Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Something about tridents

Yesterday, there were Twitter rumblings about tridents and Michigan football being related in some way. Then, Brian Cook asked the MGoMafia to Photoshop Hoke into the Anchorman brawl scene. Now it makes sense. The Toledo Blade:
Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison vowed Tuesday to give his players "enough bullets" to be successful in Saturday's season opener, meaning the Wolverines will be diverse in their schemes, have the flexibility to make adjustments on the fly, and make substitutions freely to stay fresh...

Tridents, unlike the symbolic bullets, are actually real. Head coach Brady Hoke recently issued each one of his players a large trident pitchfork with his name on it. The tridents now hang from the ceiling in the meeting room at Schembechler Hall. It was a move inspired by the Navy SEALs, which awards its graduates a trident pin.
I don't have anything to add to this, but as one to never let a good Photoshop go to waste--least of all a Michigan-related Photoshop--here was my offering:

Carry on.

What to expect: The 2011 special teams

A breakdown of expected results in 2011. Previously: The offense, the defense

You all know the story from last year, but it bears repeating:  Seth Broekhuizen and Brendan Gibbons were a combined 4/14 on field goals, missed two extra points, and were so bad that the offense had to go for it on 4th down in some ridiculous situations. Due to their performance, Michigan extended a scholarship offer to a number of kickers, eventually landing Californian Matt Wile. Word out of camp is that Gibbons will be kicking shorter field goals, and Wile will handle longer kicks. Wake me when it's over.

Gibbons, like the 2008 two-headed quarterback monster Threetidan before him, is someone I would be happy never to see take the field again. Throughout the season last year, Rich Rodriguez frequently said that it was the mental side of things holding the kickers back, but after a point, you just accept that these guys can't get it done. If Wile can't overtake Gibbons by the end of the year, something has gone horribly wrong. I don't know much about the transition from high school to college as a kicker (the goal posts are wider in high school, but I'm not sure if there's a historical falloff for incoming freshmen kickers), Wile was 10/13 his senior season with a long of 49 yards. For perspective, neither Broekhuizen nor Gibbons hit a field goal longer than 37 yards last year. Wile should be an immediate upgrade.

Projecting how these two will kick throughout the year is tough (How many opportunities will they get? How long will the kicks be? etc), but it's worth venturing a guess. While Gibbons is being given a shot early on, I expect him to struggle, making 2/4 or some other uninspiring performance, opening the door for Wile to assume the permanent gig. By the year's end, Michigan's kickers will be somewhere in the combined range of 18/24. The team took remarkably few field goals last year, and rightfully so. Hoke's more conservative approach will see the team taking a lot more chances in the kicking game, and if Wile proves a noticeable improvement over last year (he has to be, right?), that shouldn't be such a harrowing experience.

For what it's worth, Wile will also be handling kickoff duties, which should be uneventful.  If he has the leg to get the ball into the endzone on kickoffs, that would be a bonus.

Last year, Michigan replaced the irreplaceable Zoltan Mesko with freshman punter Will Hagerup. Hagerup had an erratic season, but ended it with a 44-yard average. Everyone was happy with Hagerup and excited to see his progression until he got himself suspended for five games for the dreaded undisclosed violation of team rules. Hagerup was in and out of trouble last year. Hopefully this is a trend that won't continue.

In his absence, Wile will be handling punting duties. Here, best case scenario is no terrible shanks. Even if Wile doesn't boom the ball down the field like Hagerup can, as long as he doesn't commit any huge errors, Michigan should be able to sneak by the first half of the season with Wile puting. When Hagerup returns, punting should be a strong part of Michigan's game, and given Hoke's Carr-like tendencies, an integral part of the gameplan.

Punt/kick returns
Per Michigan's recently released two-deep, the usual suspects return for punt and kick returns. For the former, Junior Hemingway, Drew Dileo, Jeremy Gallon, and Martavious Odoms are listed as return men. How Hoke deploys the various punt returners will be interesting. The last three seasons have been plagued by dropped punts and catastrophic mistakes on special teams. Hemingway and Odoms have both proven themselves to be competent catchers, but neither are particularly explosive on punt returns--though Odoms' returns late last season would be to differ. My guess is that Dileo, who was recruited specifically for punt returns, will be the primary returner by season's end, unless he experiences the same drops and mistakes of the last three years.

