This is the fourth and final part of my season predictions, taking a look at the final three games on Michigan’s schedule. After back-to-back losses to Penn State and Illinois, I have Michigan at 6-3 (2-3 Big Ten). Prior posts: Part I, Part II, Part III.
Game Ten — Nov. 7: Purdue
New head coach Danny Hope doesn’t inherit an enviable situation in West Lafayette, as Purdue returns only 11 starters (4 offense, 7 defense) from a squad that went 4-8 in 2008. Optimistic predictions have the Boilermakers finishing tenth in the conference. Quarterback Curtis Painter is gone, as is Justin Siller, the RB-turned-QB who torched Michigan last year. The new quarterback, senior Joey Elliott, has thrown only 49 career passes, and their leading returning rusher, Frank Halliburton, had all of 37 yards rushing last year. The Boilermakers will most likely put their trust in unknown running back Ralph Bolden, who impressed in the spring. Junior DE Ryan Kerrigan is one of the lone bright spots on defense after finishing with seven sacks in 2008. This team, in a word, is bad.
Key Matchup: The passing game vs. Purdue’s secondary. I would put the name of a quarterback in there, but who knows who will be getting the lion’s share of the snaps by the tenth game (probably Forcier, I know, but nothing is guaranteed). Purdue’s one strength may be the pass defense, as they return three starters in the secondary from a team that led the Big Ten in pass defense (183.2 yards allowed per game) last year. The defense should be able to handle Purdue’s inexperienced offense with relative ease, so cracking Purdue’s one strength could mean a blowout.
Prediction: Purdue has no Hope (ha!). Michigan 41, Purdue 17.
Game Eleven — Nov. 14: @ Wisconsin
Wisconsin is a tough team to peg. With a solid rushing attack, led by sophomore John Clay, and the Big Ten’s best tight end in Garrett Graham, the Badgers should be able to move the ball on offense. However, they’ll be breaking in a new quarterback, as junior Scott Tolzien beat out 2008 starter Dustin Sherer and redshirt freshman Curt Phillips for the starting job in fall camp. Also, the defense, expected to be a strength under Defensive Coordinator-turned-Head Coach Bret Bielema, was a disappointment last year and returns only five starters, including just one each from the defensive line and linebackers.
Key Matchup: The front seven vs. John Clay. Stopping the Badgers running attack won’t be easy. Clay impressed as an oft-used backup last fall, amassing 884 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Wisconsin also returns a lot of experience on the line, as all five projected starters have starting experience. If Michigan can stop the run game, and force Tolzien (or whoever is starting by November) to beat them with his arm, this will be a close game.
Prediction: The depth of Michigan’s front seven, especially on the line, will be severely tested here. Michigan will put up points, but I think Wisconsin will wear down the defense. Wisconsin 31, Michigan 27.
Game Twelve — Nov. 21: Ohio State
Despite losing a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, the Buckeyes come in to the season as a clear top-two squad in the conference. QB Terrelle Pryor should improve by leaps and bounds from a freshman season in which he was solid, but conservative. The Heisman buzz may be premature, but Pryor will certainly be one of the conference’s best quarterbacks, and a constant threat to break the big play. Michigan fans can breathe a sigh of relief, however, as Chris “Beanie” Wells has moved on to the NFL, replaced by a man with a more threatening nickname but less talent in Daniel “Boom” Herron. OSU will be breaking in a whole new receiving corps, but they certainly won’t be lacking talent. The defense loses stud linebackers James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, as well as cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, but should still be strong with the return of safety Kurt Coleman, DE Thaddeus Gibson, and a solid corps of linebackers. Cornerback Chimdi Chekwa will also be one to watch, as the junior may be the next in a long line of shutdown Buckeye corners.
Key Matchup: Jonas Mouton vs. Terrelle Pryor. Yes, I’m getting specific for this one. Mouton, as the weakside linebacker, has the most freedom of anyone on defense to roam around and generally wreak havoc. He’ll have to put in the game of his life to help contain Pryor, but if Mouton can come through with some big plays against the talented sophomore, he could lift Michigan to victory.
Prediction: This is painful, but here goes … it’s six straight for Sweatervest and Co., as Michigan just cannot match up talent-wise against another juggernaut Buckeye squad. Ohio State 27, Michigan 17.
So, I see a 7-5 season and a bowl berth for the Wolverines. Nothing too exciting, and certainly not enough to completely silence the RichRod haters, but a big step in the right direction. By 2010 Michigan should by vying for the Big Ten crown, and not just a bowl berth.