Friday, December 31, 2010

Gator Bowl preview

For better or worse, tomorrow's Gator Bowl against Mississippi St. may very well determine the eventual end of Rich Rodriguez's rocky tenure at Michigan. And if Michigan already has an unspoken agreement with Jim Harbaugh to take the reigns next year, tomorrow's game marks the end of the spread option, and with it, Denard Robinson at Michigan. These are all things that disappoint me immensely as a pretty devout Rodriguez supporter, but are things that I can accept and totally understand. If you're still of the mind that the Gator Bowl actually means something for Rodriguez's resume as I am, then tomorrow's game will really be something to watch. Let's get on with it:

The Numbers
Mississippi St.DefenseOffense
Passing89th nationally
236.42 YPG
83rd nationally
192.25 YPG
Rushing19th nationally
121.67 YPG
16th nationally
215.75 YPG
Scoring27td nationally
20.33 PPG
58th nationally
27.08 PPG
Passing111th nationally
260.25 YPG
35th nationally
249.83 YPG
Rushing94th nationally
187.67 YPG
11th nationally
251.08 YPG
Scoring102nd nationally
33.83 PPG
22nd nationally
34.33 PPG

Nothing new here on Michigan's side: The defense is terrible, hovering around 100th in nearly every statistical category, and the offense is fearsome. Mississippi St., on the other hand, is an interesting creature. They run a blitz-heavy defense that's stout against the run and vulnerable against the pass. Their rankings make perfect sense of their playing styles: the blitzing stops teams from scoring touchdowns in the end zone when the field compresses but allows a decent amount of yardage elsewhere, hence the weak passing defense and high scoring defense ranking. Their offense, meanwhile, is painfully similar to Illinois': run-first triple option attack led by an athlete who has trouble passing the ball.

Michigan's offense vs. Mississippi St.'s defense
We'll begin with the positive. As I've outlined numerous times, Michigan should be able to move the ball against Mississippi St.'s defense. Despite the strong rushing statistics, the Bulldogs' defense has a lot of holes in it, the most glaring of which is a fundamental problem with the way that they defense screens. In short, Mississippi St., in order to bring adequate blitz pressure on most plays, doesn't have enough defenders on the strong side of the field to properly defend the screen game. This will be a huge point of yardage for Denard and company on Saturday.

The hope is that if Michigan is successful enough in the passing game, it'll open up holes for Denard and and the backs to run through. Either that or Michigan will be able to run away from blitzes creating lanes downfield and the potential for big plays. A healthy Denard should help with a bit of scurrying around in the backfield, and the health of his shoulder should allow him to make good throws to the flats.

Michigan has faced its fair share of good defenses this year and moved the ball effectively against of them. And for the most part, opposing defenses are usually more uniformly sound than Mississippi St.'s. The only way the Bulldogs are going to slow down Michigan's attack is getting negative plays, primarily in the red zone, where Michigan will invariably have to go for it on fourth down due to a total lack of a kicking game. But you knew that already.

Michigan's defense vs. Mississippi St.'s offense
This is somewhat less rosy. As I mentioned above, the Bulldogs' offense is remarkably similar to Illinois', which managed 45 points in regulation and 65 overall against Michigan. Quarterback Chris Relf is a Terrelle Pryor-sized Nathan Scheelhaase, with most of the ominous implications that that carries: difficult to tackle because of his size, makes good cuts, sees the field well, and is generally going to be a tough matchup for a young Michigan defense.

On the other hand, Relf throws about as well as the aforementioned Big Ten signal callers (if not a little worse). He's had one good day through the air this year (against a good Arkansas defense) but is generally inaccurate and unreliable. Saying Relf can hit open receivers doesn't even paint the right picture: he very often over or under throws receivers that have found themselves open because of linebackers and safeties overcompensating against the run. That's not to say he doesn't have the tools though. Relf has a rocket arm and can make all of the throws. He just can't make all of them accurately.

Stopping the Mississippi St. offense depends on the reaction time of Michigan's linebackers and safeties, and their ability to tackle Relf and company in space. Fortunately, the Mississippi St. supporting cast is uninspiring. Starting running back Vick Ballard is basically league average, and the offensive line is mediocre. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs will be without their best wide receiver Chad Bumphis.

From every angle, this game looks like a toss up. Michigan has a great offense and terrible defense. Mississippi St. is a little more balanced but is average overall on both offense and defense. Per usual, winning the turnover battle will be key, especially with two teams that, on paper, appear to be evenly matched.

After watching a lot of Mississippi St. games, I feel relatively confident that Michigan can win this one, especially if Denard's rumored health sees him return to the unflappable Shoelace of earlier this season. This is probably a homer's prediction, but I don't like picking against Michigan when a game looks not only winnable but more or less like a coin flip. Michigan 42-38

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Holiday break

Between cleaning and packing yesterday, I didn't really have any time to prepare anything, so yesterday's Big Ten bowl predictions will be my last post until after Christmas. I'll have my official Mississippi State preview next week on Thursday or Friday, but in the meantime, catch up with all the scouting I've been doing. Unless something groundbreaking happens, posts will resume on the 30th or 31st.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Big Ten bowl game predictions

Holidays are nearing, which means posting will slow down in the next week. With scouting material and general Michigan whathaveyou slowing to a crawl, I figure it might be fun to take a look at each Big Ten bowl game (excluding Michigan, obviously, which will get its own dedicated preview next week).

Insight Bowl
#12 Missouri (10-2) vs. Iowa (7-5)
Tuesday, December 28
10 pm EST
Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ

On paper, this looks to be one of the uglier matchups for the Big Ten. A mediocre 7-5 Iowa team is headed up against what appears to be a 10-2 powerhouse in Missouri. Add in the fact that most of Iowa's team is either on drugs, suspended, or arrested, and you have the makings for a blowout. Then again, Missouri did play in the awful Big 12 and had only one win of note: against then #1 Oklahoma at home. Besides Oklahoma, though, Missouri played only two ranked teams, splitting decisions to #14 Nebraska (L) and #24 Kansas State (W). With that in mind, Missouri's 45th in total offense and 44th in scoring offense look remarkably unimpressive, however their 6th in scoring defense, while it benefited from a weak schedule, is still worth noting. In the end, I think this is closer than the teams' respective records indicate it will be, but Iowa just doesn't have the firepower to pull it out.
Prediction: Missouri 24-14

Texas Bowl
Illinois (6-6) vs. Baylor (7-5)
Wednesday, December 29
6 pm EST
Reliant Stadium, Houston, TX

Two of the more surprising teams this year were Baylor, despite finishing the season at 7-5, and Illinois, until their epic collapse at the end of the year. Baylor found their groove behind the arm of Robert Griffin III who threw for nearly 3,200 yards this season with a 21/8 TD/INT ratio. Illinois, on the other hand, shut down offenses with a smothering defense (until Michigan, of course, when we broke their brain). Baylor ranks 82nd in scoring defense and Illinois plummeted to 53rd after being in the top 20 until the Michigan game. Offensively, Baylor is 29th in scoring offense and Illinois isn't far behind at 34th. Baylor's only real win was a shootout against #22 Kansas State, but they were thrashed by any other team with a pulse. Illinois' best win, however, came against Northwestern late in the season. The point being, this game is going to be ugly and is probably a toss up, but I'm inclined to give it to Baylor.
Prediction: Baylor 35-30

TicketCity Bowl
Northwestern (7-5) vs. Texas Tech (7-5)

