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Michigan-Penn State game preview

Friday, October 11th, 2013



Five years ago Michigan traveled to State College looking to continue its decade-long dominance of Penn State. Michigan came in with a 2-4 record and Penn State was undefeated, ranked third nationally. It was Rich Rodriguez’s first season and despite the poor start and the contrast on the opposite side, there was still an optimism that Michigan could pull it out. After all, the Wolverines had won the last nine in the series. Despite the largest line against in Michigan history (23.5 points) a nervousness permeated the white out Beaver Stadium crowd.

Michigan quickly took a 10-0 lead on a Brandon Minor run and a KC Lopata field goal. By halftime Michigan led 17-14 and that nervousness was amplified. Penn State opened the second half with a field goal to tie the game and then sacked Nick Sheridan in the end zone for a safety to give the Nittany Lions their first lead. And then the flood gates opened. Four touchdowns and a field goal in the final 18 minutes and Penn State sent Michigan home with a 46-17 loss.

Quick Facts
Beaver Stadium – 5pm EST – ESPN
Penn State Head Coach: Bill O’Brien (2nd season)
Coaching Record: 11-6 (all at Penn State)
Offensive Coordinator: Bill O’Brien
Defensive Coordinator: John Butler (2nd season)
Returning Starters: 11 (6 offense, 5 defense)
Last Season: 8-4
Last Meeting: Penn State 41 – Michigan 31 (2010)
All-Time Series: Michigan leads 10-6
Record at Penn State: Michigan leads 5-3
Current Michigan Streak: Lost 3
Last Michigan Win: 2007

After the game, Rodriguez said, “Oh, we executed for a while and then we didn’t. That’s what happened. We executed, we moved the ball a little, and then we didn’t, we didn’t.”

Looking back, that statement and that game embodied the next two-plus seasons and Michigan hasn’t beaten Penn State since. The Nittany Lions won in 2009 and ’10 before the teams took a two-year hiatus.

Tomorrow, Michigan will face Penn State for the first time under Brady Hoke looking to return to the dominance of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and across the field will be a new face as well. Bill O’Brien left the New England Patriots to take the PSU job amidst the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. He held the team together through the worst times and is now in the process of guiding the program out of it.

He led Penn State to a respectable 8-4 record last season after an 0-2 start. Now, he has started 3-2 through the first five games this season, dropping a home contest to UCF 34-31 and the Big Ten opener at Indiana last Saturday, 44-24. The three wins have come over opponents with a combined record of 5-11: Syracuse (23-17), Eastern Michigan (45-7), and Kent State (34-0).

Can Michigan go into Happy Valley and do just what UCF and Indiana did, or will the Wolverines’ struggles on the road continue? Let’s take a look at the matchups.

Michigan defense vs Penn State offense: When Penn State has the ball

Much of the reason for optimism in State College lies in true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. A five-star prospect rated as one of the top two quarterbacks in last year’s class, Hackenberg has taken the reigns of the Penn State offense from the start. He’s had his ups and downs but there’s no question the talent is there. He has completed 109-of-182 passes (59.9 percent) for 1,367 yards, eight touchdowns and four touchdowns. By comparison, Devin Gardner has thrown the ball 64 fewer times with almost the exact same completion percentage for 331 fewer yards, eight touchdowns and eight picks.

Hackenberg has thrown for fewer than 200 yards just once – against Kent State – and has topped 300 yards twice, including a 340-yard performance in last Saturday’s loss. But it took him 55 passes to get there. His stat sheet from the last three games certainly reads like a true freshman: 21-of-28 (75 percent) for 262 yards and one touchdown against UCF; 13-of-35 (37.1 percent) for 176 yards, a touchdown and an interception against Kent State; and then 30-of-55 (54.5 percent) for 340 yards and three touchdowns against IU. At that rate, he’s due for a downswing, although the two good performances came in losses.

He has benefited from the Big Ten’s best receiver, junior Allen Robinson. He set the Penn State record for receptions in a season with 77 a year ago for 1,018 yards and 11 touchdowns en route to to being named the Big Ten Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year. This season he has caught at least seven passes for at least 129 yards in four of the five games. He had just three catches for 43 yards against Kent State, but exploded for 173 yards and two touchdowns on 12 receptions last week. His 38 receptions and 621 yards lead the Big Ten and the team by far, and at 6’3″, 210 pounds he’ll be a tough matchup for Blake Countess.

Allen Robinson is on pace for almost 1,500 receiving yards this season (Mark Selders)

Only two other Nittany Lions have double digit receptions, junior tight end Kyle Carter and senior Brandon Felder. Carter ranks second on the team with 147 yards on 11 catches. Felder ranks second in receptions with 16 for 135 yards. Neither has a touchdown catch. Sophomore Geno Lewis is the only other receiver that has a touchdown reception and that came in the season opener, although running back Bill Belton has two.

Speaking of running backs, the main guy is senior Zach Zwinak, who has gained 369 yards and eight touchdowns on 84 carries so far this season. He’s coming off a 1,000-yard season (exactly) a year ago despite starting just four games and playing considerable time in nine. His best game this season was a 128-yard, three touchdown performance against UCF in which he averaged 6.1 yards per carry. The 6’1″, 240-pound back runs more like a fullback with a straight-ahead, bruising style.

The aforementioned Belton has carried the ball 43 times for 284 yards and two scores, while sophomore Akeel Lynch has rushed for 270 yards on 35 carries. The latter has a pair of 100-yard games this season, both of which he averaged over eight yards per carry. At 6’0″, 211, he’s got good size, but he also ran the team’s third-fastest 40 time in the spring.

The offensive line has three returning starters from last season, led by first-team All-Big Ten guard John Urschel. Redshirt sophomore left tackle Donovan Smith started nine games last season, earning ESPN.com Big Ten All-Freshman honors. Redshirt junior Miles Dieffenbach is the left guard after starting 11 games a year ago. The new starters this season, replacing All-Big Ten performers Mike Farrell and Matt Stankiewitch are senior center Ty Howle and senior right tackle Adam Gress. While there is certainly talent along the line, the jury is still out on its performance. The rushing offense ranks 11th in the Big Ten and only two teams – Northwestern and Illinois – have allowed more quarterback sacks so far.

It’s no question that O’Brien likes to utilize the arm of Hackenberg and target Robinson. Through five games, Hackenberg has completed seven passes of 40 yards or more and six of them have gone to his favorite target. Greg Mattison may choose to play this one similarly to how he defended Notre Dame’s pass-happy offense, but the main difference is the experience at quarterback. Tommy Rees was experienced and Hackenberg is just five games removed from high school, so look for some of Mattison’s patented blitz packages to try to confuse him.

Michigan offense vs Penn State defense: When Michigan has the ball

Only five starters return from last year’s defense that ranked as one of the Big Ten’s best. The scoring defense ranked second and total defense ranked fourth, but three of those who were lost are currently on NFL rosters – defensive tackle Jordan Hill and linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti.

The returning star is the reigning Thompson-Randle El Big Ten Freshman of the Year, defensive end Deion Barnes. However, he has struggled to perform up to expectations so far this season with just 12 total tackles, one for loss, and half a sack. The most disruptive lineman has been senior tackle DaQuan Jones, who leads the team with 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Redshirt junior CJ Olaniyan is the other end and has 19 tackles, four for loss, and one sack. The other tackle is a combination of redshirt freshman Austin Johnson and redshirt junior Kyle Baublitz.

Stephen Obeng-Agyapong does a little bit of everything for the Penn State defense (Mark Selders)

The linebacking unit is where most of the makeover has taken place. The lone returner is senior middle linebacker Glenn Carson who leads the team with 39 tackles and also has 3.5 tackles for loss and half a sack. He has started 12 games in each of the last two seasons. The two outside backers are redshirt junior Mike Hull and redshirt freshman Nyeen Wartman, although senior strong safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong started in place of Wartman last week. Obeng-Agyapong has 23 tackles, one for loss, a sack, an interception, and a fumble recovery.

The secondary has two returning starters, junior safety Adrian Amos, who moved from cornerback, and senior Malcolm Willis. Willis ranks third on the team with 24 tackles and both have an interception. The corners are sophomores Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams. Williams played in all 12 games as a true freshman last season, although it was on the offensive side of the ball at receiver. Lucas also played as a true freshman, but more sparingly. As a unit, they have struggled with good passing teams, giving up 288 yards against UCF and 336 to Indiana.

The other third: Special Teams

Junior kicker Sam Ficken made 14-of-21 field goal attempts last season and has hit 8-of-10 so far this year with a long of 54. He also handles kickoff duties. Senior punter Alex Butterworth also returns from last season in which he averaged 37.4 yards per punt, which was 11th in the conference. So far this season he ranks eight in the Big Ten with a 40.2 average. The kick and punt return units rank in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. Geno Lewis averages 23.8 yards per kick return, which ranks eighth, and safety Jesse Della Valle averages 11.5 yards per punt return, good for fifth. The kick coverage unit ranks ninth, just ahead of Michigan, so there is the possibility of one of the two teams breaking one.

Prediction

It’s no secret that Brady Hoke’s teams have struggled on the road and the performance against UConn three weeks ago did nothing to dispel that notion. Beaver Stadium is a tough place to play, especially for a quasi-night game with a white out crowd. To prepare, Michigan spent time in practice this week whispering. Yes, Devin Gardner called plays in a whisper to simulate the noise Michigan will have to play through.

On paper, the two teams are pretty similar, but Michigan has the better defense and more weapons offensively. Indiana and UCF beat Penn State through the air, and the move of Devin Funchess from tight end to wide receiver has opened up the passing game by giving Gardner a huge target and taking some of the pressure off of Jeremy Gallon, Jehu Chesson, and Drew Dileo. As the season goes on, that will allow Al Borges to open up the playbook and be less conservative.

Last week we saw a conservative game plan because that’s all that was needed and Hoke wanted to get the running game going. It didn’t yield a big rushing average, but led to most of the touchdowns and controlled the clock. Expect much of the same tomorrow, but with a more involved passing game to force Penn State to sit back.

Defensively, Michigan will focus on stopping Robinson and putting pressure on Hackenberg. Look for a similar defense to what was run against Notre Dame with more pressure. He has a great arm but is not very accurate, especially when facing pressure, and Indiana did a good job last week of keeping him off balance. Robinson will probably get his one big play, but Michigan will force other receivers to step up.

It will be close most of the game with Michigan pulling away in the fourth as long as the turnovers are kept under control the way they were last week. The Wolverines simply have too many weapons for Penn State to handle and Michigan will whisper its way to a big road win.

Michigan 31 – Penn State 20

2012 Michigan offense infographic

Monday, January 14th, 2013



Stay tuned for the Michigan defense infographic in the next day or two.

Is This Year’s Hot Start Just a Repeat of 2009?

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010


Michigan escaped with a win last Saturday over an FCS school leaving Michigan fans on the verge of panic. It was a scene all to familiar in recent years, with Michigan narrowly avoiding another Appalachian State-style loss.

