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Friday, November 16, 2007

Run Offense vs. Ohio State

Mike Hart's high ankle sprain has lingered since halftime of the Purdue game; Hart's only appearance since consisted of 15 carries against Michigan State. Those carries gained 115 yards, though two carries and one fluke fumble recovery comprised most of that amongst twelve carries of bupkis. Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown did well in extended action against Illinois and, for what little it's worth, Minnesota but have struggled badly the last two weeks against previously substandard run defenses.

Hart's health remains a question. I have no idea where Scouts, Inc., is hearing this, but they say things($) that make me want to find my security blanket and set it on fire:
The statuses of Michigan RB Mike Hart and QB Chad Henne are uncertain. From what we are hearing, Henne is likely to play but Hart's outlook is far less optomistic. [sic!]
Normally anything claiming someone's injury outlook is not "optomistic" could be dismissed, but this is the WWL and all. I have heard nothing either way.

I don't buy it, though. Hart can't be any more injured than he was against Michigan State and he was gimpy but okay to play about half of that game; in Hart's final Ohio State game he'll have to shatter his tibia to come out. He'll start; there is the chance he re-aggravates the injury and is forced to come out.

Meanwhile, the Ohio State run defense enters the game much like the did a year ago: statistically terrifying (4th nationally) but probably softer than the numbers indicate. As Tom Orr mentioned yesterday, Rodney Kinlaw had an excellent, if foreshortened, day against Ohio State. Illinois just got done torching the Buckeyes, though that might not be particularly relevant given Michigan's lack of a zone read. On the other hand, Wisconsin and Michigan State were shut down almost entirely.

Which will it be? It's hard to tell. Michigan's run game has proven predictable and incapable of taking advantage of weak or undersized defensive tackles. Without a consistently effective counter or a play action option other than waggle, which goes for a first down three or four times a game but has shown no big play potential in two years as Michigan's primary counterpunch, opposing defenders have been free to sell out on the zone stretch. Heavy slanting plus dodgy play from the interior line, especially whoever the rotating right guard is, has put Michigan into long yardage situations with frequency.

If past Ohio State games are any indication, this should change. Michigan always brings out a bag of plays that play off the tendencies Michigan has established in the 11 previous games. The result is usually a surprisingly effective offense. Even without Hart this is unlikely to be as bad as the past couple games; part of the reason Michigan is so infuriating during the season is because they believe Ohio State can't see the world's most obvious "gotcha!" coming; the gotcha is unlikely to work but the sheer diversity of the offense at full speed will improve matters.

Ohio State fans claim their defensive tackles have been a liability and Laurinaitis is not the baby-eating viking Musberger makes him out to be; I tend to believe them. If Hart plays Michigan should move the ball in a fashion similar to what they did last year. Yes, Michigan's interior line is softer, but so is the interior of the Ohio State defense; lining Vernon Gholston up against Steve Schilling also means lining a freshman up against Jake Long.

The projection here:
  • Michigan shows more creativity in its rushing attack, slicing open excessively aggressive OSU defenses several times.
  • Hart plays and does well; his backups spot him periodically.
  • Michigan averages around 4 or 4.5 YPC.
Key Matchup: Mike Hart versus His Traitorous Ankle. I should have an actual matchup for the Ohio State game, but nothing will impact Michigan's run game more than the status of Hart's gimpy wheel.

Pass Offense vs. Ohio State

This preview assumes that Chad Henne will play; if he does not please substitute "HEAD FOR THE HILLS! ONLY THE STRONG WILL SURVIVE!" for the text in this space.

That clear, we can proceed. Much like last year, Ohio State enters the game with some terrifying pass defense numbers: sixth in efficiency, second in yardage, and fifth in sacks. Meanwhile, Michigan limps into The Game with completely pedestrian numbers, 65th in yardage and 60th in efficiency terms. Statwise, this is a blowout.

However, mitigating factors abound, most notably the frequent use of freshman Ryan Mallett when Henne has been injured. Mallet's completing a Juice-esque 43% of his passes and has seven touchdowns to five interceptions, enough to seriously harsh any team's passer efficiency. Henne has been much better, completing 61% and averaging a respectable 7.3 yards per attempt. If he is healthy and well-protected he'll be by far the best quarterback Ohio State has opposed this year. Those are big ifs, though.

Is he healthy? Yes, no, sorta, maybe. Henne injured his shoulder against Illinois, returning late to lead Michigan past the Illini, then missed the Minnesota game. When he returned against Michigan State he was wildly variable, starting off okay and settling into a deep funk Brady Leaf couldn't rival before slinging Michigan to a remarkable comeback victory. S'okay? Not so much. Against Wisconsin he threw five passes, two of them wildly errant, then headed to the bench. That's a definite red flag.

