By Tom Orr
The final Michigan Monday of the season will have a different look from the rest of this year’s editions.
For one thing, the Wolverines played Indiana, so it really didn’t mean much. Also, if you watched the OSU-Northwestern game, you pretty much saw the Michigan game anyway.
Here’s a quick synopsis: Big underdog gets the ball first on opening kickoff and marches the length of the field for a touchdown. That very impressive drive gets the announcers talking about “they came to play today” or “(favorite) could be in for a fight.”
Then the favorite receives the ensuing kickoff and runs it out to midfield, giving its high-powered offense a short field to work with. The favorite cashes in with a touchdown.
The underdog comes out on its next drive and struggles. Again, the special teams leave the favorite’s offense with a short field. The favorite scores again.
Suddenly, that underdog can’t do anything on offense, can’t stop the favorite on defense, and the score quickly gets out of hand. The second half features a lot of backups on the field and a lot of starters on the sideline, thinking ahead to next week’s game.
Here’s all you need to know from this one. (The numbers in parenthesis after a guy’s name is his uniform number, so you can pick him out more easily on Saturday.)
- RB Mike Hart (#20) did not play at all. He’s been nursing an ankle injury, and while the coaches said he certainly could have played, they didn’t need him. He will be back in action next week against the Buckeyes.
- C Adam Kraus (#57) did not play, either. He’s dealing with an injured right knee, and like Hart, the coaches said he certainly could have played, they didn’t need him. He will play next week.
- RT Jake Long (#77), who’s been nursing an ankle injury and DE LaMarr Woodley (#56), who has a bad forearm, both played sparingly. If the Buckeyes had been on the visitor’s sideline on Saturday, both could have gone all day.
- WR Mario Manningham (#86) injured his right knee on a punt return in the second half. He did not return to the game, and there was no official word on his status for next weekend.
- WR/KR Steve Breaston (#15) finally looks like he’s 100% or close to it. He’s been dealing with some nagging injuries all year, but exploded on the Hoosiers. He ran a reverse for 30 yards, returned a kickoff for 47 yards, had three catches for 46 yards and a touchdown, and returned three punts for 80 yards. He also drew a 15-yard kick-catch interference penalty on another punt. For the first time all year, he looks like the terror-inspiring force of nature that he was during his breakout freshman campaign.
- True freshman RB Kevin Grady (#3) got most of the carries in Hart’s absence. He finished with 94 yards on 14 carries, and two touchdowns. His biggest play of the day came when a couple of Hoosiers seemed to have him down, but Grady popped out the other end of the pile and ran 32 yards for a touchdown. You must, must, must wrap him up.
- The Wolverines continue to find new ways to get the ball into the hands of explosive freshman WR Antonio Bass (#18). Saturday, they lined him up in the backfield, ran another receiver in motion, faked the end-around going one way and then pitched it to Bass in the other direction. It’s similar to a running play OSU has in its arsenal. The Wolverines also got it to Bass on a more traditional toss-sweep (similar to the play OSU ran with Ted Ginn against Penn State). Throughout the year, we’ve seen Bass line up at quarterback and run draws and sweeps. He even threw a pass which was ugly, but completed to Jason Avant (#8) for a first down against Iowa. Don’t be surprised if Bass lines up in the QB position on Saturday, probably with a new wrinkle (perhaps running some option or even that option/shovel-pass play that many teams, including OSU, are running now). He and Breaston may line up together in the backfield to run some option.
- Michigan also ran a double-pass to Breaston out of their “diamond” formation. They lined up four WR in the shape of a diamond on one side of the formation and threw it to the back guy (Breaston). Normally, he takes it upfield with the other three guys in front blocking for him. This time, he threw it back to QB Chad Henne (#7). It would likely have been a touchdown, but Breaston’s throw hit the ground before it got to Henne. You may see this exact play again on Saturday, but more than likely Michigan just showed it to keep the Buckeyes from swarming to Breaston when they run the more traditional pass play.
- Henne has been scrambling more in recent weeks. He’s not ever going to put up a 100 yard game on the ground, but he can pick up a first down here or there if you forget about him. He looked much more confident throwing the ball Saturday than he has in recent weeks. You can chalk that up to an improvement in his mechanics or facing the Indiana defense, whichever you want to.
- Indiana enjoyed some success when they were able to get QB Blake Powers out of the pocket. He scrambled twice for a total of 17 yards early before the Michigan defense clamped down. Rolling the quarterback out and giving him a run/pass option has been a good way to attack this defense for much of the year. It won’t work all day, but you can get some big plays out of it before Michigan can adjust.
- Once the Wolverines adjusted to stop the run, Indiana was pretty much helpless because both of their primary WR were out (one suspended and one hurt). That allowed Michigan to almost completely disregard the Hoosiers’ downfield passing game.
