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Saturday, December 30th 2006

Preview: Michigan

In My Opinion The Best Bowl Game. I Agree Trev (Hopefully)

Repent! The end is nigh near for the Trojans! A quick glance at the media coverage of the Rose Bowl and you find a dandy of a ratio of perspective-to-substance pieces.

“What does the Rose Bowl mean to the Trojans?! To a ‘gipped’ Michigan team?!” Is a Trojan loss the first sign of the Trojans morphing into something else; other than the looming giant of this decade of college football?

Despite what the ESPN commercials may be implying, when people do care about the Rose Bowl…

I’ve covered the past seven BCS title games, involving a whole lot of press conferences and media days, and I can tell you the amount of media at this thing was about a tenth that of a national championship game. Instead of squeezing my way into a pack of 40 reporters surrounding the coach or star player, it was basically me and two other writers interviewing Pete Carroll and Lloyd Carr. The overall mood could be described in one word: mellow.

It isn’t for the talent on the field. Which is shameful. Both from the media and the fans (compare to, say, the Sugar Bowl).

Fan’s USC “exhaustion,” the fact both teams are at least slightly disappointed to be here, and just a general plaize towards the bowl season (sorry but Florida – Ohio State is NOT USC – Texas). All could be contributors to the mood in Pasadena and the mood towards the going ons in Pasadena.

But as Trev Alberts said in the video above, this will probably be the best BCS game. USC faces an incredible challenge which will define the next couple of years for them. Are they up for it?

I will tell you one thing, we got this going for us over Michigan (H/T Fanblogs):


Or Not?

Michigan Offense v. USC Defense

Of the attention paid to the X & Os this is the match up getting the least coverage. The most boring matchup. USC’s defense, supposedly the keystone of this Trojan team, has struggled some this year. Michigan’s offense is at times boring, but personally I think it scary for this Trojan’s defense.

Rivals doesn’t agree with that assessment,

The Wolverines are hardly a juggernaut on offense. They are not very explosive. They have a great playmaker in wide out Mario Manningham and a solid back in Michael Hart. Still, they tend to be a run heavy team, even when they line up in pass formations. They only gained more than 400 yards once all season, against a hapless Minnesota defense. They passed for less than 200 yards seven times.

Taking the time to call Manningham a “playmaker” is like calling an armored Humvee an SUV.

The .30 Is A Must Have For The Trip To Soccer Practice

In any case Michigan’s offense definitely has some big play potential and while I have no doubt that Hart will get the ball early, you can expect Carr to take some shots down field, especially if the run is working well.

That Mario Bros. Theme Song Is Annoying

Now, no one denies that Michigan is a rush heavy team. Those big plays come off the love off play action. Check out some of Michigan’s passing game,

[I]f Michigan can establish the line of scrimmage with the run…then that sets up Henne with the play-action pass, which he has been golden with all year getting the ball to receivers Mario Manningham, Adrian Arrington and Steve Breaston. It’s going to be essential for Michigan to initiate its offense by establishing the run, which will it sets up their play-action and eat up clock, keeping USC off the field.

And that Michigan offensive line, so “key” to establishing the run, is big (there’s that word associated with those corn fed boys of the Big 10) and talented.

USC will need to put four on the line more often and get rid of that “elephant” crap that Cushing has played all year. I give the Michigan offensive line more credit that Rivals does,

Michigan has faced three teams in the top 25 in rush defense: Penn State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. In those games, they averaged 3.5, 4.3, and 2.8 yards per carry. They only had success against Ohio State, and part of the reason for that was that the Buckeyes played to defend the pass when they got the two TD lead.

This is a Trojan’s team, which I will grant has been pretty good stopping the run, especially against the talented run teams we faced. Our lack of pressure on passing downs was surprising this year (with Ellis and Jackson both returning), and about a third of the way through the season we started blitzing more. But Michigan is not without its misdirection talents, and if in this zone blocking scheme we come after Hart and Henne consistently you may find the Trojan linebackers blowing right past the Michigan back on draws and counters and such.

With so much of the passing game coming off play action, I find fault with Rivals’ contention that,

What would concern me if I was a Michigan fan is that the Wolverines run an inordinate amount of deep drops, the seven step variety. With a quarterback that isn’t exactly the most fleet of foot, that could spell trouble. The Trojans have done a lot of blitzing this season, and if they can disguise it to keep Henne from audibilizing, they could take advantage of his deficiency. After a slow start, USC totalled 12 sacks in the last four games, and all four of those opponents were short drop teams.

This is an aggressive USC defense. And so we’re back at the beginning – if Michigan establishes the run, then that play action will do a good job negating the Trojan rush…even against a “deep drop” team.

The feel good story of the Trojan’s year, must not get confused and caught up on play action.

Before his senior year, Mays began narrowing his potential college choices. Washington was in the mix because of location and his father’s connection. Ultimately, though, it came down to Michigan and USC.

Mays, a Charles Woodson fan, was leaning toward attending Michigan, the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner’s alma mater, after a trip to Ann Arbor in the summer of 2005.

