Monday, October 29, 2012


Edward Ruscha - "Oof"

I'm stuck in New York. There's apparently a hurricane hovering over my head and Delta airlines thinks it's a bad idea to fly during a hurricane. On Sunday, my girlfriend and I went to the Museum of Modern Art where, inexplicably, you can take pictures of their regular collection. Feeling despondent for most of the day, we came across the Ruscha above. Appropriate.

This post is going to be short because I plan on running through the abandoned streets of Manhattan soon, but Saturday sucked. Al Borges is officially on Greg Mattison "Your Schemes Don't Work" watch and Michigan's receivers appeared to have it in for Russell Bellomy and refuse to catch his passes. Winning the Big Ten may be out of reach. Rooting for MSU and Penn State is now Michigan's only way to make it to Indianapolis, that is of course, if Denard Robinson isn't broken forever. The only good news is that Michigan's defense is for real, which we probably already knew.

Coverage this week will be spotty because of travel complications.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Preview: Nebraska 2012

#22 Michigan vs. Nebraska
Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb
Kickoff 8:00 pm EST
Forecast: Low-50s, 0% chance of rain 

Nebraska Last Week
Through 55 minutes and 50 seconds last week, Nebraska had amassed a total of 387 total yards of offense against Northwestern, but managed only 16 points, thanks in large part to two lost fumbles. In its last two full drives, Nebraska racked up 156 yards, almost all on the arm of Taylor Martinez (11/13 for 143 yards and 2 TDs). For the game, Martinez threw for 342 yards on 39 attempts (8.8 YPA) and three touchdowns. On the ground, Martinez added 65 yards on 18 carries.

Defensively, Nebraska mostly shut down Northwestern's rushing attack. Venric Mark was able to rack up 116 yards on 18 carries, but he was the only one and largely because of an 80-yard run on a blown play by the Nebraska middle linebacker Will Compton (the team's leading tackler). Northwestern's offense isn't what it has been the last few years, but holding them to only 301 yards is still an accomplishment.

Offense vs. Nebraska

Since Michigan's offensive output generally comes down to how well Denard will fare in the passing game, Nebraska presents a unique problem: the Cornhuskers rank eighth in the nation in sacks with 21 total (3.14 per game). The charge is led by senior weakside defensive end terror Eric Martin (pictured). Martin has 5.5 sacks and 8 TFLs already this season. He also has 7 QB hits, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. Shutting down Martin will be critical to winning this game, so expect Devin Funchess or another tight end to line up next to Schofield all game, forcing Martin to rush against Taylor Lewan. Martin isn't the only pass rusher, though. There are four different players on the Nebraska roster with at least two sacks this year and 13 with at least a half of a sack. For a quarterback who is prone to backfoot throws when he gets pressure, this kind of pass-rush spells doom for Michigan.

Nebraska is able to generate that kind of production because they play a lot of man coverage, both in its base formation and blitz coverage (though they don't blitz much). The 80-yard touchdown run that Nebraska allowed against Northwestern was the direct result of Will Compton being pulled to the flat trying to cover running back leaking out of the backfield. If anything could be gleaned from last week's matchup, it's that Nebraska is susceptible to counters and misdirection because of their aggressive man defense.

Despite all of the man coverage, Nebraska is an impressive 18th in pass efficiency defense. Michigan's receivers are going to struggle to get off the line against the Cornhusker cornerbacks. Josh Mitchell and Stanley Jean-Baptiste both play strong man coverage, and Michigan's wide receivers have had trouble with physical corners. Safeties Daimion Stafford and PJ Smith are also decent in coverage but are more of a factor in the run game, ranking second and third in tackles. Victimizing Nebraska's safeties and linebackers with play action is something Northwestern did often last week. Al Borges probably won't want to do this.

Those safeties have to be aggressive against the run because defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler is a wiry 6'6" 290 lbs. That's one of the reasons that Nebraska is 90th in rushing defense this year. The other reason: if you make it past the defensive line, as long as you've spread the field, there's a good chance you're not going to see another defender until the safeties come into play. Making the proper reads in the option game and getting some blockers to the second level will be crucial for Michigan to spring big plays.

The best part about playing against Nebraska this year as opposed to 2011: no Lavonte David, the team's unquestioned leader and best defensive player last year. David stopped quite a few Denard runs last year from being 80-yarders with shoestring tackles. Despite generally solid linebacker play, if Michigan can get Denard or Toussaint in space against these linebackers, that's a win for the Wolverines.

Defense vs. Nebraska

You know Taylor Martinez, but you might not know 2012 Taylor Martinez. Though he's still not an elite passer, he's been significantly better this season, completing 67% of his passes for 8.7 YPA and a 15 TD/4 INT rate. Those are some scary numbers. However, his stats are significantly worse against teams with respectable defenses (UCLA, Wisconsin, Ohio State; 49/85, 57.6%, 574 yards, 6.75 YPA, 3 TD/4 INT).

It will be interesting to see what Michigan can do against Martinez. When he has time in the pocket, Martinez can make all of the throws, but Nebraska ranks 76th in sacks allowed. The problem is, Michigan can't generate a pass rush without blitzing. Greg Mattison finding ways to confuse Martinez without giving up too much in the run game may be the most important task he has all season.

Nebraska's rushing attack is still elite, averaging 279 yards per game (good for 6th in the country). Rex Burkhead is coming back from a leg injury that kept him out of a lot of the Northwestern game. Last year, Burkhead was the hot commodity coming into Nebraska's game against Michigan, but managed only 36 yards on 10 carries. Martinez wasn't much better on the ground or through the air, but the latter of which we've already addressed.

I'm frankly not worried about Nebraska's rushing attack (famous last words, I know). I have implicit faith in Mattison's ability to scheme for and prepare his players for any offensive attack that can't simply overpower Michigan with talent (see: Alabama). Mattison knows how these spread attacks work because a) he was Urban Meyer's defensive coordinator at Florida and b) he goes against Denard Robinson in practice every week.

The key to winning this side of the ball will be the defensive line. Quinton Washington and Will Campbell are basically constants, and Craig Roh has been a good-to-great strongside defensive end. Jibreel Black and Frank Clark at the weakside defensive end will have to stay disciplined against the option and stick to whatever gameplan Mattison has designed (play the QB or the RB). If it's Black at WDE, his lack of speed may be an issue, but if Clark can step into the role, that should help nullify Nebraska speed.

If the defensive line can hold up, Kenny Demens, Desmond Morgan, and Jake Ryan against running backs in space will decide how this game goes for Nebraska offensively. Though Martinez has a lot of straight-line speed and a little bit of shake to him, none of Nebraska's running backs are threatening in the open field.

How does Michigan win? Getting pressure on Taylor Martinez will be crucial. If they can force Martinez to complete closer to 50%-55% of his passes, Mattison can start loading up against the run. Jake Ryan will be responsible for a lot of this pass rush as he has been all season long. He will have to stay disciplined keeping outside leverage and make sure to wrap up in the backfield. JT Floyd and Raymon Taylor are going to have their hands full with Nebraska's taller wide receivers, which is another reason pass rush will be critical.

