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Friend vs Foe: Kansas State

Thursday, December 26th, 2013


For the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl edition of Friend vs Foe we would like to welcome Jon Morse of the Kansas State SB Nation blog Bring on the Cats. Jon was gracious enough to answer some questions about how K-State fans view the matchup, the two-headed monster at quarterback, what has held the Wildcats back late in big games this season, where he sees advantages, and more. You can follow Jon on Twitter at @jonfmorse and the blog’s main feed at @BringOnTheCats.

1. How do K-State fans view this bowl game and the matchup? Most Michigan fans are apathetic towards it because this season has been a disappointment, it’s not a New Year’s Day bowl game, and K-State isn’t exactly a “sexy” matchup (no offense). I mean, we barely sold half of our ticket allotment. What’s the view from your side?

From the perspective of moving up in the bowl selection order, they’re pretty pleased, and while a good segment of the fanbase wanted a shot at the Huskers, nobody’s really complaining about K-State getting their first-ever meeting with Michigan. Ticket sales haven’t been particularly great from the Wildcat side of the fence either, but if we’re all being honest… well, almost NOBODY is selling tickets at a brisk pace this bowl season outside of some outliers whose destinations are able to break through the ceiling for fairly obvious reasons. (Auburn, Florida State, Michigan State, Texas, Alabama, and Oklahoma all seem to be doing fairly well, and it’s not hard to understand why each of those cases is bucking the trend.)

2. The majority of Michigan fans haven’t seen K-State play this season. Tell us about the offense, especially the two-headed monster at quarterback. What are their main strengths and weaknesses?

You’ll mostly be seeing Jake Waters at quarterback, and he’s the passer of the two. I’ll get back to him in a moment, because discussing Daniel Sams first lets me go back and explain how things work with Waters a little more easily. Sams is a tremendous athlete with a somewhat unorthodox running style. He can be very slippery and deceptive, and if he finds open space he’s going places.

The problem K-State has had is that when Sams is in the game, defenses are generally pretty capable of seeing what’s coming. Sams is not a terrible passer, but he’s not a GOOD one; he’s also had some turnover issues which haven’t corrected themselves (unlike with Waters). Worse, with Sams in the game the play-calling on running plays has been painfully transparent. Is Hubert on the field? If not and it’s a run, it’s almost certainly a Sams keeper.  If Hubert IS on the field, it’s almost always an option play, and Sams has shown little tendency to do anything other than keep the ball in that situation. These are not slams on Daniel Sams; it’s a scheme failure.

Jake Waters has thrown for 2,198 yards, 15 touchdowns, and nine interceptions this season (Ronald Martizez, Getty Images)

With Waters, Hubert becomes much more effective as a runner because defenses can’t key on the run. Further, Waters has major big-play capability in the air as long as his two deep threats are on the field. (In quite possibly the worst game of Waters’ season, both Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson were out with health issues.) Waters did have a major problem holding onto the football early in the year. That seems to have fixed itself. He’ll still fall into stretches where he’s not throwing the ball well at all, however, and that’s prevented him from making a solid claim to be THE quarterback as opposed to just being the starter.

3. Similarly, tell us about the defense. Statistically, it seems like a pretty solid unit against both the run and pass and allows about three fewer points per game than Michigan does. Michigan hasn’t been able to run the ball, but had a great gameplan and executed almost flawlessly against Ohio State. Do we have a chance to move the ball and put up some points? Why or why not?

The K-State defense is schizophrenic. Getting pass defense out of the way quickly, they’ve been good against the pass all year. Baylor had three huge pass plays, but that’s Baylor; outside of those three plays, Bryce Petty was kept in check for the most part. Nobody else had a particularly wonderful day throwing the ball.

The run defense, on the other hand, has been maddening. Early in the season, it was a strength, and they were especially effective against Baylor, absolutely shutting down Lache Seastrunk. More recently, they were embarrassed by Oklahoma and even gave up a ton of real estate on the ground against Kansas — but in both of those games, Ty Zimmerman was standing on the sideline with crutches. It’s not often that a safety is the key to a team’s run defense, but in this case it’s accurate. Luckily, Zimmerman should be on the field Saturday.

You’re also, I’m sure, aware of Ryan Mueller, who is an extremely disruptive force. However, it’s possible Michigan can move the ball if we see Mueller tied up with Taylor Lewan and the rest of the Michigan line can control the other three Wildcat linemen. They’re not a bad unit, but Zimmerman’s absence wasn’t the only factor in the rush defense’s problems the final two weeks of the season. Oklahoma and Kansas both basically decided they were facing Jadaveon Clowney or something; their line game plans both leaned on “neutralize Mueller” as a basic principle.

4. You guys have just two wins over teams that finished the season with winning records, but were in every game in the fourth quarter, leading Baylor at the beginning of the fourth, leading Oklahoma State midway through the fourth, and trailing Oklahoma by just three at the beginning of the fourth. What has held the Wildcats back in those big games?

Turnovers, baffling play-calling on offense, and critical defensive failures on the final drive in two of those games may well have been the difference between 7-5 and 10-2. North Dakota State and Oklahoma State were the two failures; with the lead, the defense just couldn’t stop either team from getting into the end zone. A lot of that was that the bend-don’t-break philosophy only works if you don’t bend all the way down to the 10-yard-line; both teams used quick, short plays to move the chains rapidly rather than trying to go for the big play. We have no idea what the coaching staff was thinking against Texas, either; that was just a mess in pretty much every possible aspect of the gameplan.

5. What specific matchups do you see K-State holding an advantage, and what specific matchups are you concerned about?

I’m concerned about Michigan’s multiple-personality disorder. I didn’t get to actually see them very much this year, but my impression is that as the season’s progressed the offense has gotten less muddled while the defense has gotten less effective. The Wolverine team that showed up the first 23 days of November, I wouldn’t be particularly worried about. K-State would be able to move the ball, and Michigan’s offense didn’t appear to be any threat. If K-State can make a team give the ball up on downs repeatedly, K-State is going to beat them. The team that showed up against the Buckeyes terrifies me, however. That Michigan offense would wreak havoc on this defense, and while the defense the Wolverines showed against Ohio State is certainly one the Wildcats can light up… well, K-State’s just not built to win games that way.

IF, however, Michigan’s defensive flaws are on display Saturday, then K-State’s passing offense against the Michigan secondary could be very much an advantage. K-State’s secondary should be an advantage against the Michigan receivers as well, although I’m no less concerned about Jeremy Gallon even as I say that. And if Devin Gardner can’t go, that’s going to be a huge advantage in and of itself.

6. What’s your prediction and how will it happen?

Before I really started getting into what Michigan was like, I was foolishly predicting a 14-point win. That’s not going to happen, even with Zimmerman playing and Gardner out. But I do think that combination is going to make it very hard for the Wolverines to truly outplay K-State. I’m looking at something in the neighborhood of 31-24 Wildcats now.

It seems like its been forever since Michigan took the field and was one play away from upsetting the #2-ranked Buckeyes, dashing their national championship hopes. The offense was clicking on all cylinders and the line played inspired ball, the defense left much to be desired but I’m sure Greg Mattison will have his boys ready for Kansas St.

Unfortunately, it looks like Devin Gardner won’t be playing due to his turf toe injury, or as some have suggested, even worse. For those that do not know, turf toe is in fact a serious injury. It has ended NFL careers and for a more recent example look west to Nebraska and Taylor Martinez’s senior year. So that leaves us with the heir apparent, Shane Morris. The highly touted lefty with an NFL-strength arm and prototype size. Since we don’t know what to expect from Morris I’ll just touch on what I’d like to see from the offense and then shift gears for defense and touch on what they need to do for Michigan to win.

On Offense:

I’d really like to see the offensive line improve upon the OSU game. Yes, improve. They played inspired ball and it was their best game of the year but Devin Gardner bailed them out a lot with his mobility and quick releases. Morris, while talented, is not quite the athlete Devin is so the line will need to hold their blocks a little while longer to give the true freshman time and added confidence.

Sticking with the line, I’d also like to see some more aggression. Nastiness is paramount when playing offensive line and if Michigan wants to establish the run they need to be nasty. Make no mistake about it, these are very talented kids but they haven’t quite reached the level of nastiness that is required of Michigan lineman.

Devin Funchess and Jeremy Gallon have proved themselves this year, though Funchess could due without all the drops, so there’s not much else I need to see from them. Just give us the same old and we’ll be fine. Get open, create some mismatches and give Shane Morris some extra help.

Jeremy Gallon has a chance to set Michigan's single-season receiving records but will have Shane Morris throwing to him (MGoBlue.com)

KSU has some solid pass rushers on the edge, but the interior of their d-line is nothing to write home about. If Michigan can get some solid push up front and Green and Smith can get to the linebackers then the run game should put extreme pressure on the Wildcats. Not that their LB’s aren’t good, because they are, it’s just that they are rather small and Derrick Green and Deveon Smith are rather large. This could be the game we finally see the downhill, power run game break out big time.

Al Borges has been much maligned and, fair or not, he is the o-coordinator and will continue to be so we need to just deal with it and move on. It’s not that he is a bad coordinator (see: Cade McNown at UCLA and Auburn in 2004) it just seems at times he refuses to adjust his play calling to the talent on the field. That all changed against OSU. He got some screens and quick throws to keep the Buckeyes off balance and it opened up the run game and Michigan went wild, compiling over 600 yards of total offense. Kansas State doesn’t have the athletes OSU does but they are a very solid team with a Hall of Fame coach. If Al can adjust his play calling to put Shane in the best position to succeed then, win or lose, I’ll be pleased. From all accounts Morris is a smart kid who has made some great strides over the season. A full month of practicing as the No.1 quarterback should be good for his confidence but again we really have no idea what to expect.

On Defense:

Kansas State runs a two-quarterback system, somewhat similar to Northwestern. With one being the passer and the other the runner. Their option offense worries me a little with Michigan’s “bend but don’t break” style of defense which has struggled against mobile QB’s/option attacks. Kansas State has a very balanced attack so Michigan will need to be mindful of both the run and the pass at any given moment. Daniel Sams is less likely to pass, but he is a capable passer. The opposite holds true for Jake Waters.

Jake Waters likes to hold onto the ball longer than need be at times so Michigan needs to not only generate pressure but be able to stay in coverage the entire time too. Especially on Tyler Lockett, KSU’s version of Jeremy Gallon. If the front seven can flush Waters and/or make him hold on to the ball they can force him into some bad throws.

This puts more pressure on the safeties, be they Jarrod Wilson, Thomas Gordon, Dymonte Thomas, etc., to make sure NO ONE gets behind them. Michigan’s safeties have given up far too many 50-yard touchdown passes because someone was out of position and the receiver got behind them, if they want to win they cannot allow Lockett to do this. No big plays would be nice but I think Lockett is far too good to not make at least one big play, maybe more.

Daniel Sams will be called upon the run game, though he will toss it up a few times as well. He does not present the same challenge someone like Braxton Miller does (pass and run) but he will be a rested player when he comes into the game. Michigan needs to keep him contained while still being mindful of the deep pass. If they can limit his running ability and force KSU into definite passing downs, giving them the upper hand in play calling, Michigan should be able to win.

Both running backs, John Hubert (5’7″) and Robert Rose (5’4″) are diminutive, but not quite Darren Sproles. They aren’t game breakers but both are very solid players. Hubert will take the bulk of the carries but is not all that great as a pass blocker. If Michigan can exploit this weakness when Waters is in the game they can gain another advantage, if they maintain their pass coverage while doing so.

