, Tyler Donovan will need another couple hot tub trips before the Minnesota game if Bscherer plays.

Lance Smith will run the ball if Hill can't go, being as this is a home game and all. Hill's loss is the worst. He's fat, yes, but he can break tackles, and with how this line has been playing, it's good to have a running back who can do that. Holes are not plentiful for backs to run in right now.

Sounds like Michigan's line, actually, minus Jake Long, etc. Who replaces Langford and Chapman? Are the backups tested at all?

Aaron Henry starts at corner. He's a true frosh, meaning he's bound to screw up a few times. I like him, though. He'll challenge receivers, something Langford didn't seem too keen on doing. On the line, Chapman is a huge loss because they weren't deep. Losing Ostrowski and Cooper might not have done much on paper, but it robbed the line of any real depth. I expect Mike Newkirk to start with Nick Hayden at tackle, and freshman Kirk DeCremer is in for more playing time at end. Newkirk had been playing at end and spotting inside until Chapman was hurt. If there's a plus, it's that these guys have all played. If there's a minus, it's that you have to believe they were reserves for a reason.

That leads us to one of the great underrated mysteries of the season: the Wisconsin front seven. They returned five starters -- maybe six depending on how you regard the booted Jamal Cooper -- from an outstanding run defense. Hayden looked a bonafide star; Casillas was poised to break out. But the results have been awful. Wisconsin's gotten bludgeoned. What happened?

Hayden's actually been okay, especially lately. The problem is that the front four was never all that good. Their job was simply to take up blockers. Last year, Zalewski, Casillas, and Levy made most of the big plays, especially against the run. Losing Zalewski was apparently a bigger deal than any of us realized, because the middle of that defense has gone completely soft without him. I don't know if it was the mohawk or what, because I never thought Zalewski was all that good. Steady and a good leader, yes, but not a superb player. He hasn't been replaced, and neither have safeties Joe Stellmacher and Roderick Rogers, both of whom helped against the run at times.

Casillas and Levy have both regressed, it seems. That's due in large part to the fact that they haven't been free to do as much. Offenses are getting hats on them. But I don't think either of them have been anything remotely close to adequate when it comes to getting off blocks and helping to fill against the run. The ends have been dreadful. Cooper wasn't even on the team last year, so we can't blame it on him not being there. Maybe Joe Monty did more than it looked like he did last year.

It's also a coaching issue. I'm not a fan of what Mike Hankwitz has done schematically. Guys are out of position way too much, and the blown assignments that plagued the Green Bay Packers last year have made their way down the freeway to Madison.

[18:29] bruceciskie: (See: Pass play to Hartline at the end of the first half Saturday. I'll never understand how he was allowed to get that wide open.)

Even Shaugnessey? He was like OMG sophomore(!) last year.

Shaughnessy has been injured this year. It isn't true, but I keep telling myself that. Takes the sting off a bit. (He's been freaking terrible. If I knew why, I'd elaborate. I don't get it.)

How have the safeties been? Mario Manningham is making an NFL push and has been lights out lately when not asked to block or stick out the ball to get a first down. Last year he was most of the Michigan offense. This year?

Can we not talk about the safeties? My mom once told me not to say anything if I can't say anything nice. OK, I'll talk about them.

Remember when you asked me before the season about what worried me about Wisconsin? And I told you it was the safeties. And you thought I was nuts?

I think I thought that was fairly reasonable. Aubrey Pleasant was an MSU commit at one point. Bad judgement, as Teddy KGB might say. Not a good trait in a safety.

Yeah, that. They've been as awful as I feared. Carter is a really good athlete, and you can see it, but he doesn't have ball skills, and his coverage skills are lacking. He's a better tackler than Pleasant, but I'm pretty sure Orson is a better tackler than Aubrey Pleasant. More on that in a second. Carter has some upside, and I keep telling myself that he's only a sophomore and is bound to get better. What bothers me is that I don't see him getting remarkably better. Now, for Pleasant. He has nice hair, and that's about it for nice things. Like Carter, Pleasant's ball skills are lacking. Unlike Carter, Pleasant probably would struggle to tackle Chad Henne in the open field. He doesn't take good angles and I don't think he's physical enough in one-on-one situations.

I've not been enamored with Jack Ikegwuonu, but he's been, by far, the best and most consistent defensive player on this team. That says a lot, and most of it is not good.

Yikes. I don't know how much you've seen of Michigan lately but the OL's been a bit of a mess. RT Steve Schilling gets beat for a sack or two a game, the RG is a carousel of different players, none of whom have been particularly good, and Carson Butler just got done nearly blowing the MSU game five times. So... this is not a slam dunk by any means. Henne seems fine -- when I reviewed the game for UFR he looked much better -- and the WRs have been excellent, but if there are guys who can get to Henne Michigan will stall. How's the pass rush?

OK, actually. The problem is that they've not been really consistent, and they haven't finished plays that well. But the pressure has been there much of the season. They'll blitz just about anyone except Ikegwuonu, and I'm guessing that the plan against Michigan will be to pressure Henne because he's been banged up. The Iowa game saw Henry, who was nickel back at the time, blitz like 200 times against Christensen and cause a bunch of problems. If they're going to have a shot in this game, they're going to have to disguise and blitz. If they rush four and let Henne pick them apart, he will.

It was one of the few things that I liked about last week's game against tOSU.