As for kick returns, Gallon, Kelvin Grady, and Vincent Smith are listed on the depth chart. With the loss of Darryl Stonum for the year to his DUIshirt, there are very few explosive returners on the roster. Grady may have the shiftiness to make a few guys miss, but no one here has the flat-out speed to take one to the house. Again, we should hope for competence here and let the chips fall as they may.

What to expect
The word for special teams this season is competence. For three years, we've watched this Michigan team fumble and bumble basically every special teams play that didn't feature Zoltan kicking the ball to the moon. If the kickers are competent, that means 3-6 more points per game. If the returners are competent, that means better starting field position and more possessions. This year, all signs point toward competence. But don't expect much more.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What to expect: The 2011 defense

A breakdown of expected results in 2011. Previously: The offense
May the defense shine like this man's forehead.
Last year's defense was an abomination. It was so bad that I was Wet Owling Greg Robinson and calling for his head after a 5-0 start:
The story of Michigan's skin-of-their-teeth win against Indiana will invariably be another stellar performance by Denard Robinson; his last minute touchdown drive the notarization of his already unbridled Heisman campaign. Unfortunately, that's not the real story. The real story is that Greg Robinson's defensive schemes do not work. No longer is this a question of defensive talent or improper personnel. No, sadly, this is far more systematic: Greg Robinson's schemes Do Not Work....

And it's not that the defense looks athletically overmatched. They look unprepared and poorly coached. With one of the most potent offenses in the country and the Heisman front runner manning the ship, Michigan's eventual 7-5 or 6-6 finish will fall squarely on Robinson's shoulders. I'm not usually quick to call for peoples' heads, but unless there is drastic improvement in the coming games, consider this my desire to see Robinson canned as soon as possible.
The season ended, of course, in the worst defensive performance in Michigan history. There was the triple-overtime win against Illinois in which the defense couldn't stop Nathan Scheelhaase, a player nearly incapable of throwing a downfield pass. Craig Roh spent significant time at linebacker. The team ran almost exclusively a cover-2 zone defense. There was no blitzing. Linebacker play was erratic. The defense allowed Wisconsin to run the ball in excess of two dozen times in a row en route to a Badgers victory.

Everything about last year was awful. With the Rodriguez-to-Hoke transition, the biggest cause for excitement was the snatching of Greg Mattison away from the Baltimore Ravens to make this smoldering crater into something resembling a competent defense. We'll see if he's able to with the pieces at hand.

Defensive Line
The defensive line is both terrifying and a spot of encouragement for the defense. Since Michigan just released its two deep, there's no debate as to who will be playing where.

Strongside DE Nose tackle 3-Tech DT Weakside DE
Will Heininger Mike Martin Ryan Van Bergen Craig Roh
Nathan Brink Will Campbell Quinton Washington Jibreel Black

Martin is no surprise as the returning Hulk machine on the defensive line. Van Bergen moves inside, a position switch not too uncomfortable for him, and Roh finally (finally!) gets his permanent spot back on the defensive line, making last year's linebacker experiment a distant memory.

It's a little surprising that Will Campbell finds himself backing up Martin. Much of the spring chatter had Campbell moving to the 3-tech position, freeing up Van Bergen to play SDE. But rumors of Campbell's rise and fall have been swirling for some time now, and he finds himself backing up Martin as the nose tackle. At first blush, this isn't so bad. A lot is going to be asked of Martin, and having someone to platoon the position is a must. Campbell is really the only other person on the roster that can fill the nose tackle position.

As for production, this unit should be far more effective than they were last year. For the most part last season, Michigan rushed three down linemen and let the crippled secondary deal with endless coverage. It did not go well. With a four-man line and Roh's move back to DE, the defensive line should be able to create pressure by themselves. Even last year, with an incoherent defense, Martin and a four-man line were able to generate some pressure. Add in Mattison's blitzing tendencies, and we should see a far more productive unit.

Speaking of which, there have been plenty of rumors, pictures, and even footage (the spring game) of the defensive line dropping into coverage on zone blitzes. This is something that Greg Robinson dabbled in last year, but it never became a staple of the defense. It looks like Mattison is going to bring plenty of pressure from the linebackers and have the defensive line dropping into coverage. Given Martin's experience with this and Roh's time at linebacker, this could be a devastating change up.