The first two games, wins at home against UConn and on the road against Notre Dame, had Michigan the talk of the nation with super sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson. But Saturday’s uninspiring performance in which the Minutemen marched down the field for three touchdown drives spanning 67 yards or more brought back the “Oh, not again” feelings that have inundated  the past two years.

Is Michigan headed for another collapse just like last season, or is this year’s team poised to hold its own in the Big Ten?

Offensive stats through three games
2010   2009
3-0 Record 3-0
33.3 Scoring Offense 38.0
859 Rushing Yards 812
286.3 Rushing YPG 270.7
671 Passing Yards 505
223.7 Passing YPG 168.3
510 Total Offense 439
21/42 (50%) Third-Down Conv. 16/41 (39%)
10/11 (91%) Red Zone Scoring 9/12 (75%)
1* Turnovers 4
1 Sacks Allowed 4
*1 other turnover was on a fumble after an
INT, so doesn’t count towards offensive stats

Through the first three games last season, Michigan averaged more points per game (38) than it has so far this season (33.3), but the offensive output has been much more consistent this year (510 total yards per game compared to 439).

While Michigan’s offensive numbers are better, the opponents have been eerily similar.

Last year, Michigan opened with Western Michigan, a Mid-American Conference school that had a senior quarterback who holds six career passing records at the school. Many predicted the Broncos pull off the upset, but Michigan dominated in a 31-7 win in Tate Forcier’s debut.

A week later, Michigan hosted Notre Dame and won a 38-34 shootout, then followed that up with a lackluster performance against Eastern Michigan. In that game, Michigan led just 24-17 at halftime, but pulled away, winning 41-17.

Those three opponents finished the year with a combined record of 11-25, so what seemed like a great start for Michigan was really just smoke and mirrors.

Prior to this year’s opener against UConn, many predicted the Huskies to waltz into Ann Arbor and come away with a win. UConn was expected to play for the Big East title this season. Instead, Michigan won convincingly in Denard Robinson’s debut, and UConn has now started the season 1-2 with a loss to Temple last week.

In the second week of the season, Michigan traveled to South Bend and pulled out the win when Robinson led the Wolverines on a 12-play, 72-yard touchdown drive in the final two minutes to seal the win. Notre Dame followed that up with an overtime loss at Michigan State last week, and could very well lose its next three as well.

Last week, Michigan came out flat, leading UMass just 21-17 at halftime before building a sizeable lead in the third quarter. But Michigan wasn’t able to put UMass away in the fourth quarter, as the Minutemen pulled within five before a failed onside kick allowed Michigan to run out the clock.

Despite being an FCS team, UMass is probably better than Eastern Michigan was last year, considering Eastern didn’t win a single game and UMass is currently ranked 72nd in the Sagarin Ratings. That’s higher than upcoming opponents Bowling Green (90th), Indiana (82nd), and Purdue (77th).

I think this year’s Michigan team is better suited for Big Ten play than last year’s was for a couple of reasons.

1. Denard Robinson.

As long as he stays healthy, he gives Michigan a chance to win every game. Of course they won’t win every game this season, but his ability to run and pass makes Michigan’s offense nearly impossible to defend consistently.

Last year, Forcier played well in the first few games, but Michigan’s offense was ultimately hurt by his inexperience and a lack of a true running game. Forcier was a true freshman with a limited understanding of the playbook, and thus, the offensive variety was lacking.

Running backs Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown were constantly injured and neither proved to be a true threat, meaning opponents could key in on the passing game, forcing Forcier to make freshman mistakes, which he did.

Robinson had last season to get his feet wet in the offense and get acclimated to the college game. He came to fall camp just a few weeks before the season started, so his ability to run the offense consisted solely of taking the snap and running left or right. Opponents knew that and he still ran for 5.1 yards per carry.

The offseason gave him a chance to learn the playbook and develop his arm, and it paid off when Rich Rodriguez gave him the nod to start the UConn game. Robinson took advantage, putting up three of the nine best offensive games in Michigan history the past three weeks.

The offensive line opens up a huge hole for Vincent Smith (photo by the Detroit News)

The offensive line opens up a huge hole for Vincent Smith (photo by the Detroit News)

2. The offensive line.

This year’s offensive line is talented and experienced, and it all starts with center David Molk. Last year, the offense started to plummet after Molk went down with an injury. It shook up the entire line, making guard David Moosman move to center. In the first game thereafter, he fumbled three or four bad snaps, and the line was never able to gel the rest of the season.

So far this season, the line has allowed just one sack in Robinson’s 76 pass attempts, and has paved the way for 859 rushing yards in three games (six yards per carry).

Against Notre Dame’s stout defensive front seven, Michigan rushed for 288 yards and averaged seven yards per carry. Robinson also threw for 244 yards without being sacked.

Last week, Notre Dame sacked Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins four times and held State to 4.7 yards per carry, well below its average of 6.6.

The real test for the offensive line will be when Michigan plays Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, but this line is certainly suited to keep Michigan’s offense chugging away.

3. The skills position players.

Running back Michael Shaw stepped up last week against UMass, rushing for 126 yards and three touchdowns on 12 carries. He seems to be the best back Michigan has this season, with Vincent Smith also splitting reps. If the two can combine to give Michigan a running threat outside of Robinson, the offense will be that much harder to stop.

The receivers are perhaps the best position group on the offense, other than quarterback. In Michigan’s last two games, a different receiver has stepped up.

Against Notre Dame, it was Roy Roundtree with eight catches for 82 yards and a touchdown and Martavious Odoms with seven catches for 91 yards. Against UMass it was Darryl Stonum with three catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns.  

Junior Hemingway, Michigan’s best deep threat, just returned from injury and made a nice 36-yard catch last week, and Kelvin Grady has averaged 13.2 yards per catch out of the slot.

With those receiving weapons at Robinson’s disposal, defenses will have a hard time lining up to stop the run.

Given the electric play of Robinson, the cohesiveness of the offensive line, and the talent of the skill position players, Michigan’s offense is much more suited to continue its output once the Big Ten grind starts than it was last season. The only glaring weakness is the defense, which isn’t going to be fixed this season. Expect a lot of shootouts the rest of the way.

Darryl Stonum had a breakout game against UMass (photo by the Detroit Free Press)

Darryl Stonum had a breakout game against UMass (photo by the Detroit Free Press)

Over/Under

I was right there with Michigan’s score last week, only one under, but gave the defense too much credit, 16 under. I don’t think anyone really expected UMass to drop 37 points in Ann Arbor, but here’s to hoping it was just a one-game letdown.

For the season, I’m nine over offensively and 18 over defensively, so it’s starting to come back down to the median.

I Said What?

“Robinson will play but certainly won’t need the whopping amount of carries he has had in the past two games. Rodriguez should let him keep his rhythm and build a good lead and then rest him to keep him fresh.”

Well, I was right that he wouldn’t need as many carries. He rushed 17 times, as opposed to the 29 and 28 times in the previous two games. Shaw was efficient enough with his 12 carries, scoring three touchdowns, that Robinson wasn’t needed to run as much.

I was wrong, however, about Michigan building a large enough lead that would allow Robinson a breather. (+1/2)

“Robinson needs to establish the passing game. Everybody knows Robinson’s skills on the ground – that was evident from his first collegiate snap. The biggest question mark surrounding Robinson at this point is his passing ability.”

Michigan didn’t need to throw the ball more last week, but Robinson was very efficient when he did, going 10-14 for 241 yards and two touchdowns. The only miscue was an interception on his first pass of the day.

He showed great touch on a few deep balls that he threw, completing a 36-yarder to Hemingway and a 46-yarder to Stonum.  

I think Robinson did enough to warrant defenses paying attention to the passing game, although until he proves he can do it in Big Ten play, the question marks will still exist. (+1)

“Find a running game outside of Robinson.”

Done. Shaw rushed 12 times for 126 yards and three touchdowns. He had a 34-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and broke a 50-yard run in the fourth quarter to set up another touchdown. Can he do it again? (+1)

Look for Michigan to set the tone early, jumping out to a comfortable lead by halftime.”

The tone that Michigan set was one that lacked emotion coming off a big road win over a rival. UMass took the opening drive down the field for a field goal and Robinson’s first pass was picked off. UMass led 17-7 before Michigan realized it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk and scored twice right before the half. (-1)

Denard?

Denard Pryor Week 3
Three games into the season he’s still outperforming everybody’s preseason Heisman favorite Terrelle Pryor. While Pryor has 44 more passing yards and two more passing touchdowns, Robinson has 394 more rushing yards and two more rushing touchdowns. He also has a higher quarterback rating, although ever so slight, a higher completion percentage, and has thrown one fewer interception. Interstingly enough, their yards per attempt are exactly the same.

Denard Makes His Case for Starting QB Spot; Other Spring Game Observations

Saturday, April 17th, 2010


Starting spots usually aren’t won or lost in spring practice, but young guys get a chance to prove themselves and gain experience while everyone else gets to show how much they developed throughout the winter.

Development was apparent in one key player today, as sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson lived up to the hype he’s been garnering all spring with a fantastic performance in Michigan’s annual spring game.

Robinson led five touchdown drives in Saturday's spring game

Robinson led five touchdown drives in Saturday's spring game

On the first possession of the scrimmage, Robinson guided the first-team offense down the field on a touchdown drive that included a nice bootleg pass to Roy Roundtree. Robinson ran it in from 10 yards out to cap off the drive.

On his next possession, which the offense started on its own three-yard line, Robinson hit Roundtree perfectly in stride about 25 yards downfield and Roundtree did the rest, outrunning the secondary for a 97-yard touchdown.

Later on, Robinson found Roundtree in the end zone again, this time from 12 yards out.

In the overtime drill, which simulates an overtime possession, starting from the opponent’s 25-yard line, Robinson completed a touchdown pass to Martavious Odoms from about 10 yards out. On his next possession, also the overtime drill, he threaded the needle for a 24-yard pass to Terrance Robinson to set up another touchdown.

By my count, Robinson led five drives, two of them overtime possessions, and all five resulted in touchdowns. Some of this can be attributed to playing against the second-team defense, but with the way Robinson was throwing, it wouldn’t have mattered if the first-team defense was out there or not.

One of the quirks about the spring game is that the quarterback is down once he’s touched in an effort to avoid an injury. On many of Robinson’s runs, he would have picked up significantly more yardage if he had to actually be tackled.

Most importantly, he showed poise in the pocket, where last year he would tuck and run after three milliseconds. A few times, he looked through several reads before pulling it down and running. On a couple of plays, he kept his head up while on the move and delivered an accurate strike to an open receiver.

This wouldn’t be all that significant if you hadn’t seen him play last season. While he dazzled Michigan fans with his feet in open space, his accuracy was terrible to the point where Michigan fans would rather him just run it up the middle for five yards even though the defense knew he’d do exactly that, than even attempt to throw a pass.