On Special Teams:

Field position, field position, field position. Matt Wile has been solid all year so if he can just keep it up he’ll be fine. KSU is not the kind of team you want to give short fields, their balanced attack is all the more effective in short yardage situations. If Michigan can make them drive long fields it will limit their scoring opportunities. If this game comes down to a long field goal to win it we might be in trouble as Brendan Gibbons is out, but in a pinch Matt Wile is good enough. I won’t mention our diminutive KR because every time I do he doesn’t quite take one to the house, it’s not that I’m being superstitious though. OK, maybe a little.

Prediction:

If Devin Gardner was playing and at least 80 percent healthy, Michigan wins fairly easily. With Shane Morris, I’m not so sure. Not because I don’t like him but because we have basically nothing to base it off except optimistic speculation. If the o-line can create holes for Green, Smith and Fitz to run through, I like our chances. If the run game cannot get going I don’t think we stand much of a chance. If the defense can keep Lockett from beating them more than once deep then I think we’ll be fine. If, however, we allow big plays like we did against OSU, it’s not going to end well for Wolverine Nation.

I have faith in Shane Morris’ arm and decision-making ability, plus we get Jarrod Wilson back so I see no reason Michigan can’t walk away with the win. It’ll be a good one and close throughout but I think Michigan pulls away late.

Friend vs Foe: Iowa

Thursday, November 21st, 2013


For this week’s edition of Friend vs Foe we welcome RossWB from one of our favorite fellow Big Ten team sites, the Iowa SB Nation blog Black Heart Gold Pants. He answers questions about Iowa’s late-game struggles, Michigan’s chances of running the ball, Iowa’s passing game, and where the advantages lie. He also gives his prediction. You can follow Ross on Twitter at @RossWB and the site’s main feed at @BHGP.

1. Iowa had fourth quarter leads or ties in losses to NIU, Michigan State, and Ohio State, but they’ve been outscored 78-44 in the fourth quarter. What has gone wrong late in games this season?

I think the biggest late-game problem for Iowa has been their offense.  It’s been pretty weak in the third and fourth quarters this year, especially in Big Ten play (the Purdue game notwithstanding… and all stats from games against Purdue this year should probably carry a caveat).  Iowa has really struggled to sustain drives and (more importantly) score points at the end of games this season, which is a bit of a problem when you’re tied or chasing a lead.  So Iowa’s best bet is definitely to build a big early lead and then hang on; if it’s a close game in the fourth quarter, I think it’s safe to say that Iowa fans are going to be very nervous.

2. Michigan’s lack of a running game the past few weeks (really all season, but especially the past few weeks) is no secret. Iowa ranks 24th against the run. Ohio State and Northwestern all had – and NIU to some extent – had success on the ground with mobile quarterbacks. Does Michigan have any hope running the ball this week?

There’s something there, for sure, especially with the running quarterbacks — sometimes Iowa does alright (they held Northern Illinois to 163 yards and Lynch to just 56 yards) and sometimes they don’t (Miller torched Iowa for 102 yards on the ground by himself).  But at the same time Michigan is ranked 98th in running the ball and that offensive line has been unable to get much of a push at all for the better part of the last three weeks — I think Iowa has a pretty shot at keeping Michigan’s ground game in check on Saturday.  I’m definitely more worried about Devin Gardner’s scrambles than I am seeing Michigan line up and run Fitzgerald Touissant (or whichever running back is healthy) between the tackles, though.

3. Tell me about the Iowa passing game. For those who haven’t watched Iowa play this season, is Jake Rudock a playmaker or more of a game manager? Michigan’s DBs like to play soft coverage to prevent big plays…can he make big throws or is he more of a dink and dunker? And for the love of God, please tell me all of Iowa’s tight ends are injured this week…

CJ Fiedorowicz leads a talented group of Iowa tight ends (IU Athletic Communications)

Game manager is probably a more accurate description of his play than playmaker.  He’s a deceptively good runner, but he’s certainly no Johnny Manziel or Marcus Mariota in the pocket — he’s no threat to break off a 50-yard run.  (He’s even less of a running threat after sustaining a knee injury against Wisconsin a few weeks ago, although that injury is not expected to keep him out of the game this weekend.)  As a passer, Rudock’s best attribute is probably his poise; he doesn’t let bad plays faze him.  He doesn’t have the most powerful arm, his accuracy has suffered in league play (which is why his completion percentage has dipped to 59.9%), and he’s thrown a few too many costly interceptions (9 so far, including several in the fourth quarter).  But he has a calm presence in the pocket and he’s capable of leading some very impressive scoring drives.  Consistency is his biggest issue, which is not too surprising for a first-year starter.

In terms of tight ends, I believe Iowa will have a full contingent of them available for this weekend.  Iowa’s top tight end, C.J. Fiedorowicz left the Purdue game a few weeks ago due to concussion-like symptoms, but he appears to have a clean bill of health now.  CJF caught touchdowns in three straight games earlier in Big Ten play and he’s grabbed at least one pass in every game this year.  Ray Hamilton and Jake Duzey are the tight ends behind Fiedorowicz on the depth chart, but they see quite a bit of action themselves (Iowa has even been running some 3-TE sets over the last month or so) and are both very capable pass-catchers.  Iowa’s tight ends are the most consistent part of their passing game (other than top WR Kevonte Martin-Manley), so I’d definitely expect to see them be involved quite a bit on Saturday.

4. Where do you see Iowa having an outright advantage over Michigan this weekend, and why? Are there any areas that you think Michigan has the edge?

This is a tricky question because in a lot of ways, it seems like Iowa’s strengths will be matched up against Michigan’s strengths.  Iowa’s strength on offense all year has been their offensive line and running game; unfortunately, it seems like Michigan’s front seven has been pretty solid this year (the Wolverines are 13th in the nation against the run, after all).  I think the biggest edge for Iowa may be their tight ends.  Iowa has a lot of good tight ends (C.J. Fiedorowicz, Jake Duzey, and Ray Hamilton will all see a lot of action) and they gave Ohio State some problems with their 3-TE formations; I think they’d be wise to try and attack Michigan the same way and try to open things up for their running game.

I think the biggest edge for Michigan might be in attacking Iowa deep; Iowa’s safety play has been pretty inconsistent this season and they’ve given up a lot of big plays through the air.  If I was Michigan, I’d send a few deep passes at Funchess and Gallon to try and exploit that weakness.  Other than that, the biggest advantage for Michigan is probably Devin Gardner’s scrambling ability; Iowa’s defensive ends sometimes struggle to keep contain if a QB is able to keep a play alive for several seconds (I still have nightmares of Braxton Miller turning the corner and hitting the afterburners).

5. What’s your prediction and how will it happen?

As recently as a few weeks ago, I didn’t hold out much hope for Iowa getting a result in this game.  But then Iowa showed promise against Wisconsin (on defense, at least) and a lot more competence against Purdue (competition caveats apply, of course).  After those games it was a lot easier to chalk up Iowa’s losses against Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin as the result of playing the Big Ten’s three best teams  in a five-week span.  No offense to the Wolverines, but they don’t seem to be on par with those teams right now.  After their bye week earlier this season, Iowa had one of their sharpest first half offensive performances of the season (against Ohio State); I think they come out clicking again on Saturday and this time they’re able to hold on in the second half.  IOWA 24, MICHIGAN 16

To me this game comes down to whether Michigan’s offensive line can open holes and protect Devin Gardner. Iowa’s offense is a low scoring, run-based offense that Michigan should be able to contain and hold under 20 points. The Iowa defense, however, poses some issues for a Michigan team that has not only struggled to move the ball lately but has been downright awful on the road the past three years.

I’ll be honest, I don’t like our chances in Iowa City but there is a reason the game isn’t played on paper. Let’s move on and take a look at what Michigan needs to do to come away with a road win.

On Offense:

Last game we saw some glimpses of decent offensive line play, so assuming that carries forward and they can at least be serviceable let’s look at the rest of the offense.

After Derrick Green's solid game last week he should see more time against Iowa (MGoBlue.com)

Move the ball on first and second, avoiding third downs as much as possible. Michigan has been just awful on third downs this season, some of it is physical but a lot is probably mental as well. Last week against Northwestern they moved the ball quite a bit (when they did move it that is) on first and second down. If they can get 5-6 yards on first and second downs then they won’t get caught in the dreaded third down on the road situation. How they can do this is beyond me, I just know they need to avoid third downs as much as possible.

Stick with what is working, not what you think might work. What I mean by this is exactly what it says. Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith were having success running the ball, but then they stopped and started passing it because the wind was at their back and Borges wanted to see if they could pass it. Don’t do that anymore. If the run game is working, keep running until they stop you. If the pass game is going then keep with it. A balanced offense is nice but if you can run down their throats all day (as Wisconsin once did to us under RichRod) then why would you try to do something else?

Keep the game manageable until the fourth quarter. Iowa hasn’t been all that good in the fourth quarter so assuming that trend continues as long as Michigan can keep it close through the first three they should be in good shape for the final stanza.

Take advantage of good field position. As soon as Northwestern shanked the punt and set us up at the 10 I turned to my brother and said ‘no way they get six, lets just hope for at least three and not a turnover.’ This is Michigan, act like it and put the ball in the dang endzone when you are in the redzone, period. If we see more wasted opportunities I fear the football gods won’t be as kind to us in Iowa CIty as they were in Evanston.

Forget the past. Michigan hasn’t been very good away from The Big House in Brady Hoke’s tenure. Championship teams do win at home, but they also win on the road in hostile environments. The pink of Iowa’s visiting locker room doesn’t exactly scream ‘scary’ but Iowa City is a tough place to play. If they can just go out and not let the crowd intimidate them and not think about their past struggles on the road it will go a long way to strengthening their confidence.

On Defense:

Stop the run. Mark Weisman is a bruiser and has some speed but he won’t be winning any 100 meter races any time soon. While Iowa does pass the ball they are a run focused team. Stop the run and play coverage. I say play coverage because Michigan has yet to show me a legitimate pass rush and Iowa has only allowd 9 sacks in ten games. Michigan has given up more than twice that in the past three games alone. If Michigan focuses on stopping the run but still playing good coverage to keep everything in front of them they should be in good shape.

Get third down stops and force them to punt. This should be basic and a given but this team has been anything but consistent all year so I feel it deserves mention. Get the defense off the field and get Gardner the ball as much as possible.

Don’t give up the big play. Again this has been an issue for Michigan. One or two big plays can lead to scores and ultimately determine the outcome. Likewise, one or two big stops can keep Michigan in the game, if the offense is stagnant, or seal it if the offense is clicking on all cylinders.

Keep it manageable until the fourth quarter and let Iowa give it away as they so often do.

On Special Teams:

Just keep doing what you’re doing. Special teams has been rather pleasant to watch, as far as punting and kicking field goals can be deemed exciting. Win the field position game and Michigan will help put itself into good situations.

Prediction: This team has struggled too much on the road for me to be comfortable heading in. Couple that with a lackluster offensive line and a good front seven for Iowa and I just don’t see Michigan coming out of there with a win.

