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Friday, November 09, 2007

Run Offense vs. Wisconsin

As noted in VEQ, the Wisconsin run defense is probably the most disappointing phase in the conference. The Badgers, so good a year ago, are an ugly 58th nationally and eighth in the Big Ten. Relevant opponents:

Javon Ringer10145014.570
Jehuu Caulcrick177324.322
Rodney Kinlaw231151519
Evan Royster86818.519
Chris Wells211693831
Marcus Thigpen117006.419
Rashard Mendenhall1916028.432
Isiah Williams149206.624
Albert Young103303.36
Damian Sims72703.922

Every back in the Big Ten not playing for Iowa has done somewhere between 4.3 and 14.5 YPC, and a large number of them have gone over 6 YPC. This is a really, really bad run defense, and now they're missing starting defensive tackle Jason Chapman.

A quick glance at the above table and Michigan's shiny-ish #25 run offense seem to imply this would be a field day for the Wolverines, but it probably won't. Mike DeBord's run-heavy playcalling -- 59% of Michigan plays are runs -- obscures a rushing offense that's actually fairly mediocre. Sheer quantity makes up for 4.3 YPC, a number far closer to average than the per-game totals suggest. Injuries to Mike Hart and various right guards have something to do with that, but Hart is still gimpy and whoever the right guard is will remain subpar; the issues that have stalled Michigan's offense in the past will be present against the Badgers.

Those issues were certainly in play against Michigan State, a to-date horrible run defense that virtually stonewalled Michigan. Mike Hart had two long runs, one of which sprung from a sick Hart juke on an unblocked linebacker in the backfield; other than that Michigan had virtually no ground game. 19 of Hart's 110 yards were credited to him on a Mallett fumble recovery; remove that and Michigan's other rushes averaged 1.3 yards per carry. Add the long runs back in and Michigan hit... yes, 4.3 YPC. This against a defense about as good as Wisconsin's against the run, which is to say "not at all."

If Bruce's diagnosis of Wisconsin's problems is correct -- and there's no reason to doubt that it is -- then misdirection has been a major cause of Wisconsin's troubles. Michigan's offense features little misdirection and is basically using the exact same scheme these exact same players held to Mike Hart's worst rushing output of last year.

Chapman's absence and the unreliability of the safeties should provide Michigan an advantage they didn't have last year, but this is going to be a slog.

Key Matchup: Mike Hart versus his ankle. Hart can make losses into game-breakers, as we saw last week in the first half. The efficacy of the Michigan run game increases dramatically when he's in the game.

Pass Offense vs. Wisconsin

The Michigan pass offense looks great on paper but languishes at #70 in the nation due to a combination of injuries and the aforementioned run-heavy playcalling. The receivers have been outstanding, near flawless except when Mario Manningham is called on to block or lay out for a ball. Everything else... not so much. Chad Henne and his separated shoulder swung wildly from good to awful to outstanding against Michigan State. The line's pass blocking has frequently been dubious.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin pass defense Bruce Ciskie slaughtered in VEQ sits at a decently respectable 46th (in efficiency terms). They're 18th in yardage largely because the run defense has allowed opponents to end games with 20-something attempts. However, starting cornerback Allen Langford is out for the year, leaving a true freshman in the starting lineup and pushing a little-used backup into the nickel package. Other than Jack Ikegwuonu, this is suddenly a secondary adrift.

Given the dodginess of the UW safeties and the lack of depth at corner, there will be plenty of opportunities here for Michigan. Manningham will have Ikegwuonu dogging him all game, leaving Adrian Arrington alone on a freshman who, though he may be good, is unlikely to lock him down.

Key Matchup: Schilling and Carson Butler versus Shaugnessy, Casillas, and assorted other blitzers. Schilling had another week of trouble against a high quality pass rusher; Butler's blocks were frequently comical in their ineptness against Michigan State. If Henne is provided time Michigan should find Manningham downfield a couple times.

Run Defense vs. Wisconsin

Last week's opening paragraph can be re-applied:
Unfortunately, you could take the damning text in the "Run Offense" section above and reapply it to Michigan's run defense, albeit with a significant reduction in ferocity if you wish to retain credibility. Like MSU, a bunch of sacks has obscured the true quality of the run defense. In Michigan State's case the quality is "atrocious"; in Michigan's it's merely mediocre.
After throttling the Spartans in the first half, Michigan got pounded by Caulcrick and Michigan State in the second half. The stats were acceptable -- 3.8 YPC for him and not much better for Ringer if you consider his reverse-field 70-yarder fluky -- but only just.

Sources close to the Wisconsin program indicate that PJ Hill is not likely to go, leaving the tailback job in the hands of sophomore Lance Smith and freshman Zach Brown. Smith's the better of the two backs and figures to see a significant majority of the carries. He's no pounder like Hill -- welcome news for Michigan linebackers -- but is more of a slasher reminiscent of Antonio Pittman or Carlos Brown. He's averaging 6.4 YPC, which would be a cause for concern if the vast majority of his carries weren't against the likes of the Citadel, Indiana, and Northern Illinois. Smith missed Wisconsin's games (he's suspended for road games after a preseason shoe tiff) against Penn State, Illinois, and Ohio State; Michigan is the first serious defense he's gone up against since the Iowa game. He did well against the Hawkeyes, albeit in limited time: 5 rushes, 37 yards. There's not enough data here to be sure of anything.