First, let's look at the two deep:
Weakside (Will) LB Middle (Mike) LB Strongside (Sam) LB
Mike Jones Kenny Demens Cam Gordon
Brandon Herron JB Fitzgerald Jake Ryan
Brandin Hawthorne/Desmond Morgan Marrell Evans Brennen Beyer

No surprise that Kenny Demens locked down the MLB position. Demens overtook Obi Ezeh sometime last season and was widely heralded as an obvious and immediate upgrade. Demens became the poster boy for hope and defensive improvement. I wasn't quite as optimistic initially, but as the season progressed, it was clear that not only was he an upgrade, but he was getting better too:
The best part about this play is that it's obvious that Demens is learning, the lack of which was one of the biggest complaints about Ezeh's tenure as the starting middle linebacker. In the span of two games, Demens went from completely clueless to perfectly playing nearly identical plays. With continued playing time, this is evidence that we can likely expect Demens to progress in his pass coverage skills. Whether or not we encounter more crippling mistakes like Demens showed against Iowa in order to get to these moments is yet to be seen, but at least for now, we know his ability to recognize, diagnose, and execute plays is improving.
Cam Gordon starting at SLB is an improvement over where he played last year (free safety). His hitting ability and pursuit are both excellent for the position, and his time spent at safety should make his pass coverage a strong, versatile attribute for Mattison to play around with. He'll have to hold off newcomer and spring game standout Jake Ryan, but for once, there appears to be competent depth at most of the linebacker positions. WLB will be a bit of a journey with mostly untested players manning the depth chart, but there should be a serviceable WLB somewhere in the lot.

Like the defensive line, the change in scheme should be beneficial for this unit. MGoBlog spent much of last year criticizing Greg Robinson's deployment of the linebackers at an inadequate depth. Mattison's schemes likely won't put the linebackers in such harrowing positions, decreasing the amount of frustrating pancake blocks and loss of contain. I expect this unit to be significantly better against the run and filling gaps, and their pass coverage should be adequate. If Demens can stay healthy, this should be a functional linebacking corps.

Michigan's secondary has been it's most glaring weakness defensively for the last three years, but in 2011, they appear to have a number of options. The two deep:

Troy Woolfolk Courtney Avery
Blake Countess JT Floyd
Greg Brown Tony Anderson

Troy Woolfolk returns from purgatory as the experienced veteran. Were he around last year, the defense might have begun to resemble competent. But there's no use crying over spilled milk. Woolfolk proved himself to be a decent Big Ten corner in 2009 when he was moved from free safety, and I expect he'll have a successful year, possibly good enough to make people realize that the hype poured on Donovan Warren was terribly misguided.

Opposite Woolfolk will be true sophomore Courtney Avery. Despite the depth chart giving the noncommittal "OR" to the starting position, Avery is your starter. And for good reason. I was really excited by Avery's play last year and spent a lot of time talking about how quickly he would soon be the starter:
Avery is a true freshman and needs to be taught not to do too much--this is what coaches talk about when they say "doing too much". He tried carrying the slot receiver to make sure he didn't get open, but in doing so, he opened up the outside hitch route. Avery is clearly used to playing man coverage and actually does a really good job on the slot receiver in this play, but you can see him making this same mistake a few times during the game: he stays with receivers too long and vacates his zone. If he can start settling in his zone better, he could become a more consistent contributor because, as with the pass break up above, Avery sticks to receivers. I expected Cullen Christian or Talbott to see the field before Avery this year, but at this point, I wouldn't be surprised to see Avery starting alongside Floyd.
Despite Avery's habit of vacating his zones, he proved to be a fast, smart corner that was able to hold his own, for the most part. This season, Avery should be more capable in coverage and know his assignments better.

The backups will be precisely that: backups. There are young guys on the two deep that will, with any luck, spend most of their season on the bench. The Woolfolk/Avery starting tandem should provide Michigan will a decent set of corners that can cover man-to-man or zone, allowing the front seven to attack the quarterback and stop the run.

This is where things get hairy

Strong safety Free safety
Jordan Kovacs Thomas Gordon
Marvin Robinson Carvin Johnson

Josh Furman

I have never been a big fan of Jordan Kovacs and I'm still unconvinced that he can be the starting strong safety on a good defense (though MGoBlog's depth chart lists him as a free safety, I'm pretty sure that's wrong). Kovacs doesn't have the physical attributes needed to be a great strong safety and the mental side, while he's proven it's stronger than most others competing for the position, is still not at the point where he can compensate for his physical limitations. Marvin Robinson is on the bench behind him, and I'd like to see the highly touted recruit get a chance on the field, especially against early-season cupcakes, but this appears to be Kovacs' job to lose. There will be plays this year in which Kovacs' speed and lack of strength result in bad things.