Meanwhile, Michigan's once-deadly screen game has totally atrophied. Corso says slow 'em down with screens and draws, Debord! Listen to Corso!

"Listen to Corso"? I'm pretty sure that's never been put in a blog before.

Anyway, on the other side of the ball... how has the Donovan era gone?

Donovan is a great leader. Tough as freaking nails (sorry, but I'm frazzled because of upcoming travel and can't think of anything better than a dumb cliche). He took hit after hit against tOSU and kept getting up. He can make all the throws Paul Chryst (OC) needs him to. He's mobile when he can complete his dropback without getting swarmed. He's not as accurate as Stocco, and he did start getting a bit wild with his throws Saturday once the Buckeyes hit him a few times in the second half. But I am not going to complain. He hasn't cost us a game, and he did a lot of really good things.

Allan Evridge will have some shoes to fill next year, to be sure.

I can't help but notice a 2 interception, 0 touchdown performance against Penn State. What happened there?

PJ Hill fumbled on the first play of the game. The defense was almost completely non-competitive. They were out of the game long before Donovan did anything wrong.
Worst game I've seen Wisconsin play in a long time.

Imagine how you'd feel if Michigan's defense spent two quarters making Anthony Morelli look like Colt Brennan.

I would feel very sad. And then I would want to punch a baby.

Okay. UW is 32nd in passer efficiency despite that. But also 100th in sacks allowed. Fluke? Or a likely indicator of serious turf-eating to come?

The sacks aren't Donovan's fault. The line hasn't done a great job, especially in the tOSU game, when Donovan was often swarmed with no chance to survey the field. Admittedly, there have been times that he didn't run when he should have, but I'm not going to fault him for all of that. This line has been a disappointment when it comes to pass-blocking and blitz pickup. My favorite play on Saturday was in the first quarter, when the LT blocked down the line and let Gholston rush into the backfield, where he only had to beat the block of true freshman RB Zach Brown to get the sack.

I mean, Gholston against a smallish freshman back? Who drew that crap up?

Opponents have done that against Crable, too. Weird. I think it's just a protection slide to make the n00b's blocking assignment clear. Sometimes it's Roidy McRoiderson. Sorry, kid.

Dumb. So if we keep doing that, Crable is guaranteed two the first quarter.

Maybe Smith's pass pro is more advanced. Michigan did the same with Carlos Brown in the backfield. Not so much with Hart.

Smith is bigger. Frankly, I can't imagine he's a worse blocker than Brown. [Note that he's talking about UW freshman Zach Brown, not Carlos. -ed]

He's just a better player at this point. Too bad he couldn't handle a little cab fare tiff with his woman.

Meanwhile, Michigan's run defense has gotten gashed up the middle pretty consistently this year. After a half of stoning Michigan State they buckled against a fat back. How has the Wisconsin run game gone?

Good with Hill and Smith, bad without. Smith and Brown might have a shot against Michigan, but I'd rather Hill played, no matter what happened last year. The middle of Michigan's defense is vulnerable, and Brown isn't suited for attacking that. Smith's better on the perimeter, too, but is at least passable going up the gut. Hill is the best fit for what Wisconsin needs in this game. Generally, I think Wisconsin's run the ball pretty well, even if the stats don't show it every week.

Any particular strengths or weaknesses on special teams?

The return game is still not that good, though freshman David Gilreath has improved as the season has gone on. I'm just not impressed. Mehlhaff has been solid kicking, and DeBauche is a good punter. The coverage teams have played pretty well, which is nice, and a lot of that credit goes to the respective kickers. But that return game still isn't impressive. I'd like to see them make a big play at some point, and doing it against Minnesota doesn't count.

There should be opportunities in the kick return game. Michigan's been terrible at it this year. I hate the kickoff from the 30 for entirely selfish reasons.

A prediction?

I have no serious basis for this, but I'm going to do it anyway. I think Michigan's offense is too banged-up to consistently exploit Wisconsin's defensive issues. Wisconsin is also helped by the fact that Michigan doesn't run the spread (sound familiar?). Henne gets hit enough to keep him from owning the Badgers, and Wisconsin finds a way to score points. It's Senior Day, and Donovan will play well. So will Travis Beckum, who is a junior but could very well be playing at Camp Randall for the last time. I say Hill plays, and he's much better than last year in Ann Arbor. Wisconsin 24-20. Please.

It would make my trip to Colorado Springs so much nicer.

I don't know how banged up the offense will be, actually. Henne and Hart will play and everyone except TE Mike Massey is (relatively) healthy. Hart will still be gimpy-ish, probably.

Henne didn't look like he could run a 40 last week. And he's not exactly Vince Young to begin with.

You could cut most Michigan quarterbacks' legs off and put them on a cardboard box without any noticeable drop in performance.


So, yeah, I fly out [to Colorado Springs] in the morning. Sunny and temps in the 70s while we're there. It's in the 30s in Duluth, and it snowed this week.

Ah, Duluth.


[Holy cognitive dissonance, Batman! Ciskie goes through and viciously mauls UW's entire defense, the offensive line, and the running backs, then says... eh... victory. I followed it up with a query about the sturdiness of his prediction in the wake of the Hill news. The response:
I'm sticking with it. I may have thought Hill would play when I made that prediction, but we all knew something was amiss because he wasn't practicing. If I was stupid enough to pick Wisconsin under those circumstances, then I'm certainly dumb enough to stick with it.
Allll riiiiight! -ed]