Oregon State visits Michigan this Saturday, and while Beaver fans got a good scout on the Wolverines in last Thursday's gate against Utah, this is a matchup where the two programs don't know each other all that well. The teams have only met 4 times, and not for 29 years. And no Oregonian has played football for Michigan since 1960. Only 4 people from the Beaver state have ever worn the blue. The programs just don't cross paths much, despite the fact that former Oregon State Athletic Director Bob DeCarolis came to Corvallis from Ann Arbor (and returned there this past summer to work for Michigan again).
To get a clearer picture about what to expect Saturday morning, and get those going to the game ready, we got together with Drew Hallett, who ? for Maize n Brew, our brother SBN site that covers Michigan, to discuss the teams in depth.
Now, on to Drew's observations when the conversation turned to Michigan.
At least based on what we saw against Utah, Michigan's offense seems to be mostly comprised of passing to WR Amara Darboh. Against Utah, Darboh had a co-game high 8 catches, for more yards, and a longer gain, than anyone else on the field. Yet had Jake Rudock not missed him while wide open multiple times, including once deep for what would have been an uncontested touchdown, the Wolverines would have won in Salt Lake City. What do you expect Michigan to do differently to get Darboh open in places Rudock can get the ball to him in?
Well, I wouldn't say that Michigan's offense is mostly comprised of getting the ball to Darboh. The focal point of Michigan's passing attack will be tight end Jake Butt, who is the favorite to be the Big Ten Tight End of the Year and will be a leading candidate to win the Mackey Award. But I know you're going to ask about Butt in your next question, so I'll save my discussion of him for then.
Darboh was a pleasant surprise in the season-opener, though. Yes, the numbers look nice -- 11 targets, eight receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown -- but how he looked was more important. Last season, Darboh was the perfect embodiment of a No. 2, possession receiver. He's big-bodied and knows how to use it to shield off defenders when running slants and hitches. The question always has been his speed and explosiveness. Could he stretch the defense vertically or gain yards after the catch?
We saw much more of that from him against Utah. He didn't beat the Utes over the top -- Rudock's errant deep passes mostly were intended for speedster and double-move savant Jehu Chesson, not Darboh -- but Darboh flashed some burst on flanker screens, beating defensive backs to the sideline before hitting the turbo button. I wouldn't expect any long bombs to Darboh against the Beavers. Of his 11 targets against Utah, only one was on a deep route. Rather, Rudock targeted Darboh four times on screens and three times on slants. That's where he'll get the football.
In that vein, tight end Jake Butt also had a monstrous night against the Utes, and is a physical mismatch once he gets rolling. I'd expect Oregon State to chip and jam and cut him all night long to prevent that from reoccurring. What will Michigan do to make sure he gets off the line, and gets loose in the secondary? Do the Wolverines have double routes or rub routes, or something else, in their arsenal to facilitate the receivers they want to get the ball to getting open against a defense that targets them?
There are three reasons why Jake Butt is primed to have a monster season. First, he's just that talented. Second, Jake Rudock loves to throw short and intermediate passes and checks down often, which will pad the number of balls thrown in Butt's direction. And, third, Jim Harbaugh is his coach. It's no secret that Harbaugh loves to use his tight ends and use them in a variety of ways. He did it at Stanford with Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz. He did it with the San Francisco 49ers with Vernon Davis. And he'll do it with Butt now.
Harbaugh won't place Butt just on the line adjacent to the left or right tackle. He's going to put Butt in the slot, where defensive linemen won't be able to chip him before rushing the quarterback. And he's going to put Butt in formations where he's bunched with receivers to the outside, protecting Butt from jams by linebackers and safeties. Butt is versatile, so using him in different spots will make it difficult for defenses to contain him.
But ... if defenses pay attention, there is a way for them to stick with Butt. The two routes he primarily runs are posts and outs. He ran one of those for seven of the 11 passes thrown at him. Oregon State should prepare for that.
The Wolverines didn't run the ball for much, with De'Veon Smith averaging less than 3 yards per carry in going for only 47 yards on 17 runs. This despite running behind a massive offensive line, one that has every starter, plus several of the rotation subs, all over 300 lbs. Why couldn't Michigan get the run game going better against Utah, and what do you expect the Wolverines to do differently to correct that?