Friend vs Foe: Nebraska

Thursday, November 7th, 2013


For this week’s edition of Friend vs Foe, please welcome Jon Johnston, Aaron, Mister Mike, and Husker Mike of the Nebraska SB Nation site Corn Nation. They have kindly answered some questions about what we can expect from Tommy Armstrong instead of Taylor Martinez, the comments made by Ameer Abdullah regarding Michigan’s “nasty” and “ruthless” fans, their thoughts on Bo Pelini’s job security, and more. They also provide their predictions. You can follow them on Twitter at @CornNation.

1. With Taylor Martinez out once again, can you explain the main differences between he and Tommy Armstrong? What can Armstrong do that Martinez couldn’t? In what areas are he not as good?

Aaron: Well, right now Tommy can run a lot better than Taylor. Martinez’s injury limits his mobility. To be honest, Armstrong struggles in the same areas that Taylor does. The main area of concern is throwing the ball downfield. He’s thrown six interceptions in his last two games (Purdue and Northwestern). But he can run. He has a lot of quick moves if his line can open up some holes for him.

Mister Mike: One word describes where Armstrong is different than Martinez: option. Armstrong is much better at running the lead and speed options than Martinez has been, and probably would ever be. He still has a lot of trouble making his reads in the passing game, but that’s some of what you get with a RS Freshman QB. I think that he’s made more accurate throws downfield and on time than Martinez did at this point in this career, but right now I’d say Martinez is the better passer, simply due to his experience.

Husker Mike: The option really is the only thing that Tommy Armstrong does better than Taylor Martinez. Martinez is a better runner (or at least he was against Minnesota) and is infinitely better in reading the defense. Which he should be as a senior, as compared to a redshirt freshman. Armstrong has a stronger arm, which could be a difference maker in 2015 or 2016, should Armstrong be able to beat out Johnny Stanton next season. If Armstrong finds himself flustered against the Michigan defense, senior Ron Kellogg will be there, splitting time. Kellogg is not a threat to run at all, but he knows the offense.

Tommy Armstrong's strength is running the option (Huskers.com)

2. Ameer Abdullah made some headlines by saying that Michigan’s fans are nasty and ruthless. From a Nebraska fan perspective, what do you make of this? Do you agree? Or did he mix up his Michigan schools?

Aaron: Not sure where he gets that from, but he did make the trip to Ann Arbor two years ago. “There’s always one in every family,” and every fanbase has a few bad eggs. Maybe he’s had to put up with a few of them.

Mister Mike: Meh. I don’t make much of it. Maybe just some BB material for the Wolvies and their fans.

Husker Mike:  As a fan of UNO hockey, I’m well aware of Michigan fans from the days of the CCHA and the cesspool that is Yost. Ameer Abdullah went easy on Weasel fans.

3. On a scale of 1-10, how safe is Bo Pelini’s job right now? How does the Nebraska fan base feel about him at this point, and with four tough games remaining how much room is there for that to change between now and the end of the season?

Aaron: Depends on who you ask. There’s a section of the fan base that wanted him out years ago and there a section that will be behind him forever. I think the general feel of Bo across Nebraska is that the program is kind of stuck in neutral. Some people fear that letting Bo go will cause the program to spiral downward (who do you replace him with?), but they also realize that we probably aren’t going to be elite with Bo at the helm.

Mister Mike: Agree with Aaron. Our fanbase is very divided over the issue, and fear is a big part of that. But right now, that’s the kind of staff we have. Pelini is a very polarizing figure and has done nothing to assuage that impression of him. On a scale of 1-10, I would say a 3 or a 4. There are undoubtedly some that would disagree with me, but quite frankly I think that’s an accurate statement.

The only way Pelini changes things is if he wins the B1G and goes to a BCS bowl. Again, there are people that would probably say that’s unfair, due to injuries, etc, but conversely it is his sixth year and if he wants to remain the coach at Nebraska, he has to show definite signs that his program is still moving forward. Winning the B1G and getting to a BCS bowl would go a long way towards accomplishing that.

4. For those that didn’t watch the game, what happened against Minnesota? Was it the right move to play Martinez, who clearly wasn’t 100 percent?

Aaron: Minnesota played well. We lost our anchor on the offensive line the previous game (Purdue) and I think Minnesota exploited it. On offense, they took notes from the Big Ten Championship game last year and ran some plays that Wisconsin had success with. Tight ends have killed our defense this year and Minnesota used them very effectively. They managed the game clock and were able to put points on the board.

Mister Mike: How much time do you got? Seriously. It was the 2012 B1G Championship all over again, except the score wasn’t as lop-sided. They used pre-snap shifts and motion to great effect and our team and staff had no answers for it. Except for Pelini’s go to answer: “we just have to execute better and make plays.” Limebeck found a weakness in our defense (our front seven) and exploited it over and over again.

We got flat handled on both sides of the ball. That’s bottom line.  There’s also been some controversy over how Martinez was handled by Bo leading up to this game, but personally, I think he should’ve been riding the pine.

Husker fans are divided on Bo Pelini

Husker Mike: Any questions about whether Martinez in the Minnesota game were answered against Northwestern when the backups threw four interceptions. Nebraska made a bunch of mistakes against Minnesota. Defense was a mess, as Mister Mike points out. The offensive game plan was a mess, holding Abdullah under 20 carries. Martinez’s rust was pretty low on the list of Nebraska’s issues in Minneapolis.

Jon Johnston: Nebraska lost to Minnesota because they looked at the Gophers the same way the fan base did… “ho hum, this is a walk in the park” and weren’t prepared or focused to play that game. Hell, our coaches weren’t even ready to coach. Congrats to Minnesota, who didn’t have those problems, and in fact, went down 10-0, acted like nothing was wrong, came back and won.

5. In what area(s) do you see Nebraska having an advantage this weekend? What about area(s) where Michigan has an advantage?

Aaron: Not sure, honestly. I don’t believe that either team is really that strong in any phase this year. I think I speak for both teams with this next comment. Depending on  which defense/offense/special team shows up, the game could go in many different directions. As I watch Michigan under Hoke, they remind me a lot of Nebraska under Pelini. A quick spark early on (Sugar Bowl), but starting to trend sideways. As an outsider, I view the Wolverines as a good program that runs things the right way and prepares kids for the future, but I don’t see them becoming an elite football program any time soon. Like Nebraska, they just don’t strike fear into me the way a really good team should.

Mister Mike: An advantage? Did you laugh as you typed that? Right now, this is a horrible match-up for Nebraska. You have a team in Michigan that runs a lot of power…a lot of heavier sets and they run it right at you. Add to that a mobile QB, a couple of all-stars at TE and WR, and a running back in Touissant who we better not forget about, and I think it’s going to be a long day for the Huskers. Some people may say that Borges is trying to fit square pegs into round holes on offense, but he’s honestly not going to have to get very cute this weekend. Your OL should be able to protect Gardner long enough for him to make his reads and complete passes. Oh…two words for you…”jet motion.” Remember them well, Grasshopper.

Husker Mike:  Actually, if Nebraska can get some receivers healthy, I think Michigan could be a decent matchup against Nebraska. Michigan is fairly inept running the ball (11th worst yards per carry average in the Big Ten), and only involves two receivers in their passing game. That doesn’t mean that Nebraska will win, though. Both teams have found ways to lose and look putrid doing it. It comes down to which team wants it more and outplays the other because both teams have underperformed this season. The key is what happens when Nebraska pressures Gardner. Mobile quarterbacks can burn Nebraska, and so if the Huskers can’t get to Gardner, it’ll be a big Michigan victory.

6. What’s your prediction and why?

Aaron: Nebraska’s defense is getting better, but they are also being asked to do more because of the injuries we’ve had on offense. You know about Taylor Martinez, but we also have a converted linebacker getting a lot of passing targets on offense, and we’ve seen a lot of our starters on the offensive line go down in recent weeks. In my opinion, all Michigan has to do this weekend is to play conservatively and try to bust up Nebraska’s offensive line to create opportunities. If Michigan can keep their turnovers down, they really shouldn’t have a problem beating Nebraska. If they get too aggressive, well, that’s when the Wolverines seem to make mistakes. They lead the league in turnovers. I see a low scoring game with Michigan coming out on top. Something like UM 24, UNL 10.

Mister Mike: Hoke is undefeated at home in AA and I really don’t see that changing this weekend. We’ve had some injuries (of course, every team deals with injuries and some have key players out just like ours, but I digress…) to Martinez, a couple of starters on OL, Kenny Bell, etc, etc…so I just don’t think we’re going to have enough “oomph” to overcome what Michigan is going to throw at us. I think the Wolverines cover the spread handily and probably by double digits. I’m thinking something like a 31-17 or something similar.

Jon: Two Michigan predictions? Gahahhh!!! We need one homer, dadgummit. I say Nebraska stuffs the Wolverine run game, picks off at least two Gardner passes, and Ameer Abdullah runs for 164 yards and three touchdowns. Nebraska 31, Michigan 30

Well, last week went about as poorly as it could have and Michigan is all but eliminated from Big Ten title contention. In addition to needing to win out we’d need MSU to lose all three of their remaining conference games. But just because the main goal is unattainable doesn’t mean the season is lost. We still have games to play and can still get to a good bowl game. Next up on the schedule is an interesting Nebraska team who, much like us, hasn’t looked like the older versions of themselves. So what does Michigan need to do to keep their home win streak alive and beat the Huskers? Let’s dig in.

On Offense:

Despite throwing a late interception last week Devin Gardner played well, especially considering he was hit or hurried on just about every passing play. He made much better decisions than he has in the past and took the sack instead of throwing up prayers that most likely would have been interceptions. It’s easy to blame the quarterback and sometimes it is his fault, but Gardner has made progress and he just needs to keep doing so, which is basically my point: Gardner needs to keep building off his progress and get a little better each game. Thankfully Nebraska’s defense is not the Blackshirts of old.

If Gardner can remain calm under duress (even though it won’t be anything like it was last week) and make good decisions Michigan should win this game. By good decisions I mean not forcing it or getting happy feet. Heck, even taking a sack instead of throwing up a bad pass is a good decision.

Kyle Bosch and Michigan's young offensive line look to rebound from a rough performance (MGoBlue.com)

Usually I talk about not turning the ball over, but I’m not even going to say he needs to not turn it over because apparently that’s too much to ask. Besides, I don’t think Nebraska is good enough to shut the door on Michigan even if Gardner does turn it over a couple times.

The offensive line has been much maligned, and for good reason. I hesitate to say the line needs to play better because they start two freshmen – one true and one redshirt – but the line needs to play better. On the outside looking in I see ‘deer in the headlights’ moments far too often. This may be an inaccurate assessment but it’s what I see. In all honesty, I don’t expect much out of this line but I do think if they can just play with a little more confidence they’ll be fine. If they can go out and just play, not think just play Michigan will be in good shape to win.

While it would be nice to see Fitz break 100 yards again I’m not so sure that will happen. What I do think, and this ties into last week’s piece about running more shotgun and pistol formations, is that we need to go back to the read-option, period. We’d all love to see new versions of Anthony Thomas, or for you old school folks like myself Tyrone Wheatley, but we’re not there yet. So in the meantime let’s not have RichRod syndrome and try to put square pegs in round holes.

Go back to 2010 and look at Denard Robinson’s passing stats, 2,570 passing at 62.5 percent. Yes he had 11 picks to 18 touchdowns, but the point is that the threat of the run allowed him to pass the ball well because the defense came down into the box to stop the run. Gardner is no Denard but he can scoot, so stop mixing in the read option and just go to it completely. I guess the theme of this is: NO MORE UNDER CENTER offense. If Al Borges can put aside his ego and just let these kids do what they do best, and it ain’t power football as much as we’d all like, then Michigan will win the game.