Offensively, Michigan needs to get Denard to the second level. Nebraska's linebackers are aggressive downhill and just watched Michigan run head first into MSU's linebackers for 60 minutes. If Patrick Omameh and Ricky Barnum can get to the second level and block Nebraska's linebackers, Denard will be able to pick up big chunks of yards. In the passing game, Denard and Borges need to find an effective way to attack man-to-man coverage down the field.

How does Nebraska win? Keep doing what they've been doing. If Martinez is completing 67% of his passes in this game, Michigan is sunk. The Nebraska coaching staff varies their run game as well as almost anyone in the country. Keeping Michigan's defensive line on its heels with multiple option looks will further slow down the Wolverines' already inept pass rush. They will, however, need to find a way to get big plays from non-Martinez ball carriers.

Defensively, Nebraska needs to keep generating the pass rush they've gotten all season. Though Denard has cut down his terrible, backfoot throws since the Notre Dame game, the kind of pressure Nebraska generates could see a return to that inconsistency. If the linebackers can stop Denard and Toussaint from breaking long plays, a physical secondary will be able to stop Michigan's passing game.

Arbitrary percentage Michigan wins: 41.031%

Final Prediction. Offensively, expect Al Borges to utilize the counter draw that Michigan has shown a few times this year and last, as well as the throwback screen, both of which will punish Nebraska's linebackers for overpursuing. Denard and Toussaint both break 30+ yard runs as Nebraska linebackers get caught out of position. However, Denard throws two interceptions, both of which are meaningful and not end-of-half heaves.

Martinez will complete more deep, downfield throws in this game than Michigan has allowed all season, but none of them go for touchdowns; they're heaves to wide receivers who can out-leap and out-muscle Michigan's corners. However, Michigan holds Nebraska to near 150 yards rushing. It's boom-or-bust for Nebraska's offense. Michigan finally gets a good kick/punt return. Nebraska rallies late but Michigan clutches to the win. Michigan 27 - Nebraska 24

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Quinton Washington can shed your block

Despite the fantastic year that Jake Ryan is having, Michigan's most improved defensive player is still Quinton Washington, with a bullet. Washington, along with Will Campbell, are major reasons that Michigan was able to shut down Le'Veon Bell against Michigan State. What follows is another piece of evidence in favor of Quinton Washington for President and one of the best examples of a Michigan defender getting off a block to make a play that we've seen all season.

Michigan has just punted after a three-and-out following Michigan State's only touchdown drive of the game. MSU comes out in a two-wide I-formation look. Michigan is in its pseudo-nickel with Jake Ryan lined up over the slot receiver and only two linebackers in the box. Michigan's defensive ends are shaded just outside the offensive tackles while Will Campbell is covering the strongside guard and Washington is in the weakside A-gap.

As the ball is snapped, Washington engages the right guard (highlighted). The MSU center is chip blocking Washington before releasing to the second level. MSU is running a weakside-iso.

MSU's center is now releasing to the second level to block Kenny Demens. Washington and Roh and singled up on the MSU right guard and tackle, respectively.

This is the moment of truth for Le'Veon Bell. He has to make one of two cuts. Desmond Morgan is in good position on the backside run fill, but he's only able to fill this hole because Will Campbell has stopped the MSU left guard from releasing to the second level. Bell is forced to cut to his right.

But Bell didn't expect Washington to annihilate the MSU right guard. The lane that was clear for Bell a moment ago is now occupied by Washington. Bell is forced the bounce the run outside again, but Craig Roh is getting good push on the MSU right tackle.

Washington is now lunging to tackle Bell. He won't make the tackle, but he's already accomplished his goal. In a moment, you'll see JT Floyd flying downhill as Bell tries to bounce outside Roh.

Bell has now totally broken contain, which allows Roh to release from the MSU right tackle and chase Bell. Floyd is now the contain defender running downhill to tackle Bell, but he's making sure to maintain outside leverage.

But why keep contain when you can just chop down Bell mid-stride?


The Takeaway
I'm starting a Kickstarter. It will raise money to buy Greg Mattison pies. Let me know if you're interested.

When coaches talk about players needing better technique, getting off blocks better, and maintaining leverage, this is the play that they show in the film room. It all starts with the defensive line: Will Campbell nullified the MSU left guard allowing Desmond Morgan to fill the backside run gap; Craig Roh kept outside contain, forcing Bell to bounce to the sideline and allowing Michigan's secondary to come downhill and attack the ball carrier; and Quinton Washington stayed firm on his blocker and was able to shed the block to cut off Bell's primary running lane.

This is the kind of performance the defensive line has been turning in all season and something that was unthinkable two years ago. The discipline to stay in the proper lanes is one thing, but Campbell recognizing he needs to stop the MSU lineman from releasing to the linebackers and Washington's ability to toss aside MSU's blocker in order to make the proper run fill are examples of coaching that the team didn't get under the previous regime.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How Vincent Smith saved Michigan's season

During Michigan's game-saving two-minute drill against MSU, one play stands out as the most unexpected and perhaps most important play of the game: Vincent Smith's 12-yard first down run to move the chains and stop the clock. The thing is, he never should have touched the ball, but because of a terrible read by Denard, Smith had to engage super-ninja mode to get any positive yardage.

It is first and 10 with exactly two minutes left on the clock. Michigan has just forced a three-and-out against MSU to get the ball back. Taking a tackle for loss here would be devastating: Michigan would either lose 10-15 seconds or have to burn its only remaining timeout. Michigan comes out in a four-wide, one-back set. MSU is in a nickel package with four down linemen. The playside defensive end is actually Max Bullough Marcus Rush.

As the ball is snapped, Bullough Rush (highlighted) is left unblocked by Taylor Lewan. The only problem is Denard is reading one of the linebackers and fails to see Bullough standing there.

Michigan is running the inverted veer here, so if the defensive end stays high like he is, Denard is supposed to pull the ball and head upfield. The linebacker that Denard is currently reading is actually the assignment of Patrick Omameh who is pulling across the formation. But because that linebacker is staying in the middle of the field rather than bouncing out to defend the Smith run, Denard hands the ball off.

Omameh has now pulled around the formation and is about to block the MSU linebacker that Denard was reading. Meanwhile, Bullough has started to move outside to contain Smith.

I mean holy crap:

[insert Chris Berman noise]

Denard squares up to block someone, but the rest is all Smith...

....sneaking through defenders to pick up the first down.