On the year, Wisconsin's rush offense is much like Michigan's: strained by overuse and potentially overrated on per-game statistics. Wisconsin is averaging just under 4.2 YPC despite playing a hideous nonconference schedule. The run game was adequate against Iowa and Illinois, but crushed by Penn State and Ohio State. It's an average run offense, especially with Hill out; it meets an average run defense. The results should be about average.

Key Matchup: Brandon Graham, Terrance Taylor, and Will Johnson versus the interior UW OL at the point of attack. Taylor, IMO, did a good job last game of holding up versus frequent double teams. Johnson and Graham not so much. With a similar offense on tap this week, Graham's improvement against the run will be important.

Pass Defense vs. Wisconsin

Injuries have struck the Badgers here as well. Not Particularly Inexplicable Pretty Good White Wide Receiver Luke Swan is out for the year, and the loss of Vanden Heuvel will hurt more in pass protection than run blocking according to Ciskie.

Tyler Donovan has been just okay in his single year as Wisconsin's starting quarterback. He's slightly mobile, slightly inaccurate, and has decent arm strength, slightly reminiscent of a Brooks Bollinger. In their way, Wisconsin QBs are as predictable as Michigan's: mini-me versions of the Lurch statues Michigan runs out. Donovan won't be a surprise to anyone who's seen Wisconsin play before.

Tight end Travis Beckum remains Wisconsin's favorite receiving target; his 62 catches are almost triple those of the next active receiver on the roster. He will be an issue. With Swan out, true freshman Kyle Jefferson is Wisconsin's #1 receiver; Paul Hubbard has also just returned from injury. Both are tall, long-striding possession sorts; deep balls will likely be of the jump-ball variety.

Miscommunication got Devin Thomas behind the Michigan secondary a couple times against Michigan State, marking the first time since the post-apocalyptic Oregon game the Michigan secondary looked anything but solid. Of late they have gone up against erratic quarterbacks and generally won the day. Michigan's pass efficiency D is now a shocking 20th.

One concern for Michigan: when Michigan State ran play action Hoyer often had days to throw as the line tried desperately to shut down the guy without the ball. This might be less of a threat against a line that's been a revolving door against opposing pass rushers: Wisconsin is 100th in sacks allowed despite passing just 38% of the time. And their starting right tackle is out.

Wisconsin is without a true outside threat and has serious pass-blocking issues; Michigan is likely to do well against Tyler Donovan and company.

Key Matchup: Chris Graham covering Travis Beckum. Graham's alternated between totally blowing zone coverages and providing good-to-excellent man coverage of tight ends this year; he's the guy who will be tasked with following Wisconsin's favorite target around.

Special Teams

Kicker Taylor Melhaff is reliable, perhaps the Big Ten's best this year, but Wisconsin's punting and return games are mediocre at best.

Key Matchup: Kick coverage, argh!


Cheap Thrills

Worry if...
  • For whatever reason the ground game remains mediocre even against a terrible run defense.
  • Oh, no! It's Evil Henne!
  • Beckum gets loose.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
  • The first-down playcalling is remotely balanced.
  • The Wisconsin line is as sieve-like as their stats suggest.
  • Hart is ungimpy.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 7 out of 10. (Baseline 5; -1 for They're Battered Everywhere, +1 for Yeah But Hart...?, +1 for I Have A Bad Feeling We Will Not Be Able To Exploit Their Weaknesses, +1 for They're Probably Better Than MSU And Look How That Turned Out).

Desperate need to win level: 6 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for Bielema Is Kind Of Annoying Even When He Loses, +1 for Yes, There's A Big Difference Between 9-3 and 8-4 (Or 10-2 and 9-3), -1 for But Really This Season Is The OSU Game)

Loss will cause me to... accept that we're going down to OSU again.


The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
A totally healthy Wisconsin would be a serious threat, but a Badger team missing five starters and replacing them all with underclassmen is a significantly less imposing opponent.

Wisconsin's run game should be decently effective. There are enough problems on the Michigan side of things for the Badger to bash out first downs here and there. But the Wisconsin offensive line can't pass block. There's no other way to read the stats. Donovan's only thrown 279 passes this year and opponents have 29 sacks. Almost 10% of the time Donovan drops back to pass he ends up on the turf, to say nothing of hurries and forced scrambles. It's somewhat miraculous that the Wisconsin pass offense is as efficient as it is. Meanwhile, Michigan consistently terrorized opposing quarterbacks until it started worrying about Michigan State's run game. Donovan is unlikely to have much time.

Offensively, Wisconsin's run defense will probably have a brief, frustrating renaissance in which they will reach mediocrity. The eye-popping 6 and 8 YPC days for most backs around the Big Ten are not likely to recur, but 4.3 to 5 should be doable. This would still allow Hart to have a 100 yard day assuming he plays the whole game. Even if that's not likely to be a good assumption the problems with the Wisconsin run defense are so extensive that the Michigan backups will be fine. Henne, if given time, will find open receivers, and Michigan will have a typical offensive day.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
  • Michigan racks up five sacks.
  • Hart gets 15 carries.
  • Michigan, 28-20.