Saturday, January 1
12 pm EST
Cotton Bowl, Dallas, TX

There's really not much need to talk about this one. Northwestern QB Dan Persa is out due to injury and Texas Tech is an 11-point favorite according to Vegas--last time I checked, anyway--playing ostensible a home game. Though Texas Tech isn't much of a force, the loss of Persa will likely be too much, as freshman Evan Watkins is tossed into the fire after leading the Wilcats to a 70-23 massacre at the hands of Wisconsin. Texas Tech, meanwhile, was bad in a bad conference, going 3-4 in league play. Unless Pat Fitzgerald's system-QB plug-and-chug can come up with a miracle, this one looks firmly in the hands of Tech.
Prediction: Texas Tech 31-20

Capital One Bowl
#16 Alabama (9-3) vs. #9 Michigan State (11-1)
Saturday, January 1
1 pm EST
Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, FL

Defending national champs Alabama are far and away the best three-loss team in the country. Michigan State, meanwhile, is easily the worst one-loss team. This one has the makings to be ugly. Another game that's squarely in the opponent's territory, Alabama's offense and defense both significantly overpowering against an MSU team that's struggled to stay at 11-1 (including some late-game heroics against Purdue late in the season). Alabama has a one-point loss to Auburn, a three-point loss to LSU, and the only real blemish, a 14-point loss to South Carolina. All three losses come to ranked opponents, and a quick spot check of Alabama's schedule shows a murderer's row of games: seven (seven!) games against then-ranked opponents. Alabama walks away with this one and Nick Saban gets a win against his former employer
Prediction: Alabama 42-24

Outback Bowl
Florida (7-5) vs. Penn State (7-5)

Saturday, January 1
1 pm EST
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, FL

I don't really know what to think about this game. Both teams were ranked highly preseason (although in PSU's case, it probably wasn't warranted) and quickly hit brick walls to fall from the standings. Penn State found a solution in walk-on quarterback Matt McGloin, who thoroughly embarrassed Michigan and looked like a real quarterback for a half against Ohio State before properly imploding. Florida, meanwhile, got by primarily because they just have more talent than everyone else in the country. By almost all metrics, these are evenly matched opponents. However, the game is being played in Florida and I expect the Gators to come away with a close one to salvage the end of the Urban Meyer era.
Prediction: Florida 24-21

Rose Bowl
#5 Wisconsin (11-1) vs. #3 TCU (12-0)

Saturday, January 1
5 pm EST
Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA

Finally, a game that looks like the Big Ten can win. Don't let Wisconsin's one loss to Michigan State fool you: this is an incredibly talented football team. Were it not for their brain fart against MSU, Wisconsin would be playing for the national title this year, or at least in the discussion. They put up 70+ points three times this year and 30+ 6 other times. This team is a juggernaut controlled by Godzilla. TCU, meanwhile, is the Cinderella mainstay that can't quite make it to the BCS. Their biggest strength is a smothering defense, but everyone would look dominant in the truly abysmal Mountain West conference. The one stat you need to know:
  • Average weight of TCU defensive line: 262 pounds
  • Average weight of Wisc offensive line: 304 pounds
This is going to be a bloodbath. Wisconsin is going to roll.
Prediction: Wisconsin 41-20

Sugar Bowl
#6 Ohio State (11-1) vs. #8 Arkansas (10-2)

Tuesday, January 4
8:30 pm EST
Superdome, New Orleans, LA

This is a difficult game to predict. Arkansas rides the lightning arm of Ryan Mallett and Ohio State, per usual, is built on an incredibly sound defense that never makes mistakes. Add in last year's Rose Bowl performance against Oregon and it's reasonable to expect that Tressel will have a foolproof gameplan for Arkansas. Offensively, Ohio State doesn't have a whole ton going for it. Pryor is still hit or miss, their receivers aren't very good (not mention the great passing defense of Arkansas), and Dan Herron is a career backup running behind a great offensive line. For Arkansas, the team lives and dies by Mallett. In terms of season-long production, I'm inclined to give this game to Arkansas in a close one, but Ohio State's performance against Oregon last year (where Tressel rewrote the playbook and they pulled out all of the stops) makes that difficult to do. One way or another, this is going to be a close one.
Prediction: Ohio State 27-24

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mississippi State: Last post about screens... probably

A series on Michigan's Gator Bowl opponent. You can find all preview content on the 2011 Gator Bowl page in the sidebar.

Anyone who's read this blog in the last two weeks knows that I've been harping about Mississippi State's screen pass defense. I finally had a chance to sit down and watch the MSU/Arkansas game over the weekend--I wanted to watch it primarily to see how Chris Relf finished the game 20/30 for 224 yards (the short story: tons of protection in the pocket, about which more probably tomorrow)--and saw yet another instance of Mississippi State's flimsy defensive numbers.

This is the last time I'll dedicate significant space to this, but at this point, I feel confident saying that these are not isolated incidents, rather a systemic issue with their defense. I've now watched three games of Mississippi State (two at the beginning of the season and this one at the end) that all show this same flaw. This is not something that they've cared to fix after acknowledging a problem. To the play (apologies for image quality, I wasn't able to find a high-def torrent):

Mississippi State was a little disorganized before the snap but was able to get into place just as Ryan Mallett pulled away from center. Arkansas is in a single-back set with trips to Mallett's left and a tight end on the weak side of the field. By this point, you can probably already see the problem with the Bulldogs' alignment: they have two defenders (almost three with the strongside linebacker who's standing at the 20 yard line) to cover three Arkansas receivers.

On the snap, you see the H-receiver head out to the flat for the screen pass. The two outside receivers start to head upfield to block. The strongside linebacker who was rolled up to the line of scrimmage sees the H-back headed out for the screen pass and starts to run with him. However, he's already a few yards behind the receiver horizontally.

Mallett has thrown the screen. The two outside receivers are still headed upfield to block the safety and cornerback that were covering them. The strongside linebacker may be able to make a tackle on this play if he takes the right angle, but it'll be difficult because the H-receiver already has momentum and a step on him.

The H-receiver now has the ball and is turning upfield. His blockers are about to engage the only defenders that were on the strongside of the field.

The playside linebacker gets close to making the play but dives and can't quite get there. The outside receivers are now laying blocks on the DBs down the field. The middle linebacker (#50) is crashing on the play as hard as he can but similarly won't make it in time.

The playside linebacker dove and missed. The middle linebacker is behind the play. And the outside receivers are running Mississippi State's DBs down the field. The only reason this doesn't go for a touchdown is because of a great foot grab by the MSU safety as he desperately tries to tackle the Arkansas receiver:

The H-receiver will end up falling just inside the five yard line.

What does it mean?
Like I mentioned above, this is not an isolated incident: Mississippi State's screen defense is structurally unsound, and that's because they play a heavy-blitzing style. Unless they switch up their defensive schemes significantly against Michigan, I anticipate RichRod checking to this play frequently at the line of scrimmage when he sees a favorable alignment. MSU will attempt to counter this by crashing their DBs into the backfield to intercept/swat balls, but that can be easily expoited with vertical routes by the outside receivers.

Michigan will go to these bubble screens often against Mississippi State, or at least until it slows down their blitzing schemes and opens running lanes for Denard and company. Roy Roundtree's ability to hold onto the ball will be crucial here, and I also expect to see Vincent Smith headed out to the flat to catch screen passes from time to time.

This should conclude my obsession with the Bulldogs' screen defense. Hopefully.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Catching up with Michigan basketball

Last year, I predicted that Michigan basketball was going to be truly abysmal. With the loss of DeShawn Sim and the overrated Manny Harris, Michgan was losing most of its scoring, a lot of its depth, and with it, any hope for the future. I thought this season was going to be when the other shoe finally dropped and people realized that this basketball program was headed nowhere fast.

