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Friday, September 21, 2007

First, Alan Weymouth's take on the ND game and the PSU game:

I watched the Notre Dame game twice over, and there really is very little we can learn from it. The Irish O-Line isn't very good, and we absolutely dominated the LOS.

With poor offensive line play, and a QB who didn't run, our LB reads where quick and decisive. Thompson looked like Harris out there, and while I've been a critic of C.Graham, I think he played his best game for Michigan. But in all honesty, the LBs just weren't pressed much last week. I still think Graham has issues tackling physical ball carriers, and dealing with OLs. He just doesn't get off or around blocks very well. He does seem to handle FBs better than he deals with linemen, probably because he's so short and doesn't see around OLs very well. Our LBs did a much better job of taking on blockers correctly, and turning the play back to help..I.E Leveraging the football as Coach Carr said.

We probably learned the least about our secondary. We might have corrected a few things there, but who really knows. With the DL parked in Notre Dame's backfield all day, it's impossible to tell.

I think our DL can once again put alot of pressure on Penn State. B.Graham is a gifted pass rusher, and we saw Tim Jamison absolutely own five star recruit Sam Young last week. Again, the pressure of having to contain a running QB showed how effective our front four can be, now if they'd just learn the proper techniques involved in containing a guy like Dixon. It's a tired coaching cliche, but shutting down Penn State's run game will be paramount. DLs have to keep our mediocore LB unit clean.

My biggest concern for this game, is the secondary. Donovan Warren is a talented dude, but I think he has trouble tackling in space. I'm betting my bottom dollar, that Penn State trys to isolate Warren against Derrick Williams in space. They'll use bubble screens and short passes to test Warren over and over.

Offensively, I think we can run the ball on them, provided we can control the numbers in the box. If Mallett starts, Penn State will load the box and really try to stop the run...this is obvious. We'll run alot of 3 wide to try and keep this under control..also alot of two TE with motion etc. Can the Penn State LBs cover Massey and Butler in man? Will UM show alot of Shotgun and try to run and throw from it? I've seen a few newer plays from the Gun, there might be more on the way.

Personally though, I am expecting Henne to lace 'em up and play this weekend. If his swelling is under control and he feels mobile enough to move in the pocket(lets face it, he doesn't really run anyway) why not? He'd like nothing more than to go 4-0 against Penn State. I really don't think his injury was that debilitating..but we'll find out Saturday.
Now on with the show:

Run Offense vs. Penn State

Though Michigan's rush offense has been the one area of the team that has not disappointed, it has not faced a stiff test. Penn State will provide one. Probably. This will be a common theme: well, Dude, we just don't know. Penn State is currently the nation's #1 ranked rushing defense but has played FIU, Buffalo, and Notre Dame. Michigan is currently ranked the nation's #24 rush offense but has played Appalachian State, Oregon, and Notre Dame. Neither team has an inkling of what will happen against actual opponents.

The Penn State defensive line is young and small but well-regarded by recruiting gurus. There are problems at defensive end. Linebacker Jerome Hayes has moved into the standup DE spot occupied by one of the many Shaws on last year's Penn State team; redshirt freshman Aaron Maybin sort of holds the other spot. Both are light, slashing types. (Obviously, in the case of Hayes.) Inside, Abe Koroma is out and Jared Odrick and Ollie Ogbu start. Both are sophomores -- Ogbu redshirted, Odrick did not -- who check in at around 28o or 290. They are likely to play better than poor Pat Kuntz.

Penn State is starting three sophomores and a linebacker on its defensive line, and they have met no one like Jake Long yet. Justin Boren was outstanding against a veteran and good DE/DT, Trevor Laws, last week, and Adam Kraus spent the day making flapjacks of Kuntz. Schilling hasn't screwed up yet. Alex Mitchell? Well... he's been okay. This should be somewhere between a solid area of advantage and a massive blowout.

Then it's linebackers versus Hart, hopefully with blockers. Dan Connor and Sean Lee are both very good, but Mike Hart...

... is Mike Hart. He was bottled up in the first half last year, but ripped off multiple long runs to set up Michigan's final touchdown of the game and finished with 112 yards on 26 carries. From the relevant sections of the offense, Michigan has lost Rueben Riley, Mark Bihl, and Obi Oluigbo. Penn State has lost its entire defensive line save Josh Gaines, who is not good and not starting, and Paul Posluzny. Hart's 4.3 YPC would be a sure bet to increase except for that whole Henne injury thing. If Penn State does the logical thing and loads up to stop the run, Hart won't find the going much easier than he did last year.