The Takeaway
Under Borges' system, Denard has spent a lot of time reading linebackers on the option, but this is an emphatically bad read. MSU's best player had Vincent Smith dead-to-rights in the backfield on the game-winning drive until Smith reminded everyone why he's Michigan's best space player. There's a reason Rodriguez utilized Smith so much on passes out of the backfield and running plays: if you get him into the open field with a single defender, he's going to make that guy miss. Do you trust Fitz Toussaint to make that cut this year or would you expect him to try and bounce outside past Bullough? Not only does Smith keep this play alive, but he makes it past the first down marker, stopping the clock and allowing Michigan to set up the rest of the drive.

All hail Vincent Smith, Michigan's most underrated player for three-years running.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Running into a brick wall

I said in my game column yesterday that Michigan's offense was incoherent against MSU: they didn't test the Spartans' defense deep despite safeties playing 8 yards from the line of scrimmage and they didn't test the defense horizontally to put a strain on overly aggressive linebackers. The other problem was that Borges called running plays on 19 of Michigan's 26 first downs, including 9 of 11 in the first half. What you'll see below will not surprise you: MSU's safeties are less than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage on a 1st and 10 early in the game. Borges calls a running play, doesn't audible, and the results are exactly what you'd expect.

It's 1st and 10 early in the first quarter. There was absolutely no reason for MSU's safeties to be cheating as strongly as they are in this alignment other than Borges has obvious tendencies that can be exploited. As such, Michigan's three-wide, one-back set gets defended like this:

Jeremy Gallon begins to run across the formation on a jet sweep.

As the ball is snapped, look at the leverage of MSU's linebackers and safeties: all but one of them is on the balls of his toes and running toward the line of scrimmage.

By the time Gallon has passed Denard who will utilize Fitz Toussaint as a lead blocker, MSU's three linebackers are two yards from the line of scrimmage. Their two safeties are no more than six yards from the line of scrimmage.

One of MSU's linebackers is already beyond the LOS. Fitz Toussaint will block him as the lead blocker, leaving an MSU safety (highlighted) unblocked to hit Denard in the hole. Notice that both Denard and the safety are equidistant from the LOS.

Seeing an unblocked safety (highlighted) already at the line of scrimmage, Denard cuts back inside...

.... and is clobbered.


The Takeaway
This is fucking infuriating. There was no doubt in the minds of MSU's linebackers or safeties; Michigan is running and there's no chance of Denard pulling up to throw here. Look, for example, at Gallon who is effectively running a wheel route. Who's covering him? Roy Roundtree runs into the screen to try and block anyone, but if he had run a route downfield, he would've had one-on-one coverage. For Borges, a guy who claims to want to attack vertically, this should be his bread and butter. Instead, it's a one-yard loss because he ran the ball on 73% of Michigan's first downs. This is untenable. If Michigan doesn't develop play action off of its base offensive sets or at least start breaking tendency, mounting a consistent offensive attack against good defenses will be impossible.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Righting the ship

Michigan State 10 - Michigan 12
Melanie Maxwell |
Michigan football is in a very weird place. Every year before the Michigan/Michigan State game, the senior sports writers from the schools' respective student newspapers write dueling columns. They're generally childish and stupid and not very well written (in this year's edition, MSU's writer closed with jokes about Tito Jackson and Entourage: biting, relevant insults if I've ever heard them). But I don't read them for sharp quips. I read them specifically because they make me kind of angry. This year, there was a disturbance in the force:
With each new season, I get the pleasure of hearing about the Wolverine resurgence, how this will be the year they’ll run roughshod over the Big Ten and the Spartans — and then get to watch Michigan’s season fall apart following a loss at the hands of “non-rival” Michigan State.

Each season, I get to hear about Denard Robinson’s Heisman candidacy before Michigan has played a game, how the sophomore, then junior, now senior quarterback will shatter every NCAA Division-I record en route to New York for the trophy presentation. And each year, Robinson blows up in spectacular fashion — though this season’s fall from grace was my personal favorite, when he threw four interceptions on four straight passing attempts against Notre Dame.

But please, tell me again how “Shoelace” torched an 0-6 Massachusetts team fresh from Division II for 397 total yards and four touchdowns. That impresses me.
There are Michigan State students that believe this is how the world works. This is comical in its lack of historical context.

Some time in the last 5 years, Michigan went from a program so dominant over its in-state rival that Mike Hart calling MSU "little brother" became a relevant meme and talking point for the media and both programs, to a team that's known as the Big Ten's Wile E. Coyote, hatching elaborate plans that go hilariously awry. There might be some truth to that perception. Michigan students rushed the field after eeking by an unranked 4-3 Michigan State team. I understand the reasoning: no undergrads have experienced the joy of beating the Spartans before, but Act Like You've Been There Before is an obligation, not a suggestion for haughty Michigan fans. We're the worst.

But righting the ship was always Brady Hoke's goal. You get the impression that one of the reasons Hoke would have walked to Michigan from San Diego is that he was pained by Michigan's free fall. In 20 games at the helm of the Maize and Blue, Brady Hoke is 16-4, undefeated at home, holds wins over Michigan's two primary rivals, and has a BCS bowl win. With Saturday's win over Michigan State, winning a Big Ten championship remains the only hurdle left for Brady Hoke's Michigan to leap.

This team is not without faults or free of concerns (notably, Al Borges' continued indifference to winning games or even picking up first downs), but it's hard not to feel like this team is being curated expertly by Hoke. With every new accomplishment, victory, and high-ranked recruit, Michigan inches closer to the program everyone fears instead of the one that keeps running into the tunnel painted onto the side of a mountain.

  • Michigan's terrible offensive output falls on the shoulders of Al Borges (again). Consider the following chart of Michigan's run/pass split on 1st and 2nd down:

1st down Run/Pass Yards 2nd down Run/Pass Yards Drive result






End of 1st

Pass Inc Pass





Pass Inc FG
End of 2nd




Pass Inc Punt

Pass Inc Rush


Pass Inc Pass

End of 3rd


Pass Inc FG

Pass Inc Rush





Pass Inc

  • Michigan threw the ball on only 7 of 26 first downs, and MSU knew it. Michigan averaged 8.47 yards to go on second down, largely because Borges kept running directly into the face of Michigan State blitzes. This was apparent to everyone watching the game, notably Pat Narduzzi who was licking his chops as Michigan continued to get behind the chains early.
  • Michigan's other problem offensively:

