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 (3-0) vs San Diego St. (3-0)
(W) Western MI 34-10
(W) Notre Dame 35-31
(W) Eastern MI 31-3
(W) Cal Poly 49-21
(W) at Army 23-20
(W) Washington State 41-24
SDSU Players to Watch:
"We are here to talk about the game you have all wanted to talk about since we started training camp. …It is too bad that no one understands that we are 3-0 right now and all they want to talk about is Michigan." San Diego State Head Coach Rocky Long on Tuesday.
Both Head Coach Rocky Long and Michigan Head Coach Brady Hoke are right. The game should be about the players, and it will be, but until the game begins, the storyline for the week will be about a bunch of coaches who gave SDSU its best season in a generation, splintering off only to square off against one another the very next season.
It’s not too contentious. It’s not a riveting documentary in the making. Hoke had made it clear while interviewing for the SDSU job that Michigan was his dream job. Aztec players knew too. Hoke’s hiring at Michigan took place after the bowl season while the Aztecs were on break. Some are making a big deal that Hoke told his team via text that he was leaving, but everyone in the program is publicly saying that they understood that Hoke had no choice under the circumstances.
“Our players, once they had the initial shock of him leaving, were happy for him,” Long said Tuesday. “Brady had a great relationship with our players and they knew he wanted to be at Michigan, they were happy for him. There is not any vendetta and there aren't any bad feelings.”
What Brady Left Behind
Last season SDSU finished 9-4 including a win in the Poinsettia Bowl. It was the Aztecs first winning season since 1998. The four games they lost were by a total of 15 points.
At Missouri, a short sideline pass turned out to be a 68 yard touchdown in the game’s final minute as the Tigers came from behind and won 27-24.
SDSU would then lose 24-21 to BYU in Provo and to TCU in Fort Worth 40-35, but the points scored by SDSU were 11 more than any other TCU opponent.
In their final loss, against Utah 38-34, the Utes game winning touchdown came after a block punt was recovered at the SDSU 3 yard line.
SDSU would go on to beat Navy 35-14 on their home field in the Poinsettia Bowl. It was their first bowl appearance since 1998 and their first win since 1969.
“We want to be a team that's considered a tough, physical football team that's going to play 60 minutes any time anywhere we line up,” Hoke said, not about his team at Michigan, but about his SDSU team after the win. “And always play as a team and we are going to play for each other."
It appears to be the same mission statement Hoke has for Michigan. The question is… has the Aztecs already learned what Hoke is attempting to teach the Wolverines?
“You know, I don't know if they have weaknesses, to be honest with you,” Hoke said Monday. “All's you got to do is watch 'em. They're pretty daggone good. They're as good as anybody we've played.”
SDSU owns a 3-0 record for the first time since 1981. In the opener the Aztecs defeated Cal Poly for the first time in three tries. At Army, SDSU recovered three of eight Cadets fumbles and won by a field goal in the 4th quarter, 23-20. They survived 403 rushing yards, the Eastern Time zone trip, and all the ceremonies surrounding 9/11. Army would go on to beat Northwestern, whom Michigan plays in two weeks, validating the Aztecs win.
A week ago, SDSU trailed undefeated Washington State by 10 midway through the third quarter. However, the Aztecs scored the game’s final 28 points. CB Larry Parker (Sr. #29) would earn the MWC Co-Defensive Player of the Week by recording two 4th quarter interceptions to halt any possible Cougars rally.
Going into the game, the Aztecs had lost their last 22 BCS schools match-ups and were 0-19 vs. the Pac-10. Now they have their sights on beating Michigan, a ranked team on the road.
Lindley and Hillman
Don’t laugh. It’s very possible that the best quarterback and the best running back Michigan faces this season will both be coming to Ann Arbor, Saturday. With all due respect to Taylor Martinez, Nate Scheelhaase, and Dan Persa, Ryan Lindley (Sr. #14) is a higher rated NFL draft prospect then all of them. Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins is the only who can compete with Lindley’s talent and future.
Lindy’s magazine named Lindley as the preseason MWC Offensive Player of the Year over Boise State’s Kellen Moore. The 6-4 Lindley received a No. 6 national ranking in Lindy's top quarterback ratings and was picked as the No. 2 player in the MWC in terms of prospective NFL talent.