Key Matchup: Michigan OL versus quick penetration. The zone game can be stymied by little guys who dart up into gaps, something Michigan has been much better about this year. If Hart's dodging guys four yards in the backfield, Michigan loses.

Pass Offense vs. Penn State

I don't know how much we can take from this, but though Penn State sacked the hell out of Jimmah Clausen much like Michigan did, most of the PSU sacks were directly on Jimmah for holding onto the ball way too long. (I rewatched the PSU-ND game last night.) In terms of time-to-quarterback, Michigan outperformed Penn State against Notre Dame for large portions of the day. With an entirely new defensive line this is about all we have to go on as far as pass rush goes. Michigan, on the other hand, was a perfect 22/22 in UFR protection terms against ND, something which Penn State could not say. I tentatively suggest that pressure from just Penn State's front four will be between minimal and moderate.

Given that, Ryan Mallett -- the assumed starter in this preview -- will either have time or be blitzed. The former seems terribly unwise against a true freshman starter, but Penn State has displayed a remarkable capacity for numbnuts coaching decisions in recent years. See Quinn, Brady. This year they seem to trust their secondary and came after Clausen frequently. The bet here is that they come. Michigan has done a good job picking blitzes up thus far save for a couple busts that seemed to be first-year starter Justin Boren's error. With Boren presumably at guard for Mallett-snap-related reasons, he won't be the one making the calls.

As for Mallett himself, he was adequate when called upon against Notre Dame. There were a couple moments of inaccuracy or shakiness but those were coupled with delicately lofted touchdowns. He will find the going much tougher against Justin King, et al, and mediocrity would probably be a win. This seems achievable.

Key Matchup: Mallett versus blitz reads. He dumped of a short crossing route to Greg Mathews when Notre Dame sent the house last week; more of that will be necessary. Carson Butler will be an important target.

Run Defense vs. Penn State

Michigan's performance against Notre Dame vaulted them all the way up to 76th in rush defense from dead last but probably means little in combat against actual I-A opponents. However, Penn State's rushing offense has faced Buffalo, FIU, and Notre Dame... no actual I-A opponents here, no matter the designations technically applied to them. This is a great unknown. Please take all comments here with a grain of salt.

The comments: Penn State fans are universally non-alarmed at the absence of senior guard Jim Shaw, but they might be after the game. Sticking a in a true freshman in place of a senior who was a returning is going to be a dropoff. Meanwhile, we have a guy who lost his job at LG playing LT and unheralded new starters at RT and LG. (Center AQ Shipley is quite good.) This could be a turkey shoot for Michigan's defensive line. Or it could be an ugly festival of second-and-three like the first two games of the year.

Meanwhile, RB Austin Scott has been disappointing so far, fumbling four times and getting yanked for fellow fifth-year senior Rodney Kinlaw, up until this point a career backup and kick returner. Neither is going to move a pile or pick up much in the way of yards after contact. Given a seam, both can fly, but Penn State's running backs are average at best.

So, then, it's the Michigan "run defense" against a straightforward opponent with a pulse. Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson were very disappointing in the Oregon and Appalachian State games, rarely delaying offensive linemen long enough for the linebackers to have any advantage and never getting sufficient penetration to disrupt any of the zone read handoffs both teams ran with frequency. Is this an aberration based on the spread game or a sad confirmation that Taylor (and Johnson) were beneficiaries of playing next to Alan Branch and nothing more? We will find out here.

Key Matchup: DTs Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson versus Penn State's interior OL. Notre Dame showed that when left untrammeled Chris Graham and Johnny Thompson can run to the ball with the best of them; Oregon showed that when blocked they are useless. Taylor and Johnson have to absorb double teams and let the linebackers do the rest if they expect to hold down the Penn State run game.

Pass Defense vs. Penn State

Anthony Morelli may or may not continue to suck. Against Notre Dame he alternated horrible interceptions he shouldn't have even considered throwing with accurate post lasers with inaccurate simple throws with would-be interceptions. The end results were statistically ugly: 12-22 for 131 yards. Jimmah actually had more yards, albeit on ten additional attempts. The going has been easier for Morelli against the other tomato cans, but from what I've seen Penn State is still relying on him to not lose the game.