    Look at where Michigan State's safties are lined up: seven yards (seven!!!!) from the line of scrimmage. Michigan tested the MSU defense vertically only once or twice the entire game. They also rarely used play action, so when Michigan showed run, they were running into a box with 9 players in it. Michigan's offensive structure/scheme against this defense was incoherent.
  • Le'Veon Bell: Still not terrifying. Bell could only muster 68 yards on 26 carries (2.8 YPC) with a long of 8 yards. His game is simply to run into the nearest defender and try to carry him four yards downfield. With players like Jake Ryan laying the lumber on Bell and not Boise State's undersized linebackers, that play style becomes a lot less intimidating (and effective). His offensive line clearly couldn't get a lot of push in this game, but Bell was never able to outrun Michigan defenders to get into space or make something out of nothing. He's one dimensional and Michigan exploited that in this game.
  • Andrew Maxwell is not a very good QB. If this were his freshman or sophomore year, you could make excuses for his performances this season, but he's a junior without much upside. Against Michigan he completed 61% of his passes (his second highest completion percentage this season;  against Central Michigan he completed 64.5%) but only averaged 5.64 YPA. His interception was bad and was largely responsible for Michigan winning the game.
  • Raise your hand if before the game, you thought Drew Dileo, Matt Wile, and Brendan Gibbons would be the most important players in this game. No one? Really? Wile finally delivered on the promise of being a big-legged field goal kicker. In case you were wondering, yes that was Wile's first field goal attempt in a Michigan uniform. And Dileo did exactly what he's always done at Michigan: catch absolutely everything thrown his way. I'll have to rewatch the game to see how he got so open on the final play, but that may be a season-defining catch.
  • The dropped touchdown pass by Gallon was unfortunate and I think it was caused by a miscommunication between Gallon and Denard. I'm giving Denard the benefit of the doubt here, but I think he was expecting Gallon to settle down in the zone where Denard threw the pass. That may not be the case--there's a good chance Denard just made a bad throw--but regardless, that catch needs to be made.
  • Speaking of dropped passes, someone please teach Devin Gardner how to catch in traffic.
  • Taylor Lewan is desperately trying to convince everyone that he's not an All-American left tackle. He needs to get these penalties in check and sort out his blocking protections because he's been disappointing this season. The only way this benefits Michigan is if it forces him to return for his senior season.
  • Will Gholston may need to stick around for his senior season to erase his reputation against Michigan as a total non-factor.
Prediction Tracker
Denard's rushing totals take a major hit in this game, but Toussaint finally finds some lanes to run through. MSU understands the threat of Denard's legs and have probably gamplanned to stay home on him on all option plays. There will be a fumble generated on a linebacker blitz against an option play. Also, we'll see the return of Denard's back-foot heaves that end serendipitously, mostly thrown to Devin Gardner who makes a few astonishing catches in traffic.

On the other side of the ball, MSU won't be able to get rolling all game. Michigan's linebackers completely shut down Bell who averages ~3 YPC. Maxwell, meanwhile, will have a higher completion percentage than you'd expect but also throws two costly interceptions.

Saturday proves to still be relatively low-scoring, however. Both teams stall out just outside of field goal range a few times and there is at least one missed field goal. Michigan State 9 - Michigan 20
Denard's rushing totals were down a bit but Toussaint still couldn't get things rolling. No fumbles or backfoot throws. MSU couldn't get started, though, save two second-half drives. Bell averaged 2.6 YPC and Maxwell threw a really costly interception.

Next Week
Saturday's game against Nebraska will probably determine who wins the Legends division. Beating Nebraska puts Michigan two games ahead of everyone in the division save Terrible Iowa, who has been unexpectedly competent. Nebraska is 12th in points per game but 72nd in points against. Given how Michigan has fared against rushing attacks the last three weeks, Nebraska shouldn't be too much trouble, but they have the potential to beat the Wolverines, especially at night in Lincoln.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Preview: Michigan State 2012

Michigan State vs. Michigan
The Big House
Kickoff 3:30 pm EST
Big Ten Network
Forecast: Mid-50s, 20% chance of rain 

MSU Last Week
Iowa 19 - MSU 16 (2OT). Andrew Maxwell, intent on bringing back Sparty No! threw a pick in the second half of double overtime to end the Spartans bid to beat inexplicably 4-2 Iowa. Le'Veon Bell had his best game of the season and finally looked like the dangerous running back he's rumored to be but still only managed 4.8 YPC (albeit on 29 carries). Andrew Maxwell is still an inexperienced, inconsistent quarterback that is most certainly not Kirk Cousins. Against Iowa, he threw 12/31 for 179 yards and 1 INT. Maxwell has a lively arm but accuracy is a major concern. The only MSU wide receiver that anyone ever needs to be scared of is Aaron Burbridge who had 89 yards on five catches.

Iowa was worse than MSU but somehow managed the win. Supposed-to-be best QB in the conference James Vandenberg was terrible, completing just 19 of 36 passes for 134 yards (3.7 YPA). Don't let those numbers fool you: not even checkdowns were a guarantee. Iowa's only running back with two legs, Mark Weisman, ran stride for stride with Bell, averaging 4.5 YPC on 26 carries.

This was a game of incompetent offenses that someone had to win. Iowa was the beneficiary of the game's most critical turnover (Maxwell's in 2OT) which decided the outcome.

(I'm removing what Michigan did last week from this section because you know what happened last week.)

Offense vs. Michigan State

Michigan State's defense is the only thing that's kept them in games this season because their offense is atrocious. MSU ranks 8th in rushing yards per game allowed, 12th in pass efficiency defense, and 14th in scoring defense. The other side of the coin is that the Spartans haven't played anyone this year that can really fill up the scoreboard. The only team with a respectable offense (Indiana, of all teams; 31st in points per game) put up 27 points in the first half against MSU before being shut down in the second half (more on this later).

The Spartans are led, not surprisingly, by junior middle linebacker Max Bullough who has 31 solo tackles, 27 assists, 5.5 TFLs, 2 PBUs, and a forced fumble. Bullough is the real deal: a great downfield run stuffer who can drop into coverage and is never caught out of position. Think Kenny Demens' ceiling. At the SLB spot is junior Denicos Allen who is the team's second leading tackler in his second year as the starter. And at the WLB position will be senior Chris Norman.

Combined, the starting linebackers account for 12.5 TFLs of the team's 38. This is an aggressive, blitzing group. These tendencies were exploited against Indiana, where the Hoosiers were able to march up and down the field almost exclusively on bubble screens in the first half. With such dogged determination to get into the backfield, MSU's linebackers are susceptible to horizontal attacks. Hopefully Al Borges was watching this game and took notes; tunnel screens back to the inside of the field are not going to end well, but throw bubbles to the boundary and Michigan could find easy first downs all game.

The concern for Michigan against this unit is, like last year, the double A-gap blitz that makes Denard heave balls off his back foot. These are plays that Rimington award winner David Molk struggled to block. Tasking Elliott Mealer with the same responsibilities spells trouble. To slow down Pat Narduzzi's blitzing defense as well as take pressure off the interior of the offensive line, Borges will have to use screen passes extensively.

While the Spartan linebackers are some of the best in the conference, the team's defensive line is suspect save William Gholston, who you know about. The starting DTs senior Anthony Rashad White and sophomore James Kittridge are non-factors. They try to play much like Michigan's defensive tackles: consume as many offensive linemen as possible and give your linebackers a chance to make tackles. Sophomore strongside defensive end Marcus Rush is good-not-great. He's what you want out of a strongside defensive end: holds up against the run, bats down passes at the line of scrimmage, and occasionally gets into the backfield.

