Friday, November 23, 2012

Preview: Ohio 2012

#19 Michigan vs. Ohio
Ohio Stadium, Columbus, OH
Kickoff 12:00 pm EST
Forecast: High-30s, 0% chance of rain 

Last week
Ohio State 21 - Wisconsin 14 (OT). Ohio State continued its meaningless undefeated season last week by beating Wisconsin in overtime. Wisconsin's third starting quarterback this season, Curt Phillips, acquitted himself well by completing 14 of 25 passes for 154 yards and 1 TD. Meanwhile, Monte Ball did his Monte Ball thing by averaging  4.9 YPC on 39 (!!!) carries. Sacks removed, Wisconsin actually managed 4.69 YPC as a team. Those sacks may be what won Ohio State the game. Defensive end terror John Simon was nigh unblockable, marking the team's four sacks. The rest of the team managed only five tackles for loss.

Braxton Miller had a typical day: 10/18 through the air for 97 yards, and 20 carries for 70 yards. Carlos Hyde also had a good game averaging 5.8 YPC on 15 carries. Despite these performances, Ohio State was only able to manage 14 points in regulation. In overtime, the Buckeyes got away with a couple of glaring holding calls that allowed them to march into the endzone on four plays. And Wisconsin couldn't move the ball at all, resulting in an undramatic extra period.

Offense vs. Ohio State

Despite the Buckeyes' undefeated season, this is not a vintage OSU defense. A quick rundown of their statistical rankings proves as much: 17th in rushing defense, 28th in pass efficiency defense, 38th in total defense, 34th in scoring defense, 34th in sacks, and tied for 77th in tackles for loss. Those are good numbers, but they're not typical Ohio State numbers.

The defense is led by defensive end John Simon who is a scary dude. On the season, he has 22 solo tackles, 22 assists, 14.5 TFLs, and 9 sacks, in addition to 4 PBUs and a forced fumble. The scary thing for Michigan's offense is that Simon will probably be lined up across from Michael Schofield who I spent the better part of the first few games this season bemoaning his lack of speed and strength. This could be bad. Next to Simon is manchild Jonathan Hankins, an NFL-sized nose tackle that has lived up to every bit of his hype this season. Hankins has 23 solo tackles, 29 assists, 4 TFLs, and a sack, but his biggest impact is the ability to get into the backfield and disrupt plays.

So running the ball on Saturday is going to be difficult. Given the weakness of Michigan's offensive line and the strength of the Buckeye D-line, moving the ball on the ground will take some sort of randomness. Fortunately, Michigan showed a whole bunch of new running formations against Iowa with Denard Robinson in the backfield intended to get to the outside of the field where Michigan can make hay against OSU.

the Buckeye linebacker corps is led by sophomore Ryan Shazier who leads the team with 68 solo tackles. He's also marked 14.5 TFLs, 4 sacks, 1 interception, and 12 PBUs. He is the heart and soul of OSU's defense, but he's also mistake prone. If Michigan can get him moving in the wrong direction on counter plays, he's liable to overrun plays. The LOLZ from OSU's defense come at the middle linebacker spot where converted fullback Zach Boren has taken over the starting position. Boren began the season as a fullback by moved to the other side of the ball when the existing linebackers proved to be miserable. Think Rich Rodriguez moving Mark Moundros to linebacker. How did that turn out? At the final linebacker spot is senior Etienne Sabino, who feels like he's been around forever. Sabino is and always has been good-not-great, and his numbers this season back this up: 24 solo tackles, 19 assists, 3 TFLs, 2 sacks, 1 INT.

So despite a hilarious middle linebacker situation, OSU's front seven is relatively stout. The weakness of the defense is, shockingly, in pass defense. When's the last time OSU didn't have a fleet of lightning fast corners that locked down receivers? Sophomore Bradley Roby and senior Travis Howard are the two Buckeye corners. Howard is the better shutdown man but Roby has more physical gifts. And neither of the starting safeties Christian Bryant and CJ Barnett are particularly threatening. Of concern for Ohio State is that three members of the secondary are in the team's top-five tacklers. They allow a lot of completions: against Big Ten competition, the OSU secondary has allowed QBs to throw for 144/256 through the air (56%) with 10 TDs and 6 INTs. Calibrate for the awfulness of Big Ten quarterbacks, and you have a secondary that's giving up a lot of completions and not particularly threatening with regards to turnovers.

