Each week we scout Michigan's opponent. We'll start with the basics, and then explore some relevant match-ups. For those that want to know more, we'll sprinkle in a mixture of history, reflection, and philosophy for a comprehensive look.
Michigan (0-0) vs. Western Michigan (0-0)
Western Michigan Players to Watch:
A strong finish to the 2010 season brings optimism into 2011, but there is some concern that some of momentum built by this program is tapering off. The Broncos finished the 2010 season by scoring 124 points in their final three games, all victories to even their season at 6-6. The .500 record was near expectations, but what made fans excited for the direction of the program was their ability to beat at least one BCS school per year. There were victories over Virginia (’06), Iowa (’07), and Illinois (’08) in their limited opportunities to play BCS schools and all of the wins came away from Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo. However, none have come in each of the last two seasons and their overall record since then is 11-13. There are some familiar themes to this year Bronco’s hype, but the season outlook is more tempered in comparison to the ’09 match-up. They certainly would like to appear in a bowl and to get their first career bowl win (0-4) would be gravy.
The Wolverines and Broncos met to open the season in 2009. With the Wolverines coming off a 3-9 year and the Broncos finishing up one of their best years at 9-4, many thought this game would be closely contested. Michigan really took care of business winning 31-7. The Wolverines, defensively, and surprisingly contained career record setting quarterback Tim Hiller, stymied their rushing attack and offensively moved the ball down field. Denard Robinson’s (Jr. #16) made his debut at quarterback late in the first quarter. On Robinson’s first play, he fumbled the snap, chased it several yards behind him and then promptly scrambled his way for a 43 yard touchdown run. Junior Hemmingway (Sr. #21) caught two touchdown passes of 28 and 44 yards, while tight end Kevin Koger (Sr. #86) scored on a seven yard touchdown.
Michigan Offense vs. Western Michigan Defense
For most teams, the plan to stop Denard is easier said than executed. They can’t tackle what they can’t catch. Robinson had 14 rushes of at least 20 yards last season and scored on a 43 yard run on that busted play against Western Michigan in ’09.
Linebacker Mitch Zajac (Sr. #47), who will be in his third year as a starter and has the most experience on the team doesn’t want Denard to be the one who beats them.
“We want to do everything we can to keep him in the pocket, not let him get to open space and make people miss,” says Zajac. “We have a lot of different schemes to throw at him to highlight our strengths.”
Ideally they hope they can force Denard to go through his check downs and hope he isn’t stubborn enough to take off early. It’s a sure bet that Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges is working with Robinson to stay in the pocket and go through his progressions, but it’s natural for quarterbacks learning the pro-style system to take off when it gets hot in the pocket. For the Broncos, hoping that Denard goes through his 4th progression before taking off is a pipe dream.
Western Michigan will run a four man front with two true linebackers and a rover who plays in between the linebackers and helps the secondary. The strength of their defense will come from the line where everyone who started last year returns. They’re led by DE Paul Hazel (Jr. #99). He’s very lean at 6’5 210 lbs, but was third in the MAC in sacks with eight.
When asked about it at his weekly press conference, Cubit had plenty to say about the matter.
“He’s one of the toughest guys on our football team,” admitting the other guys didn’t make as a good progress as they had hoped. “And you’re not going to put him one-on-one with a wide receiver. That doesn’t make any sense. He’ll probably play 30-35 plays. We’re not going to hang him out to dry.”
The rover is Johnnie Simon (So. #3). The success of the defense will rely heavily on him as he must play assignment football to help the secondary and be able to tackle anyone in open space especially when you have only two linebackers.
“Johnnie Simon is going to have to play well and be a great tackler,” says Cubit. “He’s out in space a lot.”
The five man secondary will help defend against the pass, but if any of Michigan’s backs can get passed the experienced front level, they could easily get into the third level. If Michigan resurrects the tight end position, then Koger could have a big day receiving. The Broncos will be prepared at the front and back ends on defense, but they seem very vulnerable in the middle of the field for big plays purely because of the numbers.
