By Tony Gerdeman
As I sit down to write the last Michigan Monday of the year, I find myself wondering how to design this edition. Last week's game with Indiana meant nothing. It was the equivalent of a second-baseman in spring training wearing a jersey in the 60s. He's being sent down before the train leaves town, so they don't even bother stitching a name on the back of his jersey.
And as I try to gather my thoughts, they race from all of the games I've seen this year, to the one we have yet to see.
#1 versus #2.
Good versus Evil.
All that is right with this world versus football's version of ringworm.
Or something like that.
And as I think of all of those games, I have to catch my breath. Michigan Week is always big, but I don't know that it's ever been bigger.
And you know one of the most impressive things about this week? Both Jim Tressel and Lloyd Carr have said that this week is big regardless of the rankings. To them, the rankings are in the background. The history and the helmets are in the foreground. This is where their focus is.
They both understand that in any given year, if you win this game, the surroundings will take care of themselves.
And the surroundings this year just happen to be on a retractable grass field in Glendale, Arizona.
So, with about five or so days left until all questions are answered, let's ask some of our own.
1. How is Michigan's health?
Well, like everybody, it could be better. However, according to Lloyd Carr, pretty much everybody will be available. Running back Kevin Grady has been out for a while with a bad shoulder, but he's expected to be ready this week.
Starting weakside linebacker Prescott Burgess stayed home last week with a bad ankle, but he'll go this week. He was held out for precautionary reasons, so he'll be fine on Saturday. To paraphrase Jim Tressel, Michigan (or Ohio State) Week has a way of healing guys.
Receiver Mario Manningham has played sparingly the last two weeks, finally catching a couple of passes this past week. Manningham managed two catches for eleven yards against the Hoosiers, as he was used mainly underneath. Carr says he's full go this week, but I'll believe it when I see it. (And when I see it, I imagine I won't be too happy.)
Tight ends Tyler Ecker and Mike Massey also played last week. Ecker has been out since the middle of the season and Massey had missed the last few weeks. Ecker had a nice catch against the Hoosiers, and no, the clock didn't run out while he was fighting for yardage.
And the word is that soon-to-be All-American defensive tackle Alan Branch tweaked his knee a bit against the Hoosiers. Don't worry, he'll be fine.
2. What worries me about Michigan?
What worries me on defense? The defense. I don't think enough can be said about the Wolverines against the run. There are still people (Ohio State fans) out there that don't buy into the Michigan's dominance against the run. Here's a stat for you: Michigan has only allowed one team to rush for more than 60 yards this season. Just one. Minnesota ran for what can only be described as "an amazing 108 yards" when they faced each other in September. By contrast, only two of Ohio State's opponents have failed to rush for more than 60 yards. (Of course, Minnesota was one of those two teams, as they only managed 47 yards against the Buckeye defense.)
Also, Michigan's pass rush concerns me. This year, the pressure doesn't just come from the front four (which would be plenty of pressure, by the way), the pressure also comes from blitzes. Defensive coordinator Ron English will blitz with anybody. He'll blitz with two linebackers. He'll blitz his nickel back. He'll blitz an occasional safety. English's preference is to set the tone, not wait for the tone and then react to it. I also have this bad feeling about LaMarr Woodley coming around the edge and swiping the ball out of Troy Smith's hand. So, yeah, that concerns me.
What worries me on offense? Basically, 1995 and 2003. I'm worried about Michigan coming out and being able to run the ball at will. Usually, when the game is in Columbus, I have no fears about Michigan's running game. Don't get me wrong, I don't see Mike Hart busting out like Tim Biakabatuka or Chris Perry, but the thought of Michigan getting five yards on first down every time concerns me.
What about special teams? I definitely don't like the fact that Steve Breaston was running free on returns last week. Of course, the Hoosiers are terrible special teamers, so let's just chalk it up to that.
What else worries me? The indelible moment. Both sides of this series know what I'm talking about. Whether it's Woodson's punt return in '97, or Ted Ginn's in '04. "The Slip" in '96 or "The Throw" last season. It will happen again on Saturday. That's just how these things work.
3. What am I confident about when it comes to facing Michigan?
If Troy Smith gets time to throw, Michigan's secondary is vulnerable. The Wolverine safeties don't necessarily excel in pass coverage and the corners can only do so much. Leon Hall is a very good corner, and when he feels challenged, he always steps it up. Again, if Troy Smith gets time to throw, Michigan will have no favorable match-ups in four and five-wide situations. And that's why Michigan has to get to Troy Smith. If they don't, it's going to be nearly impossible for them to win.
What about Michigan's passing game, you ask? Honestly, I'm not too concerned about it. Obviously, the screens concern me. In this game, they'll always concern me. But as far as the downfield stuff goes, I'll believe Michigan can have success with it when I see it. Of course, there's always the chance that Michigan has been saving something. Perhaps they'll choose to use the middle of the field more this week than they have in the past. Who knows. I feel the Ohio State secondary matches up very well with the Michigan receivers. The Buckeyes have three very good starting cornerbacks and two very good safeties. Without knowing how effective Mario Manningham is going to be, I think the Ohio State pass defense definitely has the advantage in this one. And don't forget, the Buckeye defense is averaging two interceptions per game.
I also like the Buckeyes' prospects against the right side of Michigan's offensive line. Right tackle Rueben Riley and right guard Alex Mitchell have had their issues all season long. This will be the best defensive line Michigan has faced this season. By far. The Buckeyes should be able to get pressure on Henne from this side of the line, and since Henne will see it coming, it may force him into throws he doesn't want to make.