According to mockingthedraft.com, He’s very good at throwing to targets in stride over the middle but struggles throwing to the sideline. Despite that criticism, Lindy’s still named Lindley as the “Strongest Arm in the Conference.”
Lindley threw for a career high 528 yards against Utah last season. He has eclipsed the 10,000 yard mark in his career only three games into his senior season. Compare that to the Big Ten where only three players in conference history have passed over 10,000. Depending on his health and ability, he could finish with over 12,000 yards.
No apologies are necessary to Edwin Baker, Jason Ford, Rex Burkhead, and Dan Herron either. Hillman has better numbers. Hillman is 2nd in the nation in rushing at 166 ypg (6.5 ypc). That’s 12 yards better than Denard Robinson (Jr. #16).
Hillman was known as a shifty runner who can slash and juke a lot of players for extra yardage. After putting on 16 lbs in the off season, Aztec fans have taken note that Hillman is lowering the shoulder and running for power.
Hillman rushed for 191 yards and four touchdowns last week against Washington State. Nick Canepa of SignonSanDiego.com believes “Aztecs tailback Ronnie Hillman is the best, most unique college running back in America,” and “has to at least be in the first sentence of the Heisman conversation.”
"If you don't win, you don't get it," Hillman said of the Heisman. "So I'm just worried about this game and how we won and just continue to prepare for the future."
Michigan’s defense will try to be the first opponent in six games to prevent Hillman from earning over 100 yards.
“He’s a great running back, says Wolverine DB Troy Woolfolk (Sr. #29). He’s quick, elusive, I can just see him bouncing the ball, so we’ve got to do a good job containing him, to prevent those big plays.”
Michigan’s Defense vs. San Diego State’s Offense
Good offensive skill players are accentuated or neutered by their offensive line (see MSU). The O-Line for SDSU is a position of strength. 4/5ths of the line return with the 5th guy having started the last two games in 2010. A good line has good chemistry and consistency. This line doesn’t disappoint. Between the five of them, this group has 88 consecutive starts. Michigan has about half of that.
Lindley has been sacked only once this year and their protection of Lindley has allowed the passing game to continue to flow seamlessly despite losing two of last year’s receivers to the NFL. At the X Receiver is converted cornerback Colin Lockett (So. #24), who has 254 yds at 21 ypc and a pair of touchdowns. Fellow soph. and walk-on Dylan Denso (#10) has a pair of scores and is averaging nearly 16 ypc. The tight ends are also involved. Gavin Escobar (So. #88) scored twice last week.
The Wolverines have been outscored 21-0 in the first quarter this year. SDSU has scored 42 and it’s their most productive quarter. A key to the game is narrowing that disparity in the opening 15 minutes.
“I feel like we still having problems as defense with starting slow,” says Woolfolk. “I feel like I would like to see us start off fast and not allow them to get those points, then I’ll feel like we will be a great team defense.”
Michigan’s defense claim that teams have surprised them by making plays they haven’t seen on film. Ryan Van Bergen (Sr. #53) realizes this can’t be an excuse.
“We just got be able to adjust on the field. We can’t wait until we come over to the sidelines and Coach Mattison gets out the white board and starts drawing things out. ...We need to be able to adjust on the field after they get their first 1st down or whatever, rather than wait until we come to the sideline and Coach Mattison has to draw it up on the board.”
Mattison is concerned as well.
“Yeah that’s a concern,” Mattison admits. “It is not lack of preparation. It is not lack of them wanting to do a great job. It is not lack of hustle. In some ways, it is just them not making the adjustments of something new that has happened that they haven’t been ready for.”
It starts with stopping the run and stopping Hillman and then to defend the pass on 3rd down. Lindley is only a 56.2% career passer. He isn’t automatic on obvious passing downs, but he does have seven touchdowns and only one pick this season.
The Aztecs are executing pretty well, and unlike Notre Dame, they aren’t shooting themselves in the foot.
“They’ve got some really good players and they’re going to be the toughest challenge we’ve faced so far,” says Van Bergen. “We’ve got to have a great week of preparation (they did). We’ve got to make sure that we take them seriously because they’re an awesome challenge for us and it is going to be exciting.”