At free safety, Thomas Gordon and Carvin Johnson battle for, essentially, the same position they flip-flopped on last year. Though last year they were closer to the line of scrimmage and handled a lot of coverage duties, this year they'll be playing similar positions albeit at much more depth. Both have decent speed, but the mental side of things is still coming together. This unit is going to continue to have its struggles this year, and will result in a number of badly blown coverages. The situation is not nearly as dire as it was last year, at least.

What to expect
So back to the whole point of this post: What should we expect to see on Saturday and throughout the year? As has been rumored, Mattison will do wonders for this defense, not only teaching the fundamentals, but also varying up the playcalling with zone blitzes, man and zone coverage, and various personnel groups. If I had to put a number on it, I would guess the defense leaps to somewhere around the 60th best defense in the country. The talent and personnel are mostly in place with a few exceptions, and the defense should be able to hold itself together because of it. There will still be a number of forehead-meet-palm breakdowns, but not nearly as many as there have been in the past few years. Barring injuries, this will be a competent unit that will keep Michigan in games and won't explicitly lose any for the team.

Monday, August 29, 2011

What to expect: The 2011 offense

While my feelings on the season outcome and Denard's ability to succeed in a pro-style offense have already been explained, I thought it would be good to take a look at we should expect from the team as a whole during the 2011 season. First up: the offense.

This time last year, all the buzz was centered on Denard's off-season maturation and improvement and the pending NCAA infractions levied against the program. This year, in spite of the absence of NCAA wrist-slappers, things are a little more unsettled. Most people are wondering how Denard will succeed in Brady Hoke's/Al Borges' pass-heavy West Coast offense, and whether or not he'll be given the chance to beat teams with his legs like he did last year. Early returns have been mixed, with rumors that Borges will base the offense primarily in the shotgun. However, Denard appears to be having difficulty making the throws:
Denard had a hard time finding receivers. A few crisp rhythm throws, a lot of ball-patting, scrambling, and difficult sideline improv throws. Not sure if that's on him or the WRs. Gallon twice ran comebacks that the quarterbacks expected to be fly routes, so they've got some pro-style sight reading in the O. Not functional sight reading, but sight reading nonetheless.
This is my biggest concern for the offense, and seems to follow from the performance we saw from Denard in the spring game. While it's risky to read too much into what is otherwise a glorified practice, the previous spring games have taught me a lesson: they have been far too predictive in the past for me to ignore what we saw from Denard this year. Denard's inaccuracies and his tendency to sail passes is going to cause a lot of problems for the offense throughout the year, especially when it's clear that much of the offense is going to rest on his ability to make quick reads and sharp, accurate throws. As such, I expect Denard's completion percentage, yards per attempt, and total yards to all drop noticeably this season, while his interceptions increase.

Running Backs
The running back position has seen the most debated this spring. Hoke recently said that if the season started now, Mike Shaw would be the starter in the backfield, but given the coaching staff's lack of enthusiasm for the current backs, that could change at any minute. By all accounts, Fitzgerald Toussaint has had a good off-season and will back up Shaw when the season starts. However, my presumed favorite to eventually take over the starting running back role is mooseback sophomore Stephen Hopkins. Given Hoke's desire to have a between-the-tackles, power-running game, and the current running backs' inability to break tackles (see: Shaw, Toussaint, Vincent Smith, et al), Hopkins should eventually overtake the starting role. That is, of course, if he can resolve his case of the fumblies that plagued his season last year.

In 2010, Michigan's running game was superb, primarily because of Denard's production. The running backs all hovered in the "unimpressive" range, and I expect that to continue. However, with the coaching staff limiting Denard's carries this year, the running backs will bear more of the load and likely have trouble succeeding as much as they had last year. A reversion to Lloyd Carr-like rushing numbers from the running backs seems probable. At the end of the year, Shaw will be the leading rusher (of the running backs), and Hopkins will have the second-most carries of any running back.

With the suspension of Darryl Stonum for the season, Michigan is left with very few deep-threat receivers. The only true outside receiver on the roster is Junior Hemingway, who I expect to have a big year if he's able to stay healthy. His leaping ability and size will make Hemingway the go-to receiver when Michigan takes a shot downfield. In the slot, Michigan has more than enough options. Roy Roundtree solidified himself as Denard's favorite target last year, and I expect that to continue. Martavious Odoms is now entering his senior season after bouncing to wide receiver last year. Odoms will be on the field a lot, but where he lines up is going to vary from play to play.