Robinson, Gardner, and Forcier hope to take a step forward this season, photo by Tony Ding/AP

Robinson, Gardner, and Forcier hope to take a step forward this season, photo by Tony Ding/AP

Today, he looked comfortable running the offense and seemed to be having as much fun out there as any other player in the maize and blue. About the only aspect that looked like it needed some work was a couple of bubble screens that were either underthrown or led the receiver too far.

I wish the coaches would have switched things up to pit Robinson against the first-team defense, but it was an impressive performance nonetheless.

The development and comfort level was evident and showed how dangerous a Robinson-led offense can be when every pass thrown doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.

Last year, almost every time he lined up in the shotgun the defense knew he was going to run it. He rarely even ran the zone read, the staple of Rich Rodriguez’s offense.

This year, he should know the offense and be able to effectively run the zone read, and if he can prove he has any kind of accuracy, he would be the ideal quarterback for this offense.

I certainly realize it’s a lot of “ifs” and you can’t really jump to conclusions based on the spring game, but at this point, I would say Robinson is the starting quarterback heading into the summer.

Click here to see highlights of the top 10 plays from the spring game.

Notes:

— Tate Forcier, who started all 12 games as a true freshman last year, looked basically the exact same, although he was working with the second-team offense against the first-team defense.

He made some good plays, scrambling away from pressure and hitting the receiver on the run, but he also made some mistakes.

Tate Forcier didn't show the same developement as Robinson

Tate Forcier didn't show the same developement as Robinson

One pass should have been picked off by linebacker Mike Jones and another was forced into quadruple coverage and somehow wasn’t picked. He also made a bad pitch on an option play, which was recovered by the running back for about a 10 yard loss.

On the bright side, he completed a nice, across-the-body touchdown pass to Je’Ron Stokes in the overtime drill.

—Freshman Devin Gardner started out shaky, fumbling a handoff on his first play and throwing an interception deep in his own territory to Obi Ezeh, but seemed to rebound nicely with a 20-yard seam pass to Brandon Moore.

He looked nimble with his feet, but still has a weird throwing motion that needs to be fixed. He could be great a year or two from now, but I’m glad we don’t have to start another true freshman this season. He’s certainly headed for a redshirt barring a freak injury to Robinson or Forcier.

—Roy Roundtree is the real deal. He played just as he finished last season and looks to be Michigan’s go-to guy this year. He caught deep balls and screens and showed some speed in pulling away from the secondary on the 97-yard touchdown.

—The running back position has a lot of guys vying for playing time and no one really stood out today. With Vincent Smith assumed to be the starter out with a torn ACL, it seems to be a three-horse race between Michael Shaw, Michael Cox, and Fitzgerald Toussaint.

It’s perhaps the most important position that needs someone to step up, at least on the offensive side of the ball, after the departure of Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown, and Kevin Grady.

Cox had a nice touchdown run of about 20 yards against the first-team defense and the other guys didn’t do very much.

Freshman Stephen Hopkins showed some good strength and should see playing time as the short-yardage back this season.

—The defense didn’t show much today in the way of schemes or big plays. Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh got some good pressure on Forcier and William Campbell looks huge in the middle of the line.

Troy Woolfolk sat out the game with a dislocated finger and converted wide receiver James Rogers started in his place, opposite J.T. Floyd. Jordan Kovacs remains the starter at one of the safety spots, at least until Marvin Robinson and Demar Dorsey arrive on campus this summer.

The secondary will continue to be the group in question as the season nears, but linebacker will also be a position to watch. Seniors Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton both have a lot of experience, but lost some playing time last season. They both started today, with Ezeh recording an interception and Mouton looking solid.

Redshirt sophomore Kenny Demens also looked promising and could factor in this season as well.

—The kicking game looked pretty shaky and will probably be so all season. Redshirt freshman kicker Brendan Gibbons figures to be the placekicker, but the lefty sure can’t punt. Two of his three punt attempts were shanked out of bounds off the side of his foot.

The punter role seems to be incoming freshman Will Hagerup’s to lose, but he hasn’t even arrived on campus yet, so he better live up to his high school acclaim.

—The stadium looked a bit more than half full, despite the frigid temperatures. The Big Ten Network announcers placed the attendance around 30,000, but it looked to be slightly more.

I’m looking forward to a couple of years from now when Michigan can have a nationally televised spring game drawing near 100,000 fans like Alabama did today.

Thanksgiving Food for Thought: UM Football ’09 (Part II: The Offense)

Thursday, November 26th, 2009


With another losing season in the books, the Michigan football program appears to be in disarray to many outsiders, as well as a fraction of the Michigan fan-base.

But is everything doom and gloom for this squad, or is there help on the way? Is head coach Rich Rodriguez in over his head in the Big Ten, or has he already laid the groundwork for success?

*Despite a 5-7 record, there is much to be thankful for in the Michigan football program, photo taken from thesituationist.wordpress.com

*Despite a 5-7 record, there is much to be thankful for in the Michigan football program, photo taken from thesituationist.wordpress.com

On this Thanksgiving day, as we visit with loved ones, stuff our faces with turkey and pumpkin pie, and watch the Cowboys and Lions, let’s take an early look at what the 2010 version of Michigan football will look like.

Certainly a lot of questions have to be answered, and I believe it starts with the players Rodriguez already has in the program.

Freshman quarterback Tate Forcier played the entire season and at times looked like a confident veteran, but at times looked every bit the 18-year old freshman he was.

He enrolled early at Michigan last January, a move that greatly helped earn him the starting job over last year’s returning starter, walk-on junior Nick Sheridan.

Forcier led comeback wins over Notre Dame and Indiana, brought the team back from 14 points down to force overtime at Michigan State, and performed well in late-season conference games against Illinois, Purdue, and Wisconsin.

But he was also prone to throwing the ball up for grabs, not securing the ball when scrambling, and making the wrong reads on zone option running plays.

These mistakes speak more toward his youth and inexperience than his true talent level. His solid performances showed he has the talent to be Michigan’s quarterback for the next three years.

The good thing is that the mistakes are correctable and will be cured by more time spent on the practice field, in the film room, and in the weight room. In short, we have a bright future ahead at the quarterback position.

Another off-season under strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis will help Forcier add muscle to his slight frame and help avoid injuries. Many forget that Forcier played most of the season with a sprained AC join in his shoulder – the same injury Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford suffered, albeit to a lesser degree.

As Forcier gets more practice time and learns more of the playbook, his understanding of Rodriguez’s complicated “spread-n-shred” offense will grow.

Many of those misreads when he kept the ball instead of handing it off, or when he handed it off and should have kept it, will be fixed next year and in the years that follow.

In addition, he will improve with his passing reads, as he gets more comfortable in the system. This season, he tended to pull it down and scramble the instant he sniffed pressure. His creativity and ability to throw on the run covered up some of these problems, but it also led to turnovers or a failure to throw the ball away.

You can’t fault the kid for trying too hard. Some of the ill advised throws were a result of just trying to make something happen, but will be fixed with experience. Some of the plays he made in the comeback against Notre Dame were the same type of plays that resulted in turnovers down the stretch, as was glaringly evident against the great defense of Ohio State.

*In Forcier and Robinson, Michigan has a bright future ahead

*In Forcier and Robinson, Michigan has a bright future ahead

Forcier’s background leads me to believe he’ll be a fantastic quarterback. He was groomed to play the position, trained under Marv Marinovich, and has two older brothers that play quarterback as well. The mechanics are there, as is the quarterback mentality. Now, he just needs to develop in Rodriguez’s offense and he’ll be fine.

Michigan’s other quarterback, fellow freshman Denard Robinson has a lot further to go in his development, but is also a great fit for Rodriguez’s offense.

Robinson didn’t enroll early, so he had only about a month of practice prior to Michigan’s opening game against Western Michigan. The majority of the action Robinson saw was designed runs to utilize his athletic ability.

Early in the season it worked. He scored four rushing touchdowns in Michigan’s first seven games. As the season progressed and the meat of the schedule was reached, opposing defenses caught on and stacked up to stop the run whenever he entered the game.

It was frustrating at times to see Robinson come in, knowing he was going to run, and get stuffed for little gain. Yet, we have to remember that he had very little practice time and doesn’t yet possess the passing ability needed to be a quarterback for a major Division 1 quarterback.

Unlike Forcier, who already possesses the mechanical skills, Robinson will take more work to develop. But his upside is his athletic ability, which is much greater than Forcier’s.

His touchdown run against Western Michigan left Michigan fans salivating for him to be used in a Percy Harvin-type role.

Late in the season we saw more plays in which Robinson lined up in the backfield next to Forcier or spread out wide running a fly pattern. Against Ohio State, he was thrown to deep a couple of times, although neither was completed, and one was intercepted.

I think we were all a bit impatient throughout the season, assuming that it would be easy to thrust him into plays at running back or receiver. However, with the dire need of quarterback depth in case of a Forcier injury, and merely the fact that Robinson was a true freshman, time spent practicing plays at other positions meant time spent not developing at quarterback.

In the future, when Rodriguez adds to the quarterback depth, he will have more flexibility in using Robinson in other roles. But during the course of this season, I think we overlooked the need to keep him where he was.

Next year, that depth will be added to by Inkster, Mich. quarterback Devin Gardner. The dual-threat quarterback fits the mold of Rodriguez’s ideal quarterback perfectly and his arrival in Ann Arbor is highly anticipated.

In his senior season at Inkster High School, Gardner has thrown for 1,472 yards and 14 touchdowns to just three interceptions, and rushed for over 700 yards and 15 touchdowns. He has led his team to the state championship game against Lowell on Friday.

*Devin Gardner hopes to enroll at Michigan in January and battle for the starting QB position

*Devin Gardner hopes to enroll at Michigan in January and battle for the starting QB position

Scouts compare him to Penn State’s Darryl Clark former Auburn (and current Washington Redskins) quarterback Jason Campbell. They are high on his size and strength, as well as his arm strength and running ability.

An ideal situation would be to redshirt him next season and allow him to develop and learn the system until Forcier and Robinson graduate and then take over for his junior and senior seasons.

But with his talent, will he be patient enough to wait in the wings for three years? In order for Rodriguez’s system to succeed, I hope he’s unselfish enough to do so.

Granted, there’s always the possibility of Gardner coming in and beating out Forcier and Robinson for the starting job next season or the year after, and if that’s the case, then by all means, the guy that gives Michigan the best chance to win should play.

Whatever the case, the centerpiece of Rodriguez’s system is in place and the future looks bright at the quarterback position.

The backfield is where Michigan loses the most talent, but due to the nature of Rodriguez’s system and the injuries that Michigan suffered this season, the stable is not empty.

Seniors Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown will be big losses, and certainly their absences in many of the games hurt Michigan’s chances for success, but it also allowed young guys to gain experience.

The most impressive runner late in the season was freshman Vincent Smith. His performance in Michigan’s spring game last April gave Michigan fans a glimpse of what he is capable of, but he didn’t see much action through the first half of the season.

But in Michigan’s final two games, against Wisconsin and Ohio State, Smith emerged as Michigan’s go-to back, displaying quickness and pass-catching ability.

He figures to enter 2010 as Michigan’s starting tailback.

