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


CooperDawg said...

I think I counted 7 Michigan screens in this game. 2 got 6-8 yards (1 for 1st down), 1 called back due to holding, and 4 that didn't go anywhere. No big plays.

Thanks for the analysis, and good game. Glad no one got hurt on either side.

Chris Gaerig said...

What do you mean no one got hurt? Did you see Rich Rodriguez?

Mississippi State largely covered the screen passes (teams started to do this against Michigan throughout the year because of how effective it was). When they left it open, even on early downs, Michigan never checked to it. Frankly, this was one of the worst called games by Rich Rod all year. I'll discuss it this week but needless to say, this was bad.

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