Fast forward to today, and Michigan has nearly completed its non-conference schedule and is sitting comfortably at 9-2 with a close loss to #10 Syracuse and an embarrassing flop to UTEP. Regardless, this is not the basketball team I expected to see. There are a couple of reasons for this, most prominent of which is the evolution of Darius Morris.

Last year, the only hope I saw for this team was in Morris' play:
I think Morris has arguably the most upside on the team and has the skillset to really run Beilein's system despite the massive deficiencies elsewhere...

I assume Morris' start against Wisconsin is the beginning of the Morris era and we rarely see him start games on the bench for the rest of his time at Michigan. A lot has been made of the fact that he can't really shoot from the outside, to which I say, bullpuckey. I don't want Morris shooting threes anyway. I want him to be a point guard, something that he's increasingly proving he might actually be. I'm exceedingly pessimistic about the 2011 season but that might change as Morris gets more and more playing time and we get to see just how well he can run the offense.
And here:
Next year, when Morris gets a little more confidence and playing time, I think we see him become arguably the most effective and important player on the team. And he's going to have to be, what with the harrowing lack of depth in Michigan's frontcourt.
And what we got this year was basically best-case scenario. Morris is averaging nearly 15 points and 7 assists per game, and is far and away Michigan's most productive and vital player. With Morris--a true point guard--on the court, Michigan's offense looks fluid and aggressive. He finds backdoor cuts and players under the basket, and most importantly, he isn't afraid to take shots. Darius Morris is turning into everything Manny Harris never was, in addition to all of the scoring prowess of Harris:
And when [Harris] does get [to the basket] and is met by two or three defenders, he rarely makes the right play: finding an open teammate for an easy shot. This year has been difficult to pick up assists because, well, Michigan can't hit shots, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't make the right play. This is where Harris As Star really falls apart for me: Stars make their teammates better and Harris rarely does so. I'm not expecting him to run the point because that's not his position, but he doesn't flow with this team, working within their system
The point being, Morris is a significant upgrade over Harris because of his ability to see the floor, his desire to play within the system, and his unselfish play.

But Morris isn't the only reason the team is succeeding. The other major factor is Michigan's punishing man-to-man defense. Though Beilein is known primarily for his 1-3-1 zone, Michigan has played almost all man-to-man this year to resounding results. Per MGoBlog:
Michigan's defense is now Wisconsin's: built on never fouling you, never blocking your shots, never stealing the ball, but forcing you into a wide array of not-very-good shots. Michigan is 10th in three point D, 57th in two point D, 11th in FTA/FGA, 14th in eFG%, and well down the list when it comes to forcing turnovers and getting blocks. Instead of leaving their feet they get in spots to take charges and get their hands in the air.
Michigan's defense has been smothering teams all year. If they keep this up, it won't matter that they can't shoot from three.

Speaking of which, Michigan still sucks at shooting three pointers, despite Beilein's offensive system to this point being a three-point-driven style. Last year, I looked at the statistical significance between 2008-09 team's shooting and last year's. The conlusion:
...we can likely say--albeit not definitively--that the 29.7% three-point shooting performance the team has shown this year is within the team's reasonable capabilities. That is, we can say that the performance this year is quite likely representative of the team's skill and performance given their outcomes last year.
And it's clear at this point that Michigan's shooting woes were not an isolated event. Frankly, the guys who are supposed to be good at shooting threes simply aren't. Of the players that have played significant minutes, only Stu Douglass is shooing threes over a 40% clip. And only two (Matt Vogrich and Evan Smotrycz) are shooting above 30%. Simply put, this team isn't very good at shooting threes.

The rest of the team's success can be attributed to role players Zack Novak and Douglass playing their natural positions and performing to expectations, and some of the younger players stepping up in big moments. Tim Hardaway Jr. is in the process of solidifying himself as a star on this team, averaging 11 PPG and 3.5 RPG. Jordan Morgan is averaging 10 PPG and 7 RPG--despite being an awful, slow post defender. And Smotrycz has shown flashes of brilliance early on even though he's physically unimposing and being forced into early playing time.

What does it mean?
Before the season, I thought Michigan was headed toward the cellar of the Big Ten, below up-and-comers Indiana and the other recent basement dwellers. But with the emergence of Morris and Michigan's unflappable defense, this team could turn into something legitimate. More importantly, the future once against looks bright for Beilein's squad. Whereas at the end of last year, Michigan looked to be digging themselves a hole they wouldn't soon come out of, now Michigan appears to be a young start up, capable of running with any team in the country on a given night.

Other: I'll be keeping a running tab of all the players' stats this year, much like the football ones on the right sidebar. Right now I just have per-game averages, but I might start to include total as well. Let me know if you want to see anything else on there. Here.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What to expect: Gator Bowl edition

A series on Michigan's Gator Bowl opponent. You can find all preview content on the 2011 Gator Bowl page in the sidebar.

Yesterday, I discussed what I hoped to see from Rich Rod's crew against Mississippi State--with the exception of the obvious (a win, of course). It was admittedly a best case scenario: improvement from the young starters, a new defensive mindset, 100% health, and new offensive formations. The chances of all (or any) of those things happening are pretty slim. The following is a more honest guess as to what we'll see.

  • I do expect Denard and the rest of the offense to be almost completely recovered from any lingering injuries they might have. We all know what to expect from the wide receivers and running backs when healthy, but the biggest difference I think we'll see is improved accuracy from Denard in the passing game. Hopefully a healthy shoulder will stop him from short arming balls into the turf to wide open receivers in the flats.
  • I expect Michigan will show one or two new wrinkles in the offense but nothing drastic. The triple option that we saw unsuccessfully last year likely won't make an appearance. It's one of the base looks in the Mississippi State offense, and their defense is probably able to defend it. I don't know exactly what new looks we'll see, but there will be one or two plays that we haven't seen Michigan run this year.
  • Bubble screens. Lots of them. One of my points of optimism during this scouting process has been Mississippi State's inability to stop screen passes because of a fundamental problem with their alignments. Michigan is going to go to screens early and often, and will probably bait Bulldog DBs into the backfield and throw some big gaining seam routes.
  • Whether or not they're behind on the scoreboard, Michigan is going to throw the ball more than they run it. MSU has a blitz happy defense and, as such, has a really good run defense. Michigan is going to rush for less than 5 YPC in this game.
  • Drives are going to be boom or bust. Because of MSU's blitzing schemes, they're either going to get Michigan behind the chains, forcing punts, or Michigan will get in rhythm and march down the field quickly, gaining large chunks of yards.
  • Michigan is going to attempt at least one field goal.

