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Thursday, September 01, 2005

(This is Part III of the Michigan Preview. You can see Part I here and Part II here.)


No road out of conference games! Zow!

Michigan opens against Northern Illinois, one of the better MAC teams but one breaking in a new quarterback and rather flimsy-looking on defense. Their grinding ground attack racked up 238 yards a game last year and they were narrowly nipped by BCS teams Maryland and Iowa State. A MAC-opening loss to Toldeo was their only other defeat last year. The Huskies are no joke but they appear ill-equipped to exploit Michigan's weaknesses on defense or even think about slowing down the offense. Michigan should win this going away.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Weis E. Coyote and his merry band of NCAA-approved ethnic stereotypes are next. Weird, evil things happened in South Bend last year when a bediapered Henne and a nonexistent Hart blew a 12-0 lead and lost after a series of improbable second-half turnovers. I don't know what to expect from the ND offense. Can Weis install an effective system in a few months? Is Brady Quinn any good? Can Weis transmogrify the brains of Stovall and McKnight and make them into good wide receivers? Chances are that there will be some anxious moments as our safeties and linebackers adjust to playing a non-MAC team, but I don't expect the Irish to go nuts. I do know that the Irish secondary will be wretched, its linebackers middling, and its line game and talented but thin and prone to wearing down. This should be a win, if only for Vijay's sanity.

Eastern Michigan sucks.

The road and Big Ten opener is at Camp Randall, at night. It's Barry Alvarez's last opportunity to not get pwned by the Wolverines, which causes some coach-skeptical souls to fear it, overlooking the fact that Wisconsin is singularly incapable of exploiting our defensive weaknesses and has only a couple proven offensive linemen, a questionable secondary, and John Stocco, who I think is no good at football. I doubt Wisconsin scores more than 14 without aid from turnovers, and Michigan should breach 20 easily. Road opener hex broken.

The Michigan State game is the most important of the year. It starts a set of four critical games for Michigan, the heart of the schedule. MSU was robbed of victory in Ann Arbor last year when Drew Stanton went down and Braylon Edwards went up in one of the best games in Michigan history. There will be bloodlust in East Lansing, a place where Michigan rarely plays well. This is the moment we'll find out if the mobile quarterback thing has been mitigated, but I don't expect that Michigan will need a last-gasp burst to crack ten points this year. The Spartans are coughing up defensive players left and right. They'll have one of the worst secondaries Michigan faces this year. Another shootout is coming.

Minnesota succumbed to a late game Michigan comeback for the second straight year despite being outgained vastly. Turnovers and costly defensive mistakes leading to 80-yard Maroney touchdowns kept the Gophers in it last year but they were badly outplayed overall. mgoblog is on record predicting a Gopher offensive explosion this year and thus I am somewhat apprehensive about the game. Minnesota has the tools to handle the defensive line (Eslinger and co), exploit the linebackers(Maroney), and make the safeties look foolish(Wheelwright and Ellerson). They will put in a much better offensive performance than they did a year ago. Fortunately, Minnesota's defense looks as flimsy as ever. Michigan should be able to crack 30 against them. There's an 80% chance that'll be enough.

The Penn State game will be a slugfest, but with the uncertainty at OL, RB, QB, WR, and, oh hell, FB for the Nittany Lions I don't think their offense is going to have a pulse. Michael Robinson is technically a mobile quarterback, yes, but he's more of a mobile wide receiver if you catch my drift. The losses of Lavon Chisley and Ed Johnson and questionable status of JB Paxon will probably put a dent into their formidable defense from a year ago. Michigan should win this one; the Big Ten referees WON'T LET THEM LOSE!!!

It's often said about Iowa that the Hawkeyes never beat themselves, but that's exactly what happened last year when they gifted Michigan five turnovers and found themselves in a 20 point hole by the third quarter. They probably won't be so kind this year, but I think that with an entirely new, entirely green Hawkeye defensive line Michigan is going to be able to run the ball effectively enough to win at Kinnick. It'll be heartstopping, though.

Just because.
Northwestern may have been in a position to give Michigan a game before God decided to smite them. Now, down five starters, starting four new offensive linemen, and without its best player, Loren Howard, Northwestern is not going to challenge Michigan.

Indiana sucks.

Ohio State is on the verge of putting the Cooper shoe on the other foot. They bottled up Hart last year and then there was that eye-clawing thing with the quarterback and the 150 yard scoring drives. A tossup largely dependent on the development of the two quarterbacks.

Keys To The Season

A Real American Hero.Who is Steve Stripling? He's an actual defensive line coach. Bill Sheridan coached the position until last year. Amazingly, before Sheridan's stint there at Michigan, he had never played or coached the defensive line. Stripling comes over from Michigan State and, before that, Louisville. In 2003 he cajoled a Spartan team with a line no one would confuse with the Steel Curtain to 45 sacks. 2004 was not so kind to Stripling's charges, but with Kevin Vickerson and Greg Taplin gone and Clifton Ryan battling injury Stripling had very little to work with.