But when he visited a USC practice during training camp he became enamored of the Trojans. His father had played for the Minnesota Vikings when a young Carroll was a member of Bud Grant’s staff, and Stafford Mays remembered the energy and fun the coach brought to the game.

Taylor Mays, however, said a challenge from Athletic Director Mike Garrett closed the deal.

“He said, ‘If you’re scared of competition, if you’re scared you’re going to get lost in the shuffle, don’t come here because competition only brings out the best,’ ” Mays recalled. “That turned it over for me. In my mind I said, ‘All right. I’m coming here.’ “

Hart has the speed, even against the the Trojans, to get to the edge, and so the corners as well must know when he has the ball and when to come up in run support.

But despite all these general points and babbling, as usual, as I’ve stated, it comes down to the offensive line. Michigan must establish the run (which they are completely capable of doing). If Pete/Holt stick with a four down front and have drawn up some run blitzes and the Trojan linebackers do well in support (which they should excel at), then this USC defense can give the Wolverine offense trouble.

USC Offense v. Michigan Defense

This is where the words are (when they’re not talking about how Michigan was robbed or USC is the next Miami). The #1 rushing defense, the #6 scoring defense going against…well, an offense that is less prolific by the numbers than that. So why is this a game? Because Michigan’s secondary is more than just their “weakest link,” they’re pretty bad. And USC’s strength, the thing that should make handing the ball off an after thought, is at wide receiver.

The Michigan secondary is “holey” enough that it even has mild mannered Steve Smith doing the slightest bit of trash talking,

“The other corner, No. 14, he’s a good player, but I don’t know, we feel like we can make some plays on him,” Smith said of Trent. “The safeties, if they’re starters, they have to be good, but we feel like we can make some plays in the secondary.”

Smith was asked if he liked what he saw in terms of defensive weaknesses when he watched Michigan’s film of the Ohio State game.

“Definitely, watching the game film you get excited about some of the big plays you think you can make,” Smith said. “They pose (throw) some good players against us, but we also feel like we can expose them in areas. They’ve got great team speed, but they play really safe, but I think they’re vulnerable, too.”

Personally, I wish he hadn’t said that (as if we need to get the talented Wolverines bulletin board material), but Booty tries to make up for the comments,

“Steve’s taken advantage of a lot of guys this year all throughout the season,” Booty said. “I think all (Michigan’s) defensive players are solid guys. I don’t see a weak link anywhere.

“They play good defense. Every single guy I’ve seen them put out there has played well, always in the right place at the right time. We know they’re very good, and they’re going to challenge us every way possible. They had several weeks to prepare for us so I’m sure we’re going to see things we haven’t seen on film.”

The Wolverine secondary knows it is the “weak” spot on an otherwise impeccable defensive unit. A unit which has truly been the keystone of this Michigan team (despite having Henne and Hart).

Michigan defenders said they have spent the past few weeks reviewing footwork and basic technique. They also have worked on avoiding the blown assignments that hurt them against Ohio State.

“We played out of character in that game,” English said. “We’ve addressed it, and we’ve moved on.”

I wish I could be more creative. I wish I could predict something few others saw coming. But truly, I think the keys to this matchup are the same one’s that everyone is spouting. Even if the Michigan secondary plays lights out there will be plays to be had by Jarrett and Smith (and Fred Davis and Turner and…).

The questions everyone is asking:

  • Will John David Booty have time to find them?
  • And will the running game be able to do enough that the Wolverines have to respect it?

Rivals nails it,

The Wolverines are big and fast, and they run a confusing style of defense, much like UCLA did. However, they are not as good in the secondary as UCLA is, and if the Trojans can get the ball out on time, they can make some plays through the air as Ohio State did. It is going to be very tough to run the ball though, and I suspect that if USC wins the game, they will finish with a similar number of rushing yards as they did in the 2004 Rose Bowl.

The key offensively will be to come out throwing as Ohio State did. Michigan, after facing teams like Wisconsin and Penn State that are more conservative were not prepared for the barrage of passing they saw in the first half at the Horseshoe. USC can duplicate this, but they need better play from their offensive tackles than they got in the last game.

There is one thing to like about the match up, despite this nice article contending otherwise, guys like Woodley (the nation’s Lombardi winner) are not speed guys (at about ~4.75). At least not speed guys like Davis was for UCLA, who gave left tackle Sam Baker fits.

This offensive line, despite its doubters, is a fine unit. They won’t be able to contain this Michigan defensive front. No team can. They need only to give Booty enough time.

And the offensive game plan must be to make that “enough” time as little as possible. Short routes (where USC’s big recievers – Davis, Jarrett, Turner – can use their bodies against smaller Michigan corners) will open up big plays later in the game.

CJ Gable and Moody cannot dance around in the back field. That has been a fault, but a typical one for such a young corp of running backs, all year. The big play is not to be had on the ground. Our depth (although we’re still coming back from being banged up) at running back must be used to an advantage. Slug Michigan up a little bit. Yes they’re bigger, but even this front seven doesn’t like fresh legs driving into them play after play.