With Michigan's newfound ability to throw the ball, this matchup actually slides slightly toward Michigan. OK, so Michigan's wide receivers are bad, but Michigan may not need to break a ton of long plays if OSU is allowing a bunch of mid-range throws that Devin Gardner has proven to be really accurate on. Running is going to be a harrowing affair, so getting John Simon blocked on drop backs (paging AJ Williams or Devin Funchess' non-existant blocking abilities) and giving Gardner time to survey the field and possibly scramble for first downs will be crucial for Michigan's offensive success.

Defense vs. Braxton Miller

So a few years ago, Michigan fans had to listen to that ridiculous stat that Denard Robinson accounted for 197% of Michigan's offense and every time someone said that, I got especially stabby. That receivers are not "responsible" for any of the yards on catches and YAC is dumb, but I digress. Now its Ohio State who has a quarterback responsible for their entire offense, but because Miller is an OSU quarterback and never gets injured, and because the Big Ten is atrocious and OSU hasn't played a decent defense to date, you don't hear the same conditionals about Miller's play: he is unequivocally awesome if you ask the media. And OK, fine, he's really good but he also has obvious limitations.

Miller is completing just 56% of his passes on the season with 14 TDs and 6 INTs. His yardage total is also fairly impressive but largely because safeties are bugging out against the run and getting caught out of position. He also has Devin Smith to throw to, which doesn't hurt. You might remember Smith from making one of the best catches of the season in week one. Or from any one of his long touchdown catches this season (he's averaging 19.8 yards per reception this year).

The rest of the OSU receiver corps is acceptable without a ton of gamebreakers. Corey Brown leads the team in receptions but is basically just a possession guy. And the name that you already hate and probably will more after Saturday's game is Jake Stoneburner, a senior wide receiver whose catches are all one yard further than the necessary yardage for a first down.

So that's passing which will be an annoyance but won't be a major threat to Michigan's defense like it was in last year's The Game. Beating the Buckeyes stops and ends with stopping their running game, which is no small feat. The offensive line starts four juniors and a senior and don't have any particularly weak spots. Combine that with rumbleback Carlos Hyde and Miller's top-end speed, and you've got a scary offense. Miller leads the team in carries and yards (207 and 1,416 respectively) and is averaging 5.9 YPC. He has breakaway speed, but he's less effective between the tackles and among defenders where he doesn't have the shake that someone like Denard does. Keeping outside leverage on Miller is essential, and hopefully Mattison has the defense better prepared to maintain the QB than they did against Northwestern. Hyde, meanwhile, is averaging 5.2 YPC this season and makes a lot of yardage after contact.

The one thing that has gone unmentioned is Greg Mattison who was Urban Meyer's defensive coordinator at Florida. Mattison has struggled with option teams in his two years at Michigan mostly because his gameplan is deficient heading into the game. He has something theoretical that he draws up which doesn't actually work. Against Meyer, you would expect Mattison's schemes to be more effective because of his familiarity with Meyer's schemes. If the linebackers and defensive ends properly execute whatever containment scheme Mattison has for the running game, I expect Michigan's playcalling on this side of the ball to produce good results against OSU.

How does Michigan win? Shut down Braxton Miller and don't turn the ball over. Despite Miller's gaudy numbers this season, the Buckeyes have had a tendency to have sub-par offensive outputs. Given the state of the Big Ten, that's especially damning. If Michigan can allow Miller to gain over 4 yards per carry instead of 5 or 6, OSU will eventually sputter out offensively. On the other side of the ball, Gardner needs to build upon the performances he's shown the last three weeks. Michigan has new wrinkles in the offense now that will allow Denard and a fleet of blockers to get to the outside, away from OSU's defensive strength. Hold onto the ball and Michigan can probably move the ball more consistently.

How does Ohio State win? Braxton Miller and sacks. Miller has to throw the ball a lot better than he has all season because Michigan's front seven is stout while the secondary will struggle against faster receivers like Devin Smith. If Michigan's gameplan isn't designed to shut down Miller, this will be an ugly, frustrating day. They also need a big performance from John Simon who, if he is going up against Schofield, will almost certainly be able to produce.

Arbitrary chance Michigan wins: 50%

Final Prediction. In my heart of hearts, I want to predict a Michigan victory. Gardner is playing really well, the defense has the speed to shut down OSU's rushing attack, and I firmly believe that Mattison will be a game changer. But... I just can't. This is Michigan and Ohio State in Columbus. Michigan has a QB who has been notoriously bad until the last three weeks. The Wolverine offensive line is bad. The defensive secondary is not good. And I can see nothing but Braxton Miller scampering for 19 yards over and over and over again. So if I'm being honest, 28-17 Ohio State. But like, fuck it, Michigan 23 - Ohio State 21.


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