Then of course there's Gholston, a pass-rush extraordinaire who has never been very impressive against Michigan/Taylor Lewan. Gholston has 5 TFLs but only one sack this season. Add in 4 PBUs and a forced fumble and his statistical profile fills out a bit. Ace at MGoBlog is down on Gholston:
If there's a weak point on this defense, it's—wait for it—WDE William Gholston, a quarterfinalist for the Lombardi Award based entirely on reputation. He's been benched at times this season for redshirt freshman Joel Heath. There's a reason for this: Gholston can chase plays down from the backside and bat down passes at the line, but if teams run right at him he gets buried regularly
At 6'7", 278 lbs, Gholston is pretty wiry, but he's still a terror in passing situations. Also, excellent backside pursuit is the kind of thing that can destroy an option running game or a hesitant running back (Fitz Toussaint). If Lewan can handle Gholston like he has the last two years, Michigan could dominate this defense, but with lingering injuries to Lewan, that may be a problem.

In the secondary, Darqueze Dennard is one of the better cover corners in the Big Ten and could present some problems for Michigan's receivers getting open. However, he'll likely be tasked with covering Devin Gardner who is a good six inches taller than him.

Defense vs. Michigan State

OK, so, Le'Veon Bell. I will say this now and you will believe me later: Le'Veon Bell is not a great running back. At 6'2", 244 lbs, he's a moose, but he doesn't have the complementary speed to make him truly dangerous. He can occasionally (occasionally) make people miss in space, but otherwise, his running style is to make contact a yard beyond the line of scrimmage and rumble forward for 3 yards. You can blame his offensive line, if you want, but power running backs, regardless of their offensive line, should probably average more than 3.8 YPC against Central Michigan. Combined with a shoddy offensive line, Bell will remind you more of a third-string Wisconsin running back than similar body types from squads like Alabama.

Now that I've gotten that off my chest, MSU's offense is pretty remedial, led of course by the rushing attack of Bell. MSU ranks 84th in rushing offense, 59th in passing offense, and 102nd in scoring. There are plenty of reasons that the offense struggles, but it starts with the Spartans' makeshift offensive line. Starting right tackle Fou Fonoti and center Travis Jackson have each gone down for the season with injuries. Another important injury is to starting tight end Dion Sims who was the team's leading receiver when he went down with a sprained ankle and helped get push in the running game for a mediocre offensive line. On MSU's first snap, they could be starting two redshirt freshman, two sophomores, and a fifth-year senior on their offensive line.

However, Michigan State's offensive line has been a mess the last two years and each season, the Spartans have found a way to grind Michigan's front seven to dust and protect their quarterback. Though I hate this kind of reasoning, I'm glad to see Kirk Cousins go because he was one of those guys that Just Wins against Michigan. Andrew Maxwell may get the same kind of protection that Cousins got against Michigan's defenses, but he doesn't have the kind of consistency or accuracy that Cousins did. Maxwell has a lively arm but not a lot of touch and is highly erratic. He's completing only 54.3% of his passes this season and averaging only 6.28 YPA. Throw in just 6 TDs to 4 INTs and you have the makings for a not great QB. This isn't pressure-induced, either; MSU ranks 40th in sacks allowed.

Perhaps the biggest hindrance to MSU's offense is the lackluster group of wide receivers. No longer is Keshawn Martin running jet sweeps around the edges of the defense or BJ Cunningham getting open everywhere. Though Keith Mumphrey leads the Spartans in receptions and receiving yards, the only threat is freshman Aaron Burbridge, who at 6'1" is not the Michael Floyd pterodactyl type that Michigan's secondary struggles against. Expect MSU to try and take a few uncharacteristic deep shots to Burbridge with JT Floyd in coverage, but unless Maxwell is dropping those in his lap, Michigan's secondary will just have to concern itself with underneath hitch routes and crossing patterns.

How Michigan's defensive line fares against this depleted front of MSU will determine the game. Against the run, expect Quinton Washington and Will Campbell the continue the dominance they showed against Illinois. Tightening running lanes and keeping offensive lineman at the line of scrimmage will allow the linebackers to hit and swarm Bell. When MSU drops back to pass, I actually expect Michigan to blitz a lot less than they have in the past. With a lackluster group of wide receivers and a mediocre offensive line, the defense will be able to rely on coverage sacks rather than getting pressure with linebackers. This also helps defend against MSU's reliance on tight ends in the passing game, flooding underneath zones with linebackers.

How does Michigan win? The combination of Maxwell and MSU's receivers are not a threat to Michigan's secondary, the Spartan offensive line is once again shaky, and Bell doesn't have the home-run power to get Michigan into an uncomfortable situation offensively. If the defensive linemen continue to allow the linebackers to make plays, Michigan should be able to shut down MSU's offense.

When Michigan has the ball, testing the edges of the Spartans' defense will be key to opening running lanes and getting Denard time in the pocket to throw. Jet sweeps and bubble screens should keep MSU honest while the rest of Michigan's base offense should be enough to march down the field.

How does Michigan State win? The offensive line has to play its best game of the season for them to give Maxwell time in the pocket and the receivers time to get open. Le'Veon Bell will need to show that he's more than a 3 yards and a cloud of dust star and force Michigan's linebackers to commit fully to the run. This will open up passing lanes off of play action.

Shutting down Michigan's offense will be harder for the Spartans. MSU's linebackers need to return on their potential and Narduzzi's blitzes will need to generate turnovers. MSU can help their cause by finding a way to stop Denard on the inverted veer and forcing Toussaint to make Michigan's rushing yards.

Arbitrary percentage Michigan wins: 60% (I said this before the season and I'm sticking with it)

Final prediction. Denard's rushing totals take a major hit in this game, but Toussaint finally finds some lanes to run through. MSU understands the threat of Denard's legs and have probably gamplanned to stay home on him on all option plays. There will be a fumble generated on a linebacker blitz against an option play. Also, we'll see the return of Denard's back-foot heaves that end serendipitously, mostly thrown to Devin Gardner who makes a few astonishing catches in traffic.

On the other side of the ball, MSU won't be able to get rolling all game. Michigan's linebackers completely shut down Bell who averages ~3 YPC. Maxwell, meanwhile, will have a higher completion percentage than you'd expect but also throws two costly interceptions.

Saturday proves to still be relatively low-scoring, however. Both teams stall out just outside of field goal range a few times and there is at least one missed field goal. Michigan State 9 - Michigan 20

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Progress Report: The defense

Previously: The offense

Defensive Tackle

Grade: A

No position on Michigan's depth chart caused more consternation preseason than the defensive tackle position. Options consisted of: a middling senior (Campbell), OL convert (Washington), DE convert (black), redshirt sophomore who hadn't seen any playing time (Richard Ash), or an oversized true freshman (Ondre Pipkins).
What this team needs from Campbell is an every-down nose tackle/3-tech DT that can hold up against the run and generate nominal pressure against the pass. Having a penetrating DT the likes of Martin is a luxury, not a necessity for great defenses. The pass rush from the defensive line should be generated primarily by the defensive ends (about which more later), not the inside. If Campbell can stay gap sound and hold his ground against double teams on the run, Michigan's experienced linebackers should be able to make the proper reads and tackle...