  • Despite evidence that suggests that Michigan should play a four-man defensive line, they're not going to. Against spread teams this year, Michigan has played almost exclusively three-man fronts. I understand the theory: use a three-man defensive line and get speedy linebackers and DBs on the field to counteract quick offenses. Unfortunately, Greg Robinson appears not to understand that offensive linemen are regularly getting free releases to the second level and crushing Michigan's linebackers, opening up big running lanes for opposing backs.
  • Very little man coverage. Michigan is going to return to their bend-don't-break...until-you-break defense of exclusive zone coverage. This is going to open up running lanes and, as we've come to expect, show very little resistance to the passing game.
  • At least one long touchdown run, if not two or three. Mississippi State's option game is going to cause problems for Michigan's linebackers and safeties, resulting in at least touchdown (probably from a missed tackle).
  • No forced turnovers. In fact, Michigan will almost certainly lose the turnover battle in this game.
  • Mississippi State will not put up 65 points. Nor will they score 45 in regulation. They might make it to 40 (and if they do, Michigan is sunk), but expecting a similar defensive performance to the one against Illinois is overly pessimistic.
  • Missed tackles. Lots of them.
None of the above should surprise you: it's a pretty straight description of how Michigan has performed all year. But the various extremes (amazing offense, functional defense) are probably unlikely. We should see improvements on both sides of the ball, but Michigan will still look like a 7-5 team. All signs point to this being a closely contested shootout in the mid-30s.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What to hope for: Gator Bowl edition

A series on Michigan's Gator Bowl opponent. You can find all preview content on the 2011 Gator Bowl page in the sidebar.

So as scouting time (and materials; if anyone knows where to find a good MSU/Arkansas torrent, let me know) begins to dwindle for the 2011 Gator Bowl and with the holidays rapidly approaching, it's probably a decent time to take a look at what to expect and what I hope to see against Mississippi State. This is going to be the more optimistic of the two: What to hope for.

  • Health. Denard is rumored to be healthier than he's been all year, which makes sense with the layoff. But getting a healthy Mike Shaw and Vincent Smith could be huge for the offense. Also, just the general physical condition of the receivers and offensive line should be improved. If the team comes into this game completely healthy, we may see a return to the explosiveness that colored the early parts of the season.
  • New plays. Toward the end of the season, it seemed like Michigan's offense started to stall, and I think part of that is because there were very few new formations and plays. We'd get a wrinkle here or there, like optioning off the playside defensive end, but even that went the way of the Dodo by year's end. Things I'd like to see: triple option, which we saw last year briefly; the traditional option pitch; optioning off the playside DE again; and more use and variation in the heavy set. Having new looks will keep MSU on their toes during the game and could produce a few big plays.
  • Tate Forcier. I'm usually not one of the people calling to see Forcier put into the game, but given the disparity between Mississippi State's passing and rushing defensive production, Forcier may be the perfect change of pace QB to take advantage of a vulnerable defensive secondary. I don't want to see him get significant snaps, necessarily (like the back-and-forth against Purdue), but giving him an occasional drive might be beneficial.
  • A cure for the dropsies. We all know that if Roy Roundtree drops a first down pass, the next play will be a Denard interception. Those are bad. But all of the drops have put Michigan behind the chains and in third and long situations. Keeping a rhythm will be crucial against a team whose primary defensive strategy is to stop said rhythm.
  • Denard scrambles. Denard has been reticent to scramble this year for whatever reason, but did so a few times against Ohio State. The hope is that this trend continues and he starts to take off a little more frequently. The opportunities will be there: MSU blitzes their linebackers more often than not, so there should be plenty of room for him to run. Cam Newton did so to great effect in the Auburn/MSU game, so hopefully Michigan's coaches are teaching Denard to pull the ball and run when his receivers are all covered.
  • No field goals. We're all in agreement? Good.

  • Four-man defensive lines. As I've been chronicling the last two weeks, Mississippi State's offensive line is not great. They're repeatedly pushed into the backfield against four-man defensive fronts and have trouble in pass protection. Michigan's four-man line did a great job against Ohio State, at least for a little while, and OSU's offensive front is far superior to the Bulldogs'. The four-man line will also limit free-releasing offensive linemen. MSU's linemen are adept at getting downfield and facesmashing linebackers. If Michigan can hold the offensive line in check, this will leave Mouton, Demens, and the other linebackers free to make plays.
  • Man coverage. I know, I know, I've been harping on this all year and it's had only mixed results. But, like Illinois, if ever there was a team to feel OK playing man coverage against, it's Mississippi State. Chris Relf is not the kind of quarterback who can make Hennebot throws to the outside or over the middle of the field. Challenging him to beat Michigan through the air is something they'll have to do if they want to stop the option running attack. Because eventually, Michigan is going to have to sneak safeties into the box to help out with the run.
  • Zone blitzing and showing pre-snap looks. Michigan has gone to both of these occasionally throughout the year, and they usually work. It's not something you can do repeatedly with a young defense like Michigan's, but giving looks like this more often, especially in passing situations, could go a long way to stopping a fairly immature passer.
  • Obi Ezeh at outside linebacker (a little). Ezeh has been pretty good moonlighting as an outside linebacker after Demens took over his starting gig. Ezeh has the strength to take on releasing guards and tight ends, as well as the athleticism to attack the backfield on option plays. I don't know if JB Fitzgerald is quite as well suited to stop a team like MSU.
  • General improvement. Michigan has time to do nothing but practice and prepare. For a single game. At the end of the season. This means missed assignments should not happen. It also means that Michigan should be able to tackle. Hopefully this practice time gives players like Ray Vinopal and Courtney Avery, as well as the other freshman DBs, time to get their tackling and assignments in order. If the youngsters are competent in this game, Michigan might be able to field an only slightly below average defense.
This is all optimistic, I know, but it's also the first bowl game we've seen under Rich Rodriguez. He may have a whole host of offensive tricks up his sleeve that he unveils on an unsuspecting MSU defense. On the other side of the ball... Have you been saying your Rosaries?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mississippi State: Inside pitch

A series on Michigan's Gator Bowl opponent. You can find all preview content on the 2011 Gator Bowl page in the sidebar.

I've spent the last week and a half breaking down Mississippi State game film and writing optimistically about why Michigan Might Win. Long story short: unsound defensive numbers, Michigan's ability to exploit blitzes, and a vulnerable looking Bulldogs offensive line. The occasional Mississippi State fan that stumbles over here invariably goes, "But Michigan sucks", I shrug and say, "Yes, I know, but maybe?" And despite all of the exploitable moments, Mississippi State still does one thing that will probably kill Michigan: they, urm, are pretty good at football.

Michigan's had trouble with option looks like the Bulldogs' all year. And given the amount of misdirection that MSU runs, Michigan is going to be in trouble unless they play incredibly disciplined and smart football. One play against Auburn in particular has given me nightmares.

MSU is in a 3x1 formation with a tight end on the weak side of the offensive line. Before the snap, the X receiver starts in motion and will run behind Chris Relf as the ball is snapped. Auburn is in a 4-3 alignment, possibly with their nickelback on the field shaded over the slot receiver.

On the snap, the X receiver is directly behind Relf. The tight end (#32 Marcus Green, red) begins to pull behind the formation. The trips receivers on the strong side of the field start upfield looking to block. The Mississippi State offensive line intentionally leaves the stronside defensive end unblocked.

This is a great shot of the triple option: you can clearly see the TE Green, Relf, and RB Vick Ballard swinging around to the strongside of the field. The Auburn defensive end has started upfield to attack Relf and Ballard, completely unaware that Green is pulling across the formation on the triple option. Auburn's playside linebacker also didn't see Green coming across the field, and MSU's right tackle is releasing to the second level to block the weakside linebacker.

The playside defensive end and linebacker effectively have the Relf/Ballard option wrapped up in the backfield but never recognized Green on the triple option. Down the field, the right tackle is blocking the weakside linebacker, the trips receivers are either engaged downfield or headed toward safeties, and the right guard is releasing to the second level to block someone downfield as well.

Green has caught the ball and has nothing but blockers and turf ahead of him. The playside linebacker has overpursued the play trying to thwart the option in the backfield. This won't go for a touchdown, but it goes for a fair amount of yards.