Michigan’s Offense vs. San Diego State’s Defense
Long was Hoke’s Defensive Coordinator at SDSU and turned down Hoke’s offer to join him at Michigan. Long still calls the defense and institutes a 3-3-5 system that ironically works for them. Borges coached against it at SDSU in practice and now is preparing for the real thing.
“What he (Long) has done is taking a 3-3 concept and created a lot of different looks from the 3-3 that makes it hardly recognizable,” says Borges. “That requires a little more preparation.”
But Long says the advantage goes to Michigan on this one. The Aztecs have even gone as far to change their signals this week in practice.
“Al Borges knows our defense better than anybody in the country,” says Long. “We were assistant coaches at UCLA and assistant coaches here so we have competed on the practice field more so than competing against a guy every couple of years. That gives them an advantage. They know our team much better then we know their team... I also believe that once you get into the game other than a few adjustments you might make as coaches, most games are won and lost by players. A coach could lose a game by not giving his team a chance to win, but there has never been a coach that has won the game."
Michigan should have the advantage in this one, if they too can get better start. Robinson has struggled in the openers of the last two games going 1-7 for five yards and two interceptions. Robinson’s numbers get much better as the game goes on showing he’s very elusive and can make big plays at big times.
Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges says it’s easy to blame Robinson, but everybody has a hand in it.
“The last game for some reason and I’m not sure why we had too many missed assignments,” says Borges. We had not had many in the first two games, but we had a few and we’re working on getting that better.”
SDSU’s defense has a reputation of suffering against spread teams, so they’re not all that comfortable about defending Robinson, but like any team the rest of the way they’ll try to make him beat you by throwing the ball instead of running it.
Helping Robinson and the Wolverines are that the Aztecs are breaking in seven new starters on defense; however, Long has a reputation for rotating many of his players so they aren’t necessarily green. SDSU has an all-conference caliber player at each position group.
Jerome Long (Sr. #94) is the team’s sack leader (3) despite playing being the nose tackle in the 3-3-5. Long was given the MWC Defensive Player of the Week as he had a career high 10 tackles and sack at Army. Long got two more sacks last week against Washington State. It should be a great match-up between him, David Molk (Sr. #50) and whoever helps Molk on the double team.
Miles Burris (Sr. #9) is on all the defensive watch lists. He led the MWC in sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (20.0) a year ago.
See inside the box above for the accomplishments of CB Leon McFadden (Jr. #2) and CB Larry Parker (Sr. #29)
The kicking game has to go to SDSU. Punter Brian Stahovich (Sr. #14) is a first team MWC selection last year. He averages over 45 yards (8th nationally last season), punts the ball inside the 20 and makes many returners signal for a fair catch.
Kicker Abelardo Perez (Sr. #38) is a Lou Groza candidate but is 1-3 this season. His career long is from 53 yards.
Most Likely Wolverine to Have a Career Game: Vincent Smith
Look for Vincent Smith (Jr. #2) to get more carries as a new starter at tailback to relieve Robinson from having to do all the running himself.
“I think Vince right now probably has earned that right,” says Hoke. Smith rushed nine times for 118 yards last week and surpassed the 1,000 yard mark in his career.
“You know, he might be smaller, but he's put together… and his mentality is that of a tough guy.”
Most Likely Aztec You’ll Remember After the Game is Over: Hillman
Hillman’s eight touchdowns make him the #1 scorer in the NCAA. Despite not receiving a single scholarship offer from a BCS school, Hoke knows how special he is and he knew it before Hillman arrived on campus. Hillman could be a nationally known player by the end of the year. He’s a big reason why the Aztecs are 3-0.
“Well, Ronnie has very good vision and he's got tremendous speed, “said Hoke. “He has an innate ability that good backs have. Their vision is good, their balance is good, and he's got a burst. You know, I've seen it a lot obviously, but he's a very dangerous guy for 'em, and he's playing very confidently.”
The noon start helps the Wolverines as much as a 10pm start would help the Aztecs if Michigan visited San Diego. Michigan should win this game, but the talent and the intangibles are too hard to ignore for SDSU. If Michigan can survive this one, I’ll have to upgrade my forecast for the season.ENJOY THE GAME!