Because [Washington]'s going to be a starter, the coaches have been pumping him up throughout camp, praising his abilities. At 6'4", 300 lbs, he won't be much of a slasher, but he may be able to hold his ground much like Campbell. As a position switch, leverage and technique remain a concern, but if he can stay sound in the middle, Michigan should remain stout against the run and rely on blitzes and the defensive ends for pass rush.
Six games later, Michigan's defensive tackles may be the second-best unit on the defense.

Quinton Washington is a runaway candidate for most-improved player on Michigan's roster and perhaps in the conference. Washington's (and Will Campbell's) contributions have been a little harder to quantify, though: through six games, Washington has marked 8 solo tackles, 10 assists, and 2 TFLs. His totals last year? Nine games played, one tackle. Obviously playing time is a factor here. Washington was backing up ironman Mike Martin (who, for reference, ended the season with 20 solo tackles, 44 assists, and 6 TFLs; Washington won't match those numbers, but the coaches have asked hi to play a different style of football), but even in his spot duty, Washington was a liability. Now, he's proven concerns about his technique unfounded and has been exactly what Michigan needs: a strong body in the middle of the formation that can get push against guards and hold up to double teams, allowing linebackers to make plays.

The other pleasant surprise this year has been the development of Will Campbell into a similar immovable force on the defensive line. Campbell's 2012 stat line is similar to Washington's: 9 solo tackles, 9 assists, 1 TFL, 1 sack (he tallied 5 tackles, 9 assists, 2.5 TFLs, and 2 sacks in 2011). Like Washington, Campbell will never be the slashing nose tackle/3-tech that Mike Martin was. What he has done is become a reliable interior lineman who holds up to double teams and allowed those the linebackers behind him to fill the gaps.

One of the reasons Michigan's defensive line has been so successful is because of Greg Mattison's reliance on slants. Campbell and Washington have both proven to have good first steps playside on slants enabling them to cut into the backfield. These slants have also produced simplified reads for the linebackers to clean up plays on the backside.

The defensive tackle position has seen a lot of rotation this season. In nickel packages/passing situations, Craig Roh and Jibreel Black have assumed the DT positions. And to give the starters a blow, Ondre Pipkins has been rotating onto the field with regularity, especially in the last few games. Pipkins has returned middling results, occasionally showing the ability to hold up to double teams and get push off the ball, but also being blown back on various run plays. Defensive tackles take time to develop and Pipkins will be a project.

Going Forward
This unit projects to improve as the season progresses. Hoke and Mattison are magicians, of this, I'm sure. As Washington and Campbell see more snaps, their understanding of the defense and what an opposing offense is trying to do will only increase. With similar development from Pipkins and Richard Ash (maybe), the coaching staff will be looking toward the future with the defensive tackles.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Progress Report: The offense

I watched the first half of the Illinois game yesterday and one thing became clear: there wasn't much that happened schematically in the game. Michigan just dominated Illinois at every position. The only new offensive play Al Borges rolled out was the counter-draw that we saw last year, and the defense spent much of the game run blitzing. In lieu of regular content this week, and because the bye week came after only four games, I'm going to spend the week doing progress reports for the offense, defense, and coaching staff. First, the offense.


Grade: A-

Going into the season, we all knew what Michigan was getting from its quarterbacks: Denard is Denard, Devin Gardner was moving permanently to wide receiver, and Russell Bellomy was an unproven freshman who would get occasional snaps in garbage time or when Denard got injured. Six games later, that hasn't changed much. To wit:
Entering his third year as a starter and his senior season, if Denard hasn't already learned not to make those throws, he probably never will learn. Count on Denard to average about an interception--to 1.5--per game.

That's the pessimistic angle (the one that makes more sense in my brain) though. The other side of the coin is Denard, Heisman Contender. While I think that's possible, he's going to need to show significant mprovement over last year while playing a more difficult schedule (don't undersell this as a potential explanation for a lack of improvement from Denard). I've never seen a quarterback go from Year 1 to Year 2 under Borges/Hoke, so I'm not really sure what to expect. Early camp reports say Denard is playing extremely well, but camp reports are camp reports. Can Denard surpass his numbers from last year? Yes, but he won't come close to his breakout 2010 season, the kind of numbers he would need really lock down the Heisman.

Realistically, given the lack of wide receiver talent (about which more later this week), Denard's totals will probably remain the same while things like his yards per attempt drop as his deep jump balls increasingly fall to the turn.
For comparison, let's look at Denard's numbers from 2011, six games into 2011, and through the first six games of this season:

Att/Comp Comp% Yards YPA TD/INT
55% 2,173 8.4
2011 through 6 games
57.26% 1,130 9.7 10/9
54.8% 1,101 8.7 9/8

I think it's hard to argue that Denard is anything but Denard. His stats this season are basically identical to his numbers from the same time last year. True, he didn't play Alabama in 2011, but this many similarities are not a coincidence. Despite "Denard Being Denard" being a bad thing occasionally (see: Notre Dame), Michigan is on pace to win its first Big Ten title since 2004 (!), largely because of him; take the good with the bad.

What's most impressive about Denard's passing output is the lack of wide receiver talent. Devin Funchess has emerged as a serious deep threat, and Devin Gardner is an erratic WR-convert, but otherwise, Denard is working with a bunch of slot ninjas in a non-slot ninja-friendly offense. But recently, Al Borges has changed to a quick-hit passing offense that Denard can excel at and better suits the receivers.

Though his passing stats mirror those of last year, Denard's rushing numbers are significantly improved.  He has carried the ball 101 times this season for 804 yards (8.0 YPC) and 6 TDs, a yardage mark that almost matches his total from the entirety of last year (1,176 yards, 5.3 YPC). Denard's improvement can be attributed to Borges' decision to use the inverted veer which appears indefensible.

Going Forward
Expect more of the same. Denard isn't poised to be anything that we haven't seen already. He's going to throw interceptions when he's pressured, break long runs a few times a game, and make some miraculous passes that you were certain Denard couldn't make. At this point, we should just cherish the last few games of Denard's collegiate career because Michigan is not going to see another player like him in Maize and Blue again. Next year is the Shane Morris show and a dramatic shift in offensive philosophy.