Behind those three are a bunch of tiny scat backs who will be effective in the slot should Michigan need them. I don't suspect they'll services will be required often. Kelvin Grady will be one of the first receivers off the bench given his speed and versatility. Otherwise, anyone subbing in will be a blocking machine; I don't expect the team to spread the ball around as much as they have in previous years. Odoms and Hemingway's numbers should exceed 2011's, though Roundtree's near-1,000 yard season will probably take a step or two back.

Offensive Line and Tight Ends
The offensive line is where the hope lies for this offense. Returning everyone except Steve Schilling, the offensive line was one of the best in the Big Ten (country?) last year and should have a productive season. Unfortunately, they've had trouble blocking the power-running game that Hoke prefers. If Borges doesn't abandon the zone running game, and if the offensive line is able to gel and effectively block the smash mouth running game Hoke wants, this will be Michigan's best unit.

Normally, I would include the tight ends with the wide receivers, but I expect their role to be more blocking-oriented than receiving. While rumor is that the tight ends will play a big role in the offense this year, given Michigan's lack of depth at fullback and the desire to run helmet-on-helmet power football, I don't see the tight ends becoming an integral part of the receiving game. Last year, the tight ends combined for 19 catches and 266 yards. Expect those numbers to remain about where they are.

Odds and Ends
Something that I haven't seen addressed many places is the pace of the offense this year. While Rich Rodriguez ran an up-tempo, no-huddle offense, Hoke and Borges' system will be noticeably slower. Last season, Michigan ran 941 offensive plays; San Diego State ran 865. That amounts to approximately 6 less plays per game. If you take into account that Michigan had as much big-play ability as any team in the country, that gap begins to widen a little more. The offense will score less this season if only because of a slower pace. Matching the numbers from last year would be a near miracle and would make my season prediction the most off-base thing written all year. It's safe to say, however, that the offense, regardless of anything else, will revert back to the mean, if only slightly (best case scenario).

Despite my fear that this squad will look like the 2008 catastrophe, things are not really that dire. In reality, the offense will look more like the 2009 Forcier-led team: flashes of brilliance punctuating frustrating mistakes and crippling plays. If Denard can prove me wrong and become a consistent, accurate passer, this offense could really take off. Unfortunately, there's too much evidence to the contrary for me to buy into him as a quarterback that can lead a passing-oriented offense.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Site Update: New URL, new banner

Every offseason, I have grandiose plans of posts I intend on writing and improvements I hope to make to the blog, and for the last two years, I've spent most of my summers learning the ins and outs of NCAA's Road to Glory mode. This summer was, unfortunately, not all that different, but in the last few days, I've made a few cosmetic changes to the site and more importantly, added a URL to make getting here less of a hassle.

A few months ago, after a post discussing Eleven Warriors, a commenter said, "Their site is more successful in part because your URL is AIDS," which, LOLephants, but noted. I've been a little dismayed because is currently owned by a guy who uses it to catalog his DVD collection. When I approached him about buying the URL, he was polite but wasn't interested in my offer. So although it's not ideal, will now direct you to the site. It's been added to the banner as well.

Some of the aesthetic changes: a new banner*, rounded edges to make the site look less like a stack of single-colored squares thrown on top of one another, a new nav bar where you can find player stats throughout the year, and a few other minor tweaks that I think make the site look better. I'm currently looking into migrating the blog to a different host and building a site myself, but with the season starting, that's probably not something I'll have time for until January or February. Instead, I'll continue to tweak this site and make it as functional as possible. If you have any suggestions or complaints, please let me know either in the comments here or via e-mail at

*The banner photo was taken and designed by good friend and former Michigan Daily photographer Forest Casey. He does lots of cool work with his brother under the moniker Caseytography. Check them out.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The worst thing to ever happen to Michigan football

We need to discover how and why this happened. If it's found that the athletic department had any say in this, Dave Brandon needs to be job hunting by Monday. In the meantime, we must be vigilant: in the coming days, make sure all references to and videos of this song are wiped from the internet. Our football program is at stake.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Nevin Shapiro, Yahoo!, and the Twitter outcry