Sophomore Michael Shaw has also shown some ability and as his vision for the field improves, could develop into a nice complement to Smith.

His main problem has been that he doesn’t cut through the gaps quick enough, instead always relying on getting around the outside.

Redshirt freshman Michael Cox got some playing time as Michigan’s fifth running back and still has some time to grow. He’ll certainly get a chance to prove himself and earn some more playing time with the graduation of Minor and Brown.

True freshman Fitzgerald Toussaint is a guy that many Michigan fans were excited about coming out of high school. He redshirted this season and will also get a chance in the off-season to earn a role in the offense.

Incoming freshmen Tony Drake, Stephen Hopkins, and Austin White (all three-stars) should give Michigan plenty of options in the backfield.

Receiver is a position that Michigan certainly isn’t lacking talent. A go-to guy emerged in the second half of the season, in redshirt freshman Roy Roundtree. He caught 30 passes for 390 yards and two touchdowns in the final four games of the season.

Though he lacks elite speed, Roundtree showed great hands and a willingness to go across the middle. He should enter 2010 as Michigan’s number one receiver, but it will be interesting to see if he stays in the slot or moves to the outside to replace senior Greg Mathews.

*With Hemingway, Stonum and Roundtree, Michigan has three solid receivers for the next couple of years, photo by Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com

*With Hemingway, Stonum and Roundtree, Michigan has three solid receivers for the next couple of years, photo by Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com

By the time next season rolls around, Michigan will have a lot of experience with sophomore Martavious Odoms in the slot. Odoms started as a true freshman in 2008 and was one of Michigan’s lone bright spots, leading the team in receiving with 49 catches for 443 yards.

Injuries forced him to miss a couple of games late in the season this year, but that could be a blessing in disguise as it opened the door for Roundtree’s emergence.

Also in the slot, sophomore Kelvin Grady showed good speed early in the season, but dropped balls caused him to lose playing time. The former Michigan basketball player definitely has the athleticism to be effective; he just needs to work on catching the ball and he could develop into a weapon in the next couple of years.

A freshman that redshirted this season, Jeremy Gallon could factor into the equation as well. He was highly regarded coming out of high school last year, and a year learning the system should allow him to see some playing time next season.

A wild card in the slot could be incoming freshman Drew Dileo. A 5’9” 170 pound white guy, Dileo committed to Michigan over Tulane, Stanford, and Rice. I mention “white guy” only because of the inevitable Wes Welker comparison. If he can fit that mold, Michigan has itself a steal, but if his low rankings hold true, he could get lost in the mix.

On the outside, redshirt sophomore Junior Hemingway and sophomore Darryl Stonum bring a couple years of experience to the table and have at times shown considerable promise.

Hemingway started 2008 with a bang, catching a 33-yard touchdown pass in Michigan’s game against Utah, but an injury caused him to miss the remainder of the season.

This season, he came out hot again, catching five passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener against Western Michigan. But he didn’t catch a touchdown pass the rest of the season, and barely matched the yardage output in the rest of the games combined, finishing with just 16 catches for 268 yards.

Stonum started 10 games as a freshman in 2008 and had his best game against Purdue, scoring on a 51-yard catch and run.

This season, he hauled in only 13 receptions for 199 yards and a touchdown, though the touchdown was a thrilling 60-yard play to ignite Michigan’s comeback in the fourth quarter against Michigan State.

Je’Ron Stokes is a freshman that played primarily on special teams this season and could have an impact in 2010. The 6-0 181 pound speedster out of Philadelphia was a top-100 recruit and was rated the eighth-best wide receiver in the nation last season according to Scouts, Inc.

Stokes caught two passes for 16 yards against Delaware State in the only real action he saw this season.

Four-star receivers Ricardo Miller and Jerald Robinson and three-stars Jeremy Jackson and D.J. Williamson make up a solid group of incoming freshmen will help bolster the ranks of what should be the deepest position on the team.

On the offensive line, Michigan returns nearly everybody and should get a big boost from a group of redshirt freshmen that fit Rodriguez’s system.

*Michigan missed center David Molk's absense for the second half of the season

*Michigan missed center David Molk's absense for the second half of the season

Left tackle Mark Ortmann and right guard-turned center David Moosman both graduate, but neither is a huge loss. Ortmann was serviceable and Moosman was a solid guard, but struggled at the center position when David Molk went down with an injury.

Getting Molk back next season will provide Michigan a solid, experienced center who started every game in his redshirt freshman season in 2008 and would have this season if not for a broken foot. He was rated the No. 1 center in the nation coming out of high school.

Redshirt junior Steven Schilling will probably be Michigan’s best offensive lineman in 2010. Schilling was ranked as the second-best guard in the nation coming out of high school and has started for three seasons, counting this one.

Perhaps the most surprising player is redshirt freshman Patrick Omameh, who earned a starting spot towards the end of the season and played pretty well. Omameh is a Rodriguez recruit who was just a two-star, mostly due to a lack of size compared to the typical offensive line recruit.

His performance has earned him strong consideration to start next season, probably at either right guard or right tackle.

Redshirt sophomore Mark Huyge started much of the season at right guard and figures to start next season either there or right tackle.

True freshman and highly regarded recruit Taylor Lewan is perfect for Rodriguez’s offense, rated as one of the most athletic and versatile linemen in the nation as a senior. He should get a chance to start at left tackle next season.

Another freshman that could get some action next season is Quinton Washington. He was a four-star recruit and the sixth-rated offensive guard as a senior.

Redshirt junior Perry Dorrestein, who has seen some action, should battle for the left tackle spot, while redshirt freshmen Ricky Barnum and Elliott Mealer will have a chance to earn a spot as well.

Incoming freshmen won’t help next season, as offensive line is a position in which recruits need time in a college strength and conditioning program to develop, but the future looks pretty good with last year’s haul. Only one offensive line commitment is secured for this year’s class unless Rodriguez is able to snag the nation’s top recruit, Seantrel Henderson, but that seems unlikely at this point.

At tight end, Michigan is stacked with experience in sophomores Kevin Koger and Martell Webb.

Koger finished fifth on the team in receiving this season, catching 16 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns. He caught an important touchdown pass against Notre Dame, but had some problems with drops midway through the season and didn’t see as many balls thrown his way in the last few games.

Webb caught just four passes for 44 yards and a touchdown, but got a lot of playing time and was a fairly effective run blocker.

Webb was a junior this season and Koger just a sophomore, so the tight end position should be a strength for Michigan next season.

*Tight end Kevin Koger has been a two-year starter and looks for a breakout year in 2010

*Tight end Kevin Koger has been a two-year starter and looks for a breakout year in 2010

Overall, the Michigan offense made some strides this year, averaging nine more points per game and 95 more yards of total offense per game than last season.

In addition, the offense showed that it could sustain drives this year, and although turnovers were a problem, those are mistakes that are fixable.

We didn’t see all the negative yardage plays that we saw last year when the offense just completely bogged down.

Next year we can expect even more improvement as the Rodriguez system enters its third year. The losses of Minor, Brown, Mathews, Ortmann, and Moosman should not slow this team down very much, since their replacements all got a lot of experience this year.

Most importantly, the core is in place, and there won’t be fresh blood needing to play a crucial role, as there was this season.

So on this Thanksgiving, let’s be thankful for the seniors that stuck out the coaching change and put forth their best efforts. Let’s also be thankful for the young guys that got their feet wet this year and will pioneer our maize and blue back to prominence in the years to come.

And let’s be thankful for an offensive innovator as our head coach – someone who is a proven winner and cares as much about getting the Michigan football program back on track as anyone else does. He will take Michigan to a place far beyond what we have seen if we afford him the time to do so.

The offense is certainly on track. Stay tuned for my defensive preview in the next few days.

Witch Hunts, Shoelaces, and Turnovers: The Michigan Season In Review (Part I)

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009


As the 130th season of Michigan football comes to an end, it’s time to reflect on what we saw and look forward to next year and beyond.

2009 yielded some highlights and some lowlights, some controversy and some challenged loyalty. A legend was made and some buds blossomed. Records fell, both good and bad, and a system started to show some promise.

From this...

From this...

...to this

...to this

No one knew what to expect from this year’s version of Michigan football in Rich Rodriguez’s second year at the helm.

The overly optimistic among us predicted a breakout season of nine or ten wins.

Realistic optimists pointed to Rodriguez’s penchant for second-year turnarounds and predicted a record of 7-5 or maybe, if luck goes the way of the maize and blue, 8-4.

Realists pointed to the true freshmen quarterbacks and lack of overall talent on the squad and predicted a 5-7 or 6-6 finish.

As it turns out, the realists were right, but the realistic optimists weren’t too far off.

The fact of the matter is, Michigan fans were so shell-shocked from the worst record in 46 years in 2008 that we were looking anywhere we could for hope.

We ignored comments that Rodriguez made in the preseason such as, “There’s still going to be some transition. We’re going to play a lot more freshmen and redshirt freshmen than we would like to.”

We thought, sure there will be a lot of freshmen playing, but Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are surely better options than Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan. Or, yeah, but it can’t get any worse than last season.

In this space, I offered some words of caution: “Coming off a season that resulted in the most losses in school history, and pinning all hopes on a true freshman quarterback, this seems to be the window of opportunity before Rodriguez’s system begins to take hold and terrorize the Big Ten.”

*Michigan fans show their support for Rich Rodriguez against Western Michigan, photo by John T. Greilick / The Detroit News

*Michigan fans show their support for Rich Rodriguez against Western Michigan, photo by John T. Greilick / The Detroit News

But then I followed it up with an overly ambitious response: “However, I think we’re going to see a very fast, well-conditioned and much-improved Michigan team playing with a chip on its shoulder to avoid being put to rest again.”

While that may have held true for a while, reality eventually sunk in that this team was indeed loaded with youth and razor-thin on the depth chart.

What began in August as optimism and eagerness to forget the epic disaster of 2008, quickly turned to scorn as the Detroit Free Press brought into question allegations of NCAA infractions on the part of Rodriguez and his coaching staff.

The opening game against Western Michigan couldn’t come soon enough. We cursed Michael Rosenberg and Mark Snyder for the timing of their article and the witch-hunt that ensued and we promised to get revenge on Justin Boren, who transferred to Ohio State, for his comments that seemed to be the centerpiece of that article.

And then the season began and practice time was forgotten and the story of Shoelace became one we would hear every game the entire season (as my wife would roll her eyes every time the announcers felt compelled to tell the story of why Denard Robinson doesn’t tie his shoes…every…single…game).

Robinson thrilled us with a 43-yard touchdown run, Tate Forcier showed promise in his first game by throwing for three touchdowns, Junior Hemingway caught nearly half his season total in receiving yards (103) and all of his touchdowns (two), and the defense shut down what many thought would be a high-powered offense.

We saw a show of solidarity for Rodriguez, Michigan won easily, and the season started off with a bang.

The came Notre Dame, fresh off of throttling Nevada, and riding preseason BCS bowl (or national championship game) predictions.