What does it mean?
Argh, terrible linebacker play, poor play recognition, safeties having to come downfield to make tackles. This play is basically a microcosm of everything that's bad about Michigan's defense this year. If Mississippi State pulls out a bunch of this type of misdirection plays, Michigan's defense is probably sunk. That is unless Mouton and Demens are perpetually in the film room from now until January 1. For Michigan, defending plays like this will very likely come down to film study/preparation and avoiding mental mistakes. It'll also be important for Kovacs, Cam Gordon, and Vinopal to come downhill and make plays.

If this was one play in the Mississippi State arsenal, I'd feel more confident (e.g., zone read plays in Ohio State's playbook). Unfortunately, this sort of play is the Bulldogs' offense, which means we're probably going to see a pretty high variance of defensive results: Demens and Mouton will probably make a lot of impressive plays, but there are also going to be a fair amount that get broken for significant yardage (like the one above) because of a single mental lapse. Being disciplined and knowing where your help defense is will be crucial, as will not overpursuing like the Auburn linebacker.

Also, you're welcome for the nightmare fuel.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mississippi State: LSU game notes

A series on Michigan's Gator Bowl opponent. You can find all of this content on the 2011 Gator Bowl page in the sidebar. Previously: NCAA rankings, Defense vs. Auburn, Screen defense, Jumping the Screen, Offense vs. Auburn, Defending Mississippi State's option

I had a chance to watch the Mississippi State game against LSU. Here are the various things I learned:

Defensive formations
Mississippi State continued to show an unsound defense against 3x1 formations. Example 1:

This is the more egregious of the two examples I saw. Here, LSU lines up in a 2x1 formation with an H-back to the strong side of the field. Though Michigan has never shown a look in which the H-back bows out for the bubble screen, you can still see the problem with the Bulldogs' defensive formation here: there simply aren't enough defenders on the strong side of the field to cover LSU's receivers, let alone if the H-back heads outside for the screen pass. But even here, LSU could easily throw a bubble screen to the slot receiver and gain a significant amount of yards. The closest safety is 15 yards off the line of scrimmage and the playside linebacker is already behind the slot receiver.

Example 2:

Here's the second example I noticed of Mississippi State poorly defending a screen look. As you can see, the Bulldogs only have three defenders against LSU's three receivers. This play ended up being a screen and being broken up by Mississippi State. The middle receiver comes back toward the play on a screen pass, which is knocked down by the Mississippi State defensive end. [Ed. Were LSU to run this screen to the outside, it likely would've netted 7-10 yards. Instead, they came back toward the Bulldogs' defensive strength in the middle of the field.]

Through the two games I've watched--against LSU and Auburn--it's becoming obvious why there's such a disparity between the Bulldogs' rushing defense (20th) and passing efficiency defense (50th, 89th by yardage): they gamble against the pass in order to stop the run. Formations like this leave them vulnerable to various different passing attacks. However, their stats are in keeping with a high-blitzing team. They allow teams to complete just under 60% of their passes because of the pressure put on quarterbacks, but they allow a significant amount of yards when passes are completed. Michigan's screen and quick passing game have the potential to crush this defense.

Mississippi State offensive line
Despite much consternation in the comments section of an earlier post, the Mississippi State offensive line once again looked vulnerable against four-man rushes. It's difficult to quantify how bad/good the offensive line is because of the level of competition. LSU and Auburn both boast good-to-great defensive lines, so any criticism of the Bulldogs' front line should be taken with a grain of salt. Repeatedly, however, their offensive line was put on skates and pushed into the backfield. Their sack and TFL numbers seem to agree: 52nd in sacks allowed and 70th in TFLs allowed. It's safe to say that both of those numbers are probably a little inflated because of Chris Relf's size and scrambling ability. Their offensive line looks to be a liability.

Michigan went primarily to a four-man front against Ohio State and I expect them to return to it against Mississippi State. Though the final score against OSU disagrees, the defensive front was pretty effective especially in the first quarter when they completely shut down the Buckeyes attack. Coming into this season, Michigan's defensive line was predicted to be far and away its strongest unit. With Roh's move back to defensive end rather than linebacker, that prediction should come true. The season's final game against Mississippi State should be a chance to prove it.

Red zone blitzing
If Michigan's inability to kick field goals hasn't hurt them enough this year already, it'll come back to bite them in the bowl game. Repeatedly, LSU drove the ball into the red zone only to stall out because of negative plays or a compressed field. I don't know if it's because of more conservative playcalling on the Bulldogs' behalf that slowed the attack or just the opposite, but LSU kicked five field goals in this game because they were unable to move the ball beyond the 20 yard line. Whether or not that's LSU offensive incompetence (Michigan's offense is light years better than LSU's, especially this early in the season) or should be credited to a sound defensive gameplan is difficult to determine. But the end results were the same: field goal attempts. Michigan will miss at least one field goal in the Gator Bowl.

What does it mean?
Watching Mississippi State's defensive alignments in these two games leaves me more and more confident that Michigan's offense will be able to move the ball easily through the air. This should eventually slow down the Bulldogs' blitzing, leaving room for Denard to break a couple of runs. The point being, Michigan is going to be a pass-first team against MSU. Unfortunately, those blitzes will kill a number of Michigan's drives in the game, possibly through missed field goals or forcing punts. Michigan's ability to exploit a team's aggressiveness is going to pay dividends.

On the other side of the ball, Mississippi State is going to have to live and die by Chris Relf, specifically his passing ability. I've been pretty underwhelmed by the Bulldog offensive line, and a four-man front of Roh-Martin-Van Bergen-Banks should be able to make hay. Whether or not Michigan's linebackers can react to and attack the Bulldogs option running game will be the key, but if the improvements of Kenny Demens are for real and Jonas Mouton is healthy, I feel confident that Michigan should be able to slow the Mississippi State running game, forcing Relf to put the ball in the air.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Holy cripes! Division Names Edition

So the Big Ten announced it's new division names:

Legends Division
Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Nebraska, Minnesota

Leaders Divison
OSU, PSU, Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, Wisconsin

This gets a Groan-. These are bland and meaningless. There's no conference significance to them aside from Leaders being a nod to Michigan, I guess, although Michigan isn't even in that division. For all of the talk of trying to honor the greats of the conference etc., this is a truly abysmal showing.

And the new logo?

This is mostly inoffensive besides the fact that it looks like it should be on a billboard for an anti-smoking ad. My biggest problem is the 10 allusion in B1G. Even the old logo acknowledged that there were 11 teams in the Big Ten. I understand it's a little harder to do with 12, but I don't know why they're playing up the number 10 in the logo and making no concession to the fact that the conference has 12 teams.

Overall grade: C-

Friday, December 10, 2010

Defending Mississippi State's option

A series on Michigan's Gator Bowl opponent. You can find all of this content on the 2011 Gator Bowl page in the sidebar. Previously: NCAA rankings, Defense vs. Auburn, Screen defense, Jumping the Screen, Offense vs. Auburn

As I mentioned yesterday, Michigan has the benefit of playing a team with a near identical offensive identity to one they've already played. Unfortunately, that team was Illinois who put up 65 points on the Wolverines defense. Both offenses have a mass of formations, but it seems like the one they use most frequently is this:

Here, Chris Relf is in a pistol formation on a triple option run play. Michigan saw this a lot against Illinois and had a lot of trouble with it.

Illinois is in the same formation as Mississippi State above. Michigan is showing a traditional 4-3 formation, but Jordan Kovacs  is walking down toward the line of scrimmage to turn Michigan into a 4-4 look.

