Game 3 preview: Michigan Wolverines
Well here we are, just 24 hours away from kickoff in the tenth playing of the “Battle of Washtenaw”. We’ve talked about the school. We’ve talked about the history of the series. We’ve seen the depth chart, and discussed its veracity. We’ve interrogated Michigan bloggers — two of ’em. The only thing we haven’t done is talk about the stadium — and really, it’s just a glorified hole in the ground. That, and actually consider the matchups.
To begin with, let’s be honest. Michigan isn’t as good as Ohio State this year, but then, EMU isn’t Toledo. In all likelihood, the Wolverines will record their tenth win over EMU tomorrow. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that there’s better than a 95% chance Michigan will win, and odd are good they’ll win by more than 20 points.
But there is a chance, however slim, that the Eagles will win, and it’s for that chance — plus a nice paycheck — that the teams will play.
We have no real ways to compare the teams — EMU has played Howard and Alabama State, who have also played Morehouse and Mississippi Valley state, while Michigan has played Western Michigan and Notre Dame, who have also played Nicholls State and South Florida — not only are there no common opponents, there are no common opponents’ opponents. The best comparison we could make in that regard is that Alabama State, who EMU defeated in a rough 14-7 game last week, is generally considered on par with or slightly worse than Nicholls State, who Western Michigan beat 38-7, and the Broncos lost to the Wolverines 34-10 in less than three quarters. Transitively, we can expect that EMU will lose by about 56 points.
Of course, football is not transitive. (If it were, we’d never have had the 2008 Big 12 Conference South Division 3-way tie controversy.
The first question for EMU is whether they can stop, or even slow, a Michigan offense that’s averaging a point every 88 seconds of game-time. Not up to Fielding Yost’s standards, but fairly prolific, nonetheless. Rich Rodriguez is gone, but his legacy in Ann Arbor remains; the Wolverines have an offense capable of putting up video game numbers on an opponent. EMU’s defense has looked pretty good in the first two games against lesser opponents, but this will be their first real test. Is the improvement real, or was it just a function of the opposing teams? We know that the run defense won’t maintain its current absurd ranking between Ohio State and Alabama, but will it stay respectable? For the last go-round, in 2009, Tate Forcier (remember him?) started at quarterback for the Wolverines, gave “a very freshman-like performance” (AP), then Denard came in and did what he does best well and what he does poorly poorly (3 carries for 60 yards and two touchdowns; 0-4 passing). Michigan got most of their yards from Carlos Brown, who carried 13 times for 187 yards and two touchdowns. This came in the early days of the Worst. Run Defense. Ever. and we excused it at the time because, you know, it was Michigan.
Fortunately for the Eagles, Rodriguez’s legacy remains on the other side of the ball also. According to MGoBlog, the Michigan defense is “not sound”. Unfortunately a “not sound” football unit means something quite different on the west side of US-23. EMU’s unsound defense allowed an average of 6.23 yards per carry over the past two seasons. Michigan’s “unsound” defense simply failed to shut down a fairly potent Brian Kelly offense last week. OK, it’s not that simple; in 2010 they were statistically a bad MAC defense roughly on par with Akron. Yep, the same Akron that went 1-11, including a loss to Gardner-Webb. But for Denard, there might have gone the Wolverines. Instead they rode a potent offense to a 7-5 regular season record and a 52-14 pounding by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Once again (I know it gets old hearing it, but it’s only for one more week) EMU’s offense — half of it, anyway — looks decent, and hopefully the expected return of Kinsman Thomas will provide the spark that the passing game so-desperately needs. But I think the Eagles may be able to run a bit on Michigan — I know they’ll try — and that will shorten the game, lengthen drives, and keep Denard off the field, all things that are necessary if EMU is to find that slim chance of victory.
On special teams, I think EMU may have an actual advantage. Everyone I’ve asked agrees that Michigan’s special teams are downright terrible. It’s so bad that fans have been making jokes about holding open tryouts for kickers in the parking lot before each game. EMU’s special teams have looked good the last two weeks, and I know this wasn’t just because they were agaisnt FCS opponents. Your opponent doesn’t affect how far you can kick the ball, and only sometimes affects whether you remember to get between the ball and the end zone to down it.
In the end, though, I just don’t think EMU can hang with Michigan for 60 minutes. (Start your rain dance now!) Best case, the offense shortens the game by running relentlessly with just a few mid-range passes to K. Thomas mixed in, the run defense forces Denard into a lot of passing, special teams deliver consistent field position advantage, and Michigan wins 34-24. Worst case is probably still not as bad as the 2005 disaster, so let’s call it 48-3. Realistically I expect the game to be midway between those extremes, and from what I’ve seen, most people agree.