This will go down as the game that raised all of our expectations, mostly because no one knew at that time how mediocre Notre Dame really was.

It appeared to be Rodriguez’s signature win, as Michigan matched Notre Dame score-for-score and Forcier stunned the 18th-ranked Irish with 11 seconds left.

*Tate Forcier led Michigan to a win over Notre Dame, photo by Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com

*Tate Forcier led Michigan to a win over Notre Dame, photo by Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com

Forcier looked as veteran and composed as ND junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen, completing 23-of-33 for 240 yards and three touchdowns (one rushing). It’s hard to imagine that that would be the high point of his season, in just his second collegiate game.

Of course, there was the Armando Allen out-of-bounds play, which, despite the evidence , Notre Dame fans will carry to their graves in contempt.

The win over Notre Dame vaulted Michigan into the Top 25 heading into week three against Eastern Michigan. Former Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English brought his Eagles to Ann Arbor and didn’t provide much of a test.

Michigan showed off its running game this time, going for 380 yards on the ground, and getting 163 yards and two touchdowns on just eight carries from Carlos Brown in the first half alone.

Robinson scored two more touchdowns to enhance the unrealistic expectations for a guy that arrived on campus less than two months earlier.

Michigan then opened the Big Ten slate with Indiana in what would eventually be the battle for last place. At the time, though, Michigan was hoping to get to 4-0 heading into its intrastate rivalry battle in East Lansing.

This game provided our first glimpse of what the rest of the season would hold, as Michigan struggled to beat the Hoosiers, needing a 26-yard touchdown pass from Forcier to Martavious Odoms with 2:29 remaining to get the win.

The Indiana victory prompted me to draw a comparison to the New York Jets, who like Michigan, started off hot with a rookie quarterback: “Following Sunday’s Jets-Titans game, Vic Carucci of NFL.com asked Jets safety Kerry Rhodes if he thought the Jets’ style of play was sustainable. Rhodes replied that he thought it was because having such a good defense allows rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez to make some mistakes.

“Unfortunately, that won’t exactly translate to Michigan. While I think Michigan’s offense is further along in its development than Sanchez’s Jets offense, relatively speaking, Michigan hasn’t faced its toughest opponents yet.”

I provided the last part of that quote because I knew we were in for a tough go the rest of the season. I didn’t know, however, that that would be our last win over a FBS team all season. Ironically, Michigan’s fall has mirrored the Jets’ collapse.

At 4-0, a return to a bowl game looked assured, and Michigan entered “Little Brother” week seeking to avenge last season’s 35-21 loss to Michigan State.

It was the first road game of Forcier’s career and we saw the fist true test of the season, as the Michigan offense was shut down much of the game. But Forcier continued his early-season magic, leading a 14-point comeback to force overtime with a touchdown completion to Roy Roundtree with just two seconds left.

In overtime, Forcier was intercepted on a tipped pass that never should have been thrown, and Michigan dropped its second in a row to Michigan State for the first time since 1967.

Michigan Streaks Broken in 2009
First back-to-back losses to Michigan State since 1967
First home loss to Penn State since 1996
First home loss to Purdue in last 17 meetings
First back-to-back losing seasons since 1963-62

This began a run of snapping streaks right and left.

With its first loss of the season under its belt, Michigan traveled to Iowa for a prime-time night game against the nation’s 12th-ranked Hawkeyes.

Brandon Minor had his breakout game of the season, scoring two touchdowns against a defense that hadn’t given up a rushing touchdown in 33 quarters.

The game started out as well as one could ask, as Donovan Warren picked off the first pass of the game and returned it for a touchdown.

Michigan hung around until a muffed punt (hello 2008!) gave Iowa the ball at the Michigan 16. Iowa punched it in and took a 30-21 lead.

Robinson led the offense down the field for a touchdown to narrow the gap, but on the next possession, threw an interception to end the game, beginning the Wolverine-faithful’s love-hate relationship with Denard.

Despite a second-straight loss, Michigan fans were encouraged that the team was able to hang with undefeated Iowa until the last minute of the game, and a return to the Big House to face an FCS school was just what Michigan needed to regroup.

Michigan was able to set numerous school records in the win over Delaware State that week and give many starters a week off.

Five Wolverines scored their first career touchdowns and Robinson was able to get a lot of work at quarterback.

Michigan fans even got the treat of seeing Nick Sheridan on the field without the game on the line.

Many fans didn’t like the idea of playing an FCS school, but following the game, I proclaimed, “I have no problem with Michigan playing Delaware State this year. With a roster comprised of mostly underclassmen, and a complete overhaul in progress, playing an FCS opponent was better than a bye week in my opinion.

Michigan Records Set vs. Delaware State
727 total yards of offense
442 yards in the first half
28 points in the first quarter (ties record)
57 point margin of victory (most since 58-0 win over Indiana on Oct. 14, 2000)
461 rushing yards (most since 480 vs. Iowa on Oct. 3, 1992)
49 first half points (most since 55 vs. Chicago on Oct. 21, 1939)

“I would love to see Michigan start scheduling another tough out-of-conference game every year, but at this point in the development of Rich Rodriguez’s scheme, it’s not time for that just yet.

“Once the team grows up and the spread-n-shred is fully ingrained, I hope the schedule will be strengthened. But when you have Florida, arguably the nation’s top team and reigning national champion, playing Charleston Southern, Troy and Florida International, one must look that way first before pointing fingers at the baby Wolverines.”

I still believe it was okay to play Delaware State this season, but obviously with the way Michigan finished the season the benefits weren’t as great as I thought.

At 5-2, Michigan looked primed to make a bowl game, needing just one more win in its final five games.

Penn State came to town and dominated Michigan, racking up 396 yards of offense, and handing Michigan its first true beating of the season.

For really the first time all season, Forcier looked like a true freshman, completing just 13-of-30 passes for 140 yards. The offense couldn’t get anything going in the cold, rainy conditions.

Michigan wasn’t expected to win this one, and despite the 25-point whooping, I considered this result somewhat of a fluke and still didn’t believe the team was as bad as the final record would eventually indicate.

Following the Penn State game, doomsday headlines abounded, and I cautioned fans not to listen to them.

As it turns out, they were right.

Michigan traveled to Champaign, Ill. for a match-up with 1-6 Illinois, a game that looked like a sure-win.

This one will forever be remembered as the epic collapse, and probably the turning point of the whole season. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bigger turnaround before.

Michigan was firmly in control with a 13-7 lead and first and goal at the Illinois one-yard line in the third quarter. After stuffing Michigan on four straight rushes, Illinois took possession and seized the game.

Six plays later, a 70-yard touchdown run put Illinois ahead 14-13 and Illinois never looked back, out-scoring Michigan 24-0 the rest of the way.

At this point in the season, confidence in a bowl game turned into hoping to squeeze out a win in one of the final three games. The best hope was the following week against Purdue.

Perhaps hope is the wrong word against Purdue, as Boilermaker head coach Danny Hope carried a grudge into the game, blaming Rodriguez for getting one of his players suspended for a game earlier in the season – nevermind that the player deserved to be suspended just as much as Michigan linebacker Jonas Mouton did the week before that.

*Turnovers doomed Michigan's chances against Ohio State, photo by The Detroit News / David Guralnick

*Turnovers doomed Michigan's chances against Ohio State, photo by The Detroit News / David Guralnick

This game was much like the Illinois game, where Michigan was in control and let it get away. Michigan led 24-10 at halftime and pushed it to 30-17 in the third, but a 91-yard touchdown drive, an on-side kick, and a 54-yard touchdown pass later, and Michigan found itself trailing 31-30.

Michigan missed a 43-yard field goal and failed to convert a two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game, and Michigan fell by two.

Michigan traveled to Wisconsin for its final road game of the season, still needing a win to become bowl-eligible.

This game followed the mold of the past couple, as Michigan hung around through three quarters, but faded down the stretch.

Forcier bounced back from some poor outings to complete 20-of-26 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns, but it was the defense that couldn’t hold up against a powerful Wisconsin running game.

Although Michigan knew Wisconsin was going to run it in the second half, it still couldn’t stop the Badgers.

The bowl hopes all came down to the final week of the season against Ohio State, as Michigan looked to end its five game losing streak to the Buckeyes.

Though many around the nation talked of the lack of luster in the rivalry, the game still had plenty of storylines with Michigan needing a win to make a bowl and avoid a second straight losing season, Ohio State needing a win to capture the Big Ten title outright, and Justin Boren playing against his former team in the Big House.

The Michigan defense played inspired and turned in its best performance of the season, holding the Ohio State offense to just 14 points.

However, it was the youth of Michigan’s offensive leader that doomed the Wolverines’ chances of playing through the holidays.

Forcier turned the ball over five times, including a fumble in the end zone on Michigan’s first possession, which Ohio State recovered for a touchdown.

Michigan moved the ball most of the day against an Ohio State defense that ranks as one of the best in the nation. But it was unable to capitalize on trips to the red zone, turning the ball over too many times.

So as Michigan’s season came to an abrupt end for the second year in a row, many want to know where do we go from here?

Indeed, there are many questions that need to be answered, but I’m in the minority who still believes the program is on the right track.

Stay tuned for part two where I will look at the future of the football program, both short-term and long-term, as well as the recruiting class Michigan has coming in and who is still out there that Rodriguez needs to land.

The Top Individual Performances In the Michigan-Ohio State Rivalry

Thursday, November 19th, 2009


Michigan and Ohio State square off on Saturday for the 106th time in college football’s greatest rivalry.

*Charles Woodson's punt return against Ohio State helped Michigan secure the Big Ten title and trip to the Rose bowl, photo by Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

*Charles Woodson's punt return against Ohio State helped Michigan secure the Big Ten title and trip to the Rose bowl, photo by Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Ohio State has already wrapped up at least a share of the Big Ten title and a trip to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.

Michigan leads the all-time series 57-42-6, but enters this week’s matchup needing a win to extend its season through the holidays and take some heat off head coach Rich Rodriguez.

Will someone step up with a historic performance to lead Michigan past the 10th-ranked Buckeyes?

Or will a Buckeye deliver an all-time great showing to capture a sixth consecutive victory over Michigan and send Michigan to its second straight losing season?

There have certainly been some performances for the ages in the past 105 meetings, so we’ll take a look at the top individual performances in its storied history.

Bear in mind that this is the top performances in the Michigan-Ohio State game, not necessarily the best players on each team or the best performances for each team against another team.

This list will go position by position and take into account game implications and past history in addition to pure stats.

Make sure to read all the way through to see who is most likely have a breakout performance this Saturday.

Michigan Quarterback – Jim Harbaugh
*Jim Harbaugh

*Jim Harbaugh

Harbaugh completed 16-of-19 passes for 230 yards and three touchdowns in Michigan’s 27-17 win over Ohio State in 1985.

Ohio State had won three of the last four meetings and five of the last seven.

Michigan entered the game 8-1-1 and had just drubbed Minnesota 48-7.

Ohio State came in 8-2 and ranked 12th in the nation.