There's much more to running the ball effectively than having strong offensive linemen, though that doesn't hurt. Michigan's issues with the rushing attack are twofold. First, the Wolverines are transitioning from zone blocking to man blocking under Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno. The offensive line has had more than its fair share of problems in the past two seasons, but, by the end of 2014, the line had progressed well in its zone-blocking schemes. However, Michigan has hit the restart button in 2015, so it's going to take some time for the offensive line to find its rhythm, which won't happen until Michigan's guards learn to lower their pad level and locate the proper gaps into which they will be pulling on powers and counters.
This was a major problem that stymied Michigan's chances to run the ball well against Utah -- the Utes' terrific defensive tackles contributed to that as well -- and I don't expect there to be much improvement in that department in just one week's time. However, Oregon State replaces six starters from a front seven whose run defense was 115th in the nation according to S&P+. It's hard to expect that these new faces will come in and elevate this unit to higher than a mediocre level, even with Kalani Sitake as Oregon State's new defensive coordinator. If there was ever a time for Michigan's offensive line to begin to become a cohesive run-blocking unit, this is the time. If Michigan can't, it'll be a major concern moving forward.
Second, even if the offensive line starts to execute its blocks correctly, Michigan's running backs need to rise to the occasion as well. Because the offensive line's struggles in recent seasons, the running backs tend not to trust that there will be running lanes where the play is designed for them to be. As a result, the backs have had poor vision and missed opportunities to pick up nice chunks of yards when the backside gap was open.
This isn't as much of a problem with De'Veon Smith, but he missed some key reads in pivotal moments in the second half, instead just trying to charge forward and churn out extra yards. I don't expect that Smith will alter his running style, but the question will be if Drake Johnson is full-go. Johnson was Michigan's best running back last season -- he had 55 carries for 320 yards (5.8 YPC) and four touchdowns in the final four games -- before he tore his second ACL against Ohio State. What made Johnson the best is that he had good vision and great straight-line speed after his first cut. Johnson didn't play against Utah, but he might this Saturday.
We've avoided the elephant in the room for 3 questions, but we might as well get into "the return of Harbaugh". Oregon State coach Gary Andersen noted that every Michigan home game is a special experience, and a big deal, with well over 100 thousand fans on hand, but this Saturday will be an exponentially bigger circus. Is there any chance it will actually prove distracting to the team? Is anything special in the works?
No, it won't be distracting for the team. Jim Harbaugh knows that the media will track his every move, so he has become adept at keeping the circus focused on his off-the-field antics and not on the team. During Michigan's fall training camp, he and the team went into a "submarine" for 17 days, during which the local media had no access to observe practice or even interview the players. Harbaugh wanted everything about fall camp to be focused on football and football only.
Once he emerged from the "submarine" and met with the media, he kept relevant football tidbits hidden. However, when he was asked about Michigan football's upcoming affiliation with Michael Jordan's Jumpman brand, he broke out into fantastic anecdote about how he thought someone was pranking him when Jordan called to deliver the news. Just like that, the media had their headline. The point is that Harbaugh is excellent at keeping the team focused. Though there will be much excitement in for Harbaugh's coaching debut at Michigan Stadium -- heck, even ESPN will broadcast SportsCenter live from Ann Arbor in the morning -- Michigan will be ready for Oregon State.
Following up on that, it seems like this is a pretty big game in the season long scheme of things for the Wolverines, especially after losing last week. An 0-2 start has to put a pretty good sized hurdle in the way of getting to a "good" bowl, and maybe any bowl. What are the expectations/requirements, not to be confused with the hopes (always higher), for Harbaugh season 1?
This is a big game for Michigan because -- no offense to Oregon State -- it's one that Michigan is expected to win. The opener on the road against Utah was not. That's not to say that the Wolverines could not beat Utah -- they could and were marching down the field in the fourth quarter to tie the game before Jake Rudock threw a pick-six -- but a seven-point loss against a good Utah team in Salt Lake City is not something about which Michigan fans should fret. However, a home loss to a team that with a true freshman quarterback and nine new starters on defense? That'd be bad.
My season prediction for Michigan was a 7-5 record. Jim Harbaugh will return Michigan to national prominence, but not even he can do it in just one season. It's going to take time, particularly when Michigan is in the same division as Ohio State and Michigan State, both of which are on another level right now. Michigan's defense should be one of the best units in the Big Ten, but there are just too many questions on offense that need to be answered.
The offense should improve as the season progresses, especially on the ground, but this offense lacks the explosiveness to put lots of points on the scoreboard on a consistent basis. Add in that Michigan has to host the Buckeyes and Spartans and should be road underdogs in hostile environments against Minnesota and Penn State, a five-loss season seems about right, though I wouldn't be surprised if Michigan was 8-4.
