It's been a long absence, but I am back after a week-long summer trip to New England. I'll save you the details, but it allowed for a much needed break to build more anticipation for the coming football season. This year I will be attending 10 games in 12 weeks. That total includes all seven Purdue home games, a trip to Bloomington for the Bucket game, a trip to Miami for my wife's homecoming (hopefully not a last visit to the Orange bowl), and an October 13th trip to Ann Arbor for my first visit to the Big House.
I have been looking forward to seeing a game at Michigan for a long time. The Wolverines are one of the most successful programs in NCAA Division 1-A history with 860 wins, the largest stadium in all the land, 42 conference championships, and 11 National Championships. Michigan is one of those programs that everyone wishes they could be. I am in awe of the fact that this is just another home game for them, yet there will be more than 111,000 people in the stands and a guaranteed sell out. We can't even sell out 62,500 seats for half our games, yet Michigan has such a demand for tickets they are adding even more seats.
Of course, it also helps the Wolverines were very good last year, and for several years before that. They could be even better this coming season. All that winning tradition naturally translates into quite a following. This team has been to 32 consecutive bowl games, 26 of those being of the New Year's Day variety, and barring a complete disaster 2007 will be the next in that string. Our history pales in comparison to theirs, and this year our team, even a good one by our own modest standards, will likely pale as well.
Last Season for the Wolverines:
Even though the Wolverines were 11-2 last year, the season was deemed a failure for one reason. An 11-0 start was tarnished by losing at Ohio State, denying them another Big Ten championship and berth in the National Championship Game. They still very nearly got a rematch, but were instead sent back to the Rose Bowl as a consolation prize. Once there USC beat them for the sixth time in eight rose Bowl meetings. Most teams would gauge that as a fantastic year, but this is Michigan. Because Michigan lost to Ohio State for the fifth time in six years, this time with the highest stakes in the rivalry's history, Lloyd Carr is now feeling the pressure despite what he has accomplished as head coach.
When you take away the final two games Michigan was one of the best teams in the country. A particularly notable stretch included blowout wins over Central Michigan (who had a great year and won the MAC) and Notre Dame, followed by Wisconsin's only loss on the season 27-13. The victory over the Badgers prevented the BCS title game from being an all-Big Ten affair, as an unbeaten Wisconsin squad likely would have gotten the nod over Florida. From that point on the Wolverines seemed to go on cruise control, with the best win coming 17-10 at Penn State. Perhaps the oddest game of that stretch was on November 4th when Ball State gave the Wolverines quite a game in Ann Arbor. The Cardinals were a play or two away from pulling off one of the largest upsets in college football history, and I don't know if it was a case of them playing the game of their lives or Michigan just not being all there mentally.
We haven't seen Michigan since 2004, but the key weapons are still the same from that game in West Lafayette. Chad Henne and Mike Hart both started that game as freshmen, and will start this game as well-seasoned veterans this time around. History has not been kind to the Boilermakers when it comes to the Wolverines, even since coach Tiller turned things around 10 years ago. We have only beaten Michigan once in that time, the fewest wins against any regular opponent, and that game took an amazing second-half turnaround to accomplish.
The schedule before our game has some nice balance for a team trying to win a national championship. Michigan opens at home with Appalachian State, breaking a 74 year streak of not playing anyone outside of Division 1-A. If you're going to break that streak you might as well break it against the best, as the Mountaineers have won back-to-back Division 1-AA titles and could probably hold their own against most of the MAC and Sun Belt. After that an intriguing stretch of home games against Oregon, Notre Dame, and Penn State should all provide strong tests. Michigan only goes on the road once before facing us, traveling to an improved Northwestern before facing MAC doormat Eastern Michigan the week before our game.
One word: Eeep! For us to have any shot in this game our defense will have to be worlds better than it has been the last two years. Even then it will have to play one of the best games in Purdue history to pull out the win on the road. As a freshman against a much better defense than we currently have Hart ran for 206 yards and a touchdown three years ago. Henne struggled a bit with only 190 yards and an interception, but last year he only threw eight picks against 22 scores. Hart has already rushed for more than 3,600 yards in his career, and if not for a 2005 season fraught with injuries he would be pushing for the all-time Division 1-A rushing record.
While Henne and Hart are legitimate Heisman candidates, the Wolverine offense is much more than those two. Mario Manningham returns as the top receiver. He led the Wolverines in receiving yards and touchdowns even though he missed four games with a knee injury. Manningham's speed will be an issue for our secondary to keep up with, and he is not the only quick receiver the Wolverines have. Adrian Arrington and Mike Massey are both solid receivers in their own right and will make us pay if we concentrate too much on Manningham.
Michigan's offensive line must only replace its right tackle, and the left side of the line features two guys that very well could be 1st round draft picks next April. Henne will have plenty of protection and hart should have some sizable holes to run through. Jake Long is a 6'7" 313-pound left tackle that will serve as a wall protecting Henne's blind side, while Adam Kraus will punish the interior of our defensive line either at left guard or center. Michigan's line is smaller than it has been in the past, but is more dangerous because of its quickness.
I am honestly at a loss as to how we expect to slow this offense down, since it will likely be one of the best in the country. It will likely take a B or even C-level game for us to even stay close unless our defense is markedly improved. Surely our D will be better by this the seventh game of the season, but will it be enough?