After sitting out the previous season’s matchup with an injury, Harbaugh would lead Michigan to two straight victories over the Buckeyes, earning first-team All-American honors.

Ohio State Quarterback – Troy Smith
*Troy Smith, photo taken from foxnews.com

*Troy Smith, photo taken from foxnews.com

While there have been many great quarterbacks at Ohio State, perhaps none have turned in a better performance against Michigan than Troy Smith.

In the game dubbed, “The Game of the Century,” Ohio State and Michigan ranked first and second in the nation entering the Horseshoe.

Smith proved unstoppable, completing 29-of-41 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns in leading Ohio State to the 42-39 victory.

The win sent Ohio State to the BCS National Championship game against Florida, while Michigan was relegated to the Rose Bowl against USC.

Additionally, the performance wrapped up the Heisman Trophy for Smith.

Michigan Running Back – Tshimanga Biakabutuka
*Tim Biakabutuka, photo taken from thewolverineblog.com

*Tim Biakabutuka, photo taken from thewolverineblog.com

Tshimanga Biakabutuka, nicknamed “Touchdown Tim,” recorded one of the best all-time performances in the rivalry in 1995.

Ohio State entered the meeting undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the nation.

Michigan came in 18th with a record of 8-3, hoping to knock off the Buckeyes.

Biakabutuka gashed the Ohio State defense for 313 yards on 37 attempts, out-doing eventual Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George and leading Michigan to the 31-23 upset.

His 313 yards are the second most in a single game in Michigan history (behind Ron Johnson’s 347 yards against Wisconsin in 1968) and helped Biakabutuka secure the school’s single season rushing record.

He went on to become the eighth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft and spent six seasons with the Carolina Panthers.

Ohio State Running Back – Bob Ferguson
*Bob Ferguson

*Bob Ferguson

In 1961, Ferguson rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns to lead Ohio State to a 50-20 win over Michigan, and helping Ohio State win the national championship.

The win was Ohio State’s 400th victory all-time and the second of four straight over Michigan.

Ferguson finished second in the Heisman Trophy race that season, behind Syracuse running back Ernie Davis.

Michigan Halfback – Tom Harmon
*Tom Harmon

*Tom Harmon

Michigan’s first Heisman Trophy winner, Tom Harmon, produced an all-around performance for the ages against Ohio State in 1940.

“Old 98,” as he is known, rushed for 139 yards and two touchdowns, completed 11-of-12 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns, kicked four extra points, intercepted three passes (and ran one back for a touchdown), and booted three punts for an average of 50 yards per punt.

The performance led Michigan to a 40-0 drubbing of Ohio State.

After his playing career, he became a pilot in the Army Air Corps, where he earned a Purple Heart and a Silver Star.

Ohio State Fullback – Jim Otis
*Jim Otis

*Jim Otis

Jim Otis is widely regarded as one of the top 50 Ohio State players of all time.

In 1968, for what some regard as the greatest team of all time, Otis led Ohio State to a 50-14 win over Michigan. He rushed 34 times for 143 yards and four touchdowns in the game, the final of which set up a two-point attempt. After the game, when asked why, Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes replied, “Because I couldn’t go for three.”

Otis’ four touchdowns gave him the school’s single-season rushing touchdowns record of 16, which has since been eclipsed.

Michigan Wide Receiver – Marquise Walker
*Marquise Walker

*Marquise Walker

In 2001, Marquise Walker had the best receiving day for a Michigan receiver against Ohio State.

Although Ohio State won the game 26-20 in Jim Tressell’s first season as head coach, Walker was unstoppable, catching 15 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns.

His 15 receptions were enough to pass Anthony Carter on the career receptions list, although that record would be broken by Braylon Edwards in 2004.

The performance helped Walker earn first-team All-America honors in his senior season and was John Gruden’s first draft pick at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002.

Ohio State Wide Receiver -David Boston
*David Boston

*David Boston

David Boston is one of the most prolific receivers in Ohio State history, but turned in a fantastic performance in 1998.

A year after being humbled by Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson, Boston got revenge with 10 catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns.

Boston responded after the game saying, “There were some things said last year after the game, that one of their players was chastising me or something. I didn’t really understand the message there. But today, I just went out and proved that I’m human.”

His performance led Ohio State to a 31-16 win over the defending National Champions.

Boston was drafted eighth overall by the Arizona Cardinals in the 1999 NFL Draft and spent eight seasons in the NFL.

Michigan Tight End – Eric Kattus
*Eric Kattus

*Eric Kattus

While Michigan has never really had a great performance by a tight end against Ohio State, Eric Kattus claims the spot.

In 1985, he helped Jim Harbaugh beat Ohio State 27-17 after dropping three of the past four and five of the past seven to the Buckeyes.

Kattus, a Cincinnati, Ohio native, caught six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in the game, one of the best performances of his career.

Ohio State Tight End -Bruce Janowski
*Bruce Jankowski, photo by Sports Illustrated

*Bruce Jankowski, photo by Sports Illustrated

A year after Michigan upset undefeated Ohio State in Bo Schembechler’s first season at Michigan, Ohio State was looking for revenge.

Both teams entered the match-up undefeated, but Ohio State tight end Bruce Jankowski helped that cause. His 26-yard touchdown pass gave Ohio State the lead, and it never trailed, beating Michigan 20-9.

Michigan Defensive Lineman – Glen Steele
*Glen Steele

*Glen Steele

Defensive end Glen Steele was the leader of Michigan’s front seven, helping the Wolverines win the National Championship in 1997.

Against Ohio State that year, Steele recorded five tackles (three for loss), two sacks, and a fumble recovery.

The constant pressure on Ohio State quarterbacks Stanley Jackson and Joe Germaine helped Michigan win the game 20-14, and secure a spot in the Rose Bowl against Washington State.

Steele earned first-team All-America honors that season and played six seasons in the NFL for the Cincinnati Benglas. His 24 career sacks rank third on Michigan’s career list.

Ohio State Defensive Lineman -Vernon Gholston
*Vernon Gholston

*Vernon Gholston

Vernon Gholston terrorized Michigan quarterback Chad Henne in 2007, racking up five tackles (four for loss) and three sacks.

Michigan’s offensive line, including the first overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, Jake Long, couldn’t stop Gholston as he was always in the backfield.

His four tackles for loss are an Ohio State single game record.

Ohio State won the game 14-3, earning another trip to the BCS National Championship game.

Gholston now plays for the New York Jets.

Michigan Linebacker – Ron Simpkins
*Ron Simpkins

*Ron Simpkins

Ron Simpkins recorded 20 total tackles (15 solo) in Michigan’s 14-6 win over No. 4 Ohio State in 1977 to help the Wolverines capture the Big Ten title.

Just a sophomore at the time, Simpkins recorded the third-most tackles in a single game in Michigan history at the time.

Simpkins would finish his career as Michigan’s all-time leading tackler, with 516, and played seven seasons in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Ohio State Linebacker -Chris Spielman
*Chris Spielman

*Chris Spielman

One of the greatest linebackers ever to play for Ohio State, Chris Spielman was a one man wrecking crew in 1986.

Although Michigan won the game 26-24, it was at the fault of Spielman, who recorded a school record 29 tackles.

Ohio State entered the contest 7-0 and ranked seventh in the nation. Michigan came in 6-1, needing a win to share the Big Ten title.

Ohio State missed a field goal with 1:08 to play to spoil Spielman’s career day.

Spielman went on to enjoy 12 seasons in the NFL with the Detroit Lions, Buffalo Bills, and Cleveland Browns.

Michigan Defensive Back – Charles Woodson
*Charles Woodson

*Charles Woodson, photo by Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Charles Woodson became the first primarily defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy in 1997, and his performance in the Ohio State game that year helped cement the trophy over Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning.

Woodson intercepted a pass, caught a 37-yard pass to set up Michigan’s only offensive touchdown of the game, and returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown.

He also held Ohio State receiver David Boston in check, allowing just three passes for 68 yards and a touchdown.

Woodson also picked off two passes against No. 2 Ohio State in his freshman season in 1995.

He became the fourth overall pick of the Oakland Raiders in 1998 and has 41 career interceptions (seven returned for touchdowns).

Ohio State Defensive Back – Mike Doss
*Mike Doss, photo taken from ncaafootball.com

*Mike Doss, photo taken from ncaafootball.com

Mike Doss proved pivotal in Ohio State’s 26-20 win over Michigan in 2001 during Jim Tressel’s first season as head coach.

Doss picked off a pass and ran it 36 yards to the Michigan four to set up Ohio State’s first touchdown.

In the fourth quarter, Doss intercepted another John Navarre pass to set up a field goal.

The interceptions were critical in helping Ohio State win its first game in Ann Arbor in 14 years.

Michigan Defensive Back – Barry Pierson
*Barry Pierson

*Barry Pierson

Michigan defensive back Barry Pearson helped Michigan capture one of the biggest upsets of all time in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.

In Bo Schembechler’s first season as Michigan head coach, the Wolverines entered the 1969 meeting ranked 12th in the nation.

Ohio State came in undefeated and ranked first in the nation.

Pierson picked off three passes in the game and also returned a punt 60 yards to the Ohio State three-yard line to set up a Michigan touchdown.

His performance helped Michigan upset what many believe to be the greatest college football team of all time.

Ohio State Defensive Back – Chic Harley
*Chic Harley

*Chic Harley

In 1919 Chic Harley returned from World War I, where he served as an Army pilot, to pick off four passes in Ohio State’s 13-3 win over Michigan.

It was Ohio State’s first ever win over the Wolverines, and Harley’s four picks (still a school single game record) helped lead the way.

He earned first-team All-America honors that season and also played halfback, punter, and kicker.

His number 47 was retired by Ohio State five years ago.

Michigan Punter – Chuck Ortmann
*Chuck Ortmann

*Chuck Ortmann

Chuck Ortmann may not have been the best punter to ever wear the maize and blue, but he holds Michigan’s career single game punting records thanks to Mother Nature.

The 1950 “Snow Bowl” between Michigan and Ohio State was played in the worst blizzard in 37 years to hit Columbus.

Ortmann punted 24 times for 723 yards, helping Michigan win the game 9-3.

Ohio State Punter – Vic Janowicz
*Vic Janowicz

*Vic Janowicz

Ohio State punter Vic Janowicz also gets credit for Ohio State’s career single-game punting records thanks to the blizzard of 1950.

In the “Snow Bowl,” Janowicz booted 21 punts for 685 yards and scored Ohio State’s only three points of the game on a field goal.

After the game, Janowicz said, “It was like a nightmare. My hands were numb and blue. I had no feeling in them and I don’t know how I hung onto the ball. It was terrible. You knew what you wanted to do, but you couldn’t do it.”

In addition to punter, Janowicz served as Ohio State’s halfback, kicker, and safety, and won the Heisman Trophy that season.

Michigan Kicker – J.D. Carlson
*J.D. Carlson

*J.D. Carlson

There have been many great Michigan-Ohio State games, but only one has ended as a result of a Michigan field goal.