During the Illinois game, Michigan was pretty blitz happy. Cam Gordon spent a lot of time blitzing off the edge, and Michigan generally brought more pressure than they have against any other opponent. Obviously, it didn't end so well. It's a high variance defense that probably causes more problems than solutions against option teams like Illinois and Mississippi State. This play in particular went for a lot of yards.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Mississippi State: Offense vs. Auburn

A series on Michigan's Gator Bowl opponent. You can find all of this content on the 2011 Gator Bowl page in the sidebar. Previously: NCAA rankings, Defense vs. Auburn, Screen defense, Jumping the Screen

Much like Michigan will benefit from having Mississippi State game film against a team with a similar offense, Michigan also played against a team with a very similar offensive strategy to the Bulldogs. That's the good news. The bad news? Mississippi State runs basically the exact same offense as Illinois. The same Illinois team that put up 65 points on Michigan's defense. 

The offense
As MGoBlog pointed out yesterday, the Bulldogs run a rush-first option offense not unlike the Nathan Scheelhaase-led Illinois offense: lots of pre-snap motion, lots of triple option, and very little passing. Mississippi State spent a lot of time in the pistol, triple option... well I don't know what to call it:

Michigan saw this alignment a lot against Illinois. The player lined up next to Mississippi State QB Chris Relf is the B-back, who will run a dive play, while the A-back behind Relf  acts as a traditional option back should the QB pull the ball. They also run a fair amount of traditional shotgun formations, but almost all of the plays include some sort of pre-snap motion and reads.

The Bulldogs have thrown the ball 265 times this year (32% of the time) and run the ball 561 times (68% of the time), and rightfully so. Starter Relf is completing only 56% of his passes. But you don't have much incentive to throw the ball when your quarterback is a 6'4", 240 lbs mantank that runs people over. Like MGoBlog noted, Relf is more Cam Newton powerful than Denard shifty. Expecting the Ray Vinopals of the world to make wrap-up tackles against Relf is a pipe dream. Watching him steamroll a good Auburn defense didn't bode well for Michigan's ragtag group.

Relf doesn't throw the ball much, though, averaging just 16 attempts a game, which is good news for Michigan's secondary. Like Illinois, however, Mississippi State runs a nominal two-quarterback system. "Backup" Tyler Russell was often deployed as the passing quarterback against Auburn, coming in on long yardage situations and given the occasional drive. He's not much better, completing only 58% of his passes, but he'll be a variation that Michigan will have to account for.

When Russell comes into the game, however, Mississippi State almost completely abandons the pre-snap motion and option game. Russell is a pretty standard drop-back quarterback with uninspiring wheels. He'll give Michigan another look to prepare for, but they'll need to worry primarily about Relf's running ability.

Random notes from the Auburn game
  • Many of Relf's passes ended up being designed QB rollouts, and we've all seen how Michigan fares against those. Unless Michigan has improved in their defense of these, it could be trouble. Then again, Relf's passes are often off target.
  • When Mississippi State gets behind the chains, their drives often stall. Their offense doesn't have a ton of big-play ability in the run game, and the passing game is atrocious in third and long situations. Aurburn's Nick Fairly repeatedly blew threw their offensive line in these situations and caused havoc in the backfield. In general, the Bulldogs' offensive line seemed to have trouble in pass protection.
  • Against Auburn, which ran primarily a cover-2, Mississippi State went to the corner/fade route over and over again (a pass behind the corner but in front of the safety). It was their most consistent and effective passing play despite several drops and overthrows.
What does it mean?
Frankly, not great things. Mississippi State's offense looks remarkably similar to Illinois', which thoroughly torched Michigan's defense all game. They look to break contain and get to the outside--something Michigan frequently allows--but if you over pursue, they have counters to get the ball back up the middle. Relf is basically a 6'4" version of Scheelhaase except marginally slower, older, and possibly a better passer. If Michigan doesn't show any adjustments from their defensive formations against Illinois, this could be another ugly performance.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Mississippi State: Jumping the screen

A series on Michigan's Gator Bowl opponent. You can find all of this content on the 2011 Gator Bowl page in the sidebar. Previously: NCAA rankings, Defense vs. Auburn, Screen defense

Continuing my dissection of Mississippi State's defense against Auburn, I want to take another look at a screen pass example. As I've mentioned several times now, the Bulldogs' defensive alignment was schematically unsound against Auburn's 3x1 alignment. One of the ways they counteracted this was to send their playside linebacker directly at the H receiver (who runs the screen route). In the other example today, Auburn sent their strongside receivers downfield and allowed Cam Newton to make the proper read: throw the screen pass or hit one of the outside receivers on a seam route. In this example, however, they ran an all-out screen pass that almost resulted in catastrophe.

Auburn is in the 3x1 formation they'd shown all game. Mississippi State is once again in their base 4-3 set with two stand-up DEs and the strongside linebacker shaded over the slot receiver. The difference between this defensive alignment and the previous one is that Mississippi State's strongside cornerback is closer to the line of scrimmage.

On the snap, the H receiver starts to bow out for the screen pass. Newton is going to run a play-action in the backfield. You can see the playside cornerback crashing down on the screen pass. The X and Y receivers are headed upfield to block the playside linebacker and cornerback.

Newton is engaged in the play-action mesh and about to pull the ball. It looks like he's reading the playside cornerback, but that seems unlikely given the throw he makes. The interesting part about this play is that the wide receivers don't appear to have the same option that they did in the previous play; they're strictly blockers in this play.

Newton is in the process of throwing the screen, but both the playside cornerback and linebacker are running unblocked toward the H receiver. They've cut under the X and Y receivers and are headed into the backfield. It should've been a pick-6...

...but the cornerback can't quite get a hold of the ball and it falls harmlessly incomplete.

As I mentioned in the comments of the Mississippi State NCAA rankings post, this is a high variance play: if the cornerback makes this interception, it's a pick-6 unless Newton can catch a streaking cornerback. If this pass somehow gets through, or if Auburn's receivers run vertical routes like they did earlier, this is almost certainly a touchdown. Instead, the ball falls harmlessly and we get a look at how Mississippi State tries to defend a screen pass in a structurally unsound formation.

What does it mean?
The philosophy behind this play is more revealing than the result of the play. This was much later in the game after the Bulldogs had been burned multiple times by the screen pass. But instead of shifting their alignment to limit or remove the screen option, they decide to stay within their base formation and attack more aggressively, which tells you something about the Mississippi State defensive coordinator. Michigan has thrived on exploiting opponents' aggressiveness this year. The coaches have enough film on this defense to formulate an attack plan against plays like this.

Again, unless the defensive alignment shifts later in the year, Michigan is going to show a lot of 3x1 offensive formations against Mississippi State. I'd also expect that, in most instances, Michigan's outside receivers are either going to be given an option route (block if the playside defenders stay home, run routes if they crash on the screen pass) or be told to run routes upfield.

This defensive alignment is similar to what Michigan saw against Notre Dame: a strict 4-3 and a coordinator too stubborn to change his personnel when the offensive alignment warrants it. Michigan should be able to exploit this throughout the game, that is unless Mississippi State's defensive alignment becomes more malleable throughout the year, which is pretty likely. I'll be sure to keep an eye out for this in other Mississippi State games.