On Defense:

Well for starters Raymon Taylor needs to at least put a hand on someone and not let them run down the field 40 yards for a touchdown. Okay, that’s out of my system let’s move on.

Nebraska likes to run the ball, to the tune of 261 yards per game. Ameer Abdullah does most of the damage as he is already over 1,100 yards so far. Michigan needs to not only stop the run but be aware of the play action pass. I think I may have said this before but it deserves to be said again. Michigan has been susceptible to the big play all year. Part of that is the lack of a pass rush but the secondary deserves some of the blame too.

Hopefully they won’t see too many deep passes but the corners and safeties need to be careful about coming up to stop the run and leaving themselves vulnerable to the pass. If Michigan can prevent big passing plays while still keeping the run game in check (read: under 200 yards) then Michigan should win this one.

On Special Teams:

Again, win the field position game. This is something they did not do against State and it came back to bite them. Though it is not all the special teams’ fault. Norfleet is getting better with running north/south more and not dancing around so much and he needs to continue that. Short fields for us, long fields for them and we should be in good shape.

Friend vs Foe: Michigan State

Thursday, October 31st, 2013


It’s Michigan State week, and for this week’s Friend vs Foe we asked Chris Vannini of the Michigan State SB Nation site The Only Colors to answer a few questions about the upcoming game. He was gracious enough to provide his thoughts on his confidence level, Michigan State’s advantages, what Michigan will have to do to move the ball, and more. He also provides his prediction. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChrisVannini and the site’s main feed @TheOnlyColors.

1. On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you in this game, and why?

I’ll go with a 7. In a rivalry game with two good teams, you say a five. Add a point for home field and add a point for the fact I think MSU has more advantages than Michigan, and I get 7. That still means I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Michigan win.

2. Michigan State’s offense struggled through the first few games but has seemed to come alive recently. What has the difference been?

More than anything, it’s Connor Cook making throws. The offensive line has been the best in the Dantonio era and the receivers are getting open and making catches, which they couldn’t do a year ago. Now, it comes down to Cook. He made the throws against Iowa, Indiana and Illinois, but he didn’t against Purdue.

3. Following up on the previous question, what happened against Purdue? How were they able to hold the MSU offense to just seven points despite having a defense that allows 34.4 points per game?

MSU's offensive line has been great at pass protection, but Connor Cook's ability to make throws can make or break the offense (Matthew Mitchell, MSU Athletic Communications)

It was Cook’s throwing and Purdue’s punting (no, really). MSU’s yards-per-drive was among its highest in the past two years, but MSU’s average starting field position was its worst of the season. For a team that doesn’t get many big plays, requiring long drives to score, the longer they had to go, the more difficult of a time they had. But Cook did miss a number of wide-open guys, including one that would have been a touchdown.

4. What specific matchups do you see Michigan State having a big advantage in this week?

I do see MSU shutting down Michigan’s running backs. The Wolverines have had enough of a problem getting the backs going, and MSU is one of the best rush defenses in the country. If Michigan moves the ball on the ground, it’s going to be Gardner making something out of a pass play that breaks down.

5. Are there any specific matchups you’re worried about, where you think Michigan might have an advantage?

Similar to above, I worry about Gardner’s abilities to make plays out of nothing. He’s very strong and has a knack for breaking tackles and getting out when the pocket breaks down. If he can escape the pressure and make a few big plays, that will go a long way for the Wolverines.

6. Everyone knows MSU’s defense is one of the best in the country. It gave up 28 points to Indiana, and Michigan’s offense – when it doesn’t turn the ball over – can be even more explosive. What will Michigan have to do to have success against your defense?

They’re going to have to take care of the ball and make some of those big plays. Not many can dink and dunk down the field against this MSU defense. Whether it’s a bomb on a pass play or a big run from Gardner, they’re going to need to make some big plays, which MSU has been prone to giving up, due to its aggressive style.

7. What’s your prediction? Explain how it will happen.

I’m going 27-21 MSU. I think both teams will be able to move the ball at times, but MSU will be more slowly down the field, while Michigan will be all or nothing. A turnover or two from Gardner would go a long way.

Ah, Beat State week. I’ve never liked MSU but the contempt has grown into almost Buckeye proportion since the Rich Rod years and their recent rise to defensive supremacy. I respect what Pat Narduzzi has up there and I’d love to see our defense play that way (sans the cheap shots and overall dirty play) but I still can’t stand them.

This is, and will be, the best defense Michigan will come across all year, period. For an offense that hasn’t been consistent and at times has just been downright awful, this will be a big test. With that let’s move on to what Michigan needs to do if they not only want to walk away from East Lansing with a win over a bitter rival but also put themselves in the driver’s seat for the Legends division.

On Offense

Devin Gardner's ability to take care of the ball will determine Michigan's fate against MSU's top-ranked defense (MGoBlue.com)

Sparty is third best (yardage-wise) against the pass and they are tops against the run. Michigan has yet to show a serviceable run game and Gardner often gets happy feet and makes bad decisions in the face of pressure. This presents a difficult challenge. Not to mention State’s proclivity for defensive touchdowns. MSU likes to blitz and they often run a double a-gap blitz, which puts immense pressure on the center and guards – both of which are positions Michigan has not played well at this year. Graham Glasgow, Erik Magnussen and Kyle Bosch (or whoever else plays on the interior) need to bring their A-game. They don’t need to negate or stop these blitzes to be successful, they just need to buy Gardner or the running backs a little bit of time by slowing up linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen.

Okay, assuming the interior of the line holds up their end of the bargain we’re still not in the clear. Gardner has to keep his poise and not make bad decisions. He needs to take the sack more often than not. Lost yardage is better than turning it over. Sparty has seen the tape and they will bring pressure and try to get Gardner to make bad decisions that lead to turnovers. If Gardner can play mistake-free football and get the offense into the end zone a couple of times Michigan will win. Michigan can probably win with 21 points, but they will be very hard to come by if Gardner loses his poise and starts turning it over. To reiterate, Garnder cannot turn the ball over against Michigan State’s defense. It wouldn’t be impossible to overcome but if Michigan wants to beat Sparty it needs to hold on to the ball.

On Defense

Luckily for Michigan, the Spartans’ offense is, well, offensive. They’ve found their quarterback in Connor Cook but they still struggle to put up points even against terrible defenses (see: Purdue). Cook is mobile enough to extend plays but I wouldn’t call him a threat to run. That said, Michigan will probably sit back and play their bend but don’t break style of defense. Sparty has been pretty good running the ball and that’s exactly what they will try to do Saturday. It’s not an unstoppable rushing attack but it is very good.

Michigan needs to stay in their assignments, wrap up with solid fundamental tackling and not give up the big play. If they do this they should be able to keep it a game. As with any team that pounds the run game Michigan needs to be aware of the play-action threat. Michigan has given up several big plays this year so the secondary needs to be careful not to peer into the backfield too often looking to make a big stop lest they get beat deep for a touchdown. If Michigan can just play average defense and not let anything get into the second level they should be okay against this State offense.

On Special Teams

Once again, field position will be paramount. Despite their less than stellar offense, if you give Sparty too many short fields they will score. And if Michigan needs to march 70-plus yards each time against a stellar defense they won’t put up 30-plus points. Michigan needs to manage the field position game and keep it in their favor. I wouldn’t expect Norfleet to be able to take it to the house but if he did it could be a huge, momentum swinging event.

Friend vs Foe: Indiana

Thursday, October 17th, 2013


For this week’s edition of Friend vs Foe we welcome Adam Johnson of the Indiana SB Nation blog The Crimson Quarry. He was kind enough to answer questions about how the Hoosiers got shut down by Michigan State last week, how IU fans view Michigan, where he sees advantages in individual matchups this week, and more. He also provides his prediction. You can follow him on Twitter at @johnsoad and the main feed @crimsonquarry.

1. Last week was strength against strength – Michigan State’s defense against Indiana’s offense – and they got the better of you. How were they able to slow down IU’s high-powered passing game?

This is going to sound like a homer answer, but I’m not certain Indiana didn’t slow down, Indiana’s passing game. Nate Sudfeld just didn’t have a very good game. He overthrew several open receivers on deep passes and in general had a case of happy feet that caused a lot of passes to sail on him. I guess the credit goes to Michigan State in keeping the pressure up on Sudfeld and never making him feel comfortable. Still, despite the relatively lack luster performance, Indiana was able to tack 28 points on the board.

2. From an IU perspective, how do you view the current state of the Michigan program? Having lost 17 straight times and 32 of the last 33, how confident are you that this might be the year to beat Michigan, given the way Michigan struggled to beat Akron and UConn and blew the game against Penn State – a team IU beat?

Michigan State's defense kept Nate Sudfeld uncomfortable all day last Saturday (Matthew Mitchell, MSU Athletic Communications)

The Michigan program is a bit of a mystery to me. Of course, I view them as a traditional power house program especially in conference, but they’ve certainly had their share of head scratchers this year. I don’t think anyone is super confident at winning but a lot are confident we have a good shot. The last two times Indiana and Michigan have met it has been shootouts that were probably closer than they should have been. Indiana is now in a position where they’re going to win more of those style games than they lose. If we can get this one into a tic for tack scoring battle, I feel confident of this one going down to the last possession or two.

3. Indiana’s defense gives up a lot of yards and a lot of points. How was it able to hold Penn State to just 24 points? Also, Michigan’s offense has struggled most of the season but still averages 39 points per game (23rd nationally). Can IU’s defense slow down Michigan or will this game be a shootout?

IU’s defense probably played to their ceiling with the talent they have against Penn State. They probably played close to their floor against Michigan State. We’re just hoping for something consistently in between. Michigan is going to put up points. That’s a given. However, Indiana does have it in them to string together a couple stops in a row. If they can force punts or turnovers in 2-3 consecutive drives there’s a good chance that the offense can put Michigan in a bad spot. But yes, it would be smart to take the over in this one.

4. What individual matchups do you think Indiana can take advantage of this week?

Most of the match-up pluses for Indiana are obviously going to be on defense. The entirety of the young Michigan secondary better be ready for an aerial assault. WR Cody Latimer and TE Ted Bolser are both going to be playing on Sundays next year and they’re smart receivers too. A lot of teams when the QB is flushed will run to the passer to find space. Indiana likes to leak receivers down field. I expect Indiana to have some roll out passes to tempt the young Michigan secondary to try and come up to the line to make a play while their man flies up field. It’s a big reason Indiana is top 10 in the nation in big plays. Sudfeld leaves the pocket and everyone on defense starts looking for that big play. Sometimes Sudfeld leaving the pocket is actually by design instead of him running for his life behind a nearly full 2nd string offensive line now.

5. What will it take for Indiana to win this game? What’s your prediction?

Indiana has to get some stops on defense. Not a ton, but some. I expect Indiana’s offense to come out and get a pretty good start. We’ll see multiple quarterbacks to keep Michigan on its toes and IU will put up points. The defense just has to get one or two stops a quarter to make it very interesting. Still, on the road in the big house I can’t confidently say that’s going to happen. I’m going to go with Indiana 42 – Michigan 52. A field goal might as well be a turnover in this game.