Penn State's receivers remain mostly bleah, but sophomore Chris Bell is emerging into a complete threat and the Nittany Lions welcome back tight end Andrew Quarless from an underage drinking suspension. Both could be threats against the Michigan secondary, especially Quarless, who is poised to exploit the potentially iffy coverage of Michigan's linebackers.

Meanwhile, Michigan's secondary was torched for a billion long touchdowns in the first two weeks of the season and got a functional DNP against a Notre Dame team that thinks a three-yard swing pass is a monumental achievement. In Oregon game, in which Dennis Dixon was suffered to sit in the pocket and leisurely pick out wide open receivers running 40 yards downfield. Michigan, burned time and again by the Duck running game and Dixon's legs, reverted to the frustrating contain-but-don't-rush style it deployed ineffectively against Troy Smith.

This is unlikely to happen against Anthony Morelli, who was occasionally snowed under by Notre Dame's inept front seven. This is a leap of faith, but I believe the constant hype on Tim Jamison and Brandon Graham will come to fruition in this game against medicore at best offensive tackles and Morelli will spend the day running away from determined pursuit. I expect the defense to hold Penn State down.

Key Matchup: Tim Jamison, Brandon Graham, and Shawn Crable versus Cadogan/Orhnberger/etc... if Michigan is going to win the game they have to win this battle. It looked like a sure Michigan blowout in the preseason, but given the performances against Oregon, etc., that seems less of a slam dunk. Pressure Morelli and he dies harder than most quarterbacks -- it's the whole "my brain was eaten by Joe Paterno" thing" -- but our secondary remains shaky-ish and I'm afraid of a huge safety bust.

Special Teams

Penn State has a major advantage in the return game. Derrick Williams took a punt 76 yards for Penn State's first touchdown against Notre Dame; AJ Wallace returned a kickoff to the 25 to open the second half. Both are dangerous with the ball in their hands, and Michigan's kick coverage unit has been very sketchy thus far. It gets worse if Bryan Wright can't go, as most of KC Lopata's kicks have come down around the ten after iffy hang time. It may behoove Michigan to give up on kicking like a man and just go with squibs and up-man popups that get fielded around the 20 or 25 and have zero long return potential.

Punt returns won't be so easy to mitigate, but Zoltan appears to be shaking off his inconsistency and really emerging into the destroyer of worlds his ill-fated birth signs (and the prophecies) predicted. Most punts have had great hang time. This is still a danger area.

Kevin Kelly returns at kicker; he's okay but maligned for missing important stuff. Think Garrett Rivas. Penn State has a slight advantage here.

Key Matchup: Kick coverage versus Wallace. There is a not-insignificant chance this could turn the game.


Cheap Thrills

Worry if...
  • Penn State starts every drive after a Michigan score at the 50.
  • We tip the direction of our runs. This is bad, bad idea against a small, darting line.
  • Second and long happens.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
  • The line blows those kids off the POA.
  • Jamison and Graham make a living in the backfield.
  • Morelli does his Morelli thing.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 6 out of 10. (Baseline 5; -1 for We Own Penn State, +1 for We Also Suck, +1 for No, Seriously: The Suck, -1 for I Believe In Trench Advantages, +1 for Oh God, Something Horrible Is Going To Happen On Special Teams ).

Desperate need to win level: 7 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for We Do Have Something To Play For, +1 for And Goddammit Mike Hart, Man, Mike Hart, -1 for Yeah But Go Apps And All That, +1 for Continuing To Own Penn State == Fun)

Loss will cause me to... descend into wild tinfoil-hattery about the refs and how they robbed us of the game.

Win will cause me to... grumble less about the upcoming trip to Northwestern. Woo. Roadie.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
I have no idea what's going to happen. Variables so undefined I can't justify predicting either way:
  • Will Henne play?
  • Will Michigan's pass rush obliterate?
  • Is Michigan's OL capable of crushing an actual opponent?
  • Will Penn State rip off more big returns?
  • Can Michigan stop a conventional run attack that's not Notre Dame's?
Vague answers that could well be horribly wrong: no, yes, yes, yes, sorta. I think both Penn State lines will be hard-pressed to handle their Michigan opponents and that neither Anthony Morelli nor Jay Paterno is clever enough to deal with this. And I have signed on the Michigan Has A Crushing Ground Game Express. A Bo-style victory against one of the few who allows Michigan to get away with that stuff.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
  • Hart: 35-180-2
  • Four sacks, two interceptions of Morelli.
  • 23-14, Michigan.