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Know thy Opponent 2008: Michigan Wolverines

If Joe Tiller’s final season in West Lafayette is going to stand out as opposed to blend in with the reign of mediocrity since 2003, there are a few conditions that must be met. First, there must be improved play from the defense. I believe this can happen with the starters, but we cannot afford injuries at almost every position. Second, Purdue must win the games it is expected to win. When you look at the schedule, I would include Northern Colorado, Central Michigan, Northwestern, Minnesota, Iowa, and Indiana as six of those games based on last year’s records. I could almost throw in Michigan State and Notre Dame in there, but those will be tough road games for us and I don’t expect to get both. Still, if we throw them in and get all of them, that is 8 wins. Some people would be happy with that, but it would also mean another season of blowing all our games against the best teams we play.

That brings us to the third thing. For this year to truly stand out we have to beat a really good team. Coach Tiller has no excuses this year. We get four shots at teams that had really good seasons last year. Three of them (Oregon, Penn State, and Michigan) come at home. Because of the question marks that the Wolverines are currently facing one could call this our best shot at getting one of those big four. Even if Michigan is terrible, they are still Michigan and beating them is a "name" win. Should we whiff on our first three chances, the Wolverines will likely be our last shot at grabbing a signature win in 2008.

Last Season for the Wolverines

If you look solely at the regular season, one could say the 2007 Michigan football season was excellence surrounded by dual layers of suck. In the middle of the season, Michigan was the Wolverine team everyone expected. An eight game winning streak with some good wins over Penn State and Illinois had Michigan in position for yet another Big Ten championship. I got to see part of this win streak up close and personal when I made my visit to the Big House to see Purdue play last October. Let’s just say I am very glad the Boilers didn’t play Appalachian State.

The beginning and end of the season was a nightmare for the Wolverines, however. We all know what happened in the opener. That was followed a week later by a home de-pantsing courtesy of Dennis Dixon and the Oregon Ducks. At the end of the season Michigan played flat in a 37-21 night loss at Wisconsin before doing little if anything in a 14-3 home finale loss to Ohio State. There was a silver-lining to the season, as Michigan redeemed itself somewhat with a solid 41-35 win over Florida in the Capital One Bowl on New Year’s Day.

2008 will be completely different for the Wolverines as they start their first season under the universally-loved Rich Rodriguez. The Wolverines must break in a new style of offense with several new faces. The non-conference schedule is not overly difficult, but has a couple of nice challenges. A sneaky good Utah team kicks off the season in Ann Arbor and a trip to Notre Dame will be tough. Miami (OH) and Toledo should be lay-ups. The Big Ten schedule is balanced with road trips to Penn state, Purdue, Minnesota, and Ohio State. The home games could be tricky with an enigma in Michigan State, Wisconsin, Illinois, and a dangerous Northwestern team coming to Ann Arbor.

Michigan offense

When getting to know the Wolverine offense this season it is best if one purchases a program. Gone are the big names of Hart, Henne, Manningham, and Long that were Ann Arbor for almost a decade it seems. Considering that Hart played just a game and a half against Purdue and still ran for over 300 yards and 3TD’s, I won’t miss him. The newcomers will have to learn Rodriguez’ spread option in a hurry if Michigan is to have success this season. Because of this and the departure of so many key pieces, it is hard to judge exactly what expected from a team that averaged almost 28 points per game last year and generated almost 5,000 yards.

First Michigan must replace Chad Henne at quarterback. The logical solution would have been Ryan Mallett. After seeing extensive action last season while Henne was injured, Mallet looked to be the heir apparent in what would have been his sophomore season. When Rodriguez came on, however, he transferred to Arkansas after not fitting in. Michigan lost out on the Terrelle Pryor sweepstakes, meaning Georgia Tech transfer Steven Threet appears to be the man. Junior Nick Sheridan and Sophomore David Cone are listed as the backups, but only Cone has even thrown a collegiate pass. Cone is 1 for 1 with 21 yards in his career, though he does have that 1999 perfect game with the Yankees.

The situation looks a little better at running back with juniors Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor returning. Both have experience because of Hart’s various injuries last season, and both played very well against Purdue. It should be noted, however, that Bobbi Brown probably could have run for 100 yards on us last year in Ann Arbor. Minor had 385 yards rushing and a touchdown last season while Brown had 382 yards and four scores. The two are nearly identical backs in both size and speed and will be counted on to help carry things early on. Both are good, but replacing someone like Hart, who was Michigan’s all-time leading rusher and will compete to be in the Colts backfield this fall, is a challenge.

Michigan has several young and talented receivers that will make a difference if Threet can get them the ball. Since Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington have both departed with nearly 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns between them these younger players have big shoes to fill. Greg Mathews is the best option as he was the #3 target last season. He finished with 39 catches for 366 yards and 3 scores in 2007. Junior Hemingway, Toney Clemons, LaTerryal Savoy, and Darryl Stonum are the leading candidates for the other spots, but they only have 6 receptions between them. Of course, Roy Roundtree may surprise everyone here. Threet will also be helped with the return of tight end Carson Butler. Butler had 20 catches for 246 yards and two scores last year, fourth on the team behind Manningham, Arrington, and Mathews.