Michigan fans should hope the widely-circulating internet rumor that Henne's arm was numbed by a botched cortisone shot -- no doubt administered by the same guy who's coaching the kick coverage unit -- is true, as it would provide an explanation for his performance/absence other than "has family of squirrels comfortably living in separated shoulder socket". For what it's worth, I've heard said item from multiple sources and think it's true. So whatever happened against the Badgers is not representative of his health; our baseline should be Michigan State plus two weeks to heal. Unfortunately, even on Henne's last couple robot drives in that game his outs were looping and his other balls were tossed, not rifled. It's reasonable to assume he will be closer to 80% than 100% and will miss some throws he might make under normal circumstances.

Will he get protected? Freshman defensive tackle Cameron Heyward should just take passing plays off against Jake Long, and the Buckeye defensive tackles are a shining weak point in an otherwise stout defense. No Buckeye defensive lineman other than Heyward has more than one measly sack...

...except that #*$@ing Gholston guy. Who has freaking ten. And will be playing against Steve Schilling. And may occasionally get slid over to Carson Butler on a blitz pickup. Which might happen frequently since OSU's starting linebackers have 11.5 sacks between them; various members of the secondary from Donald Washington to Anderson Russell also sport sacks here and there. Given 1) Michigan's severe difficulty with a bunch of stunting blitzes from UW and 2) Schilling's (and Butler's) consistent trouble with any above-average defensive end... Henne is likely to get hit frequently and sacked three or four times.

Meanwhile, Ohio State's secondary boast a likely first-round pick in Malcolm Jenkins, then three sophomores and a freshman nickelback. In this year of incompetent Big Ten quarterbacking, they have not been tested thoroughly, and with the pass rush Ohio State has they can reasonably lay back, prevent big plays, and wait for third and long.

  • Henne under siege much of the day; protection metric will be fortunate to clock in at 80%.
  • Arrington gets open consistently; Manningham burns the occasionally jam-happy Jenkins once or twice.
  • Who knows if Henne takes the opportunity? I lean towards no.
Key Matchup: Schilling versus Gholston. I've been on this all week.

Run Defense vs. Ohio State

I'm looking for a way this won't be ugly and can't find one. Chris Wells is averaging 5.8 yards per carry and mostly skipped one of Ohio State's cupcake games, that against Kent State. A violent, pounding runner, -- think Tony Hunt on steroids* -- Wells would normally be a good matchup for Michigan, which has historically beaten between the tackles runners into submission. But anyone who's observed a game from The Horror onward knows this is not the sort of interior run defense normally associated with Michigan football.

Sugarplum dreams that Michigan's problems were strictly spread/zone-read based dissolved in the second half against Michigan State and all of the Wisconsin game; in retrospect those hopes were more fanciful than they seemed. Michigan's problem, outside of Shawn Crable occasionally crashing down and losing contain, was rarely an inability to close down an outside run or find an option guy. Usually it was just the fact that anyone running up the gut wasn't tackled until he'd picked up three to eight yards.

The reasons for this are multitude: Brandon Graham is unsound against the run so far this year; the backups on the defensive line are not ready to play yet; Will Johnson is just okay. But the main flashing reason is simple: the Michigan linebackers suck. Senior Chris Graham is average at best, incapable of filling a hole when he has to take on a blocker and rarely able to get his stubby arms disengaged to tackle. Add in a mental mistake or three a game and one hideously blown coverage you probably shouldn't have asked him to attempt in the first place and there you go. Meanwhile, freshman Obi Ezeh took over for Johnny Thompson midseason and has looked like a freshman: hesitant. He may have potential but at the moment he is distinctly below average.

Terrance Taylor has been a consistently excellent performer in the middle and Jamar Adams has come up to fill capably several times, but the numbers don't lie. Wells is not likely to be tackled near the line of scrimmage frequently, and Ohio State should put together a number of grinding drives.

  • Wells runs 40 times for 200 yards.
  • Goddammit.
Key Matchup: Will Johnson versus Barton, Cordle, etc. Taylor will do his thing, I believe. If Johnson can have a great day -- like, an excellent day, a miraculous day, the best day of his career -- Wells can get off kilter in the backfield and even our linebackers can converge. Johnson's shown the potential to do this; consistency has been lacking.

*(Not literally. Okay, probably not literally.)

Pass Defense vs. Ohio State

OSU will look upon its pass offense as a way to keep excessive heat off Wells, convert third and longs, and pop a big play or two; Todd Boeckman is unlikely to exceed 25 throws unless something seriously weird happens.