In 1990, 15th-ranked Michigan needed a win over 19th-ranked Ohio State to secure a share of the Big Ten championship.

Late in the game, tied 13-13, Michigan kicker J.D. Carlson missed a short field goal attempt that would have put Michigan ahead.

But after getting the ball back, Carlson got a chance for redemption, and nailed it with no time remaining to give Michigan a 16-13 win.

Bouncing back from the miss to win the game changed Carlson’s life.

“I will forever be prepared for the rest of my life because I have experienced some of the biggest swings in emotion in a short period of time,” Carlson said of the game. “Not much fazes me now.”

Carlson holds Michigan’s single game field goal record, as well as the highest career PAT percentage record.

Ohio State Kicker – Tom Klaban
*No pictures of Tom Klaban were available

*No pictures of Tom Klaban were available

In 1974, Michigan and Ohio State entered the annual showdown ranked third and fourth in the nation, respectively.

The game proved to be all about the kickers as Michigan kicker Mike Lantry missed a field goal that would have won the game as time expired, but it was Ohio State kicker Tom Klaban who stole the show.

Klaban booted four field goals to account for all of Ohio State’s points in the 12-10 victory, the only time Ohio State has beaten Michigan without scoring a touchdown. The win sent Ohio State to a Rose Bowl battle with USC.

Most Likely Michigan Breakout Performer
*Brandon Graham, photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

*Brandon Graham, photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

For Michigan to win the game on Saturday, it will need a great performance from its defense. The defense has been much of the reason for Michigan’s second half collapse this season.

One player who has stood out all season is defensive end Brandon Graham. The senior had perhaps the best game of his career last week against Wisconsin, recording 11 tackles (five for loss), two sacks, and a forced fumble.

Last season, Graham had three tackles (two for loss) and a sack against Ohio State.

If Michigan wins on Saturday, expect a big day from Graham in the Ohio State backfield.

Other possible breakout performers: Michigan running backs Brandon Minor or Carlos Brown, Michigan receiver Roy Roundtree

Most Likely Ohio State Breakout Performer
*Terrelle Pryor, photo taken from uweekly.com

*Terrelle Pryor, photo taken from uweekly.com

Every great quarterback has a career defining game that cements his spot in team lore. For Ohio State sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor, this Saturday could be that game.

Pryor received much criticism from Buckeye fans early in the season after losses to USC and Purdue, but has played much better in the second half.

A great showing against Michigan, who hasn’t shown it can stop a mobile quarterback, or anybody for that matter, could sell even the most incredulous of Buckeye fans on his abilities.

If Pryor makes the same mistakes he did against Purdue, Michigan has a shot, but if Pryor uses his legs effectively and makes the throws he needs to, he has a great shot at being 2-0 against Michigan.

Other possible breakout performers: Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey, defensive back Kurt Coleman

Michigan-Ohio State: Is This the Most Important Game Ever for Michigan?

Monday, November 16th, 2009


With the calls for Rich Rodriguez’s firing growing louder each week, and the threat of a second straight losing season, Michigan enters Ohio State week in what could be the most important game for the Wolverines in the history of the rivalry.

*Michigan and Ohio State square off on Saturday for the 106th time, photo taken from tiltyourhead.com

*Michigan and Ohio State square off on Saturday for the 106th time, photo taken from tiltyourhead.com

Sure, there was the “Game of the Century” in 2006 when both teams entered the game undefeated and ranked 1st and 2nd in the nation.

Sure, there was 1997 when Michigan needed a win to advance to the National Championship game.

Sure, there was the huge upset of No. 1 Ohio State in Bo Schembechler’s first season in 1969, a year after Ohio State drubbed Michigan 50-14, to claim a share of the Big Ten title.

But Saturday could be more important for the future of the Michigan football program than any of those.

No, there isn’t a Big Ten title on the line or a BCS berth to play for.

But for a young Michigan team struggling to find its identity in the midst of the most dramatic change to the program in decades, a win over Ohio State on Saturday would have huge ramifications for the future.

First and foremost, a win would make Michigan bowl-eligible. Though not guaranteed a bowl invitation with a 6-6 record, Michigan is almost certain to get one given its prestige and fan following.

*The goal for Michigan on Saturday, photo taken from logoshak.com

*The goal for Michigan on Saturday, photo taken from logoshak.com

Even if it is the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl (formerly known as the Motor City Bowl) it would be a tremendous boost to the program for the extra practice time and national exposure.

The regular season ends this Saturday, Nov. 22. The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl is held on Dec. 26, so Michigan would essentially have an extra month of practice. For a young and developing team, that extra practice time would be invaluable.

Many of the freshmen only had a month of practice time before the season started. Tate Forcier and a few others left high school early to enroll in January and participate in spring practice.

But most, including quarterback Denard Robinson, arrived just in time for fall camp on Aug. 10 and opened the season against Western Michigan on Sept. 5.

During the season, there isn’t much the team can work on as it prepares for each opponent week-to-week. Much of Rodriguez’s system was installed in fall practice to get ready for the season.

During game weeks, the practices are spent working on getting ready for that week’s opponent and fine-tuning certain details. Various players miss practices every week because of injury, stinting their learning ability and practice time.

New wrinkles may be installed or specific plays that the coaching staff thinks can exploit the opponent can be put in, but the vast majority of what the players learn (the schemes, the playbook, the fundamentals) is learned during fall practice.

That’s why many times a team can look quite different in a bowl game than it did during the regular season, because that month of practice serves as another fall camp.

Injured players get healthy, new plays and schemes are installed and practiced until they become second nature, and confidence is gained while the losses of the season are forgotten.

Look no further than Michigan in 2007, for example. The team, in Lloyd Carr’s final season, sputtered to an 8-4 regular season record. It endured a humiliating home loss to Appalachian State, a blowout at the hands of Oregon, and got shut down by Ohio State.

In the bowl game, the Capital One Bowl against a 9-3 Florida team led by Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, Michigan showed a much more dynamic and diverse offense than it had all season, winning 41-35.

It left Michigan fans wondering what could have been had Michigan played that way all season and also excited about the future of that style of offense once Rodriguez was hired.

And while Rodriguez’s offense has shown great promise and flashes of brilliance at times this season, it’s still plagued by inexperience.

A bowl game and the extra month of practice time would do wonders for this young and developing team.

In addition to the extra practice time, making it to a bowl game will give Michigan exposure on a national stage during the holidays at a time when everybody is watching, and a chance to finish on a high note heading into the off-season.

Nobody wants to endure eight months of misery like what followed Michigan’s 3-9 season a year ago. By finishing the season with a win over Ohio State and a bowl game, Michigan fans will be excited about 2010, and the players will be confident heading into the off-season.

*Michigan hopes to secure a commitment from 4* CB Cullen Christian, who will be in attendance on Saturday, photo taken from ESPN.com

*Michigan hopes to secure a commitment from 4* CB Cullen Christian, who will be in attendance on Saturday, photo taken from ESPN.com

The second reason Saturday’s game is so important is that beating Ohio State would help with recruiting. Michigan has quite a few visitors coming to Ann Arbor for official visits.

A chance to see Michigan beat its major rival in the Big House on the final week of the season would go a long way toward helping a recruit tip the scales in Michigan’s favor.

Eight of Michigan’s 24 commitments in the 2007 class were in attendance for the Michigan-Ohio State game in the Big House that year.

And while Michigan didn’t win that game, it wasn’t quite in the dire situation it is in now with a need for talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

If Michigan lays an egg against Ohio State and boos rain down from the stands, the attending recruits won’t have as good an experience as if Michigan pulls off the big win.

Some of the visitors expected to be in attendance on Saturday include: Chula Vista, Calif. four-star linebacker/safety Tony Jefferson; Pittsburgh four-star cornerback Cullen Christian; Jacksonville, Fla., four-star safety Rashad Knight; Detroit four-star cornerback Dior Mathis; and Eagle Lake, Fla., four-star safety/linebacker Marvin Robinson.

Robinson is already committed to Michigan, but has talked in the past few months about visiting other schools. A big win and a great experience on Saturday could help solidify his commitment.

Jefferson is currently committed to UCLA, and is visiting Florida next weekend, so showing him what it’s like to beat Ohio State in the Big House could go a long way toward stealing him.

Christian is also a prized recruit, since he’s a cornerback, a position Michigan really needs to fill, due to the dismissal of Boubacar Cissoko and possible departure of Donovan Warren to the NFL.

He has already visited UCLA and West Virginia (and possibly Pittsburgh), so Michigan has a chance wrap up his commitment with a great showing on Saturday.

Michigan needs to make this weekend special with a glimpse of what the future holds for the program and show these kids that despite the recent struggles, the program is heading in the right direction.

The third reason a win over Ohio State on Saturday would be huge for Michigan is for the support of Rodriguez and a reward for the senior class.

*Brandon Graham ranks second all-time in career sacks at Michigan, but has yet to beat Ohio State, photo by MGoBlue.com

*Brandon Graham ranks second all-time in career sacks at Michigan, but has yet to beat Ohio State, photo by MGoBlue.com

A win won’t completely erase the anti-Rodriguez sentiment, but it will at least quiet down until next season and win back some of those who have turned against him.

His 8-15 overall record and 3-12 Big Ten record includes just one win over Michigan’s big three rivals (and that was Notre Dame this season).

That stat alone has caused much of the friction among Michigan fans, since one of their main charges against Carr was that he couldn’t beat Ohio State once Jim Tressel arrived in Columbus in 2001.

Winning on Saturday would make Rodriguez 2-4 in that category, but more importantly, give Michigan its first win over the Buckeyes since 2003.

In addition to helping quell the Rodriguez detractors, a win would give the senior class its first win over Ohio State.

Guys like Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown, Brandon Graham, Stevie Brown, Greg Mathews, and Zoltan Mesko, who hung around through the coaching change, deserve a big win to cap off their careers.

Some of them (Graham and Mesko, at least) have bright futures ahead of them in the NFL and have played hard without complaining all season, despite not being Rodriguez’s recruits.

While “deserve” might not be the right word, since nothing in life is deserved, it would be a major disappointment for those guys to go their entire career without beating Ohio State.

A loss would end Michigan’s season at 5-7 (its second straight losing season) and give Ohio State its sixth straight victory in the rivalry.

It would send Michigan home for the holidays and keep the senior class winless against the Buckeyes.

It would leave feelings of despair and depression among Michigan fans worldwide until next fall.

It could prevent some highly-touted and much-needed recruits from choosing to play football at Michigan, and therefore, stunting the growth process even further.

So while many of the previous 105 games in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry have featured higher stakes in terms of championships, this Saturday’s game could be the most important game in the history of the rivalry for Michigan.

So let’s hope that everyone is all in for Rodriguez and the senior class when toe meets leather at high noon on Saturday.

Michigan-Purdue: Can Michigan Bounce Back From Halloween Horror to Become Bowl Eligible?

Friday, November 6th, 2009


Following last week’s Halloween horror in Illinois, Michigan returns home with its best remaining chance to become bowl eligible.