The Wolverines lost quite a bit from last year's defense, but being Michigan they can plug in quality guys right away. By game seven they will be playing much better after a strong opening stretch. Michigan lost its top pass rusher in LaMarr Woodley, its top tackler in linebacker David Harris, and its best player from the secondary in Leon Hall. The offense then will likely have to carry this team early as the defense gets its act together.
Terrance Taylor is the only returning starter on the defensive line, and is a 310-pound defensive tackle. Brandon Graham is perhaps the most promising new starter on the defensive line, as he has the quickness to come off the end and wreak havoc in the backfield. Much like our own model for defensive ends, he is a linebacker moved to end to better utilize his speed.
Shawn Crable appears to be the top returning linebacker, while John Thompson will provide more quickness from the middle. The unit as a whole should be very fast, and they will likely be able to play both the pass and run well. Michigan won't be afraid to blitz and we will need to be ready to protect Painter. Michigan can afford to gamble with its linebackers because its secondary will also be incredibly fast and able to cover any mistakes. Jamar Adams is the best returning player in the defensive backfield, and he is a solid defender at strong safety against the run.
Obviously, the name of the game for Michigan's defense is speed, and it will take an awful lot of finesse to move the ball against them. Their secondary should be an interesting match against the experience of our receivers, and how we utilize the underneath passing game with Bryant, Keller, Taylor, and Sheets will be critical. Michigan had some trouble last year in coverage with just 12 interceptions, but they will hit hard and try to force turnovers that way. If we can move the ball underneath against their safeties and linebackers it will open the outside for Orton and Lymon against their corners. Morgan Trent will be the new #1 corner, but his 6'1" frame will be a challenging matchup against our tall outside receivers. Johnny Sears appears to be the other corner, but hasn't seen a whole lot of time on the field yet. Trent and Sears haven't done much in coverage in the past, and Trent especially got lit up in last year's two losses.
Michigan Special Teams:
Michigan has yet to select a kicker to replace Garrett Rivas, but it will be difficult to replace his production. Rivas hit on 17 of 20 field goals last year, but this Michigan offense will probably get in the end zone enough that only extra points will be needed. Zoltan Mesko returns as the punter and he acerage 41.6 yards per punt last year.
As far as returns go, there is no Steve Breaston to kick to anymore, so it's not quite the nightmare that kicking to the Wolverines has been in the past. Still, Michigan has a history of developing great kick returners, and I would not be surprised if someone new emerged. Perhaps the only true advantage we have comes in this area of the game, as Michigan gave up more than 22 yards per kickoff return last year. We just happen to have two pretty good returners in Sheets and Bryant, who will likely get plenty of opportunities to take one back this day.
The last time Purdue went into Ann Arbor and won a game Bob Griese was quarterback and I wouldn't even be born for another 13 years. It has been 41 years since we last won in the Big House, and we have only beaten Michigan 12 times in 52 overall tries. Some of our best teams in school history have gone to Michigan and been soundly defeated, while the best chance for a win in the past forty years may have come in 1995 when Jim Colletto of all people directed us to a 5-0 loss. Only Colletto, the supposed "offensive genius" could waste perhaps one of the best defensive efforts in school history by failing to score at all.
For whatever reason we simply don't play that well in Ann Arbor, no matter how good of a season we are having at the time. Our last three visits to Michigan have come when we have had a combined record of 14-1 and a top 12 national ranking, yet each time we have lost by two touchdowns or more. This year we will likely be at least 4-2, with an outside chance of being 6-0, but I don't feel we have much of a shot of winning this game.
I don't feel good about getting into a shootout with them because their offense is more balanced than ours and they can wear down the clock with Hart all day long. Unless our defense is light years better they should be able to do whatever they want. On the other side of the ball their defense will be much, much better by this point in the season and will not be an easy break for our offense after facing Ohio State a week earlier. We should be able to score a few points in this one, but not enough to keep up with them.
I'll be blunt when I say this: If we somehow beat Michigan there is no reason to think we cannot beat anyone else on our schedule. The Wolverines are the best team we will face all year, and that is because they are the most complete of all 12 opponents. If (and that is still a big if) we are 6-0 coming into this game and somehow pull off a win, suddenly we find ourselves with only a trip to Penn State and possibly Iowa standing in our way of an undefeated season.
Even I am not delusional enough to think that is going to happen. This is Purdue we're talking about, and there are two sure things when it comes to Purdue. We always lose at Michigan, and we always lose at least one game we have no business losing. At least in our next three toughest places to play, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Penn State, we have had a win or two in the last 40 seasons and several other close calls. With Michigan we have only come within two touchdowns of victory twice since the 1966 triumph, the 1995 game and a 9-6 loss in 1972.
To this point in the season we at least have one significant edge or several minor edges over each opponent except maybe Ohio State, and even that game is at home. That is not the case here, and because of that it will be even more difficult for us to go on the road and pull of a win where we have had the most trouble doing so over the past 40 years.
This one could get ugly, like so many Michigan-Purdue games have gotten in the past. It will take the best game we have played in years and a lackluster effort by Michigan for us to even have a chance. That being said, I am still looking forward to adding the Big House to my list of stadiums. At least that will be one positive from the day. Michigan 38, Purdue 14.