The Big House is one of the iconic sports venues in the world, and those Oregon State (and some Oregon) fans making the trip this weekend are looking forward to it, as well as the rare chance to do the double header. But what else besides the stadiums and classic Big Ten bands should fans make sure to take in while they are there?
It's been about 3.5 years since I've last been in Ann Arbor, so I'm assuming not much has changed since. I hope, at least. For the Oregon State fans heading to Ann Arbor, you definitely need to walk around Central Campus. It's a beautiful campus, and, with it being the weekend of home football opener, there should be a buzz in the air. With regards to food, I feel like I'm obligated to mention that Zingerman's Delicatessen is world-renowned. The line will be around the corner, so I recommend you call in and place your order ahead of time before you pick it up. Also, Mr. Spots is very popular for their greasy food. People love their Philly cheesesteaks, but I'm a sucker for their hot wings. The best I have ever had.
If you're looking for nicer restaurants, I would head towards Main Street. The Chop House has the best steak in town, though it may put a nice dent in your wallet. With regards to bars, Main Street is also a nice place if you're looking for a nicer establishment to sit down and have a conversation. If you want to party with the students, go to South University, where you can find Good Time Charley's, The Blue Leprechaun, The Brown Jug, and -- if you really want to hate yourself in the morning -- Rick's.
You put our ex-Athletic Director Bob DeCarolis, who came to Oregon State from Michigan, and booked this weekend's get-together (with no return trip; what would it take to get you to come to Corvallis, or did last week's trip to Salt Lake City sour the Wolverines on ever coming west again?) back to work after he left town this past summer. What do you have him working on back there?
DeCarolis was brought back to Michigan to be a "senior advisor" to interim Michigan athletic director Jim Hackett. That's how Hackett labeled DeCarolis' position when Hackett confirmed to the media that DeCarolis had returned. As to what DeCarolis does as a "senior advisor," I don't know.
Regarding whether the Wolverines would come west again, they would, and they will. Michigan is scheduled to have a home-and-home series with UCLA in 2022 and 2023, with the Wolverines heading to Los Angeles for the sequel. But I can't see Michigan making its way to Corvallis soon, given that Michigan has home-and-home series booked with multiple schools for each season through 2027. Heck, let's hope we're still on this earth then.
Defensively, the best player on the field last week in Salt Lake City appeared to be Michigan's Jabrill Peppers. Who else should Oregon State expect to step up on the Wolverine defense?
Jabrill Peppers was not Michigan's best defensive player against Utah, although he does play a pivotal role, acting as the strong safety in its base 4-3 schemes, and the nickel in its nickel packages. In both spots, he is Michigan's hybrid-space player -- the defender who covers the slot, contains in run support, and blitzes off the edge. It's a demanding position, but, because Peppers has elite athleticism, he's the best candidate to do the job and to do it well. We saw this in the second half, when he was blowing past blocks and destroying screens behind the line of scrimmage.
However, Peppers had his struggles against the Utes in the first half, particularly in coverage. He still needs to refine his technique, understanding the proper footwork when he covers a slot that can release to the inside or outside. When that happens, he'll be a special player.
Michigan's best defensive player was defensive tackle Chris Wormley, who registered career highs for tackles (five) and tackles for loss (three). He did an excellent job of firing off the ball at the snap and slanting to the inside gap, where he'd use his pads to get leverage against the offensive linemen and penetrate into the backfield. Wormley wasn't the only defensive tackle to play well against the Utes either. In fact, the entire position group finished with positive grades, whether it was Ryan Glasgow, Willie Henry, Maurice Hurst, Jr., or Matt Godin. It is Michigan's deepest position, and, as a whole, they stuffed Utah's running game, holding Devontae Booker, who rushed for over 1,500 yards last season, to just 69 on 22 carries.
The other player for which Oregon State needs to watch is corner Jourdan Lewis. He has developed into a lockdown corner in the field that thrives in press man schemes. He totaled three tackles and a pass break-up against Utah, which seems modest, but he excelled. Travis Wilson rarely tried to test Lewis because his receivers could not separate from Lewis. And, when Lewis recorded his pass break-up, it was when Lewis read Wilson perfectly and undercut the slant route. It should have been an interception, but Lewis couldn't quite get a firm grasp on it. Oregon State's Seth Collins is a true freshman, and there are questions about whether he can be an accurate thrower downfield. If I was him, I would not test Lewis. At all.