4. So, I've watched all of Michigan's games fairly intently this season, how about some impressions?
Quarterback Chad Henne: As in most other cases, the 2006 edition is much better than the 2005 edition. Gone is Henne's scattergun arm, and he's replaced it with something a lot more accurate. He's also gotten pretty crafty at baiting safeties with his eyes. Fortunately for Ohio State, he's still capable of the bad interception. He threw a terrible one against Indiana, but who knows how much he was even into the game at that point. For the season, he has completed 62% of his passes for 1,932 yards with eighteen touchdowns and seven interceptions. Don't assume this is last year's Chad Henne. Hope it is, but don't assume it.
Running back Mike Hart. He looks faster than ever. For the first fifteen yards, anyway. And until I actually try to tackle him myself, I'll never figure out how he's so hard to bring down. In his career against Ohio State, he's carried the ball 27 times for 76 yards and a touchdown. If the Buckeyes can hold Hart under those totals on Saturday, things would look pretty promising for Ohio State.
Receiver Mario Manningham. I won't be convinced he's healthy until I see it. What made him so good before his injury was his ability to cut and separate from the defender. I'm not sure he can do that as well as he needs to against Ohio State's secondary.
Receiver Steve Breaston. Last week Breaston had his first 100-yard receiver game since his freshman season. He got matched up on a Hoosier safety last week to the tune of a 62-yard touchdown. However, he has averaged less than ten yards per reception in over half of his games this season.
Receiver Adrian Arrington. When Manningham went down, I expected Arrington to step in for Manningham and do a fairly good job of replacing him. He wasn't bad, but as expected, the offense as a whole suffered because there was nobody to step in for Arrington. Arrington's value to the team increases as Manningham's health increases. He is the deep threat down the middle that takes the safety help away from Manningham's side. He's tall (6'3") and has very good hands. As a third receiver, he may be going against 5'9" Antonio Smith quite a bit. That might seem like a bit of a mismatch, but let's not forget that Smith is a Thorpe Award Semi-Finalist.
Center Mark Bihl. The talk is always about left tackle Jake Long, but with the zone blocking scheme, Bihl is about all you could hope for in a center. He's smart, strong and mobile. He's able to control his man, or get into the linebackers and beyond. And it can be comical at times watching Mike Hart run up the middle, because there's nobody there to tackle him. Bihl and Buckeye defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock are going to have some nasty exchanges.
Defensive end LaMarr Woodley. At times this season, he was the best defensive player in the country. At other times, he didn't seem so interested. I'm guessing there will be no disinterest on his part this week. If he doesn't sack Troy Smith, consider that a very successful day for the Ohio State offensive line.
Defensive end Tim Jamison. Jamison has been coming off the bench all season, and has been playing much better as the season has gone on. As Rondell Biggs has kind of come back to earth from his early start, Jamison is giving the Wolverines a very formidable three-man rotation at defensive end. And that's not even including the times Michigan goes to a 3-4 and Shawn Crable lines up on the outside.
Defensive tackle Terrance Taylor. He's the runt of the litter. If a 300-pound man can be described as a "runt". He's only 6'0" tall, so he can sometimes be overlooked. But he's always where he needs to be and he allows the rest of the guys on the defense to go get the ball.
Defensive tackle Alan Branch. Simply, one of the two best defensive tackles in the country.
Linebacker David Harris. I was just thinking that I don't think I've ever seen somebody improve so much from one season to the next, then I remembered that James Laurinaitis is a Butkus finalist this season. Michigan fans, however, will tell you that Harris is the best linebacker in the country. And if you've watched him all season like they have, you would be hard-pressed to name a better linebacker. Harris rarely misses tackles and reads the play faster than anybody else on the defense. He is somewhat susceptible to swing passes, but he blows up screen passes routinely.
Linebacker Prescott Burgess. Ohio State fans' lasting image of Burgess is getting put on his backside last season during Ohio State's game-winning touchdown. Ron English has resurrected Burgess and made him a very good linebacker. In fact, English has made everybody on this defense better. Further proof that aggression on defense is a good thing.
Cornerback Brandon Harrison. He's started the last few games as the Wolverines' nickel back. He's a hit or miss player. He blitzes often, but is so small that he's easily knocked off of his path. He is often a bad match up for Michigan in the passing game because of his height (just under 5'9"). He's going to play most of the game this week due to Ohio State‘s spread attack. Ask your local Michigan fan how they feel about that. Assuming you know a Michigan fan that knows who Harrison is.
And the Special Teams? If the Buckeyes keep the ball out of Breaston's hands, there shouldn't be any issues. One area of interest is the fact that Michigan isn't very defensive when it comes to kickoff returns. It doesn't help that kicker Garrett Rivas has had trouble getting the ball into the end zone lately. The Michigan kick return defense could be just what the doctor ordered to cure the Ohio State blocking ills on returns.
So, without getting into too much of a preview too soon, the above is basically what's running around in my brain right now. I apologize for the disjointed nature of it, but that's how I've always been during Michigan Week.
And I really don't expect it to change too much this week.
The Road To The Big One
Sept. 2 Michigan 27 - Vanderbilt 7
Sept. 9 Michigan 41 - Central Michigan 17
Sept. 16 Michigan 47 - Notre Dame 21
Sept. 23 Michigan 27 - Wisconsin 13
Sept. 30 Michigan 28 - Minnesota 14
Oct. 7 Michigan 31 - Michigan State 13
Oct. 14 Michigan 17 - Penn State 10
Oct. 21 Michigan 20 - Iowa 6
Oct. 28 Michigan 17 - Northwestern 3
Nov. 4 Michigan 34 - Ball State 26
Nov. 11 Michigan 34 - Indiana 3
Nov. 18 Michigan at Ohio State