Well Michigan finally lost a game, but at least it wasn’t Akron or UConn. Hats off to Penn State, they deserved to win. Now we take a look at Indiana, a high-powered passing attack that annihilated Penn State 44-24 then proceed to fall to Michigan State 42-28 the following week. One thing we do know about Kevin Wilson’s team is they love to throw the rock. Let’s take a look at what Michigan needs to do to win.

On Offense

IU isn’t exactly a defensive stalwart but if you turn the ball over enough anyone has a chance (see Akron/UConn). Usually I’d rather not see any turnovers, but Devin Gardner is going to turn the ball over. It’s just a fact. In 11 games as a starting quarterback he’s only had one, yes ONE, turnover free game and has averaged more than an interception per game and has had several fumbles. That is completely unacceptable. Despite his propensity to turn it over he is still by far the best option at quarterback, so let’s move on. Since we cannot reasonably expect Gardner to not turn it over let’s say Michigan needs to not turn it over on their side of the 50 or in the redzone. I guess we could call this one, ‘not turning it over and putting the defense in a poor position’ for lack of a better phrase.

Next, Michigan must move the ball, no matter what that entails. I read a good deal about how Hoke needs to go back to the read option because that’s the only time this team has run the ball. And while it is a great point, that is not going to happen so I’m not going to say it should. What I will say, however, is that they need to find something that’s working to get the ball moving, period. If it’s the short passing game, screen passes, draws or some end arounds, whatever. If they move the ball good things, usually, happen. Now this is easier said than done because of the issues with the big uglies up front. Which brings me to my next point…

Jake Ryan and the rest of the defense will have its hands full with IU's high-powered passing game (MGoBlue.com)

The offensive line needs to play angry. Yes, we have an All-American left tackle and a senior right tackle, but they don’t look like a Michigan line at all. They need to stop thinking and just start playing. Don’t worry about the next play or about missing an assignment. Just go out, get angry and maul people. The game is won in the trenches, and if Michigan can own the trenches they will win.

On Defense

First off, Allen Robinson is a phenomenal receiver and Channing Stribling is a true freshman. That said, Stribling couldn’t have played better coverage than he did when Robinson set PSU up for 1st-and-goal at the end of regulation. He, and the rest of the secondary need to keep their poise because IU is going to throw it.

The Hoosiers can put up some serious points, to the tune of almost 42 per game. Michigan needs to bring their A-game if they want to walk away the victors valiant.

The defense showed a bit more moxie last week but they’ll need to step up their game if they want to keep IU out of the end zone. Nate Sudfeld isn’t a threat to run the ball but Tre Roberson is, and they both played last week. We don’t know which quarterback we’ll see Saturday but Michigan needs to be ready for either one. Last week against MSU they combined for 259 yards passing. I don’t need to tell you this but Sparty’s defense is better than ours, so Michigan needs to be ready to roll.

Pressure the quarterback, whichever one it is. Michigan hasn’t been all that great getting to the QB but they showed some promise last week. If they can keep that momentum going they should be able to harass IU’s quarterbacks all day. And they can do this by…

Bringing pressure and bringing it from all angles. If Michigan can keep IU guessing at where the pressure is coming from it should pay off with some bad passes and sacks. But the key is to bring pressure with five or six guys. Michigan’s defensive line is not good enough (at least we haven’t seen proof they are) to get to the quarterback without the aid of a linebacker or other blitzer. So keep blitzing away.

Special Teams

Win the field position game. Good returns and solid coverage are often overlooked but are almost always a major factor. The shorter the field the offense has to work with, the better the chances of winning. Same is true on the defensive side. The longer IU has to consistently drive, the less chance Michigan has of giving up a ton of points.

I hate to say it but Michigan needed to lose a game. They needed to get that “not apologizing for being undefeated” attitude out of their locker room. Sometimes losing is the best thing for a team, and I think that will hold true with Team 134. I’m not saying they’ll win out but I think they’ll come out with a newfound passion and purpose moving forward because of it.

Friend vs Foe: Penn State

Thursday, October 10th, 2013


This week we are pleased to have the tag team duo of Jared Slanina and Bill DiFlippo of the Penn State SB Nation site Black Shoe Diaries to answer some questions about the matchup, how Penn State fans view Michigan, their expectations during the sanctions, and more. They also provide a game prediction. You can follow them on Twitter @bflip33 and @JaredSlanina and the main feed @BSDtweet. Representing the good guys, like usual, is Josh on what Michigan needs to do to beat Penn State.

1. Michigan and Penn State haven’t played the past two years. Prior to the Rich Rodriguez era Michigan had your number with eight straight wins, but Penn State took advantage of the Rich Rod years. Now six years removed from the last time Michigan beat Penn State, how do Penn State fans view the Michigan program?

I think Penn State fans view Michigan as a rival. The weird thing about Penn State is we don’t really have a “rival” in the way that Michigan has OSU, Oklahoma has Texas, or anything like that. We have Michigan State, although nobody in Happy Valley views Sparty as anything more than a good team in the Big Ten. We also have Pitt, but we haven’t played them in 13 years.

With all that in mind, people at Penn State view two teams as “rivals”: Ohio State and Michigan. Of course, it’s dumb to think their hatred of us is reciprocated, because they have each other. But in our eyes, both schools are evil institutions that freely break NCAA violations and pay off officials to screw us out of games. Sounds like a rival to me.

2. What is the current mindset of Penn State fans about their program, having gone through what you did the past couple of seasons? Do most expect to still compete for the Big Ten title each year, or are they resigned to hoping to make it through the sanctions without getting hopes too high?

It’s a fairly even split between those who have lowered their expectations because of everything that has occurred the past two years, and those who still think Penn State should win every Saturday regardless of any type of circumstances. As far as the latter goes, I was shocked by the amount of Monday-morning QBs after the loss to Central Florida who thought that game could have been won if a couple things went differently. From what I saw, it was clear that Penn State was just defeated by the better team. Penn State is playing with 24 fewer scholarship athletes than their opponents, and have no B10 Championship or bowl game to play for. On the other hand, there are many like myself who support the team, hope for the best and look forward to seeing what happens in a few years once all the sanctions are behind us.

At just 18 years old, Christian Hackenberg has shown plenty of potential to be a star (Mark Selders)

3. What happened last week against Indiana? Most Michigan fans probably didn’t watch that game and most probably haven’t seen Penn State play yet this season. Fill us in on what went wrong against IU.

Things went wrong in every facet of the game so there’s not really one person or unit to place blame. The defense has trouble covering the perimeter and opposing offensive coordinators are starting to take notice. The secondary is inexperienced and has regular lapses in coverage, and will likely continue to struggle against teams with a solid passing game. Penn State whiffed on two field goal attempts thanks to a bad snap and allowing a second one to be blocked. Christian Hackenberg had a good game when you look at the numbers, but never got into a rhythm to keep the offense on the field. Hackenberg also set a Penn State record for most passing attempts in a single game, which has many Nittany Lion fans scratching their heads since Indiana has one of the worst run defenses in the nation.

4. Christian Hackenberg: is he the real deal? Five games into his career, what are his current strengths and weaknesses?

Christian Hackenberg is the real deal. He has regressed a bit in his past two games, but if “throwing for four touchdowns and more than 500 yards in two games” is regressing, then I don’t know if anyone can be too upset. His biggest strength is absolutely his poise. He doesn’t turn 19 until February, although you wouldn’t know that watching him. He looks comfortable and never lets the moment get to him, which at his age, is remarkable. He also has an excellent arm and is incredibly intelligent, you don’t come into college and pick up a system as complex as Bill O’Brien’s system in four-ish weeks without being a smart dude.

As for weaknesses, I am a Penn State fan, so he is perfect in my eyes. However, others have told me that he still has to figure out when to hold onto the ball and take a sack/throw it away, he isn’t the most mobile guy, and his accuracy has looked a bit iffy these last two or three games. Despite this, he should overcome every issue to win the Heisman this year, next year, the year after, and the year after that en route to three national titles and being selected by the Raiders with the #1 pick in the 2017 NFL draft.

5. In what area(s) do you see advantages against Michigan?

I don’t see many at this point as it seems Michigan has more overall talent and experience. The one advantage Penn State will have over any team is Allen Robinson. in my humble opinion, Robinson is the top receiver in the nation and will leave as the best all-time at his position at Penn State. Teams have struggled to cover him even though they know he will be getting the ball. He’s the complete package and is especially good at escaping the first one or two would-be tacklers. He’s a junior, but I’m pretty much assuming he’ll be playing on Sundays next year.

6. What’s your prediction? How will it happen?

I somehow convince myself that Penn State will win by the time the game kicks off, but that hasn’t happened yet with this game. I’ll say Michigan 31, Penn State 20. I think Penn State can keep it close with a few adjustments and the home field advantage, but Michigan will be good enough to take care of business and stay undefeated. I’m hoping Devin Gardener has one of his turnover-prone games, but Penn State has struggled to force turnovers this season so I just don’t see that happening.

After taking care of the Golden GOOOOphers (that was in my fake-Minnesotan accent) last week in the conference opener Michigan gets to head to Happy Valley to take on Penn State in a night game. Happy Valley is not an easy place to play and they will almost assuredly have one of their famous ‘white outs’ but they don’t play the games on paper for a reason. We’re going to shift gears from what we’ve been doing the past couple of weeks and instead of telling you what I’d like to see I’ll tell you what Michigan needs to do to win. Let’s get started.

On offense

Keep the play calling simple. Last week Al Borges and Co. broke out their KISS playbook, and I don’t mean the band. It worked. The run game got going early and often and Devin Gardner didn’t attempt a pass until the second quarter. Part of that was due to Minnesota’s consuming drive but it was also clear that Borges and Hoke wanted to take as much pressure off Gardner as possible. One can assume that PSU will look to bring pressure and rattle Gardner, making him leave the pocket and hope that Akron/UConn Gardner shows up and throws some bad picks. Michigan knows this will be coming so I’d expect them to come out and be ultra-conservative. If they can control the clock they shouldn’t have much trouble coming away with the win.

Keep Devin Gardner’s jersey clean. The change on the offensive line appeared to pay dividends but Minnesota is, well, Minnesota so we really don’t know how much of a difference it made. Regardless, if Michigan’s new line can keep Gardner upright (and in the pocket) he will have ample opportunity to pick apart a secondary that gave up 44 points and 336 yards through the air to Indiana. Yes, Indiana. No matter how far they may have come under Kevin Wilson it’s still IU football.

It will be important for Brennen Beyer and others to get pressure on the young Hackenberg (MGoBlue.com)

Don’t turn the ball over. I’ll keep harping on this one all year. You win the turnover battle you usually win the game. In Michigan’s case they need to do a little more than just win it, they need to dominate it. PSU is a better team than Akron and UConn and turning the ball over on the road to a team who is probably a bit upset about losing to IU last week would be bad. As I mentioned, one can assume the Nittany Lions will be trying to pressure Gardner into making bad decisions, so it is of utmost importance that Michigan protect the ball.

On defense

Pressure the heck out of Hackenberg with the BLITZ. We’d all like to see the front four deliver some great pressure without them but they haven’t and without Pee Wee Pipkins the depth is shallow. So let’s dial up those NFL-style blitzes that Greg Mattison loves. We know Bill O’Brien is going to throw it, a lot. Hackenberg’s attempted at least 28 passes in every game with a high of 55. And, luckily for us, he doesn’t like to take off and isn’t really much of an athlete so sending five or six (or seven) probably won’t hurt us since he isn’t going to beat us with his legs.

