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Michigan vs. San Diego State Preview

September 23, 2011

Quote That Most Represents This Game
“I wanna heal, I wanna feel
Like I’m close to something real
I wanna find something I’ve wanted all along
Somewhere I belong…

— Linkin Park, song “Somewhere I Belong”

Names To Know

1. Ronnie Hillman (RB #13) — The true sophomore from La Habra, CA is the perfect example of a diamond in the rough.  He was a 2* recruit coming out of high school, with his only scholarship offers coming from San Diego State, New Mexico, Fresno State, and Wyoming.  None of that mattered though as he won the starting job his first year on campus and rushed for 1500+ yards and 17 touchdowns.  I think everything Brady Hoke has said he’s looking for in a Michigan running back is based on what Hillman gave him at SDSU in 2010.  He’s got vision, speed, and can carry the ball 30 times a game.  He’s the 2nd leading rusher in the NCAA early this season and is clearly going to be the key to the game this Saturday.

2. Ryan Lindley (QB #14) —  Lindley’s history sounds a lot like Hillman’s, except that he is a 5th year senior.  A low-ranked 3* recruit whose only offer besides SDSU was Idaho, Lindley won the team offensive MVP his RS Freshman season.  He’s now in his 4th season as the starting QB and some NFL gurus have him being the 2nd or 3rd quarterback taken in the NFL draft, lumped in with guys like Matt Barkley, Landry Jones, and Kirk Cousins. Michigan will likely put a lot of pressure on the defense to stop Hillman, which means Lindley will have a lot of pressure on him to complete passes.

3. Miles Burris (LB #9) — As a lot of people know, San Diego State runs a 3-3-5 as their base defense, which I’ll cover more later since it’s not a joke of a 3-3-5 like Michigan ran the last couple years.  The key in that defensive formation though is the play of the linebackers, and Burris is their senior playmaker.  He led the team in tackles last year (80), and also accumulated 9.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss.  He’ll be the guy trying to slow down Denard this week and give different looks to try to force Michigan to make mistakes.

Offensive Strength

Ronnie Hillman has an incredible 497 rushing yards and 8(!!) touchdowns through three games this season.  The competition hasn’t been great (Cal Poly, Army, and Washington State), but when you factor in the 1500 yards as a true freshman, it means Hillman is legit. Given how Michigan has looked early in games against Western, Notre Dame, and Eastern, it’s going to be interesting to see how they handle the San Diego State rushing attack. Another key factor here is SDSU returns 4 of it’s 5 starting offensive lineman, which are all close to 300 pounds, and all but the RT are juniors or seniors.  

Offensive Weakness
As I mentioned before, Ryan Lindley is considered a very good quarterback.  His receivers, on the other hand, are a big question mark. The top two receivers from 2010 graduated, and their two likely replacements, including potential star Dominique Sandifer, were injured during camp and won’t be playing this week. Their two leading receivers, Colin Locket and Dylan Denso, have a combined 25 career receptions. They do have a 6’6″ 250lbs TE that will be targeted a lot, but given how Michigan will likely need to stack the box to focus on Hillman, it’s very good to know they lack experience and explosiveness in the WR corps.

Defensive Strength

Everyone outside of the Michigan defensive coaches the last two years knows that for the 3-3-5 to be successful you need to bring pressure with your linebackers and have them make plays. Just rushing three lineman and having the linebackers sit back is going to be a disaster.  Luckily for SDSU their head coach, Rocky Long, is an expert on the defense and considered to be one of its pioneers. The Aztec linebackers apply pressure and make plays, given by LB Mile Burris’s 20 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks in 2010. The aggressiveness of this style leaves them prone to make mistakes, though, which was seen week two against Army when the Black Knights and their triple-option offense averaged over 7 yards per carry while amassing 400+ yards rushing.

Defensive Weakness
As much as the linebackers are solid, the defensive line and secondary are shaky for this team.  Washington State, coming off a 2-10 season in 2010, threw for 368 yards and passed for only 50 last week and Army rushed for 403 while passing for 43 the week before.  The takeaway from that is both of those teams made it clear what they were going to do, but the San Diego State defense still couldn’t stop it. If the defensive line isn’t getting a push, which they weren’t against Army, it makes life hard for the linebackers to defend the option. And bringing pressure doesn’t mean much if the receivers are open on short routes, which happened a lot during the Washington State game.  The defense as a whole this season has given up 21 points to Cal Poly, 20 points to Army (even though they had 8 fumbles, 3 of which they lost), and 24 to Washington State, which doesn’t bode well facing a Michigan team who, even though they’ve struggled early in games, is averaging over 30 points per contest.

My Game Expectations
I wrote this preview early this week (ed note from Andrew: my bad on taking until Friday to get it posted) because I was surprised at the internet chatter immediately following the win on Saturday.  People on the message boards are legitimately scared for this weekend and are already trying to justify a loss. I couldn’t believe it, so I had to do some research on my own to either prove them wrong, or convince myself to buy stock in public companies that sell Tums near Ann Arbor. Here are some of the stats I found quickly that I thought were interesting :

  • SDSU is 1-11 since 2008 in games vs. BCS opponents and the top Mountain West teams (TCU, Utah, and BYU). The only win was against Washington State, who has a record of 5-32 over the last three seasons.
  • Andy Mignery said on WTKA this week, “That’s a ball club that has beat a lot of big teams the last few years.” I have to disagree because by my look, those “big” wins since 2008 were Air Force, Navy, Army, and Washington State. The rest of their wins were against FCS teams and low-tier Mountain West like New Mexico, UNLV, Wyoming and Colorado State who had a combined record of 9-40 in 2010.
  • People point to the fact they only lost by 4 points to Utah in 2010 as a success. In their final five games in 2010, Utah scored 7 (TCU), 3 (Notre Dame), 38 (SDSU), 17 (BYU), and 6 (Boise State). Utah was not a good offensive team to close out last season, so SDSU giving up that many points is suspect.
  • Wyoming, who went 3-9 in 2010, scored 38 points in a loss to SDSU. They only scored 30+ in two other games all year, which were against New Mexico and Colorado State. Again, allowing that many points is suspect.
  • That same Wyoming team held Ronnie Hillman to 44 yards on 21 carries and SDSU to 76 total rushing yards, compared to allowing ~200 rushing yards to teams like New Mexico, UNLV, BYU, and Utah, and a whopping 297 to TCU.