Any other season, that wouldn’t be a big deal, but after missing a bowl for the first time in 34 years last season, Michigan needs to get back to post-season play. It’s important, not only for the prestige of playing in a bowl, which isn’t what it was the last time Michigan missed a bowl, but also for the extra few weeks of practice.

The extra practice time will give the team more room to grow and prepare for the bowl game and beyond.

*Brandon Minor rushed for 156 yards and 3 touchdowns vs. Purdue last season

*Brandon Minor rushed for 156 yards and 3 touchdowns vs. Purdue last season

But the only way to be assured of that extra practice time is to beat Purdue on Saturday.

Purdue is an interesting team – one that beat Ohio State and came within two of Oregon and three of Notre Dame, but one that also lost to Northern Illinois, Northwestern, and got throttled 37-0 by Wisconsin last week.

In other words, the Jekyll and Hyde team reminds me of, well, Michigan.

Michigan upset Notre Dame and came within two of Iowa, but lost to Michigan State and got pounded by Illinois and Penn State.

So the question is: which team will show up…for both teams?

If the Michigan team from the beginning of the season shows up, Michigan should win this one fairly easily. But if Dr. Hyde returns in the form of the Salvation Army, it could spell another long day, and another long off-season for Michigan.

Michigan has turned the ball over 7 times (and gained none) in the past two games and has a minus-10 turnover differential overall.

The biggest key to this game is stopping the big plays, and actually creating turnovers, which for this Michigan defense is much easier said than done.

Michigan gave up eight plays of over 20 yards last week against Illinois, a problem that has plagued the team all year long.

Purdue has a quarterback, Joey Elliott that ranks third in the Big Ten in passing, at 231.2 yards per game and second in touchdowns, with 14.

Receivers Keith Smith (60 receptions for 757 yards and 4 TDs) and Aaron Valentin (45 receptions for 535 yards and 7 TDs) will be a problem for Michigan’s secondary to contain.

Add in the fact that the Purdue offensive line has given up just 14 sacks through eight games, and Michigan could be forced to put up big numbers on offense to win the game.

Michigan has to be able to put pressure on Elliott to keep him from burning the secondary.

Purdue has also shown a knack for turning the ball over. In six losses, it has given up the ball 20 times, and Purdue has only one game (against Illinois) in which it had no turnovers.

*Purdue QB Joye Elliott has thrown for 2,081 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, photo taken from pennstatefansite.com

*Purdue QB Joye Elliott has thrown for 2,081 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, photo taken from pennstatefansite.com

This might just be the game Michigan needs to re-gain its confidence heading into the final two games against Wisconsin and Ohio State.

The second key to the game for Michigan is running the ball. Senior Brandon Minor is expected to play, and possibly start on Saturday, which should give Michigan its best running game possible.

Purdue ranks ninth in the Big Ten in rush defense, giving up 168.4 yards per game. Michigan should be able to run early and often, but must even that out with some resemblance of a passing game.

Purdue boasts the conference’s best pass defense and that doesn’t bode well for a Michigan team that lacks a polished receiving threat and will be without its top slot receiver, Martavious Odoms for the second straight week.

Freshman quarterback Tate Forcier has to be able to connect with tight ends Kevin Koger and Martell Webb over the middle to keep the Purdue defense from stacking the box.

That will allow Michigan to run the ball, which is even more important given that Purdue has one of the top defensive ends in the conference, in Ryan Kerrigan. He ranks first in the Big Ten in sacks this season, with nine, and ranks third in tackles-for-loss, with 14.5.

If Michigan can’t keep the Purdue defense honest with occasional passes to open up the running game, Forcier could be running for his life a lot.

Finally, Michigan has to play with confidence.

Last week, Michigan took a 13-7 lead into halftime and marched the opening drive of the second half down to the Illinois six-inch line. But then it failed to get into the end zone in four plays, and everything went down-hill from there.

Illinois out-scored Michigan 31-0 the rest of the way and Michigan was unable to respond.

This week, if something happens, the team needs to be able to pick itself up and bounce back. I know this is a very young team without much senior leadership, but it has to be able to pull itself off the mat and keep fighting.

With all that said, I’m skeptical about this game. At first glance, Purdue seems like an easy win, but when comparing the match-ups, it’s a lot closer.

Both teams are coming off bad road losses, but Michigan has the luxury of returning home to the friendly Maize and Blue-clad fans. And thankfully, Purdue’s quarterback isn’t the mobile-type quarterback that gives Michigan fits.

With its back up against the wall, I think Michigan will respond with one of its best outings of the season to at least give Michigan fans hope for the final two games.

Prediction: Michigan 36 – Purdue 21

Following Loss to Illinois, Questions Abound for Rodriguez, Michigan

Sunday, November 1st, 2009


Michigan traveled to Champaign, Ill. on Halloween looking to become bowl eligible, but instead came away with its second straight 25-point loss.

After building a 13-7 halftime lead, Michigan took the opening drive of the second half down to the Illinois 1-yard line. But four straight runs were unable to crack the end zone and Illinois took captured the momentum, and the game, scoring 31 unanswered points en route to a 38-13 victory.

*Defensive back J.T. Floyd sums up Michigan's day against Illinois, photo by Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com

*Defensive back J.T. Floyd sums up Michigan's day against Illinois, photo by Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com

Michigan looked like a kid that was trick-or-treating house-to-house, filling his bag of candy but then got beat up by the kid down the street and his bag of candy stolen.

For the second week in a row, Michigan looked uninspired and somewhat lost – far more so than a team should nine games into the season.

In the wake of the loss, and looking ahead to the final three games of the season, there are some questions that need to be answered.

Please note that I am still confident in Rich Rodriguez, and I’m not at all calling for his head after less than two seasons. I think he needs to be given time to build his team. I do have some questions, however.

1. Why can’t the defense stop the spread option?

This was a huge problem under Lloyd Carr. His defenses could defend the standard pro-style offense with the pocket-passing quarterback just fine, but when facing mobile quarterbacks, they looked lost.

Troy Smith, Vince Young, Dennis Dixon, and Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards are still giving Michigan fans nightmares.

Much of the reason Michigan athletic director Bill Martin went out and got Rich Rodriguez two years ago was to change the stagnant culture of Michigan football.

The four and five loss seasons were getting old. The slow defense that broke down every time it faced a faster offense needed a change.

So why are we still having trouble defending it?

Make no mistake about it; this defense is dangerously thin. Only 58 percent of the defensive commitments from the past five years are still on the team. Fifty-eight percent!

That’s certainly not a recipe for success.

Twenty defensive commitments are no longer on the team due to numerous factors: graduation (four), leaving early for the NFL (one), leaving the team (13), and not qualifying (two).

Until Rodriguez is able to bring in a couple more classes, this defense should continue to struggle, simply because of lack of depth.

But depth aside, why did the defense struggle so much to defend Darryl Clark last week and Juice Williams this week when it goes up against a similar offense in practice every week?

Rodriguez is the father of the spread-option offense, so he should know how to defend it.
Today, it wasn’t just a mistake here and there; the defense looked completely lost out there. Every time Williams ran a zone read, the same play that is the staple of the Michigan offense, everybody crashed down on the same guy, which usually tended to be the one without the ball.

*Juice Williams dominated Michigan for the third straight year, photo by Seth Perlman / AP

*Juice Williams dominated Michigan for the third straight year, photo by Seth Perlman / AP

Illinois had seven rushes of 20 yards or more, three of them going for touchdowns.

I have to believe that this will improve over time when Rodriguez gets more defensive recruits and more speed into the system, but it’s frustrating that it hasn’t improved at all.
2. Why wasn’t Brandon Minor on the field for the goal line set at the beginning of the third quarter?

Minor is the bigger power back, while Carlos Brown is a bit quicker. Yet it was Brown who got the carries on first, second, and third down from inside the one-yard line.

Minor came in and got the carry on fourth down, and was stopped just short of the goal line.

I realize he still has a nagging ankle injury, but if he was healthy enough to come in on fourth down, why wasn’t he in there for the first three plays?

3. Why didn’t Rodriguez use a time out just before the half?

Michigan had just kicked a field goal to take a 13-7 lead, and then forced an Illinois three-and-out. Williams was sacked at the Illinois 24-yard line with about a minute left, but instead of using his second timeout, Rodriguez let the clock run before Illinois called timeout with 27 seconds left.

A good punt and no return left Michigan with the ball at its own 11, and it subsequently took a knee, seemingly happy to go into the locker room with a six point lead.

But why not take a time out with a minute left and give your offense another chance to score before the half?

I would have expected Carr to take the conservative route and take it into the half, but not Rodriguez, especially with two timeouts left.

The only reason I can think of is that he wasn’t comfortable with punt return-man Junior Hemingway’s ability to catch the ball.

Turning it over in that situation would have given Illinois a great chance to take the lead and the momentum into the locker room.

But that’s a chance he should have taken, in my opinion.

4. Why has the team quit the past two weeks?

In Michigan’s first two losses, against Michigan State and Iowa, the team fought for the whole 60 minutes. It came back to force overtime against Michigan State and came within two of undefeated Iowa.

But last week against Penn State and this week against Illinois, it seemed to just give up once things started going bad.

The only defensive player that played every down 100 percent was senior defensive end Brandon Graham, and that’s going to make him a great NFL player. He finished with four tackles (one-and-a-half for loss), a sack, and a blocked punt.

The rest of the defense didn’t play inspired at all.

*Rodriguez screams at Martavious Odoms against Iowa, photo by the Detroit News

*Rodriguez screams at Martavious Odoms against Iowa, photo by the Detroit News

Maybe it’s the fact that the offense puts it in bad situations with turnovers, but when you’re playing college football, it’s your job to give it your all every time. And that effort was not there in the second half.

5. Is Rodriguez too hard on the players and coaches?

One of the common scenes on the sidelines this season and last has been Rodriguez chewing out his players and coaches after a mistake.

Now, I know many people will say that they should grow up and take it, but I seriously have to wonder if his demeanor has an impact on how the team plays.

I don’t have any data on it, but it seems that whenever Rodriguez goes off on a player, it has a negative effect on his play.

I’m all for coaches yelling; it’s what they do. But for a young team like this, that is still trying to grow and learn the system, maybe yelling in their face isn’t the right way to get your point across.

It’s something to think about, but I’m pretty sure Rodriguez isn’t going to change his coaching style, so the players are going to need to adjust.

So where does Michigan go from here?

It needs one more win to be bowl eligible, and two to be assured of a bowl game.

Next week, Michigan hosts Purdue, which is probably the last winnable game left on the schedule if the team continues to play like this.

The following week, Michigan travels to Wisconsin to play a team that just throttled Purdue 37-0.  That game will be as tough as any game Michigan has played all season.

Finally, Michigan hosts Ohio State in a game that very well could salvage the season. However, Ohio State’s quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, is the same type of mobile quarterback that Michigan can’t defend.

The team needs to get its confidence back so it can finish the season strong and get back to a bowl game. Otherwise, it’s going to be another long off-season filled with second-guessing and more anti-Rodriguez sentiment.