San Diego State (3-0) vs. Michigan (3-0)
The Big House, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Kickoff 12 pm EST
Big Ten Network
Forecast: Low 60s, chance of rain
SDSU 42 - Washington St. 24. Last week, the Aztecs took on Washington State and were able to hold a fairly prolific passing attack nominally in check on their way to a not-so-lopsided victory. Washington St. averaged 386 passing yards per game headed into the SDSU game, where senior QB Marshall Lobbestael threw for 368. What killed the Cougars were turnovers, of which they had four (including two interceptions by Lobbestael and three total turnovers in the fourth quarter). But SDSU also allowed touchdowns of 80 and 78 yards.
The Aztecs won the game on the strength of their rushing attack. Ronnie Hillman averaged 6.0 YPC on 32 (!) carries, tacking on four touchdowns. Before the Washington St game, Hillman was averaging a ridiculous 6.8 YPC, albeit against Army and Cal Poly. Regardless, Hillman is the workhorse and if Michigan's linebackers can't get their gap responsibilities in check, he could have another big game.
SDSU's senior quarterback Ryan Lindley has had an uninspiring year given preseason expectations. He's currently completing just 53.7% of his passes and his yards per attempt have dropped from 9.1 last year to 7.59 this year. He can't be totally to blame, though. The SDSU receiver corps has been decimated by injuries. Against Washington St., Lindley went 21/37 for 273 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 Int. In other words, despite lofty expectations, Lindley doesn't look like he can harm Michigan too much on the strength of his arm alone.
Eastern Michigan 3 - Michigan 31. Game recap. You know what happened: Michigan played EMU and beat them like Michigan playing a lower-level MAC team should, on paper at least. If you watched the game, Michigan struggled a little bit. The offense had trouble finding its rhythm, the defense looked porous against the run, and the receivers had their worst day of the year. Denard's struggles have been well documented around here, so his performance wasn't much of a surprise. It was disappointing, however.
The defense is still a work in progress and had a few flaws here and there against EMU. They did, however, play the most vanilla schemes we've seen from Greg Mattison to date. Their lack of blitzing against EMU and insistance on playing basic schemes allowed Ron English and Co. to carve up the defense with jet sweeps and unbalanced lines.
As the game wore on, Michigan proved their dominance, however, and all was right in the world.
Offense vs. San Diego State
It's become obvious to everyone--including Al Borges if Denard's 26 carries against EMU are to be believed--that this offense works best out of the shotgun. Given the team's documented struggles running under center and Denard's difficulty in the passing game, Michigan will likely play most of this game from the shotgun. After last week, Vincent Smith has taken over the nominal starting RB role, though you should expect to see plenty of Fitz Toussaint et al on the field.
SDSU defensive coordinator Rocky Long runs the oft-discussed, rarely seen 3-3-5 (a real 3-3-5, not that hybrid Greg Robinson was running last year). The 3-3-5 is an aggressive, blitzing defense that uses pressure and confusion to cause turnovers and force negative plays. SDSU has ridden that defense to six fumble recoveries (3rd in the country) and two interceptions. HOWEVA, the Aztecs are currently 98th in rushing yards per game (197, though they allow only 3.91 YPA) and 72nd in defensive pass efficiency, which is not great. The Aztecs are allowing 8.86 yards per passing attempt. If you want to know how bad that is, it's a full half yard more per attempt than Michigan allowed last year (8.32). This is, without a doubt, a high risk, high reward kind of defense, which places the impetus squarely on the shoulders of....
Denard Robinson. Denard has to be better if Michigan wants to win this game. SDSU is capable of capitalizing on offensive mistakes, and Denard is prone to making those. While the SDSU defense appears to be somewhat Swiss cheesy, they're likely to throw some zone blitzes at Denard that he hasn't seen yet this year. Eastern Michigan did that once on a Michigan screen pass and Denard smartly pulled the ball down and scrambled for a handful of yards. Making smart decisions like that will be key.
Expect a lot of boom or bust on Saturday. Drives will either gain momentum as Michigan exploits SDSU's aggressiveness, or the Aztecs force a few negative plays and put Michigan behind the chains. A 50% success rate on drives should be enough to get Michigan the win.
Defense vs. San Diego State
This is where things could get hairy. Though unimpressive to date, QB Ryan Lindley could create serious havoc on a still untested secondary. He doesn't have the weapons of Notre Dame, but if he gets on a roll, Michigan could find themselves in a shootout. More likely, SDSU will use the run to set up the pass with Ronnie Hillman. Hillman scares me in this game. Given his prolific numbers to date and Michigan's, well, less than stellar run defense, he could have another big game. A lot of this game is going to fall on the shoulders of the defensive ends and linebackers keeping contain and staying disciplined (Lord help us). Mike Martin and whatever other large-ish body the coaching staff puts next to him should be able to hold up against a relatively slight offensive line.
As for schematically, Michigan will return to their blitzing ways. Mattison very clearly didn't want to blitz against EMU, and that's probably for the best. The team still has a lot of the fundamentals to perfect, and not showing too many blitz packages against Lock of the Year wins is best. This will be a chess match though. SDSU is no doubt aware of Mattison's tendencies and will attempt to counter with screens and draws to Hillman. If Michigan forgets their gap assignments or becomes too aggressive, that will mean big plays for the Aztecs.
On the other side of the coin, Michigan's pressure should complicate things for an underachieving Lindley. Despite having a 7/1 TD/INT ratio this season, Michigan's pressure should be able to add a few notches to the negative. If the front four or linebackers are consistently getting to Lindley, that will mean good things for the defense. Given SDSU's relative lack of playmakers at the receiver position, Mattison should feel confident leaving the corners on and island and bringing heat.
Michigan is going to be in for a fight on this one. Hoke did a good job turning this SDSU program into a respectable unit. The Aztecs will have some tricks up their sleeves and will counter some of Borges' offensive staples (though not all as Denard adds a new layer of deviousness). But Hoke has insight into the Aztecs schemes as well. I expect a lot of swing plays in this game. There will be a couple of 50+ yard plays as well as a few turnovers from both teams. Whichever team is able to more consistently capitalize or create these swing plays will come away victorious.
To win, Michigan will need to hold down Hillman, but not at the expense of Lindley's success. The front four will have an up and down day, but the team will hold Hillman well below his season average of 6.5 YPC. Lindley will have a mediocre game, turning the ball over twice, once in Michigan territory. Michigan's offense will be similarly hit-or-miss. Denard throws at least one more pick and finishes the day with a 1/1 TD/INT ratio for the game. In the end, it'll come down to who came make a few more stops.