As we discussed in your questions, Oregon State's offense will be looking to do some damage outside the box, on the wheels of quarterback Seth Collins, but also with runs that bounce outside, and sweeps by wide receiver Victor Bolden. What will Michigan do to contain the outside game, and who will most likely be the Wolverines to do it?
After watching the Michigan-Utah film, I am much more concerned about this than I thought I would be. With D.J. Durkin as Michigan's new defensive coordinator, the Wolverines have introduced the BUCK position, which, essentially, is the weakside defensive end. However, Michigan will sometimes have the BUCK in a three-point stance with his hand in the dirt or in a two-point stance standing like an outside linebacker. This spot, which often is tasked with the responsibility to hold the edge and contain, was manned by Mario Ojemudia and Royce Jenkins-Stone against Utah.
And both struggled immensely. They each had trouble maintaining their discipline when Utah optioned them off, crashing in on the running back and allowing the quarterback to pull when it was their job to force the run inside into the teeth of the defense. These are mistakes that Michigan can ill-afford against Oregon State, who will need Seth Collins and his speed to carry the Beavers to the upset victory. I expect that Ojemudia, who generally is a consistent performer, will be better this Saturday, and I wouldn't be surprised if Lawrence Marshall, who is a redshirt freshman of whom the Michigan coaches are fond, sees some action at the BUCK spot. But this can be an area that Oregon State exploits against Michigan.
Oregon State has a reliable field goal kicker in Garrett Owens, and its very possible this game comes down to a score or single possession. What does Michigan have in store for special teams? Kenny Allen missed one of his two field goal attempts at Utah; how comfortable are you if the Wolverines have to put the game on his foot?
There is no doubt that Oregon State has the advantage at kicker. Owens made 11-of-13 field goals last season and missed only once inside 40 yards. So what does Owens do in the opener against Weber State? He drills four field goals, with three from at least 39 yards long.
Kenny Allen won the placekicking job for Michigan, but reports that surfaced from training camp indicated that the competitors lacked consistency. Given this, Michigan just wants to have a kicker that splits the uprights from within 40 yards. Make the easy ones. If you miss longer ones, so be it. Allen made the 29-yarder but missed the 44-yarder against Utah. That falls in line with that strategy. However, Michigan doesn't want to put the game on his foot.
Oregon State may have the better kicker, but I think Michigan has the advantage elsewhere on special teams. Michigan has a dangerous return man in Jabrill Peppers and an Aussie punter in Blake O'Neill that can pin teams back inside their 10-yard line -- he dropped a punt that his gunners were able to fair catch at the Utah three-yard line. Though I don't think this will be a battle for field position, if it is, Michigan should win that battle.
Finally, I sidestepped on predicting a final score, but did predict a low scoring game, and that the first team to 24 wins. What's your prediction for the game?
I don't want to sound arrogant -- and I hope I haven't in this Q&A -- but I predict that Michigan will cover the now up to 16.5-point spread. Oregon State's offense may be able to inflict some damage on the edges behind the legs of Seth Collins and with fly sweeps to Victor Bolden, but I expect Michigan will emphasize all week that it needs to contain and funnel the Beavers' runs to the inside. And, if that's the case, the Beavers will have a difficult time moving the ball.
Can Oregon State gain yards through the air with a true freshman quarterback that has an unknown arm, particularly when Michigan has a corner in Jourdan Lewis that should neutralize Jordan Villamin's big-play ability? It seems unlikely.
Then, on the other side of the ball, Oregon State's defense did a tremendous job stifling Weber State, holding the Wildcats to just 178 total yards and zero offensive points. But that's the problem: it was Weber State -- an FCS program that was 2-10 last season. Michigan may have its offensive issues, but the Wolverines' offense will seem like a juggernaut in comparison.
It'd be one thing if this was an Oregon State defense full of experienced starters, but there are nine new starters. And they are about to make their first road start in front of over 110,000 screaming Michigan fans that have been waiting eight months to witness Jim Harbaugh on the Michigan Stadium sidelines. Add in that kickoff will be at noon ET -- or 9:00 a.m. PT, which usually is a death trap for west-coast teams (see Stanford at Northwestern last weekend) -- and I don't see Oregon State keeping pace. Michigan 34, Oregon State 13.
Thanks, Drew! It should be an interesting day Saturday, one that gives both teams and their fan bases something to remember, and some answers to a lot of questions!
And keep following Maize N Brew in addition to BTD all weekend for more coverage on the Beavers and Wolverines meetup.