Friday, August 29, 2008

Season Opener: Michigan vs. Utah

The season begins tomorrow against a tough, experienced Utah team. Michigan is favored, right now, by 3 points, but a majority of analysts are picking Utah. And for good reason. Utah is more experienced all around and a safer pick. Michigan is question marks all around. Making predictions for how Michigan will look is pretty pointless since we have no idea this season. But nonetheless I'll try to preview.

Utah offense vs. Michigan defense

In the trenches:

When talking about Utah’s offense, before getting to the talented skill guys, the offense starts with their huge, experienced offensive line that returns 4 starters. All five linemen weigh 305 or more. They are led by returning 2nd team All-MWC players Junior LT Zane Beadles and Senior RG Robert Conley. The only newcomer on the line is Sophomore Center Zane Taylor. Yeah, two Zanes on one offensive line. This will be a tough opener for the center who will have to somehow read and audible to the elaborate blitz package put together by Shafer. On the other hand, it’s a tough opener for the Michigan D-line that has so much expected from them this year. While Brandon Graham and the line are confident in their ability, they acknowledge that executing with close detail to technique will be key against such a big experienced line. “The key will be to use our hands to make sure the tackles can’t get up in our chests and knock us down,” said Graham. So that battle will be fun to watch tomorrow throughout the contests. Jamison and Graham’s quickness should allow them to get to the quarterback, however, on run plays, they will have to be able to read the run quickly and swim towards the ball carrier, because as soon as a 300 pounder is able to get to their chest and get some leverage, Graham and Jamison will probably be done for. I don’t expect that to happen to much and we should see the staff’s emphasis on speed and Shafer’s emphasis on attacking really pay off for the Wolverines.

Advantage: Michigan

Utah Passing:
Even though Michigan’s line should stand up well to the experienced Ute O-line, unfortunately Utah has a great quarterback, running back, and some talented receivers too. We’ll start with Brian Johnson who has had a heck of a career, and a long one at that. He started in 2004 backing up Alex Smith under Urban Meyer. He started the next season as a sophomore and in only 10 games (injured his knee) Johnson completed 63% of his passes for 2,892 yards and 18 TDs to just 7 INTs, ran for 478 yards and 8 TDs, was 4th in the NATION in total offense per game (337) and 11th in the nation in pass efficiency. Before the injury he looked like he could be even better than Alex Smith in the future. But that injury kept him out of 2006 so he redshirted. He was ready to go and started in 2007, but injured his shoulder in the first game of the season which kept him out of the next two. Not to worry, though, he came back, went 8-2 as a starter, but was unable to put up the numbers he put up in 2005. Now as a fifth-year, he seems ready to play like the 2005 Johnson and if he does, Michigan is in some trouble. He did not run as much last season, but if his knee is now fully recovered and he does run, like he did in the Poinsettia Bowl (69 yards and a TD enroute to MVP honors) Michigan could be in some trouble. Yes the new scheme should help the D against the spread, but with those demons from the past against mobile QBs, I’ll believe it when I see it. What’s scarier is Johnson also has a very accurate arm.

He has a good mix of wide receivers to throw to as well. 5th year senior, Brent Casteel (#5) sustained a season ending knee injury in the second game last year, but in the two years prior he was explosive. In 2006 he had 9 catches for 600 yards and 10 TDs while also being used in the running game picking up 262 yards. If he is back in that form, and Michigan has tackling troubles, problems will ensue. And Rodriguez has expressed concern for the tackling in the open field since the team hasn’t gone “live” with full hitting much in practice. On third down situations, Johnson will probably be looking for 5th year senior Brandon Godfrey (#81). He’s a 6’3” sure-handed target who is Utah’s go-to guy over the middle. Michigan’s DB’s should be able to contain Godfrey IMO, but if the ghosts of Morgan Trent’s past creep in, things could get ugly. Casteel really concerns me, if he is back to full health. Utah will get the ball in his hands somehow and Michigan better be up to the task of tackling well in the open field. He probably will have a couple big plays since it is the opener, but when he’s out wide, the corners need to do everything they can to deny him the ball and when he has it the whole team needs to swarm to him. Utah has a six member rotation so other guys to look for are #88 Freddie Brown, #16 David Reed (JuCo), #8 Elijah Wesson (will be used in end-arounds quite a bit), and #85 Jereme Brooks (5’7” young speedster who will return kicks and punts too). Utah doesn’t use the tight ends much in the receiving game and when they are in, #84 and #45, it’s likely a run. Due to Johnson’s experience and dual threat ability, I actually give the Utes a bit of an advantage here. I hope I’m wrong and the D-line gets to him often, but until these guys stop a good mobile quarterback and the aerial spread attack, I give Utah a slight advantage.

Advantage: Utah

Utah Running Game:
Darrell Mack (#6) almost redshirted last year as a junior, but played in the 2nd game and then ended up starting the rest. He had 253 carries for 1204 yards and 12 TDs and also caught 21 passes for 144 yards and 3 TDs. He is 6’0” 220 and is a strong tough runner for the Utes. He will run up the middle and will look to run over defenders when in the open field. The other guy who will share the bulk of the carries is Matt Asiata (#4) who broke his leg in the first game last year and ended up redshirting as a junior after transferring from Junior college. Asiata is 5’11” 230 and is also a physical runner very similar to Mack. The speedy guy in the backfield for Utah is #36 Sophomore Eddie Wide. He played mainly special teams last season, and should see some more time in the backfield this year. In addition to the backs, Johnson can run and so can some of the wideouts. Expect some QB draws and some reverses to factor into the Ute running game. I think Michigan should be able to stop the run since Utah does not have speedy guys who can get to the outside. Shafer should throw in plenty of zone run blitzes to slow down the running game. One thing to watch for, however, is when Utah runs draw plays, if the ends are let loose and focused on getting to the quarterback for a sack, the young linebacking corps and safeties will have to step up and fill in the holes left by the ends on the outside. Utah could strike big on some of those plays. Obi Ezeh, however, should be up to the task of being the main guy to bring the runners down if they get through the D-line.