Get off the field. As in lots of three and outs and/or short drives/turnovers. Getting the Nittany Lions’ offense off the field opens the door for time killing Michigan drives, giving fewer chances for Hackenberg to get into a rhythm. Bear with me with this analogy, I promise it makes sense. The only ‘defense’ that has been able to stop Peyton Manning this year is the other team’s offense being on the field. Now, Christian Hackenberg is no Peyton Manning (I’ll take him over Eli though) but he can’t hurt us if he’s not on the field.

On Special Teams

We’ve all been waiting for Dennis Norfleet to take one to the house since opening day 2012. Every time he touches the ball he’s always seemingly just one man away from taking it to the house. And every time he just can’t make it past that one guy. Now a return touchdown would definitely take the crowd out of it, at least for a time, but I think all we need is just a handful of good returns that set up great field position and aid in winning the field position game. I know, I know, that’s not very sexy at all; winning the field position game. But it’s an overlooked aspect that can have huge ramifications, especially for a game like this on the road. The coverage teams need to prevent big returns and the return teams just need to get some decent ones. Again, simple really.

It appeared as though Michigan got a bit of their swagger back last week and the shake up on the offensive line could be the beginning of something special but they will really get tested this weekend in Happy Valley. Shutting down a pretty potent Gopher rushing attack and lighting up the scoreboard was the shot in the arm this team’s confidence needed. Now all they need to do is carry it forward and keep it rolling. Michigan wins if they can get most of the above facets taken care of. Not turning it over may be enough on its own, but I’d like to see a couple more for good measure.

Friend vs Foe: Minnesota

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013


We are pleased to welcome JDMill from the Minnesota SB Nation site The Daily Gopher for this week’s Friend vs Foe segment. He has graciously answered a few questions about Gopher fans’ feelings of the Little Brown Jug, what happened against Iowa, where Minnesota might have an advantage on Saturday, and provided his prediction for the game. You can follow him on Twitter @JDMill. On the Michigan side, Josh gives his thoughts on what he would like to see from the Wolverines on Saturday.

1. What does the Little Brown Jug mean to Minnesota fans? Michigan fans see it as a great part of our history but kind of take it for granted. Is it a big deal to Gopher fans? Why or why not?

The Jug is definitely a big deal to Gopher fans. As you mentioned, the history of the trophy makes it an awesome tradition and beating Michigan is pretty much the pinnacle of what our program can achieve in a single game right now. But in a bit of a different way, Gopher fans take it for granted too. We have two incredibly intense trophy traditions with our border rivals Wisconsin and Iowa, and those rivalries definitely take precedent over the Jug at this point.

For some reason we also have a trophy with Penn State (the Governor’s Victory Bell, or some such abomination), which means absolutely nothing to anybody. This year is unique, however, because we do play for all four trophies.

In any case, if you asked Gopher fans if they could lose to Michigan, but beat Wisconsin & Iowa in any given year, I think 99/100 Gopher fans would take that in an absolute heartbeat.

2. Iowa: what happened? The first four games went pretty well – all wins, lots of offense, etc. How was Iowa able to dominate?

How much time do we have to go over this? First of all, Iowa is good at two things that our first four opponents weren’t good at: running the ball and stopping the run. Having said that, we were fairly confident going into this game that we’d be able to successfully run the ball on their defense. Boy were we wrong.

Minnesota last captured the Little Brown Jug in 2005

Here’s the deal, I think Iowa is a more talented and more experienced team than Minnesota at this point, and those things definitely matter, but I don’t think the delta in talent is as wide as it looked like on Saturday. The thing about Iowa is that they didn’t do anything fancy, they didn’t do anything that you wouldn’t expect from a Kirk Ferentz team, but everything they did they did absolutely flawlessly. They don’t miss assignments, they don’t miss blocks or gaps, they don’t miss tackles, they do all of the fundamentals right. A younger, inexperienced team that likely has more talent isn’t going to beat a team like that unless they have a better gameplan and also execute flawlessly, and the Gophers most certainly didn’t do that.

3. Your running game is doing pretty well (at least before Iowa), but what’s wrong with the passing game?

Prior to the Iowa game the problem with the passing game was really, more than anything, that we just hadn’t used it. We were averaging just 15 passing attempts/game heading into Iowa. So part of the problem is rust.

The potentially bigger issue, which really seemed to rear it’s head on Saturday against Iowa, is inaccuracy. Phil Nelson was throwing over and behind receivers all day long. Of the 12 passes he completed, my guess is that at least half were completed because of a good catch by the receiver despite a poor throw. This was the case on his one TD throw to Derrick Engel. The pass was high, and slightly behind Engel, but he made a great adjustment to pull down the ball and get in the endzone. If Nelson’s accuracy doesn’t improve, and in short order, this team won’t have a passing game at all in 2013.

4. Statistically, Minnesota’s special teams look pretty good, ranking in the top 20 nationally in both kick and punt returns, as well as kick return defense. Michigan’s kick and punt return games (offensively and defensively) haven’t been very good. Are Minnesota’s special teams really that good, and do you see that as an advantage this weekend?

My goodness, the Gophers have to have an advantage SOMEWHERE, don’t we?

Minnesota got away from its normal running game against Iowa, but the Gophers still feature a top-25 running game (Ann Heisenfelt, AP)

The Gopher special teams (as far as the return game and defending kicks) is pretty good. Marcus Jones has emerged as a real threat on any return and he was one of the few bright spots in the Iowa game. For the season he’s averaging over 13 yards/punt return (Top 25 in the country) and over 30 yards/kick return (Top 10 in the country). I do think that special teams is an advantage for Minnesota this weekend, but I don’t think it’s enough to win the game.

5. Despite the loss to Iowa, do you think Minnesota can beat Michigan on Saturday? Obviously, Michigan struggled to beat Akron and UConn…how much confidence does that give you for Minnesota’s chances even though Michigan is favored by about 20? What will it take for Minnesota to win? What’s your prediction?

Confidence isn’t exactly a word that I’d use to describe how I, or any Gopher fans, feel about the team right now. Gameplan is going to be important in this game. Without going into too much detail, the Gopher gameplan against Iowa was really a departure from what they had done through the first four weeks of the season. The Gophers did try to establish the run against Iowa, but the way they went about it was completely different than they had during the non-con. They really abandoned the true power run game that they had established and attempted more of a cutesy run game which is pretty inexplicable. If the Gophers get back to trying to establish the power run game (Maryland-I, inverted wishbone, just 3-back sets in general), I’ll have a lot more confidence in their ability to hang with Michigan.

The Gophers also need to get back to the disciplined team they were through the first four weeks when they were the least penalized team in the conference with a total of 10 penalties. Last week against Iowa they had five, and they came at some horrible times.

If the Gophers can figure out a way to control the clock using that power run game, and if they can get back to being more disciplined, then I think something like a special teams TD or big return is something that COULD end up being something that puts them over the top.

Having said that, like I mentioned, I don’t have a lot of confidence right now just because of how we performed last week.

I predict a Michigan win: 28-17.

I don’t know about you but that bye week did me a lot of good. It gave me some time to cool down and get back in a rational mindset about Team 134. Now that we’re back in the swing of things we get to look at Minnesota, a team that looked pretty good until Iowa dismantled them last week. Regardless, there are still some things we need to see out of Michigan.

I think we all expected a lot more of this team than they’ve shown the last two weeks so I’ll keep it simple. Let’s not forget that this team is loaded with first and second year players and at most high-level schools these kids get to sit for a while to bulk up and learn the playbook. Michigan has not had that luxury so while we do expect more out of Michigan let’s cut these kids some slack. It’s not easy to come in as a first or second year player and make an impact, yet we’re expecting ALL of them to be studs right off the bat.

This should go without saying but I’ll say it anyway. ELIMINATE the turnovers. And before we go any further and start pining for Shane Morris, the kid has thrown six total passes. He wouldn’t do any better than Gardner. How they go about eliminating those turnovers is a tricky task though. I never played high-level sports like Division 1 football but I do know how important the mental aspect is. As Yogi Berra said, “90 percent of the game is half mental.” Gardner clearly has the physical tools but he needs to get his head right before he can fix this problem. How long that will take is anyone’s guess, but for now I’d just like to see a calm and composed Gardner in the pocket and not the one who was only looking to run late in the UConn game. They say quarterbacks need to have short memories. Devin Gardner needs to have amnesia about the last two games.

All eyes will be on Devin Gardner to see him perform better than the last two games (MGoBlue.com)

Secondly, pressure from the front four. Michigan did manage to get to Chandler Whitmer a few times but it still wasn’t enough. Minnesota doesn’t pass the ball much but they do run it a lot so the front four needs to make their presence felt in the run game. Up until last week Minnesota was running the ball very well. Almost reminiscent of Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber II -, almost. I expect them to attempt to establish the run and Michigan’s front four needs to be disruptive enough to nip it in the bud. I don’t even need to see tackles for loss from these guys, at least not yet, but I would like to see a front that looks like a Michigan front. Which looks something like this - strong at the point of attack, in control of the line of scrimmage, making plays in the backfield, even when it’s not tackles for loss or sacks. In two words, strength and tenacity.

Ideally we’ll see this again, but let’s at least wait until Jabrill Peppers is a sophomore. OK, back to reality and Team 134.

Next, I’d like to see a run game. And enough of the clamoring for Derrick Green already. Fitz Toussaint had a bit of a re-coming out party against UConn, which was great but it was against UConn. However, you can only place so much of the blame on Fitz. Without the line creating holes and sustaining them it’s tough for any running back to get things going, so it is doubtful Green would fare any better. The issue is the interior of the line. Hoke said he may switch it up like I thought he would at UConn, but regardless of who’s in there they need to get some serious push. Two words I use when I describe my ideal offensive lineman: mean and nasty (see Steve Hutchinson, Jon Runyan). These kids need to stop thinking and just play.

I want to see these kids play with a mean streak and just bulldoze people. Obviously this is easier said than done but if they can just stop looking like deer in headlights out there I’d consider that progress.

Next, an emergence of a receiver other than Jeremy Gallon. Part of the problem with Gardner and his propensity for turnovers is that when push comes to shove he only looks for Gallon and that limits his options and forces him into poor decisions. If someone else can get his confidence it will open up the offense tremendously. It looked like Jehu Chesson might be the guy but it seemed as though Gardner shied away after he had the ball ripped away from him on a deep pass play. Ideally I’d like to see Devin Funchess more involved. He’s a proven commodity, so why not get him the ball more.

A simplified passing game may really be what I am looking for. Dumb down the playbook with quick, short throws to build Gardner’s confidence and help open up the run game. That’s what Al Borges’ West Coast offense boils down to, right? Borges turned a mediocre Cade McNown into an All-American quarterback and future first-round NFL draft pick. Let that sink in for a moment. Cade. McNown. He clearly knows what he’s doing with QBs but I’d like to see him really simplify things for the offense going forward. Right now these kids need a confidence boost more than anything and dumbing the playbook down could be the remedy.

In theory this should be a great game to regain confidence before they head to Happy Valley next week but Michigan was supposed to dominate both Akron and UConn and barely escaped with wins. If one bad game against a vastly inferior opponent is a fluke and two is a trend what would three in a row be?