Monday, October 15, 2012

When the dust settles

Terrible Illinois 0 - Michigan 45
Joseph Tobianski |

Now that was vintage Michigan football: injure the opposing quarterback and grind an opponent to dust on defense. Illinois is terrible, but beating them that summarily is still fairly astonishing given the relative talent levels on defense. Even when michigan beat Minnesota last year--a squad in contention for the worst Big Ten team of all time--the Gophers still managed 177 total yards, good for 3.76 yards per play. Against Illinois on Saturday, Michigan's defense held the Illini to 134 yards on 2.5 yards per play. The Wolverine secondary allowed Illinois' two quarterbacks to complete only 7 of 16 passes for 29 yards. The last time Michigan's defense beat a D-I opponent that badly was probably the 2007 Notre Dame game in which they allowed the Irish only 79 yards. Defenders on that team: Terrance Taylor, Brandon Graham, Tim Jamison, Morgan Trent, Donovan Warren, Shawn Crable, Stevie Brown, and Jamar Adams, among others.

There's not much else to say about this game. Michigan beat Illinois at every position, all game. The only thing that slowed Michigan's offense was the non-injury to Denard and two drops by Michigan's receivers on passes thrown by Russell Bellomy. If those catches are made, the Denard injury probably won't even stop Michigan's offense. Fitz Toussaint didn't look great, but that's the only negative that can be taken from this game.

Despite much of the Big Ten schedule left to play including games against Nebraska, Michigan State, and Ohio State, it may be time to start considering Michigan as the best team on both sides of the ball in this conference. Though the Buckeyes just beat up on Nebraska and Indiana, they were still only able to manage 17 points against Michigan State--approximately as much as Iowa did against the Spartans. MSU's defense, meanwhile, has allowed 27 points to Indiana and 20 to a probably bad Notre Dame offense. Though I hate this kind of transitive property assumption, the performances in-conference to date point squarely at Michigan being the most well-rounded team.

With the transformation of the defense this year and last, we can be certain these aren't outlier performances. And with a healthy Denard being on the same page as Al Borges, the sky is the limit for the offense. Make no mistake the 2007 Michigan team would still beat 2012 Michigan to a pulp, but these past two years have been two huge steps to getting this program back to where it's supposed to be. Injured quarterbacks for all!

  • So maybe it's time to start panicking about Toussaint. Despite having blockers in front of him all game, he kept trying to break a run to the outside rather than taking the yards he was given and keeping Michigan ahead of the chains. I don't know why he's been so impatient this season--perhaps he's just stir crazy from early in the year--but it's becoming a problem. For the game, he managed just 62 yards on 18 carries.
  • Denard completed 7 of 11 passes for 159 yards and no interceptions. Excise the 71-yard touchdown pass to Gallon and he throws 6/10 for 88 yards (8.8 YPA). Still good. One of the big changes in the last two games has been a relative dearth of deep shots. This is a good thing and the main reason Denard is playing this well. Dear Al, please continue this trend and don't freak out if Michigan gets behind in a game.
  • Three of Michigan's top four tacklers: Jake Ryan (#1), Kenny Demens (#2), and Desmond Morgan (#4). You don't get to a member of the secondary (Kovacs) until eighth on that list, behind James Ross, even. Michigan's front seven is turning into something special.
  • Speaking of which, Demens' interception showed the kind of anticipation and development you want to see from senior linebackers.
  • Dennis Norfleet terrifies me every time he touches the ball.
  • I have a standing rule: if you're a college football team taking field goals longer than 40 yards, you're going to lose that game. This is how Ohio State wins every close game, invariably forcing teams to kick 42-yard field goals (and missing) on 4th and 5. Michigan did this to Illinois in this game. They missed, because obviously they did.
Prediction Tracker
Michigan starts scoring early and doesn't look back. Denard doesn't have nearly the rushing totals he did against Purdue, but that's offset by Fitz Toussaint having his best game of the season, finally breaking the 100-yard mark. Denard lights it up through the air though and finishes with two TDs and no interceptions. Defensively, JT Floyd has another strong game but is overshadowed by Jake Ryan who has 3 TFLs. Scheelhaase is pressured early and often and ends up throwing one arm-punt that sets Michigan up for an easy touchdown. Terrible Illinois 13 - Michigan 49
Michigan scored on their first two possessions and were basically only stopped because Denard got injured. Denard's rushing numbers weren't as high as they could have been because Michigan didn't need them to be. The same goes for his passing numbers: no need to throw the ball when everyone on Michigan's roster can find a running lane. Fitz: sadface. Jake Ryan had 3.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks. Scheelhaase threw one INT but would have thrown more had Jibreel Black not broken his brain.

Next Week
Michigan State. Winning next week would go a long way to locking up the Legends division crown. It would all but knock MSU out of the running, leaving Iowa (2-0), Northwestern (2-1), and Nebraska (1-1) the only teams able to challenge for the title. I called this a 60/40 win for Michigan before the season and haven't seen anything to change that impression: Le'veon Bell is not terrifying despite what people will have you believe, Andrew Maxwell is incredibly raw, and the defense, as mentioned above, has now allowed 27 to Indiana, 20 to Notre Dame, and 19 to Iowa. It will be closer than you'd like, but Michigan should win comfortably.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Preview: Terrible Illinois 2012

Terrible Illinois vs. Michigan
The Big House
Kickoff 3:30 pm EST
Forecast: High-50s, 100% chance of rain (really?)

Last Week
Illinois 14 - Wisconsin 31. Illinois has not won a Big Ten game in over a calendar year. In fact, the last time they won a game in the conference was October 8, 2011, when the Fighting Illini beat Indiana 41-20. Now, this doesn't have anything to do with last week despite the fact that they lost to another Big Ten team, this time, Terrible Wisconsin.

Last week's game was relatively close until the fourth quarter. The teams were tied 7-7 going into the half with Illinois' only score coming on a Nathan Scheelhaase scramble and Wisconsin scoring on a 62-yard James White screen pass. Wisconsin was doing everything in its power to prove that it's no longer 2011 until the fourth quarter when they forced two three-and-outs, allowed only a field goal, and racked up 21 points including a two-play, 59-yard touchdown drive.

Scheelhaase went 18/29 for 178 yards (6.1 YPA) with 1 TD and 1 INT. He also racked up 82 yards on 22 carries. In other words, a typical Sheelhaase day. The rest of Illinois' offense was a non-factor. Meanwhile, Wisconsin mediocreback Joel Stave was able to throw for 254 yards on only 25 attempts.

Michigan 44 - Purdue 13. Last week, Michigan looked like the Michigan everyone hoped. Denard looked like Good Denard again: 8/16 for 105 yards through the air--and the best part, no interceptions--and 235 yards on 25 carries. Fitzgerald Toussaint had a rough day, but everyone else who touched the ball for the Maize and Blue found green grass ahead of them.

The defense turned in possibly its best performance of the year, limiting Purdue to just 213 yards on 12 drives; they forced/were gifted four turnovers; the linebackers are finally getting to their run fills on time; the defensive line is getting push; and the secondary is continuing its aggressive man-to-man coverage without giving up big plays.