We can split those throws into two categories. The first category: oh God, play action. Boeckman's shown both a flair for the deep ball and an inadvisable tendency to display said flair into double coverage. Given Michigan will be virtually forced to sell out on Beanie Wells, Boeckman will have an opportunity or two to hook up with someone named Brian (or, I guess, Ray) for a long touchdown. Morgan Trent's gotten beaten deep a few times this year; Donovan Warren remains but a freshman; Jamar Adams will probably be within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Michigan's defensive line has gotten a ton of pressure on quarterbacks when allowed to pin back the ol' ears and go get 'em, but when forced to maintain run responsibilities they've allowed Tyler Donovan and Brian Hoyer scads of time.

Ohio State will have a number of opportunities to stick a dagger in Michigan on first and ten. The fate of those opportunities will have a major bearing on the game's outcome. (Uh... duh. Sorry.)

On the other side of things we have the obvious passing down, which figures to be a regretfully infrequent visitor tomorrow. The flip side of Michigan's struggles to get to the quarterback when the threat of the run is present has been a relentless feast upon anyone Michigan knows will be throwing the ball.

This should be an advantage for Michigan. Once the Michigan secondary booted Stevie Brown to the bench and Johnny Sears from the team, the haze lifted from their eyes and they started playing quite well. Boeckman is a first year starter, the Michigan secondary has been between good and excellent since the post-apocalyptic Oregon game, and Ohio State doesn't have the horses at TE or WR to force Chris Graham into the really awkward situations he faced last year against Ohio State and last week against Travis Beckum. It's never good to get in obvious throwing downs; here it will be much worse than normal.

  • One bomb to Robiskie.
  • Few sacks or even actual pressure as Michigan struggles to control Wells.
  • Boeckman makes a couple major mistakes.
Key Matchup: Shawn Crable versus Alex Boone. If anyone on Michigan's team has southern speed, it's Crable.

Special Teams

Something has to hold in this titanic kick return battle! Ohio State is 119th in returns! Michigan is 95th in opponent kick return average! This will be like watching Notre Dame play itself! The glory!

In other departments, it's more of the same for Ohio State: excellent kicker (Ryan Pretorious is 17/21), outstanding punting and punt coverage (14th in net average), and a white guy who can jet on punt returns (Brian Hartline has a 90-yard touchdown this year). The punt returning is actually mediocre overall, for the record. Ohio State should be solid.

Michigan, OTOH, has awful kick returns (109th), bad punt returns (73rd), mediocre punting (Zoltan has dropped off the face of the earth the past two weeks; Michigan sits at 56th nationally), and the aforementioned terrible kick coverage. But, hey, Kicking Competency Lopata is perfect on a bunch of shortish field goals. So not everything about Michigan special teams points to a coaching staff in disarray. Just all of it except the kicker.

Key Matchup: Zoltan versus Dude, Like, What Happened? Ohio State figures to win special teams solidly unless Zoltan returns to his excellent early-season form.


Yes. A sweatervest kitten. Sort of.

Cheap Thrills

Worry if...
  • Hart looks gimpy. Obvs.
  • Michigan doesn't have a lot of clever stuff hidden for this game.
  • The run defense looks like it has the last 1.5 games.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
  • Henne's arm looks limber and ready to go.
  • The Ohio State defensive tackles look pretty useless.
  • Boeckman looks implod-y.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for Our Weaknesses Play Into Their Stregths, +1 for Our Stars Are Not 100%, +1 for They're Just Better Coached, +1 for Even Zoltan's Folding, +1 for Unfortunately, I Have A Long Term Memory).

Desperate need to win level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +5 for Duh)

Loss will cause me to... write "yes, but" Carr era obit.

Win will cause me to... write "yes" Carr era obit.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Ohio State certainly doesn't appear to be rebuilding, and Michigan certainly doesn't appear to be reaching anything approximating an apex. This is not the script I signed up for at the beginning of the year.

Anyone who read the VEQ knows the things I think this game will turn on: Wells versus a mediocre-at-best run defense and Schilling and Butler versus Gholston and extensive Ohio State blitzing. These look to be huge advantages for Ohio State, and Michigan does not have an equivalent. Maybe if Henne is healthy, or at least healthy-ish, he and the talented Michigan receivers can exploit a youthful OSU secondary that hasn't faced many tests this year. Maybe Hart can drive Michigan to victory on a busted ankle. Maybe. But I don't think so.

Football is weird and we are obviously not as crappy relative to OSU as the stats suggest -- Henne, Hart, etc -- but Michigan's weaknesses line up against OSU's strengths in a terribly unfortunate way.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
  • I've already provided plenty of predictions specific enough to look dumb later.
  • So leave me be.
  • Ohio State, 27-20.