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.


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