Offense vs. Terrible Illinois
Melanie Maxwell |

BCS competition has scored no less than 31 points against Illinois in each game this year (Arizona State 45, Penn State 35, and Wisconsin 31, in addition to 52 points allowed to Louisiana Tech). Though the team ranks 38th in rushing yards per game allowed, they are 97th in pass efficiency defense; teams do not need to run the ball against the Illini because they're porous through the air.

If those numbers don't prove how pedestrian this defense is, the Illini's most dangerous defender is weakside defensive end Michael Buchanan, who has 2.5 sacks and 5 TFLs. The team's leading tackler, however is strong safety Ashante Williams. I am firmly of the belief that when your strong safety is your leading tackler, that's a bad thing (see: Jordan Kovacs 2009-2010).

No one will be happier to play Illinois than Fitz Toussaint. This will be the first time all year that Michigan plays a BCS opponent without multiple NFL draft picks in the front seven. Neither defensive tackle Akeem Spence nor Glenn Foster should be much of a problem for Michigan interior line to handle. Justin Staples and Buchanan aren't much for defensive ends, either (Illinois is 89th in the country in sacks). This will be a good barometer for Michigan's offensive line going forward.

With only five interceptions in 6 games, Illinois' secondary isn't much to fret about, but as always, generating turnovers against Michigan comes down to getting pressure on Denard (by the way, Michigan has the highest interception percentage in the country with 8.47%; the only team even close is Auburn with 8%). With a lackluster defensive line, Illinois will likely struggle to get the kind of pressure necessary to affect Denard unless they blitz a lot. With a strong bounceback game against Purdue, Denard and Borges look to be back on the same page. Though last week wasn't Denard's best performance through the air, it was more than enough to get the job done when you're averaging 9.8 YPC.

Expect a similar offensive structure this week: lots of inverted veer runs, with short passes and limited downfield shots. Borges may try to get Devin Funchess involved in the passing game a little more in this game after mostly falling off the map in the last few weeks. This can be attributed to teams actually guarding him, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a few more routes run with Funchess as the first read.

Defense vs. Terrible Illinois
Jonathan Daniel | Getty Images North America

So Nathan Scheelhaase is still Illinois' quarterback despite all of the available evidence against him. Dude plays like Tate Forcier, except he can't throw and doesn't look to extend plays in order to pass. So, not like Tate Forcier at all, but that's who he'll remind you of. Scheelhaase has started his third year as a starter poorly. He's completing 62% of his passes but only averaging 6.34 YPA. Add in a 3/5 TD/INT ratio and you have the makings of a disappointing junior year. Caveats for playing for a new coaching staff apply, but he doesn't look like he has a breakout performance waiting in reserves.

Flanking Scheelhaase in the backfield will be a number of different players, but sophomore Donovan Young leads the team in carries with 59. Young is averaging only 3.8 YPC, but few players are doing better: freshman Josh Ferguson is averaging 4.1 YPC and Scheelhaase is averaging a career low 2.3 YPC (down a yard from 2011). This is not a good offense: 101st in total offense, 78th in passing efficiency, and 94th in rushing yards per game. The only real receiving threat on the Illinois roster is junior Ryan Lankford who is averaging 14.5 yards per catch and has 5 yards on the season, but Lankford isn't the elite-level receiver that can really threaten Michigan's secondary.

This Wolverines defense is quietly becoming elite again. It ranks 7th in passing yards allowed per game, 26th in pass efficiency defense, and 37th in scoring defense. With Mattison and Hoke capable of turning anyone over 300 lbs into a reliable+ defensive lineman, this will become a perennial occurrence. The bad news for Illinois: they rank 109th in sacks allowed this season despite having a scrambling QB and option running game. This is not a good offensive line, which Mattison will take advantage of and the defensive line should dominate.

How does Michigan win? Come to play and don't turn the ball over. Illinois' offense is anemic, their defense has been torched by anyone resembling a decent offense, and there are no real offensive-threats/breakout players on Illinois' offense. Barring another Denarmageddon, this should be a routine game much like the Purdue win. (ps, It's a weird feeling being confident about a Big Ten game.)

How does Terrible Illinois win? Blitz. Force turnovers. Hope for a bad day from Denard. Kickoff/punt returns for TDs.

Arbitrary percentage that Michigan wins: 88.397%

Final prediction: Michigan starts scoring early and doesn't look back. Denard doesn't have nearly the rushing totals he did against Purdue, but that's offset by Fitz Toussaint having his best game of the season, finally breaking the 100-yard mark. Denard lights it up through the air though and finishes with two TDs and no interceptions. Defensively, JT Floyd has another strong game but is overshadowed by Jake Ryan who has 3 TFLs. Scheelhaase is pressured early and often and ends up throwing one arm-punt that sets Michigan up for an easy touchdown. Terrible Illinois 13 - Michigan 49

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Wide receiver blocking on jet sweep

I've been critical of some of Michigan's wide receivers' blocking this season, namely Devin Gardner and Jerald Robinson. Against Purdue, Al Borges called a play in which the wide receivers were doing something in the blocking game that Michigan State used to burn the Wolverines last year: seal the playside linebackers to the inside.

Michigan comes out in a three-WR set and will run a jet sweep for Jeremy Gallon (lined up in the slot at the top of the screen). Purdue counters with 3-4 front and three-high zone coverage.

As the ball is snapped, left guard Ricky Barnum will pull across the formation and run through the playside B gap looking for a Purdue defender downhill to block.

Rather than heading straight upfield to block the cornerback lined up over him, Devin Gardner (bottom of the screen) runs toward the middle of the field to block the playside ILB that is flowing down the line with Gallon. Toussaint will act as a lead blocker on the playside OLB and chip block him before heading upfield.

Toussaint engages (highlighted) and Gardner squares up his block. Notice Barnum still running upfield. His intended blocker is the free safety coming from the middle of the field:

The key to this play working is Toussaint making a good chip block before heading upfield. He hits the OLB with enough force to stop him from tackling Gallon in the backfield but is able to continue toward the cornerback. Barnum is still running toward the free safety.

Unfortunately, Gallon tries to bounce the play outside toward the sideline rather than cutting back inside where he had his blocking set up.

The play ends with Gallon being led out of bounds despite blocking set up to the inside.


The Takeaway
It's pretty clear why MSU gashed Michigan with this last year. If Gallon cuts back to the inside, the only player with a chance of tackling him is the backside ILB (#39) who is doing a good job of flowing downhill with the play but probably has a 50/50 chance of actually making the tackle.

Borges has finally started to utilize bubble screens on a semi-regular basis, which is a great addition to Michgian's arsenal. Prior to using them, Michigan rarely tested a defense sideline-to-sideline. The only other plays the Wolverines ran that did so were these jet sweeps, which always seem, at best, moderately effective. Changing up a blocking scheme to seal the opponents playside linebackers and put a ball carrier in space against a single defender is all you can ask for. It will be interesting to see how this evolves throughout the season, but testing the outsides more frequently and effectively can only mean good things for this offense going forward.