I was ready to pick Minnesota to beat Michigan until they got dominated last week by a resurgent Iowa team last weekend. Now I’m not so sure. Will the Michigan team that beat Notre Dame show up? Or will it be the team that took the field against Akron and UConn? I do know this: if the Michigan team that played Akron and UConn shows up the Gophers will not only reclaim the Little Brown Jug but they’ll also end Michigan’s 17-game home winning streak.

Friend vs Foe: UConn

Thursday, September 19th, 2013


For this week’s Friend vs Foe, we are pleased to have Andrew Callahan of the SB Nation site The UConn Blog. He will provide his perspective on how the Huskies can beat Michigan on Saturday, which isn’t nearly as far fetched as we all thought it was a week ago. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @UConnFB_Andrew. As usual, Josh gives the Michigan perspective. Remember, this isn’t an actual game prediction, but rather a breakdown by both sides of what it will take to win.

The Huskies will win if they’re able to cook up the classic underdog recipe of defensive turnovers, offensive red zone efficiency and well-said prayers Friday night.

UConn has clearly struggled so far this season as anyone who’s bothered to look in their direction this year can tell you. While the Husky offense goes by a different playbook and new coordinator now, it still largely appears to be an extension from years that averaged fewer than 21 points. Meanwhile, the defense lost a considerable amount of talent to graduation and the NFL draft, which after 65 points allowed is crystal clear. The unit’s main problem is allowing a few big plays per contest that unravel what otherwise is a very stout performance.

On Saturday night, the Huskies are going to allow at the very least a handful of chunk plays to Devin Gardner and co., so it will be matter of maximizing what they can do on other snaps. They’ll hope to replicate Akron’s play and good fortune against the Wolverines last Saturday by collecting multiple turnovers. UConn forced Maryland to cough it up three times last weekend via two forced fumbles and an interception.

Linebacker Yawin Smallwood will try to have the kind of impact Akron's Justin March had last week (Ron Pradetto)

The team is likely going to have to accomplish this again on Saturday primarily by knocking balls out, as pass defense is the team’s weakest area. Also, the pick against the Terrapins came on an exceptionally athletic play from cornerback Taylor Mack who scooped a high, deflected screen pass. Of course, the chances of this happening again on either end are slim. Not to mention, if your fans are worried about lack of a pass rush, try zero sacks against Maryland and Towson, and then having to go against the A+ bookends they’ll see in maize and blue this weekend. Gardner will have time to make the right decision in a few nights.

Redshirt junior middle linebacker Yawin Smallwood is UConn’s best player, who also forced two fumbles last season. He’s a tackling machine with good instincts, man-to-man coverage capabilities and great strength. If UConn is to win, he’ll need to fill in on a lot of Fitz Touissant runs and create havoc either with a turnover or tackles for loss. You will see Smallwood playing on Sundays in a year or two, and Husky defensive tackle Shamar Stephen may even join him due to his excellent run stuffing capabilities.

Offensively, the Huskies must be a lot crisper in all areas than they have been so far against lesser competition. Maryland blitzed at an incredibly high percentage last weekend, and I’d estimate Greg Mattison will do the same given the Terrapins success against the UConn offensive line. Thus, the Huskies must first a good job of providing quarterback Chandler Whitmer with time to throw against pressure. Whitmer is very effective when he’s allowed to step in a clean pocket and deliver to the likes of outside receivers Shakim Phillips and Geremy Davis.

Each of these UConn wideouts must make tough catches downfield against Wolverine cover men, and they have the tools to do so. Neither possesses great speed, but they use their strong, tall frames to shield defenders well on short and intermediate routes. Given the due are also the Huskies’ best weapons, they’ll need to consistently make plays Saturday night, especially against tight coverage in the red zone.

Over the last two seasons, running back Lyle McCombs has owned the title of UConn’s top offensive threat with his good quickness, speed and ability to run well in tight quarters. So far in 2013, you can see those attributes haven’t left him, but the holes haven’t been there up front to run through and he’s been plagued by poor decision making when running. Expect a heavy dose of McCombs, since he’ll have to move the chains on the ground and in the screen game for UConn to move the ball.

I’d like to note that in last week’s FvF Matt Eliason pointed out, “It would take a lot of luck and bad turnovers by Gardner to keep the Zips in this game. Capitalizing on those turnovers with touchdowns and long time consuming drives could keep the Zips in the game.”

Akron did capitalize on some of the four Michigan turnovers (all but one of those were horrible decisions by Gardner) and also ended up with an almost seven minute advantage in time of possession. It was about as close to a worst case scenario as Michigan could get without suffering the worst loss since Appalachian State. But least App State was a dominant FCS team. Akron is not even a serviceable MAC team but anyway…

I’d rather not dwell on last week’s AppalAkron debacle but I do think it would be good to touch on the four key things I wanted to see out of Michigan and how they will apply to UConn going forward.

First, don’t give up big plays. Michigan gave up several and were it not for a missed field goal and another timely Blake Countess interception following two of those, Michigan may very well have lost. Kyle Pohl passed for 311 yards and had longs of 30, 28, 43, 40 and then 24 and 21-yarders on the final drive. Six plays of over 20 yards, and 67 percent of those went for (almost) 30 yards or more.

That is just not acceptable. While it is unrealistic to expect them to keep everything in the 10-15 yard range they will not win many more games giving up multiple 30-plus yard plays, especially to teams with inferior talent.

UConn likes to pass the ball, a lot. If Michigan is to beat UConn they will need to limit the big plays, and if not they will need Blake Countess to bail them out with more timely picks.

Will this be the game Frank Clark finally gets going? (Carlos Osorio, AP)

Second, get some significant pressure with the front four. Again, nothing. Michigan couldn’t even get to Pohl WITH the blitz. Yes, they had a couple quarterback hurries but Akron’s line won’t be sending anyone to the NFL anytime soon so this is a bit concerning. I won’t try to guess, or second guess, Greg Mattison’s play calling. However, it did appear as though he was using this game as a barometer for his four man rush. It failed, miserably. Later in the game when it counted the most he sent more blitzes and ultimately Brennen Beyer’s pressure on the last play of the game probably saved us from the second worst loss in 134 years.

If Michigan is to beat UConn they will need to get some pressure on the quarterback, period. If they need to bring the blitz so be it but they cannot let Chandler Whitmer sit back in the pocket and have all day to throw like Tommy Rees and Kyle Pohl did. Luckily for us UConn has surrendered 10 sacks in their first two games so this really isn’t asking too much, but the game isn’t played on paper so we’ll have to see what happens.

Third, find a reliable wide receiver not named Jeremy Gallon. While Gardner did spread the ball around to eight different players, only ONE had more than two catches. You guessed it, Jeremy Gallon. On the bright side, Jehu Chesson got in on the action and took his only catch 33 yards to the house for a touchdown. But other than that and Funchess’ 48-yard score in the first, Michigan had no one outside Gallon making any noise. I get that Gardner and Gallon have great chemistry, and that’s a good thing, but it’s been quite clear that Gardner locks in on Gallon far too often and against teams with better athletes that won’t cut it.

For Michigan to beat UConn someone needs to emerge as a receiver that Gardner is comfortable with. He doesn’t need to completely ‘trust’ them, at this point we just need someone to catch more than three balls and I’d consider that a major victory.

Fourth, run the ball well without the aid of Gardner. Another failing grade. Gardner rushed for over 100 yards, and we needed every single one of them, but this is not the read option with Denard Robinson. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Denard but the offense was one-dimensional with him back there. If Michigan wants to compete for a Big Ten title they cannot have a one-dimensional offense. Not to mention that Gardner’s back-up is a true freshman and while I’m excited to see Shane Morris play I don’t want it to be because Gardner went down after taking one too many hits.

I think Michigan can beat UConn without Fitz and Co. running well but I’d rather not see it play out that way. Any semblance of a running game will suffice. Just enough to keep the defense honest and not know where the ball is coming from or where it’s going.

I’d like to add a fifth point – stop the sloppy turnovers! Through three games Devin Gardner has shown us some electric moments and flashes of brilliance but he’s also shown us some incredibly bone-headed plays. Through the air he has  seven touchdowns to six interceptions, and that is not a formula for success. Forget the Big Ten title, this team will struggle to win eight games again if these turnovers continue at even half this rate.

UConn is not on the same planet as Michigan when it comes to talent, but neither was Akron. Michigan does not need to play the game of their life to win, but they still need to shore up some key areas, the biggest of which is turnovers. If Michigan eliminates the sloppy turnovers (bad reads, not securing the football, etc.) they will be in good shape. It would be nice to see them come out and get a great pass rush and have Fitz top 100 yards with Chesson and others accounting for more catches than Gallon, but just eliminating the sloppy turnovers should be more than enough to beat the Huskies.

This team should be out for blood and I expect this game to be less of a thriller.

Friend vs Foe: Akron

Thursday, September 12th, 2013


This week’s Friend vs Foe is going to be slightly different than the usual. Instead of simply asking each side to explain how their team will win, I asked the Akron blogger a few questions about the Zips. Matt Eliason, the Akron guy from the MAC SB Nation site Hustle Belt, is our guest this week to provide an insider’s perspective on the opponent we will see make its first ever trip to the Big House on Saturday. You can follow Matt on Twitter @matt24eli.

As usual, Josh handles the Michigan perspective, but this time he is focusing on what he would like to see from Michigan this week instead of how the Wolverines can win. You can follow him on Twitter @jdemille9.

1. Akron has gone 1-11 in each of the last three seasons. When he was hired Bowden stated that his short term goal was to double that win total, but instead he matched it. This season, he already has one win in just two games. Is that a product of facing an FCS school or does this team have the potential to be vastly improved from the last three seasons?

It’s hard to look at the win over James Madison as a sign of major improvement yet since Akron started out 2013 much like they did the past two seasons with the early season win over an FCS team. Having said that, you have to be excited about any sort of win when you’re the Zips and I will say that JMU is probably the best FCS team Akron has played. The 2012 Akron team was much improved from the 2011 version, so there’s hope that Terry Bowden will show more improvement in 2013 once we get deeper into schedule. Getting to that two-win barrier is still definitely a short term goal for the Zips and we’ll probably get a better sense of any improvement next week against UL-Lafayette and furthermore into the conference schedule.

2. Talk about Bowden’s offense. Last year it racked up a lot of yards, especially passing yards, but the quarterback and top receiver are gone. Can it be as effective this season, or will it feature more of a running game with Jawon Chisholm?

Jawon Chisholm rushed for nearly 1,000 yards as a redshirt freshman last season (Ed Suba Jr, Akron Beacon Journal)

I think it’s Bowden’s goal to have the same type of passing offense the Zips had last year. The problem, as you mentioned, is that former QB Dalton Williams has graduated. Williams had an excellent 2012 despite the Zips’ record and Bowden looked to Kyle Pohl to leave where Williams left off. A bit of a quarterback controversy has developed as back-up Nick Hirschman led the Zips to their only score against UCF and sparked the Zips to three more scores against JMU after an injury to Pohl. Hirschman would leave the game with his own injury and Pohl returned and rebounded leading the Zips to two more scores. If both quarterbacks are healthy, I expect both to see some time again this week especially if when the game gets out of hand and this will continue to be a controversy heading into next week. Chisholm has struggled in the first two games save a 55 yard run against JMU which showed his big play ability. The Zips are a pass first offense and I’d like to see them get Chisholm more involved in the passing game as he can act as a safety valve and has the big play potential.