Yesterday afternoon, Yahoo! Sports' rumored "10 out of 10" college football story finally dropped, and the sound you heard upon its arrival was college football coming to a screeching halt. This is a bombshell of epic proportions. The takeaway:
In 100 hours of jailhouse interviews during Yahoo! Sports’ 11-month investigation, Hurricanes booster Nevin Shapiro described a sustained, eight-year run of rampant NCAA rule-breaking, some of it with the knowledge or direct participation of at least seven coaches from the Miami football and basketball programs. At a cost that Shapiro estimates in the millions of dollars, he said his benefits to athletes included but were not limited to cash, prostitutes, entertainment in his multimillion-dollar homes and yacht, paid trips to high-end restaurants and nightclubs, jewelry, bounties for on-field play (including bounties for injuring opposing players), travel and, on one occasion, an abortion.
This story has absolutely everything you can imagine from an NCAA violation standpoint and then some. This is the storyline of a Martin Scorsese film, rife with bank statements, corroborating testimony from a federal trial, and admission from former players/rule breakers. If ever there was a reason to bring back the Death Penalty, this is it. These allegations make Tressel and Ohio State look like tiddly winks, and those were not tiddly winks.

I honestly don't have too much to say with regards to the impact this will have on college football. I'm still kind of in awe of it all. But I'm relatively certain this will end in the dissolution of the Miami football program. It has to, right?

The story that bloggers and Twitter seem to be pushing, however, is ESPN's lack of relevance anymore. Despite this being the biggest sports story since steroids, ESPN has scarce coverage at best, deciding instead to report on Chris Johnson's contract talks. It's tough to argue that Yahoo! Sports is not the premiere sports reporting outlet in the US now. There's really not any competition. ESPN does Outside the Lines follow-ups to stories Yahoo! has previously broken, while Charles Robinson moves on to the next blockbuster.

But whether or not this actually detracts from ESPN is another argument entirely. Despite ESPN's posturing about being a legitimate reporting outlet, its most important contribution to sports is and always will be the distilling of the best 10 plays of the night into a 45-second clip. ESPN brings you highlights, it brings you live events, and occasionally, because of the company's incredible reach and resources, it will bring you a news story. Never is that more clear than with this report. Not that ESPN's contribution is a bad thing, necessarily, because the self-proclaimed World Wide Leader in Sports does a lot of good and is a lowest common denominator for sports fans. But the transparency of that existence should now be clear to almost everyone.

Yahoo! doesn't make ESPN obsolete because ESPN provides a real service. But this report, among the others that Robinson and company have broken open, positions Yahoo! as the most important and relevant sports news organization in the country.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Projecting the 2011 season

Since fall camp has opened, I figured now is as good a time as ever to investigate Michigan's upcoming schedule and throw my hat into the prognosticating ring. Much like last year, I'll break down what appear to be wins, losses, and toss-ups.

There has been a lot of talk about how the 2011 season is favorable for Michigan, which I would fully endorse were this the Michigan team of 5 years ago. Unfortunately, that team no longer exists and, not to hold this team's former sins against them, but I'll believe they can beat Nebraska in the Big House when it happens. Per usual, slot me on the pessimistic side of things. So without further ado, Michigan's 2011 schedule and my projected outcome:

Opponent Projected outcome
vs. Western Michigan Win
vs. Notre Dame Loss
vs. Eastern Michigan Win
vs. San Diego State Win
vs. Minnesota Win
@ Northwestern Loss
@ MSU Loss
vs. Purdue Win
@ Iowa Toss-up
@ Illinois Toss-up
vs. Nebraska Loss
vs. Ohio State Loss

So excluding the two toss-up games against Iowa and Illinois, I have Michigan looking squarely at a 5-5 record. While most people are pegging Michigan for a eight- to nine-win season, I simply can't see any way, looking at their schedule, that they get there.

The Wins
Despite being far more pessimistic than most, the games I have slotted as Michigan's projected wins are games that they should easily walk though. Eastern and Western Michigan should provide little resistance. Western will put up more of a fight, but if Michigan shows significant struggles against the Broncos, it could be a much longer year than expected. San Diego State could present some problems. They're a veteran team led by senior quarterback Ryan Lindley, he of 3,800 yards passing last year. However, with the recent injuries to his two top wide receivers, Michigan should be able to beat SDSU without too much worry.

Minnesota and Purdue are the only two Big Ten games that I can see the Wolverines winning comfortable. Both teams have been in the Big Ten basement since forever and neither should present too much difficulty. Last year's snowfest against Purdue was hardly an indication of the two teams' respective talent levels, and I expect Michigan to steamroll over both of them.

Five wins? Michigan has them.

The Losses
While many of the games I pick as losses are projected as toss-ups elsewhere, games like Notre Dame, Northwestern, and MSU feel distinctly like losses to me. Of the three, Notre Dame is probably the closest Michigan will come to a win. For the last two years, the Irish have encountered the pinnacle of the Wolverines' breakout star in the respective seasons. Two years ago, Tate Forcier broke their hearts with a few seconds left on the clock, and last year, Denard did his Denard thing and ran all over them en route to Heisman consideration. This year, Michigan won't have that element of surprise, and another year under Brian Kelly's system makes me think the Irish won't suffer another loss.

