Friday, September 2, 2011

Preview: Western Michigan 2011

The Western Michigan Juggalos
This preview will be short, as season openers tend to be around these parts. But this one will be particularly brief because no one is really sure what to expect from the new coaching staff. I've given my two cents on what to expect from the offense, defense, special teams, and coaches this season, but those are the bird's eye view.

The one thing we know for sure: Losing this game would be disastrous. Much of the hype train surrounding Hoke has been based on the idea of forward progress. This is almost assuredly what he sold that gaggle of top-rated recruits (he's returning Michigan to its glory years), and it's where much of the local media praise has originated from. A loss to lowly Western Michigan will be the start of a pretty damaging tailspin, not to mention a disturbing omen for the rest of the season. But let's not focus on the negatives.

By this point, you all know what we're getting on offense. Denard Robinson becomes Michigan's first returning starter at quarterback since Chad Henne took the field to start the ill-fated 2007 campaign. Last season, Denard crushed basically every NCAA record for a dual-threat quarterback, and more than held his own in the passing game. With Hoke, however, comes an entirely new offensive scheme and possibly, a significant step back in Denard's production. This game will be the first indication on whether or not things go as planned this year.

Surrounding Denard will be a host of 5-foot-nothing scat backs that Rodriguez recruiting to operate in a more wide-open offense than Hoke plans to run. At receiver, Denard has the dependable albeit unspectacular options of Junior Hemingway, Roy Roundtree, and hopefully, Martavious Odoms. None of those three are known for their pro-style skill set or explosiveness, but all three of them have become the kind of dependable receivers that will help an offense through a drastic transition. In the backfield with Denard will be joined by Mike Shaw and Fitzgerald Touissant, both of the underwhelming variety of running backs. Both have speed and the latter has nominal experience, but Denard will still be the real playmaker on the field.

Allowing Denard et al to make plays is the veteran offensive line, which will prove to be Michigan's most potent unit this fall. Losing only Steve Schilling from the starting lineup, the offensive line should be able to manhandle WMU 's defensive front, opening up lanes for Denard and the backs to fly through. If Michigan is unable to do that, notably because of Hoke's switch from a primarily zone-running game, we could be in for a long season. I expect a few bumps in the road during this game, but for the most part, the offensive line should be able to make things happen for the offense, despite a fairly veteran WMU defensive front, which returns six of seven starters.

The defense is another story entirely. Aside from recovering from the worst defensive performance in school history, Michigan will be facing a QB that some misguided beat reporters consider the best QB in the state. Alex Carder will lead the Broncos against the newly improved (hopefully), Greg Mattison-led defense. What we will see from this defense is uncertain. We've gotten glimpses of what to expect, but whether or not Mattison has been able to rehabilitate this defense in the short time he's here is yet to be seen. I'm optimistic though.

The defense has abandoned the 3-3-5 travesty that Rich Rodriguez demanded in favor of a 4-3 scheme of Michigan's glory years. Mattison looks to blitz and blitz often, which will hopefully cause a lot of problems for a WMU offensive line that's breaking in a number of first-year starters. Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen, and Craig Roh are all in put up or shut up years; this is when those three need to prove their mettle and justify the considerable hype that's been tossed around for the unit. If those three can't make hay against an inexperienced WMU offensive line, the defense may have another year or two of rebuilding in front of them.

I told you this preview was going to be short. The defensive and offensive lines should be able to dominate WMU's more inexperienced fronts. Unfortunately, that alone won't mitigate the other problems that the offensive shift and defensive youth will experience. WMU has an experienced quarterback that will be able to put up decent numbers against a still inexperienced secondary. And the Michigan offense will see at least two drives stall out trying to run the power play from under center too much. But in the end, Michigan's experience and talent advantages should easily trump the Broncos unit. Michigan 34-21


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