Michigan Defense vs. Western Michigan Offense
Anytime a reporter has asked the Michigan coaches about individual players from Western, the one guy they bring up the most is Bronco quarterback Alex Carder (Jr. #14). In Carder’s first year as a starter he threw for 30 touchdowns and for over 3,300 yards.
"Alex Carder is one of the better quarterbacks probably in the Midwest," says Michigan Head Coach Brady Hoke.
“I think he’s a great quarterback, said Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. “You’re going to see this guy play on Sundays some day. He’s got an arm that can throw it from the hash to the sideline. The thing that impresses me about him is that he’s a very, very tough kid. He takes some really, really strong hits and he comes right back and he’s going again. He’s got mobility. He can run when he has to. I think this guy is the real deal.
He would have to prove it if Western Michigan didn’t get Jordan White (Sr. #83) back. White set the single season school record in receiving yards with 1,378 and ranked 5th among all receivers in the FBS. During the off season the NCAA granted White a sixth year of eligibility due to injuries. Merry Christmas! Instead of losing two 1,000 yard receivers from 2010, Carder gets one of his weapons back. White will be a good preliminary exam before facing Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd.
This passing attack wouldn’t be that good without White, and Bronco head coach Bill Cubit understands how important the passing game is to Western Michigan’s success.
“In every game we’re in it’s because we are throwing the ball well,” says Cubit. “We’re not a power running team.”
Speaking of running, the status at running back is clearing up this week. Tevin Drake (So. #29) has won the job and from the outside it’s easy to see. As a freshman, Drake rushed for over 400 yards on just 40 carries. That yards-per-carry number (10.0) is higher than what he averaged in high school in Florida. Drake played more as the season progressed and started the last two games of the season rushing for over 100 yards in each. Another Florida running back, Dareyon Chance (So. #22), could be the #2.
A common trait developed in the last two season openers in the Wolverine victories against Western in ’09 and Connecticut in ’10. Michigan’s defensive pressure was just too much for their opponents. The inability to handle the pressure prevented the offenses, and in particular their key players from making plays. Michigan held Western’s Brandon West, the NCAA’s career all-purpose yard leader to just 46 yards rushing and receiving yards combined and held Jordan Todman, the Big East’s Player of the Year to 105 yds.
Western Michigan has play makers at each skill position. They return their leading passer, receiver and rusher, but they could be neutralized by their perceived weakness, their offensive line. Last year’s O-Line wasn’t superior and their rushing game was in the lower fourth of the NCAA. This year the interior of the line (guards and center) needs to be replaced and they lost two of their projected new starters to injury in August camp. Two players fresh from JUCO will have to start Saturday. Of the 48 career starts on the entire line, 35 of them come from their left tackle.
When asked what Michigan will do defensively, Cubit was blatantly honest.
“We don’t know what they’re going to do…It’s a mystery for us”
To prepare, they’re working on defending up to 15 blitz packages, but are unsure what, if any, of them will be used by Mattison. “It’s hard for an opening day,” says Cubit.
That being said, if you spend time on preparing for everything, then you’re not spending a lot of time on anything.
If Michigan can provide good pressure up the middle and they should with Mike Martin (Sr. #68) and Ryan Van Bergen (Sr. #53), it will force the Broncos to move the ball side-to-side. Don’t expect Carder to have a lot of time in the pocket throwing the football, but you might expect the Broncos to make big plays if Michigan defenders don’t make proper tackles in the flat.
Most likely Wolverine to have a career game: Roy Roundtree
Junior Hemmingway will probably draw the team’s best corner in Toler, but Roundtree may get the benefit of being defended by a Winchester who’s a good six inches shorter than Roundtree. It will be interesting to see if Michigan spends a lot time trying to tell Notre Dame that they can throw the ball down field or whether they will run the ball more as a sort of tailback casting call in hopes that they can find a go-to tailback they still haven’t found.
Most likely Bronco you’ll remember after the game is over: Alex Carder
Carder was one of the best QB’s in the Mid American Conference as a sophomore. As a junior, he’ll try to emerge out of the shadow of his predecessor, Tim Hiller. Hiller virtually owns the career passing record book. If Carder plays the next two seasons the way he did last year, then he has a chance to approach or break some of Hiller’s records.
ENJOY THE GAME!