The Wolverines head to east Lansing to play Michigan State this year. Last year, I assumed it would be a toss-up game, and a likely Michigan win, given that it was played in Ann Arbor. Instead, the Spartans trounced Denard and company in a not-so-close loss. A senior Kirk Cousins and Michigan's ongoing defensive woes (which will be significantly mitigated though not absent this year) means MSU will likely replicate their success.

Finally, Northwestern is a weird game. They're a team that no one thinks much of until you mention Dan Persa's name, at which point, they become a team not to be trifled with. I expect Persa to have a big game against the Wolverines through the air and on land. The game will probably be close, but I expect Persa to lead them to victory.

As for Nebraska and Ohio State, those are firm losses and nothing you can say will convince me otherwise. Both teams are stocked on both sides of the ball and will be vying for the Big Ten championship alongside Wisconsin. Despite Ohio State's lack of a quarterback and impending NCAA doom, these games are certain losses.

The Toss-Ups
Iowa and Illinois are toss ups because I don't really know what to expect from them. Iowa lost their starting QB and last year were hit by a large amount of NFL attrition. In spite of that attrition, they still walloped Michigan at home. If the Hawkeyes can find a competent replacement for Ricki Stanzi, they will likely have little trouble dispensing Michigan at home, but if they're unable to find someone to take command of the offense, Michigan could find themselves in a dogfight.

Illinois is also hard to project, they of the triple-overtime thriller last year. Nathan Scheelhaase is no longer a freshman, and is someone I'm expecting to make a serious leap forward this year. Then again, the Illinois defense lost several key members to the NFL and wasn't particularly impressive against Michigan last year regardless.

The Final Verdict
The 2011 schedule would've lined up nicely for a Carr-era team when the likes of Northwestern and Illinois were bodybags, and MSU was difficult only because they try too hard. But since the Rodriguez era, and Dantonio stealing Carr's program, this still looks like a murderers row for a team with a lackluster defense and a transitioning offense.

I don't expect Michigan to lose both of the toss-up games, and since we're venturing guesses here, I think Illinois will probably end up in the win column. But unless Michigan is able to pull out a win against Notre Dame or Northwestern, the team looks to be staring down a best-case scenario of 7-5. And while 8-5 is likely, I'd be less surprised to see the team finish 6-6.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Denard on obvious passing downs

While the hype and early success of the Brady Hoke era roll on, questions still linger around Denard Robinson's ability to succeed in Al Borges' pro-style/West Coast offense. Given Denard's foreboding interception rate and the switch from an offensive scheme that emphasizes his legs to one that emphasizes his arm, I'm leery that this will be a smooth transition. What Denard accomplished last year was unprecedented, but if the offensive shift is as drastic as some believe, his 2010 performance may have little bearing on his 2011 output. But because Hoke and Borges are brand new to this Michigan team and personnel, it's difficult to determine what exactly the playbook will look like and how players will respond to it.

A few things are for sure: Denard will be taking more snaps under center, will be running less, and will be asked to read defenses and make more traditional throws than he's used to. In an effort to project how Denard will fare in a system like this, I tried to isolate situations from the 2010 season that would give a better approximation of Denard's traditional passing skills, as opposed to his raw numbers. Put another way, I parsed out Obvious Passing Downs (OPD) in which defenses likely didn't have to compensate for his running ability, and Denard was under pressure to gain a decent amount of yardage through the air.

The first step was to establish the criteria for OPD. The basic parameters:
  • 2nd down and 10+ yards to go
  • 3rd down and 7+ yards to go
  • 4th down and 7+ yards to go
  • All situations where over 20 yards were required for a first down were omitted
  • All first downs were omitted
First downs were removed because regardless of the yardage needed for a first down, a run is still a likely option, making play action passes (and zone read play action) viable and effective. Second down plays necessitated that the yardage needed for a first down be between 10 and 20 yards. Any yardage equal to or less than 10 yards was removed. Michigan averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season, making 2nd and 10 still a likely run option. All plays of 20 yards or more to go were omitted to avoid variance in the numbers with regards to incompletions and interceptions. Quarterbacks are more likely to force the ball down the field in such a situation, which would logically increase incompletions and, probably, interceptions. Finally, 3rd and 4th down plays required at least 7 yards to go for a first down, to once again remove a defense's need to compensate for Denard's legs.