- Garret Rivas (#38) badly missed a 52-yard FG try, then missed an extra point on a play where the snap wasn’t great, but the ball was down in time. On field goals, anything outside of 50 yards is pretty clearly outside of his range. He appears to have the leg to get it there (his 45-yarders are often good by 5-10 yards), but seems to over-kick it, and generally loses all sense of direction. Overall, when Rivas is on, he looks like a very solid kicker: he’s hit 17-of-23 field goals on the year. But when he’s off, it can get ugly. He missed two make-able kicks against Minnesota (34 and 42 yards), missed a 27-yarder at the end of regulation against MSU, and missed a 43-yarder against Penn State. A few of those misses have been simply horrific—landing close to the corner of the end zone. If he’s on, he can kill opponents. If he’s off, he can kill Michigan. There doesn’t appear to be any real rhyme or reason to which games Bad Garret shows up. If you can keep Michigan from getting inside the 30, you’re going to hold them without points on almost every possession. However, this also means that Carr may choose to go for it on 4th down around the 35.
Now the big question this week is what the Buckeyes need to do to stop the Wolverine offense, and move the ball on the Michigan defense. Here are some suggestions…
Do not go for big hits on guys like Mike Hart and Kevin Grady. Stick, wrap and hang on until the cavalry arrives. Let the third guy in (definitely not the first guy) go for the strip. Good tackling is also going to be crucial on the outside, where Michigan likes to throw short passes (and even laterals) to their WR, and let them try to make a play. If you tackle them immediately, it’s three or four yards. If one guy misses, it can go for a big play. The tackling by corners and safeties needs to be almost perfect.
Henne gets a lot of balls batted down at the line. He has worked this year to raise his release point, but an IU defensive lineman knocked one pass straight up into the air. If you get your hands up, you can put yourself in a position to get an easy INT on a deflected pass. A play like this helped the Buckeyes get off to a great start in Ann Arbor in 2001.
It’s imperative that you score on your opening possession. Michigan has been really, really bad on defense coming out of the gate. Once they adjust, those points become harder to come by, so you need to get ‘em while the getting’s good.
Here’s a look at the last year or so of opponents’ opening possessions:
Indiana: 7 plays, 77 yards, 3:03, touchdown.
Northwestern: 5 plays, 48 yards, 1:39, fumble.
Iowa: 9 plays, 86 yards, 3:25, touchdown.
Penn State: 13 plays, 67 yards, 6:37, missed FG.
Minnesota: 10 plays, 41 yards, 3:36, downs.
Michigan State: 6 plays, 29 yards, 3:03, punt.
Wisconsin: 10 plays, 24 yards, 5:11, punt.
Eastern Michigan: 4 plays, 23 yards, 1:12, punt.
Notre Dame: 12 plays, 76 yards, 2:58, touchdown.
Northern Illinois: 16 plays, 86 yards, 6:48, field goal.
Texas (Rose Bowl): 8 plays, 28 yards, 3:34, punt.
Ohio State, 2004: 5 plays, 80 yards, 1:13, touchdown.
Northwestern, 2004: 3 plays, 9 yards, 2:02, punt.
Michigan State, 2004: 4 plays, 80 yards, 1:00, touchdown.
Purdue, 2004: 10 plays, 65 yards, 3:55, touchdown.
Four of the eight teams who didn’t put together monster scoring drives on the opening possession managed to do so during their second possessions.
Northwestern, 2005: 2 plays, 80 yards, 0:37, touchdown.
Minnesota: 14 plays, 69 yards, 5:44, field goal.
Texas: 12 plays, 85 yards, 4:27, touchdown.
Northwestern, 2004: 12 plays, 64 yards, 5:11, field goal.
In all, 11 of the last 15 teams to play Michigan have scored points on at least one of their first two drives. It’s imperative that the Buckeyes do the same on Saturday.
How do you score those points? Since it’s Ohio State-Michigan, the obvious answer is that you need to be able to run the ball. That’s absolutely true, but the problem is that both teams know their opponents must run the ball, so they’ll be keying on stopping the run. Michigan will almost certainly be focused on containing Troy Smith’s scrambling after he played the role of German Shepherd to their position as “fire hydrant” a year ago.
That means they’ll likely commit a linebacker or safety as a “spy”, and also probably bring other guys up to the line to keep Antonio Pittman in check. In turn, OSU needs to attack the weakness of that type of defense by throwing downfield. It doesn’t need to be a 50-yard bomb on a fly route, but 15-yard outs, play-action passes to tight ends in the middle of the field, and slants and posts (to attack the spot where the safeties would normally be) will help force Michigan to back guys out of the box, which will in turn open up the running game.
Most teams need to run to establish the pass. Saturday, it will likely be just the opposite; OSU will need to establish the pass to open up the run.
On defense, the Buckeyes must stop the run. There’s some question whether Hart will be rusty coming into this game. He hasn’t played an entire game since the Wolverines beat Penn State on October 15.
How will his vision be? Will he see the right holes? How will his cutting ability be? Will he be able to hit those holes? The Buckeyes have to assume that Hart will be 100%, and sharp heading into this game.
