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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Special Teams

Return Game
Rating: 5

Steve Breaston may have disappointed in many ways last year but this was not one of them. A sure way to constrict your throat at any time is to watch his critical return with under a minute left against PSU that set Michigan up near the 50 and enabled the Manningham magic to come. Breaston finished 8th in the country in kickoff returns and 18th in punt returns despite battling injuries and unblocked gunners all year. He is the real deal in this facet of the game, at the very least.

Michigan fans thought he was capable of much more had the coaching staff played punts for something other than fakes. Michigan's tendency to cover gunners like they were wide receivers and provide only a token punt rush removed much of the threat from Michigan's return game without assistance from the other team. Despite that, Breaston still excelled.

Rating: 4. Many are down on Garrett Rivas after some irritating, short misses in critical spots last year but he was 19 of 26 a year ago. 73.1% is light years from awful, though misses from 34 versus Minnesota, 27 against MSU and 25 against Nebraska show that he's not exactly Huston. Rivas will provide more of the same: reliable short-range kicking with sporadic, hair-pulling misses. There are worse fates.

Freshman kicker Bryan Wright will redshirt unless Rivas really struggles.

Houston, we are reading an unidentified
oblong object.
Senior punter Ross Ryan was ugly but effective a year ago, consistently kicking dying quails that made it 35 or 40 yards at maximum but were nearly unreturnable: only 17 of his 52 were run back and those for a paltry total of 85 yards. By contrast, Michigan had 423 punt return yards. His job has come under threat from redshirt freshman and space emperor Zoltan Mesko, who occasionally kicks balls into orbit but also occasionally shanks them for 15 yards. Carr has talked of a punting rotation. Presumably Zoltan would get punts from relatively deep in Michigan's territory where his leg can be used to full destructive effect while Ryan takes punts near midfield that he's less likely to bomb through the endzone.

Ryan's kickoffs almost always reached the endzone and many were touchbacks a year ago. The new, lower tee will reduce his touchback rate but he remains an excellent kickoff guy.

Special Teams in Summary

Should be a strength. Rivas is all right; the punting duo should be collectively above average; Breaston is kind of good at returning things. Rivas' iffy range -- 47, 48 and that's pushing it -- and tendency to miss two or three really stupid field goals to miss a season will irritate, but Michigan is in good shape here.


Vanderbilt is the opener. Without Jay Cutler the Commodores pose little threat.

CMU isn't playing Michigan State and will therefore lose. Pass-rushing demon Dan Bazuin will provide a stiff test for Michigan tackles and an indication of how prepared they are for...

@ Notre Dame, a small Catholic school of no importance in northern Indiana.

The Big Ten schedule opens up at home versus Wisconsin, who has no returning anything on offense aside from John Stocco. Their defense appears to be stiff against the run but still dodgy in the passing game. If Henne is on it should be a non-terrifying Michigan victory.

Michigan ends up @ Minnesota next, where Michigan's run defense will be thoroughly tested no matter how many running backs the Gophers lose in the meantime. The offense should not be nearly as tested, thought it would be nice if Rueben Riley blocked Steve Davis this year.

A pissed-off Drew Stanton, who is rumoured to have teammates, rolls into town next. Stanton is a major trap game for Michigan, as he should be able to score on anyone. Tense moments.

Michigan then must venture @ Penn State to face approximately 110,000 people who would drink Lloyd Carr's blood from a chalice made out of the skull of a Big Ten referee if given half a chance. If Penn State's offensive line comes together by this point in the year, this will be a knock-down, drag-out affair. Otherwise it will be Anthony Morelli eating grass.

Iowa frightens me.

Northwestern's Fun 'n' Run offense is next; unfortunately for the Wildcats their defense must accompany them.

Ball State and @ Indiana are also schools of no importance in Indiana, though Ball State did produce David Letterman.

@ Ohio State is The Game.

An Embarassing Prediction, No Doubt

Worst Case

What, with road games at ND, OSU, PSU, and dangerous games versus MSU and Iowa? December suicide. AKA: 7-5.

This happens if:
  • Henne throws away a couple games.
  • The OL stagnates.
  • The outside linebackers remain static.
  • The cornerback not named Hall gets nicknamed "toast" by the ND game.
  • God wasn't joking around last year and really has a deep personal enmity for me.

Best Case

I believe! 12-0. Hypothetically!

This happens if:
  • Henne plays like he did over the last three or four games.
  • Riley or whoever the right tackle is manages to perform adequately.
  • One of Manningham or Breaston emerges as #1 in spirit.
  • Jamison kicks it.
  • Graham and Crable adequate it.
  • A cornerback and a half are found.
Four of six should do it. Or Hart could just Vince Young us to an undefeated record.

Final Verdict

To recap: everything should be better and I have totally reasonable reasons for thinking so. Everyone we liked except Avant, Stenavich, and about a third of Watson returns, plus we get our best two players back and healthy. Incremental improvement from many plus wild improvement from a few -- my bets are Manningham, Crable, and Jamar Adams -- should see Michigan re-assert itself. On the other hand, this team is flawed on the offensive line, at linebacker, and in corner depth.

...but you know and I know that the key to the season wears #7 and has a goofy haircut. If he plays like he did last year, we have a season similar to last year but slightly better. From 8-4 to 9-3. If he plays like he did at the tail end of last year, um, yeah. There's a chance.

Wins: Vandy, CMU, Ball State, @Indiana, Northwestern
Probable Wins: @ Minnesota, Drew Stanton, @ PSU, Wisconsin
Tossups: @ ND, @ OSU, Iowa
Probable Losses:
Losses: None.

Split the difference: 10-2.