This will not be the case at Michigan. He has two potential All-Americans in Lamarr Woodley and Gabe Watson, a second-team All Big Ten-type in Pat Massey, a lot of potential at the other DE spot, and an absolute ton of depth. If Stripling was the type of person prone to rubbing his hands together and cackling evilly when presented with an infallible plan for world domination, you'd be hearing (what I assume is) his deep, rumbling basso emanating from the very bowels of Fort Schembechler right now. Scattered practice reports have repeatedly mentioned Woodley's general impossibility, the major steps forward taken by Jeremy Van Alstyne, Will Johnson, and Alan Branch, and the fact that Watson is still fat and broke Jake Long. This unit has the potential to be the type of defensive line that covers up a lot of flaws in the defense behind it. It will have to do so for the Michigan defense to reclaim its lost glory. There are two returning starters in the back seven, one of which had a terrible 2004 and missed most of the fall with a possibly chronic shoulder injury (Mundy)--they need help.

Well, Steve Stripling knows how to provide help. And knowing is half the battle.

Not a monkey.
Henne power. Michigan has every tool you could want on offense. Hart is a terrific workhorse back. Grady will be very hard to stop in short yardage situations. Breaston is double-digit YAC waiting to happen. Avant is a possession receiver without par in the Big Ten. Three offensive linemen and the top two tight ends return. But it is Chad Henne who must take these tools, stick them into the Big Ten anthill, and remove a delicious feast of touchdowns and field goals. Then he can rub his belly and contentedly go "ook ook ook."

What I am trying to say stripped of the weird metaphors is: Henne will have to improve for Michigan to be a serious national championship threat. At times last year he was indecisive, inaccurate, or incapable of making the right read. He'll have to spread Braylon Edwards' 97 catches around to four or five different players, develop better touch on screens and flares, and cut down on his interceptions. If he stagnates, Michigan's offense will as well and there will be a frustrating loss... or three.

Spy vs. Spy. I may as well write it since everyone else in the universe has: mobile quarterbacks must be stopped. We're talking deep need, like send a cyborg back in time to kill the first mobile quarterback need. And then send a second cyborg back to melt down the quarterback's equipment. And then something involving a girl cyborg I can't be bothered to watch. Michigan will be opposing at least four dual threat QBs--Stanton, Basanez, Smith, and Robinson. There should be at least some reason for hope. The breakdowns of last year were the absolute worst case scenario, the hurricane Katrina of Michigan defense. The new outside linebackers are extremely fast, capable of running down most quarterbacks if they can place themselves in the correct area code before all hell breaks loose. The safeties... er. Moving on.

The coaching staff has been incapable of fixing this massive hole in their defensive gameplanning for years, but never was the need to deal with the problem so desperate. Carr has shown that he can adapt, though the changes come slowly.

This all sounds like grasping at straws, because it is.


Worst Case: Henne's development stalls. He's still pretty good but continues to misread coverages and throw interceptions. Limited by Henne, the offense sputters a bit. The defensive backfield is a disaster and. Mobile quarterbacks continue to go nuts against Michigan and the Wolverines lose at East Lansing and Iowa City, drop to 1-4 against the Buckeyes, and manage to blow another game along the way in classic Michigan fashion to go 7-4. Pitchforks and torches sell out in Ann Arbor and an angry mob chases Lloyd Carr and Jim Herrmann out of town.

Best Case: Henne makes The Leap. Woodley and Tim Jamison go nuts rushing the passer and Graham and Burgess vastly improve Michigan's terrible linebacking play. The secondary is still a bit shaky but the defensive line doesn't allow anyone to exploit it. Michigan finally figures out how to stop mobile quarterbacks. Zoltan The Inconceivable averages 55 yards net punting, and Michigan heads the Rose Bowl for a third straight year, gunning for the national championship. 11-0, bitches!

mgoblog says... I consider Scott Loeffler the coaching equivalent of Anne Sullivan after he turned John Navarre from the worst Michigan starting quarterback since 1984 (no offense, John, but that sophomore year was not pretty) into an All Big Ten player and an actual NFL draft pick. Henne will advance. People will fear him. The offense has too much talent everywhere to not be one of the nation's finest as long as the somewhat precarious offensive tackle situation works itself out. Michigan hasn't been this loaded on offense in a long, long time.

The defense should be better. Last year Michigan's defense was the worst it has had in the Bo-Mo-Llo era by a wide, statistically implausible margin. This year there is a ton to prove and question marks everywhere, but one unit that can potentially cover up a lot of flaws: the defensive line. Lamar Woodley is defensive equivalent to Henne. If he turns into a double-digit sacker and Jeremy Van Alstyne performs like the coaches think he is capable, Michigan's defense won't be enough of a liability to keep Michigan's offense from winning games...

Except once. Could be MSU, could be Iowa, could be OSU, could be Minnesota or Penn State. There are too many potential landmines for Michigan to go undefeated, but too much talent to miss the BCS. 10-1, 7-1, 1st Big Ten.

Let's get it on!