If I said, “We are playing a team coming off an 8-4 season that has won 1 game against a BCS team in the last decade who have 5 returning defensive starters and lost most of their coaching staff in the offseason”, would you be worried? Yet if you throw in “San Diego State” and “Ronnie Hillman,” a lot people seem to be freaking out.  Hillman is very good and we’ve definitely struggled against the run, but we also have the coaching staff that knows everything there is to know about the Aztec offensive and defensive players. They have likely changed the offense up, but the Michigan staff will know who to attack on the offensive line and the best way to attack them.  They’ll also know Lindley’s tendencies in his progressions and how best to disguise their coverages. Most coaches would agree that the advantage when a coach plays their former team goes to the coach because they know everything you can about the players.  Coach Hoke said in his press conference this week that Rocky Long knows Al Borges and his offense very well, which is a concern.  Personally, I think that is just coach-speak because Rocky Long really has no idea how the offense will look with Denard Robinson compared to Ryan Lindley.

While watching the Eastern game last weekend, every time we went to an I-formation I saw 8-9 defenders in the box to stop the run. Denard rarely, if ever, ran the ball himself out of this formation, and was very bad passing the ball on play action. That meant Eastern could get away with stacking the box, which worked the first few drives.  When we went to the more spread-look, Denard had 2 touchdown passes and 198 yards rushing himself, which opened a lot of holes for Vincent Smith to gain 100+.  My guess is we don’t see the I-formation early this week because the coaches won’t want to risk stalling the offense again.  Another big reason for this is the 3-3-5 that the Aztecs will run. In my opinion, the best way to neutralize a defense that is blitzing most downs from different sides is to use an option offense that makes the decision after the snap when they see what side the pressure is coming from. Army did this for 400 yards in a loss, and Air Force gained 300+ last year in a close loss. Mixing in the fake-QB-run-pass-over-the-middle like the one Drew Dileo scored on last week will be key to keeping the defense honest over the middle.

We’ve seen Michigan struggle early every game this season, scoring 0 points in the first quarter so far while letting Western and Eastern march down the field on their first few drives before making adjustments.  I think the same thing happens this week with Ronnie Hillman gaining a bunch of yards early and Lindley completing short passes to keep the offense moving.  I wouldn’t be shocked to see Michigan trailing in the first quarter and even at halftime of this game while they try to figure out the best defensive personnel to stop Hillman, especially because the Aztec players will want to seek some form of revenge on the coaches who recruited them and then left.  I do think the Michigan offense will start to heal from the struggles we’ve seen the first three games though, and Coach Hoke will ultimately show Michigan is where he belongs.

Outcome
Michigan wins 31-21

-Mike Randazzo

Andrew’s Take:

Mike outlined all of the details better than I could have.  Besides that, he has basically nailed the last two predictions as he had Michigan 34 ND 31 (actual score 35-31) and Michigan 35 EMU 7 (actual score 31-3).  That’s back to back weeks where he has basically been dead on with the outcome. 

There are 3 factors that I see as key to this game:

  1. Denard Robinson’s Arm: Denard is always going to be dangerous with his legs.  But when he has the passing game going, he’s almost unstoppable.  So far this season, he’s had trouble adjusting to the new offense and making his reads.  We know he has the arm and mechanics to get the job done, but we haven’t seen it yet.  Will this be the week that he puts the passing and running together?  If he does, I don’t think San Diego State stands a chance, given their defensive weaknesses that Mike pointed out.  If he’s making bad decisions and missing open receivers, the offense is going to stall and it could be a long afternoon.
  2. Ronnie Hillman:  Although the Michigan fanbase’s fear of Hillman might be getting a little out of hand, there’s no question he is a great back.  How successful SDSU is will depend on how great he is on Saturday.  I fully expect him to end up north of 100 yards.  But if Michigan can make that come in chunks of 3 and 4 yards rather than 10 and 12 yards, I like their chances.  The closer Hillman gets to 150 or even 200 yards on the ground, the more like the Aztecs pulling off the upset. 
  3. Time of Possession: Unlike the last 3 years under Rich Rodriguez, Brady Hoke really values time of possession.  Rich Rod believed in an up tempo offense that kept the pressure on the other team to keep scoring.  Hoke takes the opposite approach, as he believes that the other team can’t score when they don’t have the football (An axiom I have to prove false).  With Hillman churning out yards, SDSU is hoping to hold onto the ball as much as possible as well, and keep Denard Robinson off the field.  I won’t go so far as to say that the team that wins the time of possession will win the game, but it will be a good barometer of how things are going for both teams. 

PREDICTION:

I’m with Mike in the fact that I think Brady Hoke has a huge advantage coaching in this game because he is intimately familiar with the players, scheme and coaches of SDSU.  That’s really going to help on the defensive side of the ball.  I also think that despite some of the early failings, the defense is really starting to improve.  They are one mental error away from giving up only 10 points in the last 6 quarters.  If Denard Robinson can throw the ball well and find his receivers, watch out.  If not, then watch out – but for totally different reasons.   This blogger thinks Denard gets it going and Michigan eventually pulls away. 

Michigan 35

San Diego State 23  

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