Big Ten Game Preview: Michigan

Our look around the Big Ten to preview Ohio State's eight-game road to a fifth straight league title ends where every campaign closes: with a game against archrival Michigan. The Wolverines, of course, are in need of a major turnaround, but just how much will be done before the Buckeyes make it to the Big House in November?

Nov. 21, Michigan Stadium (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Head coach Rich Rodriguez
2008 record: 3-9, 2-6 Big Ten (T-9th)

After the worst season in school history – no Michigan team had ever lost as many games – the Wolverines will try to regroup with yet another largely new cast of characters.

What We Know: Brandon Minor and Brandon Graham are studs at running back and defensive line, respectively. The Wolverines will have an offensive line with experience for the first time in a while.

Major Questions: Pretty much everything else is a question with this team. The biggest one is at quarterback, where the Wolverines will be starting a true freshman or a former walk-on. Just how much will the offense, after a miserable season, improve during its second year under Rodriguez's system? Will a defense that buckled under the offense's weight last year improve with added maturity? Are there any defensive backs here that U-M can trust? And is there much line depth after the fantastic Graham?

Offensive Overview: There's just no way around it, Michigan had an awful offense a season ago.

The Wolverines placed 11th in the league in passing offense, and it wasn't particularly close. Michigan threw for just 143.2 yards per game, which was just 7 less than Ohio State, but the Maize and Blue was stunningly less efficient. Michigan averaged just 5.1 yards per attempt – more than 2 yards less than OSU – and completed 48.8 percent of passes, resulting in the only passing efficiency mark below 100.0 in the conference. That placed 112th of 120 teams in the nation.

Those marks were accomplished with two quarterbacks splitting time under center. Steven Threet may have some talent throwing the football – he competed 51.0 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions – but he was young and operating a system he was not suited for in the slightest. Eventually he succumbed to injury and transferred during the offseason.

Then there was Nick Sheridan, who returns for 2009. Michigan fans should have known the disaster they were in for when Sheridan was named the starting quarterback for the first game; the former walk-on ended up completing just 46.0 percent of his passes for two touchdowns and five interceptions.

Sheridan suffered a leg injury during spring ball but hopes to be back in time for the season; Michigan seems intent on giving the job to a freshman, though, whether that be highly touted Californian Tate Forcier – who impressed mightily during the spring – or Floridian Denard Robinson.

Either way, the Wolverines will be starting a true freshman or Sheridan, leaving the biggest question mark on the team hovering over the most important position on the field.

When it comes to weapons in the passing game, the Wolverines do return their top three receivers in Martavious Odoms (49 catches, 443 yards, 0 touchdowns), Greg Mathews (35, 409, 2) and Darryl Stonum (14, 176, 1). Odoms, frequently used on bubble screens, is a burner at 5-9, while Mathews provides size at 6-3 and Stonum splits the difference at 6-2. There are a number of other wideouts in the mix, but none had more than LaTerryal Savoy's four catches last year.

Michigan also boasts a possible weapon at tight end in Kevin Koger, a one-time OSU recruit and Toledo native who caught six passes for an average of 15.5 yards last year and a touchdown.

If there's a positive going into 2009, it's that the Wolverines should have a competent rushing game. The return of a stable of running backs and an entire starting offensive line inspires confidence for a team that runs a system that likes to make its way on the ground.

The Michigan running game started to kick it into gear as 2009 progressed. Michigan topped 170 yards rushing seven times on the season, including five times during Big Ten play, and the Wolverines averaged more than 5 yards per carry and 200 yards per game while putting up an average of 35.5 points per game on the board against Purdue and Minnesota later in the season.

The best running back was Minor, who played sparingly until healthy, at which point he busted out for 117 yards and two touchdowns against Penn State and 155 yards and three scores against Purdue. At 6-1, 216, Minor has a solid combination of power and speed that allowed him to run 103 times for 533 yards, nine touchdowns and 5.2 yards per carry a season ago.

Despite the offseason transfer of Sam McGuffie, who ran more than 15 times apiece in five consecutive games early in the season before a concussion problem led to his departure, Michigan still has a good bunch of complimentary backs. Ohioan Michael Shaw saw his role diminish as the season went on, but he was still third on the team with 215 yards rushing and 5.1 yards per carry. Carlos Brown boasts speed and Kevin Grady has all the tools despite never having put it all together.

In addition, Michigan returns five starters on the offensive line. Despite a number of injuries and a tremendous amount of youth up front, Michigan allowed only 22 sacks, second-best in the league. From left to right, Mark Ortmann, Stephen Schilling, David Molk, David Moosman and Perry Dorrestein are back, while depth is provided by John Ferrara and Mark Huyge.

Lastly, simply holding on to the football should help Michigan on both offense and defense. The Wolverines, simply looking lost at times in Rodriguez's spread offense, coughed up 30 turnovers, tied for the most in the Big Ten. The good news is that Michigan was just minus-2 over its last six games, showing increased familiarity with the system.

Michigan was also last in third-down conversion percentage and last in first downs overall.

Key To The Season (Off): How the quarterback position develops. Michigan has the makings of a decent running game and passable receivers, but the success of the entire offense will depend on if the Wolverines are able to develop a quarterback that can hold on to the ball and effectively lead the offense.

Defensive Overview: Rating Michigan's defense is tough considering just how many times the U-M offense gave away the football. Still, the numbers aren't pretty; the Wolverines allowed 35 or more points six times, placing 10th in the league in scoring defense (28.9 points) and ninth in total defense.

