|Conventional wisdom? No thanks.|
Then Mel Kiper made me reevaluate everything I was going to write. His key player was Michael Floyd.
Here, I had spent the whole morning planning a piece on just how much damage Michael Floyd could do to this thin Michigan secondary. He is unquestionably a first round caliber draft pick when he leaves school. He absolutely toyed with sophomore Boubacar "Toast" Cissoko last year, hauling in seven receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown.
But, isn't that the point? Floyd will have a productive day on the outside against a green secondary unit just like he did last year. However, the soft coverage schemes and Dayne Crist's inability to be Jimmy Clausen should keep the production at around the same level as last year. That kind of production I can live with. After all, the outside receivers had a field day last year and Michigan still pulled out the win. Which brings me to my first key matchup, the receiver we really need to be worried about this Saturday.
Kyle Rudolph vs. Obi Ezeh and Jonus Mouton
|Let's hope much of this doesn't go on Saturday.|
To say this defense has trouble with pass catching tight ends is an understatement:
Ok, so that was bad.
The Michigan defense that was resoundingly proclaimed an epic failure last year was perhaps its weakest in the middle of the field. This happens to be the exact place that someone like Rudolph will do the most damage. While these problems weren't exclusively the fault of the inside linebackers (as I have mentioned here before the SS/Bandit Mike Williams was a dark pit of despair last year in the secondary), they have had their share of problems covering over the middle. It was Ezeh who helplessly chased Andrew Quarless on the long TE seam touchdown that Penn State scored, leading Brian at MGoBlog to frustratingly proclaim:
"...the linebackers remain a disaster and I still think it might be Hopson's fault. Those four spots on the defense are just killing Michigan. They can't cover TEs. They can't have sensible two-deep coverage."Similar sentiment, from the Wisconsin defensive UFR after seeing Badger receivers pick up easy yards over the middle all afternoon:
What positions can't be explained by talent or youth or whatever… well, you know the story: Mouton and Ezeh. Wisconsin's passing game was almost exclusively zingers over the middle to incredibly open receivers 20 or even 30 yards downfield. On every damn one both MLBs were vastly out of position and the throws were easy.So, what we have is a pair of inside linebackers who are notoriously bad at covering the middle of the field in zones, and incapable of playing man coverage on athletic pass catching tight ends
What does this mean for this week and beyond? The match up I identified was Rudolph against both ILBs, but with Mouton being used more sensibly as a pass rusher on obvious 3rd down pass plays, this burden will also fall on nickel package replacement Mike Jones, as well as Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon. Rudolph only picked up three receptions for 38 yards against Michigan last year. Scary thing is, he put up over 90 yards the next week against MSU and their all-American linebacking corp. Scheme will only go so far in this match up. Eventually Ezeh is going to have to prove competent in both man and zone coverage, or this could be a long year.
Last week Rudolph was effective against Purdue as a safety valve for Crist. This is troublesome not only for the fact that Crist will depend on his tight end to bail him out when he can't make more challenging throws, but also because we have Obi Ezeh or a former walk-on former fullback who has only been at the position since the spring as the backup MLB. Don't say I didn't warn you.
We could easily see a repeat of last year's Iowa game, and if Rudolph can put up triple digits receiving, convert a few long 3rd downs, and score one or two touchdowns, it will be another long day for the defense.
Luckily, Michigan has an advantage of its own.
Mike Martin vs. Notre Dame's Interior Linemen.
|Don't let that face fool you. This guy eats O-linemen.|
Martin manhandles the center here and picks up an easy tackle for no gain. Unfortunately for Martin, the nose tackle won't see many situations where he is blocked by only one offensive linemen. Fortunately for us, this doesn't matter:
Despite his pedestrian numbers, Martin puts up a positive five in the defensive UFR (+8/-3) by constantly getting into the backfield and pressuring Frazer into bad decisions.
Martin will have to be effective on the inside against a very big trio of ND offensive linemen. Fifth year senior Chris Stewart is a load at left guard (6'5, 351) and might have the weight to push Martin around. He may also be too slow to keep up with the notoriously quick Martin. Center Chris Wenger (Sr, 6'4, 298) is out for the second game in a row after a concussion in fall camp. His replacement is junior Braxton Cave, a first year starter who pushed Wenger for the starting role through camp. To his right is junior Trevor Robinson (6'5, 295). The offensive line returns 55 starts across all five positions, but for the life of me I can't find a breakdown of how much starting experience each player has. This is on you Notre Dame blogosphere.
Regardless, the inside of the Notre Dame line is large and old enough that you can expect solid production from them. Last week against Purdue they allowed Armando Allen and Cierre Wood to combine for 151 yards on 25 attempts
Craig Roh and Ryan Van Bergen should be able to get penetration against the tackles, who seem to be the greenest members of the offensive line. However, it will be up to Martin to clog up the middle of this offensive line and slow the running game down. Brian Kelly has already stated that he wants to run the ball more than he passes this year (Could this be because of Dayne Crist? Most likely), and he has the weapons to do it in the two-headed monster of Allen and Wood. If the big interior linemen can contain Mike Martin, this offense will have a field day against an inexperience Michigan secondary and a mistake prone group of linebackers.
Fortunately, this is a battle that Martin should be able to win. The UConn line was every bit as big and more experienced than what Notre Dame is rolling out. With a distinct advantage in quickness, and the benefit of experience, Martin should have a solid day pressuring the quarterback and stopping runs for losses and no gains.