Advantage: Michigan

Michigan Offense vs. Utah Defense

In the trenches:
Michigan’s combined 15 previous starts and lack of depth on the O-line should spell disaster. It’s not the worst D-line to start off the season against, though, with Utah’s tackles being meh, and the defensive ends each having only one year of experience under their belt. The standout on the line probably is sophomore RE Paul Kruger (#11) who was a freshman All-American last season. The Utes expect him to contend for national recognition and he could be explosive. Still this should be a D-line that lets the inexperienced UM O-line ease into the year. But let’s be real, the O-line cannot possibly have an advantage here.
Advantage: Utah

Michigan Passing attack:

Predicting what Michigan’s offense will look like is very very difficult. The assumed starter right now is Nick Sheridan from all the signs Rodriguez has given, even though he has not officially announced a starter. Threet will play though so we will finally get to see if either of them could be any good or if we’re in for a long year. The passing attack should consist of a lot of quick flare passes to the running backs coming out of the back field, screen passes to guys like Odoms (#9), and quick short slant passes to the other wide receivers. Odoms should actually be the go to guy due to his speed. The quarterbacks shouldn’t be asked to throw it deep too often, but who knows. I really don’t want to try to predict what this offense will look like without seeing it ever. But with the uncertain O-line and, oh yeah, walk-on starter against an experienced Ute secondary that uses the Nickel package often, it doesn’t look so hot. Senior and 2 year starting corner Brice McCain (#1) could have a field day breaking up passes. He’s probably the best athlete on the team and is the fastest running a 4.28 40. And then there’s the Junior 6’3” corner on the other side, Sean Smith (#4), who led the team with four interceptions last season. They could have a field day with the inexperience at quarterbacks. I’m nervous thinking about it.

Advantage: Utah

Michigan Rushing attack:
Like with the passing game, its nearly impossible to predict what the rushing attack will look like without seeing a game yet. We know Rodriguez likes all four backs McGuffie (#2), Michael Shaw (#20), Brandon Minor (#4), and Carlos Brown (#23) and will use them all. It seems like he might even like the speedy freshmen more. I expect a lot of pitches or essentially anyway to get these guys in open field quickly. All four should play, but Rodriguez, like with the quarterback situation, says it will be a “feel” thing on who plays the most. So if one guy gets hot early, he will keep getting the ball until he cools down. I don’t know how much up the middle running we will see, but it will likely be Minor who handles those duties. Michigan will use a blocking scheme similar to the zone blocking we have seen the last couple of years. But running up the middle again depends on the O-line. Big question mark.
Utah has a first year starter at middle linebacker, Mike Wright (#20), so Michigan might be able to exploit him on runs up the middle, if they get through the line. But on outside runs, Utah’s best linebacker, the rover linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (#10), might have the speed and athleticism to chase down Michigan’s backs and bring them down in the open field. Again, with Michigan’s O-line, they cannot have an advantage until we at least see what the offense can do.

Advantage: Utah

Special Teams:

Michigan probably will be punting a lot so it is good they have Zoltan Mesko. What is questionable is the spread punting formation Rodriguez is going to use. Remember the terrible rugby style punt Michigan tried a few years ago? Rodriguez has used it successfully in the past so it shouldn’t be a problem...hopefully. At kicker Michigan still has that consistent guy K.C. Lopata, and actually should be fine from within 40 yards. The return game should be fun to watch too because Rodriguez has emphasized the return game and is putting Michigan’s fastest guys at that spot. Warren and Odoms should return punts and Trent, Shaw, Odoms, or Brandon Harrison should return kicks. Someone is bound to be explosive, hopefully. I’m excited.
Utah has an All-American kicker/punter in Louie Sakoda. Guy is very very good. His long is 51 yards, but he only missed 3 field goals last year in his All-American year. If the Utes get in field goal range, you can at least put 3 points up on the board. Jereme Brooks is the main guy to return punts and kicks and he never has scored a touchdown before, but that was as freshman. Brent Casteel is another guy who will get a chance, but he hasn’t done great in his career as a kick returner. Michigan should have the advantage in the return game, but they still don’t have as sure a guy as Sakoda kicking it. I want to give Michigan the advantage because I believe someone will be explosive as a returner, but there really isn’t any way of knowing so...until further notice...

Advantage: Utah

Seidman's Prediction:
A battle is what I expect with the Mack Truck taking care of business for Utah. He will definitely find the end zone, once or twice. Brian Johnson is the key for Utah, and I believe that he is not ready to come back from the injury as the player he was in 2006. Expect him to be inconsistent throughout the game and commit a big turnover later in the game. The Michigan offense will have its inconsistencies as well that will see some tough points and some bright spots, with them putting up some points. The Michigan defense will get plenty of stops, being hurt by some runs by Mack and possibly Louks, the backup to Johnson. But they will make enough stops, I see the final score being Michigan 23-17.
MVP - Brandon Graham

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Go Blue!

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