Mississippi State: Screen defense

A series on Michigan's Gator Bowl opponent. You can find all of this content on the 2011 Gator Bowl page in the sidebar. Previously: NCAA rankings, Defense vs. Auburn

I mentioned in the Mississippi State defensive overview against Auburn that the Bulldogs defensive schemes showed serious problems when handling the screen game. Presumably because of Cam Newton's running ability, Mississippi State continuously put six or seven men in the box and left themselves structurally unsound against screens. For example:

The screen will be thrown to the receiver lined up behind the line of scrimmage on the strong side of the field (for ease's sake, we'll call him the H receiver). The thing to note, however, is the alignment of Mississippi State's defensive backs: they were playing with this deep of a cushion the entire game, not to mention that the numbers are decidedly in Auburn's favor (3 vs. 3). This play ended up going for a touchdown as the playside linebacker came off the edge on a blitz, leaving Auburn with two blockers and two defenders. But primarily, this is just to show another example of (and attack plan against) Auburn's screen game.

One of the more interesting plays is a screen/seam route similar to the Roundtree play-action that Michigan has shown this year.

I posted this picture yesterday to show the weakness in Mississippi State's defensive alignment. Auburn is in the 3x1 formation they showed for much of the game. The Bulldogs are in their 4-3 (with stand-up DEs) and have a linebacker shaded over the slot receiver. With a 15-yard cushion between the line of scrimmage and the deep, strongside safety, this play is certain to be a screen (or at least have a screen option, as we'll see).

(Sorry about the framing, the TV cameras panned in on the play.) On the snap, Auburn runs a play-action. The H receiver is starting to bow out for a screen. The Y and Z receivers are both heading upfield. Rather than blocking the playside linebacker and cornerbacks, however, they'll both run vertical routes.

When Newton pulls the ball down, his first read is the playside linebacker (bottom of the screen) who was lined up over the slot receiver. That linebacker is crashing down hard on the screen pass. The Y and Z receivers are running straight to the second level. I'm pretty sure the Y and Z receivers have a read here too: if the linebacker stays high, they probably stay in to block on the screen. If he crashes on the screen pass, they both run vertical routes.

You can now see the playside linebacker headed directly for the H receiver. The linebacker will end up drilling him in the backfield despite the ball never going to the him. The Y receiver is curling under the middle linebacker five yards down field. The Z receiver is out of the picture but running a similar, deeper curl route underneath the strong safety. Newton recognizes it and is getting ready to throw.

This is just after the Z receiver catches the ball. You can see he still has a seven-yard cushion from the strong safety and no linebackers anywhere near him.

Mississippi State spent the entire game in this sort of coverage. Not only did they leave either the H or Y/Z receivers open, but they failed to compensate for this by aligning their defense in a way that would shut down the screen. Auburn frequently went to the 3x1 alignment and ran similar variations, almost always to resounding effect--save one time, which I'll discuss later, when Newton threw the screen pass to the H receiver despite the linebacker crashing really hard on the play, almost resulting in a pick-6.

What does it mean?
Possibly a lot. Despite a slight alignment shift by Auburn, this 3x1 formation and playcalling have become staples of Michigan's offense, except when teams schematically limit it (i.e., committing another defender to the strong side of the field). If Mississippi State is going to allow Michigan to throw these sorts of passes all game, moving the ball against their defense should be simple so long as Michigan's slot receivers can hold onto the ball (Roundtree...).

This defensive alignment also gives a possible window into the disparity between Mississippi State's rushing defense (20th) and passing defense (89th): they simply sell out on the run. If that's the case, the ball will be put in Denard's hands and we have to hope he's fully healthy and making the proper reads. Then again, a Forcier cameo against this kind of defense would be ideal.

Unfortunately though, this was the second game of the season. I'll be watching many of Mississippi State's games over the next few weeks and looking specifically for their defensive alignment against similar 3x1 attacks. If they don't show any shift in their defensive philosophy against similar looks, expect Michigan to go to this play and variations on it early and often. Not only will it net yards and keep their linebackers honest in the run game, but these are relatively safe passing plays in which Denard won't have to worry too much about making the right read.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mississippi State: Defense vs. Auburn

A series on Michigan's Gator Bowl opponent. You can find all of this content on the 2011 Gator Bowl page in the sidebar. Previously: NCAA rankings

For scouting purposes, Michigan couldn't get much luckier than to have a full game of film of Mississippi State playing a team with a similar offensive style (and personnel) to Michigan. As such, the early-season game between Mississippi State and Cam Newton's Auburn squad can give at least a little information on how the Bulldogs might try to defend Michigan's attack.

Mississippi State's defensive formations were a little unorthodox in this game upon first look. Most of the game, the Bulldogs were in a defensive front with two down linemen and two others in a two-point stance on the line:

As you can see, the two defensive tackles are both in a three-point stance with the defensive ends standing up in a two-point stance. At first, I thought that this was in an effort to get more speed on the field, but when I started to look at the personnel, it was a little more confusing: the stand-up defensive ends are actually defensive ends, not faster linebackers to match Auburn's speed. At times, this allowed the DEs to diagnose the play and attack the proper gaps, but for the most part, it played almost exactly like a traditional 4-3, which is what Mississippi State was in for the majority of the game. They also showed a fair amount of 3-4, but primarily, they were in a 4-3.

More interestingly, however, is that the Bulldogs' defense looked fundamentally unsound for a lot of the game. To steal from Chris Brown at Smart Football again, "football begins as arithmetic". Over and over again during this game, Mississippi State was giving Auburn numbers in the screen passing game. For example:

I'll talk about this play later this week (Auburn faked the screen and ended up throwing a vertical route similar to the Roundtree touchdown against Notre Dame), but you can see from the alignment that Mississippi State is conceding the screen pass. And oddly, they seemed content to run this all game. There was one play in which they baited Newton to make a bad throw (I'll discuss this later this week as well), but for the most part, they sat back and gave up seven-yard screen passes all game. Much of this was because they needed to compensate for Newton's speed and put extra players in the box, but there's no reason to think they won't have to do the same against Denard.

Mississippi State was pretty blitz heavy throughout the game. I didn't take note of their blitzing percentage, but safe to say it's high. For most of the game, they blitzed from only one side of the field, trying to force Newton out of the pocket, which he exploited either by scrambling for large chunks of yards or rumbling in the pocket long enough to find an open receiver. Denard's increased tendency to run out of the pocket against Ohio State (despite the one fumble) may being the Achilles heel of Mississippi State.

How did they slow down Cam Newton?
They shut him down occasionally with blitzes, but that was about it. The reason this game was as close as it was is because Mississippi State slowed the game down pretty significantly, reducing the amount of possessions Auburn had (that and a muffed punt that lost Auburn a possession, as well as a recovered surprise onside kick). Auburn had the ball nine times excluding end-of-half possessions. Those resulted in two touchdowns, one made field goal, an interception, a missed field goal, and four punts.

The punts largely came on the heels of big negative plays resulting from Mississippi State's blitzing. But those same blitzes also cost them on a number of plays. The Bulldogs' defensive scheme was primarily to put pressure on Newton and live with the outcomes. For the most part, it was successful, but with more time to prepare, Michigan may be able to counteract a lot of these blitzes.

The interception wasn't really anything other than a bad throw by Newton. Mississippi State didn't bring pressure or show different looks, but Newton threw into double coverage against cover-2, and it ended about as you'd expect.