All these backs need to do is push for those 2 yards and keep the Michigan line backers (and Woodley) honest to give Booty that much more time. Precious, precious time in the pocket.

“You don’t see that type of size in our conference,” USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said, referring to the Michigan defense and the Pacific-10, respectively. “Our conference is more of a speed conference, not as big and physical. We don’t play a lot of great front sevens. That’s just been the Pac-10 for a long time, and you see that in the [NFL] draft, too. There’s not a lot of D-linemen that come from the Pac-10.”

Woodley will be there Monday, as will tackle Alan Branch, All-Americans both. They are the biggest reason that Michigan finished second in sacks per game at 3.42, which adds up to 41 for the regular season.

Booty, as talented as he is, is not Smith, who didn’t stand still for the Wolverines or any other defense.

“If he was a scrambler, we’d probably still blitz him,” Michigan outside linebacker Shawn Crable said of Booty. “I won’t say that it [standing in the pocket] makes it easier, because he’s a good quarterback, but when someone is standing back there, that’s where he’s at. I think he’s a good quarterback and I’m looking forward to playing him.”

Michigan’s defense will come out playing hard. I have no expectations that 40+ days off will dull them. I expect the opposite.

But that U-M-Ohio State game shaped new perceptions and revisited a few old ones. U-M’s defense, so fierce under first-year coordinator Ron English, was shredded for 503 yards and 42 points by Heisman winner Troy Smith and the Buckeyes. The numbers stick to the Wolverines like scarlet-and-gray letters, threatening to redefine their defining season.

There’s only one way to get rid of the stain, and the Wolverines know it. Of all the things U-M wouldn’t mind showing in the Rose Bowl, re-establishing the power of its defense ranks as high as any, especially against a dynamic USC offense.

As bad as that day was for Michigan…

…Booty Can’t Move Like This

And so on both sides of the ball, for both teams it comes down to their offensive lines. For Michigan: can they establish the run. For USC: can they protect John David Booty (long enough).

Other Stuff

What USC has done is impressive. They lost far more in total talent than, say, the other participant in last year’s national championship game. And yet they find themselves in a fifth straight BCS bowl (instead of squeaking off an Alamobowl victory).

But they ended their season by blowing a chance to cement their certain immortality.

Meanwhile, Michigan is clearly the second best team in the country, and yet were robbed of a shot at a national title (well, I don’t think ‘robbed’ but they probably see it that way).

Have the Trojans started to ebb, not to peak again any time soon?

[T]here are some internal concerns about whether the USC program is on the brink of a downward spiral.

Let us be honest, for all his talent and success, Carroll has never proven himself adept at building up a team’s ego (and even performance on the field) coming off such devastating losses. He’s never had to. Plenty of Hall of Fame coaches’ have their flaws (minor in comparison to their accomplishments). If “rebounding” is truly a talent (or even a true verb in this context) is it something Pete possesses?

That remains to be answered.

Can he convince this younger generation of players who EXPECT to win, of what it takes to actually win. Because the group before them actually earned this pinnacle, they’ve only inherited it.

[I]t would become a very long offseason if the Trojans can’t stand up to Michigan. This is a crossroads game for USC. The Trojans must finish this season off on a strong beat. They have to snuff out any lingering doubt that grew from the UCLA debacle, which was indicative of a very un-Trojan-like season.

“I don’t think we have to prove it to other people, I think we have to prove it to ourselves,” conceded Booty. “It’s all about us and we want to get this taste out of our mouths and get back on the winning track. We’re really not trying to prove anything to anybody else.”

“It’s almost like it’s something you have to do,” added Jarrett. “You have to be forced to move on and look past that and I think if you sit and dwell on it, history is going to repeat itself. That is what we’ve done. We had that week off to get over it, and then we went back to work. We’re over that loss and we’ve been focusing on Michigan ever since and we’re ready to play.”

It is all coming to a boiling point, or so the media sees it. USC has had its off the field troubles (Yahoo! plans a new Reggie Bush expose on the eve of the Rose Bowl). And it is certainly feeling the pressure of its past success on the field.

USC however isn’t one to hog all the pressure. The death of a legendary coach, the snubbing by the BCS, the fact that this Wolverine team’s marquee players have never beaten Ohio State or won a bowl game. It is all there for Michigan as well.

This Rose Bowl–which, in past years, would be universally hailed as a glorious Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup, just the way Mother Nature intended–has now become a very strange football creature, an emotional cocktail of the highest order. USC, frankly, has been reduced to a sideshow. All the attention, all the tears, all the hopes, all the longings, all the points of confusion, all the competing tensions, are on the Michigan side of the aisle. It’s just the way it is.

This is potentially a battle for #1 (next year). Something, I truly believe, USC’s ego needs. The immediate future success of this Trojan program depends on a victory in the Rose Bowl.

USC wins, and I’ll buy my tickets for next year’s National Championship right away (pending dreadful probation). USC loses, and I’m making plans for the Holiday Bowl (or worse).

I think USC is up to the challenge…
USC 23 – Michigan 14

[Forde’s Predictions]
[Mandel’s Predictions]
[Mandel: Thoughts On The Rose Bowl]