Michigan’s offensive line allowed 28 sacks last season, but it must replace the #1 overall pick of the NFL draft in Jake Long as well as three other starters. The 2008 edition features four redshirt juniors and a redshirt sophomore, meaning everyone has been on campus for at least 3 years. Of course, the entire offense is learning a new system, and that system hinges on the play of the line. Stephen Schilling and Mike Ortmann are listed as the starting tackles at the moment. Both are slightly smaller than Long at 6’5" and just under 300 pounds. Cory Zirbel and Tim McAvoy are similarly sized at the guard spots, while the center David Moosman is at 6’4" 298lbs. It is not your typical Michigan line of hulking 320 pounders, but with so many closely sized guys it is a system of interchangeable parts. They will need to be fairly active in the new scheme, so the lack of overwhelming size may help.

Michigan defense

This is what frustrated me the most last season in my trip to Ann Arbor. App. State and Oregon gave us a blueprint on how to beat the Michigan defense. Painter has proven in his career that he can run more of a running spread as evidenced by how much he ran in his first two seasons. We even scored our only relevant touchdown on the day on a Painter option keeper. Naturally, we went away from the running game as soon as Sheets had a critical fumble, and it was all over but the slaughter.

As the offense comes together against live foes this season the defense will need to carry Michigan. The Wolverines will have to do so while replacing their top four tacklers from last season as well as one of their best pass rushers. Fortunately, there is some experience in the form of eight returning starters, and it starts up front with defensive end Brandon Graham. The junior led the Wolverines with 8.5 sacks last year. He won’t even need to be the anchor on a line that features three other seniors. Tim Jamison (52 tackles, 5.5 sacks), Will Johnson (40 tackles), and Terrance Taylor (55 tackles, 3.5 sacks) form what may be one of the biggest and most experienced defensive lines in the Big Ten, if not the country. Taylor is a mammoth tackle at 319 pounds, so I would suggest running the ball to the outside.

Moving back to the linebacker we see there isn’t nearly that amount of experience returning. Obinna Ezeh started every game last season and notched 68 tackles, 2 sacks, and an interception, but he is the only returning starter. Senior Austin Panter and sophomore Marrel Evans didn’t play much last year, but they are listed as starters at the moment. Senior John Thompson should also see some time after notching 29 tackles last year.

The secondary returns plenty of experience with senior cornerback Morgan Trent and senior safety Brandon Harrison, but it was the secondary that struggled mightily at times. Trent had a pair of interceptions with eight pass breakups, and with his size he will need to be more of a shutdown corner this year. Steve Brown and Donovan Warren look to hold down the other two spots. Brown played in all 13 games last season with 28 tackles and an interception from the other safety position.

Michigan Special Teams

At times the Michigan special teams was nothing short of a disaster in 2007. App. State blocked a pair of field goals in the final five minutes that would have made the difference in that epic upset. Both K.C Lopata and Jason Gingell split the kicking duties, with Lopata having the most success. Lopata was 11 of 12 on field goals and 28 of 29 on PAT’s while Gingell was just 3 of 9 and 14 of 14. Both had a long of 42 yards on field goals, and will be back to battle for the starting job. Should both seniors falter redshirt sophomore Bryan Wright will get a shot.
At punter Zoltan Mesko will be backed up by Wright, but Mesko was very effective with a 41 yard average per kick last year. 22 of those kicks were dropped inside the opponents’ 20 yard line, while Wright was a very effective kickoff specialist. Neither the punt nor kickoff units allowed a touchdown.

Returning kicks has often been a strength of the Wolverines and could be again in 2008 with experienced returners. Both Minor and Brown returned kickoffs last year and will be in the mix again. Mathews returned punts 28 times for an 8 yard average per return.

Intangibles

More than any other team in the conference, Michigan is a giant enigma coming into this season. They are breaking in a new offensive system that is vastly different from what they have run in past years, but with 8 new starters it is not like there were that many guys firmly entrenched in the old ways. Even with all the questions they are still Michigan. That means they have talented players and always will based on name alone. There is a reason they have been to a bowl for 33 consecutive years: they are always very good.

Rodriquez is a bit of a mystery as well. He hasn’t exactly endeared himself into the fraternity of Big Ten coaches before even coaching a single game. All eight teams that play Michigan this year in Big Ten play are looking at that game as a potential win. That includes Purdue, who has only beaten the Wolverines 12 times total and just twice in recent memory. If Jim Colletto can beat them in his final season, surely Tiller can. The potential is there for Michigan to have a very long season, but they are still Michigan. They will not go down easily.

Game Outlook

This is Purdue’s best chance to beat Michigan since 2000. Of the other 11 teams in the conference coach Tiller has had the most trouble with the Wolverines. He owns just one win against them, and that came with Drew Brees on a frenzied second half comeback when the defense played out of its mind. Even then, Travis Dorsch needed two chances to barely make the game winning field goal. Since this is game 9 the Michigan offense should be beginning to get into a flow of sorts. The defense has always caused problems for our receivers, meaning we must get more out of Sheets and Taylor in the backfield.

I don’t have a good feeling about this one. Last year was supposed to be our best chance at winning in Ann Arbor, and look how that turned out. If we can prove by this point in the season hat we can stop the run we have a chance. If not, well, it probably won’t matter anyway because who we will have faced to this point.

When we have played Michigan well we have avoided critical turnovers. The last three games against the Wolverines were decided by critical turnovers, as even last year we had a muffed punt and Sheets fumble that could have made a difference before things got out of hand.

Prediction

I think this will be a lot like our game against Michigan in 2004. It will be close, but we will find a way to lose it in the end. It may be one of the lower scoring games on the schedule as we struggle to score against Michigan, while they may struggle to do the same against us. Michigan 24, Purdue 21