Again, it’s so, so crucial that they tackle well. Hart is going to get 3-4 yards on almost every carry just because he’s so low to the ground that he’s hard to bring down, and he always seems to fall forward. The key is that you can’t let him break a tackle at the line and get 6-7 yards on carries. If you see that for more than a few plays in a row, the Bucks could be in trouble.
On third down plays (especially those 4 yards and longer), the first guy the Buckeyes need to find on the field is WR Jason Avant. He has been by far the most effective receiver on the Michigan team, with 70 catches and 900 yards. No one else has more than 20 catches and 341 yards.
Avant is not really a deep threat, but he has some of the best hands in all of college football. The passes that Henne rifles behind other guys for incompletions tend to turn into spectacular, twisting catches when they’re aimed at Avant.
Breaston and Manningham (if he plays) are the deep threats. Henne has not been great on deep balls this year, but has connected enough that you need to at least respect Michigan’s ability to hit that pass.
If Manningham can’t go, either Bass, senior Carl Tabb (#17) or redshirt freshman Doug Dutch (#81) will play in his place.
On defense, Michigan’s tackling has been terrible at times this season. However, don’t expect to see MLB David Harris (#45) miss too many. He’s the standout on their unit, and if it wasn’t for the star LB(s) at Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa, he would be a first-team all-conference guy.
John Thompson (#49), who played well on the outside against Iowa, should see action again this week. He looked great in the second half against the Hawkeyes, but didn’t play much against Northwestern’s spread. Look for him on the field when the Buckeyes are in running situations.
Dear Holy God, do NOT kick the ball to Steve Breaston. Whatever you do, don’t kick it to him. Josh Huston needs to put every kickoff into the third row behind the end zone on Saturday. Breaston is too quick and too shifty, and the OSU kick-coverage team has been too shaky (in their limited opportunities this season) to give Breaston a shot at changing the game with one play.
In recent years, every time a team has run back a punt for a touchdown (OSU in 2004, Michigan in 1997 and 1991) they’ve won the game. It’s such a huge lift emotionally, and besides, points are often hard to come by in these games.
Indiana tried stopping Breaston several ways on punt returns; kicking it to him (he nearly broke one for a touchdown and had several long returns), punting it out of bounds (only a 35-yard net, which would be fine with me on Saturday), punting it right to the sideline and pinning him in with great downfield coverage (great in theory, but you need a perfect punt and great coverage. Anything else turns this into just “kicking it to him”, which is bad), and of course, having a gunner run right through him while he’s waiting for the ball to come down. This is highly effective, although dirty and will cost you a 15-yard penalty. You may remember Michigan trying a similar tactic in 1996 against OSU.
Just as a friendly reminder to the OSU coaches, do NOT kick the ball to Steve Breaston.
On the other side of the ball, one can only hope that Michigan forgets about last year, kicks it to Ginn and puts a WR out as a gunner again.
Michigan’s punter, Ross Ryan (#3), doubles as their kickoff guy. He’s been almost as good as Huston at putting the ball in the back of the endzone on kickoffs.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the Michigan team that takes the field on Saturday will be VERY different from the one that lost to Minnesota, Wisconsin and Notre Dame.
The Big Ten’s decision to give Michigan the first two weeks of November off has allowed this team to get pretty close to completely healthy for the first time all year.
Their best RB, Michael Hart, will be back against the Bucks after suffering hamstring and ankle injuries.
Their most explosive play-maker, WR/KR Steve Breaston looks like he’s finally healthy for the first time this year.
Their best offensive lineman, RT Jake Long, is finally getting into full-game shape after missing much of the year with an ankle injury.
Their best defensive lineman, DE LaMarr Woodley will be back next week after missing most of the last three games with a forearm injury.
Both of their starting safeties, Brandent Englemon (#31) and Willis Barringer (#19) are back, leaving Brandon Harrison (#25) and Jamar Adams (#22) back on the bench, or relegated to spot duty in coverage.
That means a lot of their biggest problems this year (giving up big plays because of bad safety play, having trouble with pass protection and running the ball in short-yardage) are no longer as much of an issue as they once were.
OSU fans, you would be wise not to approach this weekend thinking that the Buckeyes should roll over Michigan simply because the Wolverines have three losses. This is not the same team that lost those games.
Both Ohio State and Michigan seem to be peaking; playing their best football of the season right now. Add in a hostile environment, and a Michigan team eager to redeem itself for the humiliation it suffered in Columbus last fall, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a 60-minute war.
The road to the big one
Sept. 3: Michigan 33, Northern Illinois 17
Sept. 10: Notre Dame 17, Michigan 10
Sept. 17: Michigan 55, Eastern Michigan 0
Sept. 24: Wisconsin 23, Michigan 20
Oct. 1: Michigan 34, Michigan State 31 (OT)
Oct. 8: Minnesota 23, Michigan 20
Oct. 15: Michigan 27, Penn State 25
Oct. 22: Michigan 23, Iowa 20 (OT)
Oct. 29: Michigan 33, Northwestern 17
Nov. 5: Idle
Nov. 12: Michigan 41, Indiana 14
Nov. 19: Ohio State
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