The Wolverines were sixth in the league in rushing defense and allowed just 3.6 yards per carry, but teams had little trouble passing, as Michigan was ninth in the league in passing efficiency defense while allowing 19 touchdowns against just nine interceptions.

There's more bad news when one looks at the tackle totals from a season ago. Of the top 12 tacklers from a season ago, just five return; those five are the only players back with more than 20 stops.

The good news is that two are of the returnees are among the best defensive players in Graham and middle linebacker Obi Ezeh. The latter, in his second year as a major contributor, led the team with 98 tackles last season while making six stops for loss, while Graham was one of the best pass rushers in the league. The end finished as a second-team All-Big Ten member after making 20 TFL (second in the NCAA) and 10 sacks.

Unfortunately, Graham is the only starter that returns on the defensive line, making one wonder if the Wolverines – who could be set to use more 3-3-5 looks under new coordinator Greg Robinson – will be as solid against the run this season. Sophomore Mike Martin, who made 20 stops as a freshman last year, clogs the middle at 291 pounds, while Ryan Van Bergen is set to start at the other end spot after making 13 stops last season. End Greg Banks has size at 275 pounds could make him an asset against the run, and freshman defensive tackle William Campbell should be heard from by the time the season comes to a close.

Ezeh leads a solid linebacking crew from the middle. Jonas Mouton had a good first season as a starter last year, making 76 tackles and 5.5 TFL. J.B. Fitzgerald looks set to be in the running for a starting job, while Marell Evans could be ready to make a mark as a junior.

Then there's Stevie Brown, a safety during his first three seasons at Michigan. This year, he expects to play a hybrid linebacker/safety role after making 64 stops and 2 interceptions last year. However, the number of big plays Michigan has allowed over the past few seasons have often rested on the team's struggles at safety last year, troubles Brown has been a major part of.

Cornerback has plenty of depth on paper, as three five-star rated players are on the U-M roster at the position. Donovan Warren, a junior, is the most experienced, as he made 52 stops and an interception last year. Last year as a freshman, Boubacar Cissoko got his feet wet, while J.T. Turner enters this year from Massillon, Ohio.

Safety will continue to be a question mark. Michigan likes the talent of junior Troy Woolfolk, who made 10 stops last year, but one has to question him after being stuck behind majorly disappointing players the last few seasons. Sophomore Michael Williams had 18 stops last year and looks to be the favorite to start, though Brandon Smith and Vlad Emilien shouldn't be counted out.

Key To The Season (Def): Despite three starters from last year's shaky secondary, Michigan will be hoping for improvement out of the defensive backs. The front seven can be average, but the men at the back – many of whom are highly touted – have to get better for Michigan to be able to stop teams.

Special Teams: There are two extremes when it comes to Michigan's kicking game. Zoltan Mesko, the returning punter, is the returning first-team All-Big Ten punter and a real candidate for the Ray Guy Award after averaging 43.0 yards per punt, dropping 24 of 80 inside the 20 and booting just three touchbacks while leading Michigan to having the best net punting average in the league. On the other hand, there's true freshman kicker Brendan Gibbons, junior Bryan Wright and senior Jason Olesnavage, none of whom have ever tried a field goal.

The Wolverines have solid return units. Cissoko and Odoms split kickoff return duties last year; each returned 20 kicks and topped 23 yards per try, while Odoms returned one of his 10 punts for a touchdown.

New Name To Know: Forcier, 6-1, 188, San Diego (Calif.) Scripps Ranch – Simple enough. Campbell is more highly rated and Turner could play or start this year, but no player will more impact Michigan's fortunes that Forcier. Judging by Rodriguez's comments at the Big Ten media days, Forcier is – in the eyes of the coaching staff – ready to take over as the starter. If he can produce and stay healthy in Michigan's offense, he will be the key to the team's success.

Best Case Scenario: There is certainly potential here; if the quarterback situation turns out not to be a disaster and Michigan can hold onto the ball, the Wolverines could find themselves around the .500 mark and in the running for a bowl game.

Worst Case Scenario: The square peg still doesn't fit in the round hole, leading to yet another disastrous season.

OSU Game: Michigan was competitive with the Buckeyes a season ago before the wheels came off. The Wolverines were down just 14-7 at the half and drove down the field to open the second stanza. One punt, two OSU rushes and 91 yards later, the Buckeyes had broken Michigan's spirit on the way to a 42-7 romp.

It's hard to prognosticate this game for so many reasons. Obviously, the old cliché goes that the records can be thrown out when rivals meet, so figuring out what might happen in this game is pretty hard to do four hours before kickoff let alone four months. Plus, the first 11 games for each team should have a major impact on how this one goes; a Michigan team around .500 would certainly present a different challenge than one playing out the string for a second year in a row.

One thing I will point out, though, is that Michigan will still be lagging behind the Buckeyes when it comes to talent and experience. One positive for Michigan is that the Wolverines seemed to figure out a way to move the ball on the ground against Ohio State a year ago; on the other hand, the jury is still out on if Michigan will have the ability to stop allowing big plays to the Buckeye offense, especially given the team's questionable safety play returning.

This one is a long way away, and much can happen before November, but the odds at this point show Jim Tressel moving to 8-1 against the archrival. Just what those odds will be come game week will be a question until November.

Previous Previews:
Illinois Fighting Illini, Sept. 26
Indiana Hoosiers, Oct. 3
Wisconsin Badgers, Oct. 10
Purdue Boilermakers, Oct. 17
Minnesota Golden Gophers, Oct. 24
Penn State Nittany Lions, Nov. 7
Iowa Hawkeyes, Nov. 14

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