3. While the offense moved the ball pretty well last season, the defense couldn’t really stop anybody. After giving up 35.5 points through the first two games this season, is it more of the same?

The short answer is yes, it is more of the same. Akron has shown an embarrassing ability to tackle and continue to give up big plays in the passing game. The defense has given up big plays early and often and had the offense digging out of a hole in both games. The biggest positive from the defense has been Nico Caponi, who has three sacks in the first two games. The best hope for the Zips is to get pressure on Devin Gardner and force him to get rid of the ball early. Gardner will expose the secondary with big plays if he is given too much time in the pocket.

4. Obviously anything can happen, but an Akron win is probably a bit too much to ask for on Saturday. What are the realistic goals and expectations for the Zips in this game? What kind of performance would Akron fans be happy with?

Expectations are of course very low for Akron to get a win and the Zips will be looking for some small victories. Devin Gardner and the offense will not have any problems moving the ball against the Zips and should put up a lot of points. The first goal for the Zips on defense is to avoid the big plays. They haven’t had success doing it so far this season and face the most talented team they’ll face this season, but this has to be their priority in every game this season.

The Wolverines will be bringing the pressure all game and it will be difficult for the offense to establish a rhythm, but it would be ideal if one of the two quarterbacks established themselves as the surefire starter. If the game gets out of hand and Michigan starts to send in some second and third stringers, the hope is Akron will string together some long drives and put some points on the board.

5. For Akron to win, it would take….

A serious case of food poisoning is the best chance. In seriousness though, it would take a lot of luck and bad turnovers by Gardner to keep the Zips in this game. Capitalizing on those turnovers with touchdowns and long time consuming drives could keep the Zips in the game. The more times the Wolverines’ offense hit the field, the less chance the Zips have at pulling off a monumental upset.

After an incredible win last week Michigan has a delicious glazed donut lined up this Saturday. At least that’s what Brady Hoke said.

Akron doesn’t exactly present much of a challenge, so instead of doing the normal ‘Michigan will win if…’ I’m gonna outline some things I’d like to see from our beloved Wolverines this weekend.

First of all, zero big plays allowed. And by big plays I mean anything over 20 yards. Michigan has surrendered a handful of big plays in two games and while Notre Dame is a good team this is something that has to stop. Akron will be overmatched athletically but they still offer a good opportunity for Michigan to work on some minor issues. While zero big plays may seem a lofty goal, this is Akron for crying out loud.

Second, get some significant pressure with just the front four. Michigan’s front hasn’t exactly instilled much confidence in me with their ability to get pressure so far. That lack of pressure didn’t hurt us against Central Michigan, but they let Tommy Rees sit back and pick the secondary apart to the tune of 314 yards with several plays over 20-yards. If Michigan wants to compete for the Big Ten title they will need to establish their front four as a group who can get after the quarterback without the aid of Mattison’s wonderful blitz packages. I’d like to see five or six sacks from the defensive line this weekend, on non-blitz plays.

Jehu Chesson has shown he can block, but let's see what he can do with some balls thrown his way (Leon Halip, Getty Images)

Third, find a reliable receiver not named Jeremy Gallon. I’m a big fan of Gallon, and an even bigger one after last Saturday’s game. But the reality is that better teams will catch on that Gardner doesn’t throw to anyone else and that could come back to bite us in conference play. Hopes rested on Amara Darboh’s shoulders (and hands) coming into the season, but he’s out for the year. Redshirt freshman Jehu Chesson, while able to throw crushing blocks, has yet to show us anything, though not completely his fault. Devin Funchess and Drew Dileo have been solid, but when push comes to shove Gallon is the only one Gardner turns to. That has to change.

Now I don’t expect Gardner to find someone he trusts completely in big time situations right away but I’d like to see him spread the ball around a bit more. Brady Hoke said C’Sonte York and D’Mario Williams may get some run, and that would be nice, but at the very least I’d like to see people outside of Gallon getting some significant targets. If Michigan’s offensive is to be truly dynamic they need to find another big time playmaker outside of Gallon. Akron provides a great chance to experiment with some of the other receivers. I’d like to see three or four guys with more targets and catches than Gallon this week.

Finally, run the ball well without the aid of Gardner. Now, this isn’t Denard Robinson’s offense anymore but Gardner can still make big plays with his legs, and I don’t want that to stop. However, he can’t be the only running threat. We’ve already seen what happens when that is the case. Fitz Toussaint has looked better than last year but take out his big runs and his yards per carry is rather unimpressive. True, the offensive line is young and inexperienced and Notre Dame had quite possibly the best front we’ll see all year but we didn’t do much against CMU either. I’d like to see the running backs average at least 4 yards per carry, not taking into account any runs over 20 yards.

Michigan should walk away with this one and I’d expect to see Shane Morris and Co. the entire second half, so it will be another chance to see what the backups are made of as well.

Friend vs Foe: Notre Dame

Thursday, September 5th, 2013


Ryan Ritter of the Notre Dame blog Her Loyal Sons is our guest for this week’s edition of Friend vs Foe. He will provide his perspective on how Notre Dame can beat Michigan on Saturday. You can follow him on Twitter @HLS_NDTex or the site’s main feed @herloyalsons. Josh is handling the Michigan perspective and you can follow him @jdemille9.

So what do the Irish need to do to win in the Big House for the first time since the Weis era (seriously, how did y’all allow that to happen?!)?

With Tommy Rees once again the Irish starting QB, I can’t help but think of 2011′s tilt under the lights. After all, Rees will return to the scene of the nightmare that unfolded in that fourth quarter and there is no doubt those memories stick in the minds of both ND and Michigan fans a bit more than his performance in 2012.

However, this appears to be a different Rees, or Reesus, as he is now known among a good portion of the ND faithful. Rees had a career best 16-23, 346 yard, 3 TD performance against Temple in week one. Granted, the game was against Temple; however what stood out most was Rees’ accuracy, especially on the deep ball which has practically been non-existent in his ND tenure. 2011 Rees, aka Turnover Tommy, did not make an appearance and really only had one pass the was ever in real danger of being an INT.

The ability to get Amir Carlisle and the running game going is crucial to ND's success on Saturday (Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

Rees does not need a career day in order to beat Michigan; however, he must continue to protect the football and make smart passes. Otherwise, the Irish will find themselves scrambling to stay in the game.

Probably more important than Rees though, are the five, yes five, quality running backs. Amir Carlisle made his Irish debut with a bang, ripping off a 45 yard run with his first carry. George Atkinson III returns, although it seems Kelly is still hesitant to use him as an feature back due to his continuous failures to lower his pads which led to him getting rather rocked by a Temple defender on one of his initial carries. Cam McDaniel led the Irish in carries and maintained a very solid 5.4 yards per carry. Finally, you have freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston who Kelly seems to still be feeling out just how to use them.

Without a solid rushing attack, the Irish offense is dead in the water. The book on Tommy Rees is simple: rush three, drop eight and make him beat you with his arm. A solid rushing attack negates the defensive gameplan and opens the playbook up for the Irish.

Switching to the defense, it is hard to predict and preview just what the Irish will do. In the first half against Temple, the Irish ran man coverage more than they ever had in the Kelly era. On top of that, they blitzed more than I can remember in recent memory as well, and I’m not talking the usual 3-4 blitz that brings a fourth pass rusher, but ones that brought five or six to the line. This strategy backfired against Temple. Connor Reilly managed to settle in, made the proper hot reads and used his feet to take advantage of the open field that the spy-less man coverages gave him. In the second half, the Irish went back into their more familiar zone coverages and turned in a much better defensive performance.

I’m not exactly sure if defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was using Temple as a test for whether or not a more aggressive style of defense was viable or not. Either way, I wasn’t a fan of the results and I do not believe the Irish can go against Michigan running man coverage the majority of the time. If Temple receivers can find space against man-to-man coverage and Connor freakin’ Reilly can cause damage, I can only imagine what Michigan and Devin Gardner can do.

Instead, the Irish need to follow the 2012 defensive recipe to success: bend, don’t break. Keep plays in front and don’t get burned deep. Further, the Irish pass rush must remain as fearsome as it was last year to ensure that Gardner never gets as comfortable as Reilly did in the first half. Further, the Irish need to spy Gardner and ensure his tendency to scramble is neutralized as best as possible.

Should the Irish manage to put everything together as described above, there is no reason why the Irish’s last trip to Ann Arbor for the foreseeable future won’t be a successful one.

Notre Dame’s passing attack looked very good against Temple last week. Tommy Rees threw for a career high 346 yards on 16-of-23 and added three touchdowns. Despite putting up almost 550 total yards of offense they also gave up almost 400 yards to a Temple team that is not known for their football program. The star of the Temple offense was its quarterback, Connor Reilly, who passed for 228 yards while also rushing for 65 more on 12 carries. They allowed a lot of yards, though only one touchdown, and did not force a single turnover and only recorded one sack. Clearly this is not even close to the same Notre Dame defense as last year, at this point at least.

True, Tommy Rees played well and the Notre Dame offense was moving along quite well from a yardage standpoint, but it concerns me that they only managed to score four times on a Temple team that was 4-7 a year ago.

Without Everett Golson in the backfield the Notre Dame offense is a shade of what it was in the latter half of 2012. Rees is a capable quarterback with a ton of experience but he is not a threat to make plays with his legs like Golson. Most of the vaunted ND defense has returned but their inability to force any turnovers and only nab one sack against Temple is interesting.

Thomas Gordon returns from suspension to solidify the UM secondary against a good passing team (John T. Greilick, Detroit News)

If Michigan can keep ND out of their backfield making plays then this one won’t be close for long. The Irish had trouble with a mobile quarterback last week and odds are Devin Gardner is at least twice the athlete Connor Reilly is.

Thomas Gordon comes back this week to anchor the secondary and with the rust shaken off from last week Michigan should be in good shape back there. If they can limit the big plays, or even prevent them, then Michigan will be in prime position to win. The defensive front looked better, albeit against an overmatched CMU line, at creating pressure without the blitz and that should carry over. Mattison will still dial up some blitzes but if the front four can get there without them then this team is all the more dangerous. If Frank Clark and Co. can at least make Rees move around more than he wants and force him into some quick and/or bad decisions Michigan will win.

On offense, and in this series lately, it’s all about not turning the ball over. The team that commits the fewest turnovers wins, period. Last year Michigan gifted Notre Dame six turnovers and still had a chance to win the game late. The year before Notre Dame coughed it up five times, allowing Michigan to go on an epic game winning drive for the ages in the fourth quarter.

While Gardner did throw two picks last week we can probably chalk those both up to first game jitters and rust. He admitted they were bad (reads) passes and I’m sure it will be a point of emphasis in practice this week. Luckily for Gardner, he only has classes on Monday this fall, and with it being Labor Day this week he was left to focus solely on ND all week long. I don’t expect him to make those types of passes this weekend.

Fitz Toussaint looked pretty good running the ball and the offensive line opened up some good holes for both he and behemoth freshman Derrick Green. There was some concern about Green being overweight coming into camp but he looked solid to me and let’s be honest, he has tree trunks for legs so it’s no wonder he’s 240 pounds. If the line can open up some lanes again then the play-action pass should be set up nicely for Gardner.

This game will not be easy, but the keys to winning are simple. Limit the turnovers (win the turnover battle), pressure Rees into making bad decisions and run the ball well to set up the play-action passing game. That’s how Michigan will win.