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.