With these parameters, I charted Denard's performance (and the team's playcalling tendencies) through the year with the help of MGoBlog's Upon Further Review series*.

Uconn ND UMass BG IU MSU Iowa
Runs 7 2 1 - 1 - 1
QB runs (yards) 5 (53) 2 (10) 1 (7) - 1 (8) - 1 (4)
Comp/Att (screens) 8/10 (2) 3/8 (3) 1/2 - 0/2 (1) 2/5 4/7
Yards 76 23 43 - - 28 25
Scrambles (yards) 1 (11) - - - - 1 (1) 1 (4)
Sacks 0 0 1 0 0 0 0
TD/INT - - - - - 0/1 0/1

PSU Ill Pur Wisc OSU Miss State
Runs 1 1 4 1 2 2
QB runs (yards) 1 (18) 1 (-7) 2 (27) 1 (14) 2 (12) 2 (4)
Comp/Att (screens) 3/7 (2) 1/3 3/9 (1) 2/3 (1) 1/10 3/5
Yards 44 33 59 30 30 18
Scrambles (yards) - 1 (9) - 1 (6) - -
Sacks 0 0 3 0 0 -
TD/INT - 0/1 0/1 - - 0/1

The raw data are dense, so I've compiled the totals and compared them to his numbers over the course of the season:

Passing Downs Season totals
Runs 23
QB runs (yards per carry) 19 (7.9) 256 (6.6)
Comp/Att 31/71 182/291
Yards per attempt 5.7 8.8
Scrambles (yards) 5 (31)
Sacks 4
TD/INT 0/5 18/11

*Except for the final two games of the season, against Ohio State and Mississippi State, neither of which have UFRs. For those games, because I don't have torrents of them, I used ESPN's play-by-play breakdown of the games. This musses up the sack, scramble, and screen numbers, but otherwise, the raw data are functional.

There are a few things of note here, many of which are obvious. During the season, Denard averaged 6.6 yards per carry on the ground. On OPD, Denard averaged 7.9 yards per carry on designed runs (scrambles excluded), something you'd expect given that teams are anticipating a pass. The other side of that coin is his diminished passing numbers. On the season, he completed 62.5% of his passes for 8.8 yards per attempt. On OPD, he completed only 44% of his passes for 5.7 yards per attempt. In addition, Denard threw nearly half of his interceptions in these scenarios. While you might expect that (trying to force the ball to a receiver to pick up a first down), it implies that he's either not particularly careful with the ball in OPD (he had a 7.1% interception ratio) or he has difficulty reading defenses and executing the throws.

Given the amount of noise in the numbers, can we draw any conclusions about his performance in a pro-style/West Coast offense? Using strictly the numbers at hand, I tried to draw a comparison between the uptick in his rushing and his passing performances. The presumption is that in a pro-style/West Coast offense, Denard's rushes will be fewer and more surprising, raising their effectiveness. His yards per carry on OPD yielded 120% of his season average. However, his passes will likely begin under center, reducing a defense's necessity to compensate for his legs. His yards per attempt yielded only 65% of his season average (to say nothing of his interception ratio). To apply those numbers directly to his 2010 production doesn't return a reasonable result, but natural player progression, an uptick in his running effectiveness, and a team's inability to anticipate a pass on every down (like is logically the case here) will likely mitigate, though not entirely negate, Denard's struggles in the passing game.

While unfortunately no hard-and-fast conclusions can be drawn from these numbers, I think they illuminate the improvement Denard needs to make to truly excel in a more traditional offense. While Borges is working to optimize Denard's talents, and there's a chance Denard will spend much of the game in the shotgun, the chances are that his production will noticeably fall off from last year. My prediction for Denard's 2011 production, compared to that of 2010:

Denard Robinson Completion % YPA Passing Yards TD/INT YPC Rushing Yards
2010 62.50% 8.8 2,570 18/11 6.6 1,702
Projected 2011 59% 7.5 1,950 15/15 7.0 900

While his total yardage may seem exceptionally low in comparison, you also have to take into account that Hoke and Borges' offense won't move at nearly the same speed that Rodriguez's did, greatly diminishing Denard's ability to rack up numbers. Because of that, I anticipate a few less touchdowns, significantly less rushing yards (also due to an emphasis on running back carries), and more interceptions, based on Denard's performance to date. The offense won't be nearly as bad as it was in 2008, but I'm anticipating a significant step back.