What does it mean?
With the caveat that this is only one game early in the season, Mississippi State's defense looked vulnerable against a similar offense with a similarly dynamic player. They repeatedly had schematic holes, primarily in the screen game, that Michigan's offense will aim to exploit. The Bulldogs didn't do anything all that interesting, aside from their faux-4-3 with stand-up DEs, but otherwise, they ran a blitz-heavy scheme that sold out on the run. IMO, Rich Rod's gameplanning to counteract this sort of attack throughout the year was far superior to Gene Chizik's in this game. But this was early in the season and we can presume that Auburn didn't have its full offensive arsenal. Regardless, this was an encouraging display, despite holding Auburn to just 17 points.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mississippi State: NCAA rankings

Ed. note: Over the next few weeks, I'll be taking some time to break down Mississippi State film and see how Michigan matches up. First up, by the numbers.

Like most of you, I didn't see a whole ton of Mississippi State's games this year, something that will hopefully change if I can get a hold of some torrents. So right now, I don't have much to go on besides NCAA standings and various box scores. In the interest of talking about football when little else is going on, let's take a look at Michigan's bowl opponent strictly by the numbers. NCAA rankings:
  • Rushing offense: 16th nationally; 215.75 yards per game,  4.61 yards per carry
  • Passing offense: 91st nationally;  178.58 yards per game,  8.09 yards per attempt
  • Scoring offense: 58th nationally;  27.08 points per game
All of that paints the picture of a run-first team that uses the run to set up some crushing play-action passes. The good news for Michigan is that Mississippi State doesn't have the Scott Tolzien or Ricky Stanzi-like prototypical drop back QB who is going to pick apart Michigan's defense (starter Chris Relf is completing only 56% of his passes). Unfortunately, because of the play-action, Michigan will probably spend very little time blitzing with their linebackers, opening up running lanes for a potent attack. However, Mississippi State only ranks 50th in passing efficiency, so the play-action may not be quite as effective as the numbers indicate. This side of the ball may very well come down to the reaction time of Mouton, Demens, and Ezeh, as well as aggressive playcalling on Greg Robinson's behalf.
  • Rushing defense: 20th; 121.67 yards per game, 3.56 yards per attempt
  • Passing defense: 89th;  236.42 yards per game, 7.00 yards per attempt
  • Scoring defense: 27th; 20.33 points per game
These are pretty middling numbers, frankly. While their rush defense appears to be strong, both Iowa and Ohio State are ranked well above them, and Mississippi State's numbers are almost identical to those of Michigan State's. Michigan rushed for 4.8 YPC against MSU, 4.4 YPC against Ohio State, and 4.5 YPC against Iowa. So while each of those defenses slowed Michigan's ground game, expecting Mississippi State to do much more than that is unlikely.

What killed Michigan in each of those three games were turnovers. They had 10 combined in those losses and at least three in each game. Mississippi State's scoring defense seems somewhat incongruous with their yardage allowed (primarily 89th in passing defense), but a quick look at turnovers shows that they are 21st nationally in turnovers gained with 26. FWIW, Ohio State is 12th (29), Iowa is 47th (22), and MSU is 34th (24). If Michigan doesn't shoot themselves in the foot, chances are they'll be able to move the ball pretty well against a so-so defense.

What does it mean? On paper at least, this seems like a really good matchup for Michigan. Mississippi State's run defense is strong but on par or worse than three units Michigan has already seen and moved the ball effectively against. In terms of pass defense, statistically they are sandwiched between Purdue and Indiana, two teams that offered very little in the way of resistance (save the former's awful weather conditions).

On the other side of the ball, Mississippi State either can't or willfully hasn't shown the ability to exploit Michigan's greatest weakness: the passing game. They rarely throw the ball and rely primarily on a solid rushing attack. Michigan's traditional 4-3 did wonders against Ohio State's rush attack (the 89-yard, Vinopal-missed-tackle run excluded, Ohio State averaged 3.8 YPC), and a healthy Mike Martin could go a long way to shutting down Mississippi State's running game.

Turnovers look like they'll be the deciding factor in this one. If Michigan can hold onto the ball, they should be able to move up and down the field on Mississippi State. Then again, they did hold Auburn to only 17 points. But Auburn had two turnovers (an interception and a fumble) as well as a significant yardage disparity (348 vs. 246) that indicates they should've won by significantly more. I'll be watching this game to see what exactly Mississippi State did to hold down Cam Newton and the Auburn offense, but suffice it to say, I'd bet Auburn shot themselves in the foot a lot (a quick spot check shows a missed field in addition to the aforementioned turnovers).

Friday, December 3, 2010

On Dee Hart and other random thoughts

So Twitter was abuzz last night about the probably decommit of running back Demetrius Hart. Hart was a big pull for Michigan, despite his status as a heavy Michigan lean for his entire recruiting process. He was a high four-star, near five-star running back that seemed prefect for Michigan's attack. On Hart's potential, MGoBlog writes:
Hart's talent may be too much to keep off the field. He will probably get shuffled in during his true freshman year, become a big part of the rotation as a sophomore, and then have the opportunity to star as a junior and senior. As with Steve Slaton before him, Hart could become a Heisman contender before leaving Rich Rodriguez's program.
That's not-so-subtle praise from a source that doesn't joke around with these things. Hart is a wonderful player who seems to fit the mold for Rodriguez's system. Excitement was warranted.

With his decommit, however, I don't think anyone needs to panic. Plainly put, one or two players like Hart come along every year. This is not a Devin Gardner/Terrelle Pryor situation, where you have an incredible and elusive combination of raw talent and amazing physical attributes. The presence of Hart in Michigan's backfield would be a wonderful addition, but not something that will make Michigan a substantially better team.

If the offense merely holds serve next year, Michigan will be fine. Let's not forget that what's holding this team back is its defense. With expected improvements on that side of the ball next year, the loss of Hart will seem like an afterthought. Not to mention that Michigan's stable of running backs was largely injured this year. A healthier crew would probably force Hart into a supporting role at best. And, mark my words, there will be another player like Hart next year that Michigan will have a chance with, though maybe not quite as strong.

Speaking of depth charts and injuries...
Troy Woolfolk. I had a chance to sit down and discuss Michigan's defensive depth chart for next year, and things look practically, well, decent. Woolfolk's return next year could turn this secondary into an average or slightly above average unit. Upon his return, Woolfolk could end up either at free safety or cornerback, but given the depth chart, chances are he'll be a safety. Michigan's secondary would then approximately look like:

StarterJT FloydTroy WoolfolkCourtney Avery
2nd StringTerrence TalbottCullen ChristianDallas Crawford
3rd StringDelonte HollowellRay VinopalGreg Brown

This assumes a few things. First, that Courtney Avery will be in the starting lineup next year. He's shown marked improvement this year and looks poised to become a decent-to-good Big Ten cornerback. Unless we see drastic improvement from one of the other freshmen corners over the offseason, I think Avery is solidifying himself as the starter opposite Floyd.

This also assumes that Vinopal doesn't show significant improvement. I'm actually pretty high on Vinopal, despite the fact that he's a tiny freshman. I think he's got a lot more speed than people realize and appears to have a good nose for the ball. But given the depth chart as it is, I feel like Woolfolk would be better used as a safety, adding more depth to that position. Also, it seems like Christian will move to the free safety position with the influx of cornerbacks in the 2011 recruiting class, his inability to see the field, and his size making him look more like a safety than corner.

But when Michigan's recruiting class is finally complete and we approach next season, we'll all know more about this. Regardless, your starters next year in the secondary project to be a redshirt junior, fifth year senior, and true sophomore with playing experience. It's still a wildly young secondary, but it's getting to the point where the starters have some experience and the backups are either talented or have experience of their own, unlike this year.

Starting next week, I should be back to a regular posting schedule. I may take a peek back at the Ohio State game and see what we can glean. Plus we'll know our bowl opponent that we can discuss.