With just one day left before the season, it’s time to round out my game-by-game predictions for 2010. So far, I have Michigan going 4-4 overall (1-3 Big Ten) with victories over UConn, UMass, Bowling Green, and Indiana:
Game Nine — Nov. 6: Illinois
Blog of Note: Hail to the Orange
2009: 3-9 overall, 2-6 Big Ten
Returning Starters: 12 (5 offense, 7 defense)
Breakdown: If anyone is feeling the hot seat as much as Rich Rodriguez right now, it’s Ron Zook, whose team has won a combined eight games in two seasons since making a surprising Rose Bowl run in 2007. Illinois might have a tough time even matching last season’s three victories after losing six offensive starters, including quarterback Juice Williams, receivers Arrelious Benn and Chris Duvalt, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, and left tackle Jon Asamoah. Taking over for Williams at QB will be redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase, and the Illini may have to rely on tailbacks Mikel Leshoure (734 yards on 108 carries in 2009) and Jason Ford (294 yards and eight touchdowns) while Scheelhaase gets accustomed to playing at the collegiate level. Three starters return along the offensive line for the Illini.
The defense returns seven starters, but the unit will have to dramatically raise their level of play after the Illini allowed over 30 points and 400 yards per game last year. The linebackers should get a boost from the return of highly-touted junior Martez Wilson, who missed almost all of the 2009 season with a neck injury. Corey Liuget is a strong presence on the interior of the defensive line, but the loss of DT Josh Brent leaves a hole in the middle after entering the NFL supplemental draft when he faced academic issues. In the secondary, Illinois has two young staters returning at cornerback, but they’ll have to break in two new starters at safety.
At kicker, junior Derek Dimke returns after hitting 5-of-5 field goals when returning starter Matt Eller was benched for ineffectiveness. Eller is back as well, but Dimke remains at the top of the depth chart. Anthony Santella is back for his fourth season as the starting punter after averaging 41.3 yards per punt in 2009.
Key Matchup: Michigan’s ends & linebackers vs. Nathan Scheelhaase — Scheelhaase doesn’t have a game of collegiate experience under his belt, but he is a decent athlete who can move the sticks with his running ability. Facing an unproven quarterback and a depleted receiving corps, Michigan should look to contain Scheelhaase and force him to make the right decision with the football. Yes, Michigan’s secondary is a weak spot, but so is the Illini’s passing game — the last thing the Wolverines need is for the quarterback to run wild on them like Juice Williams has done the last two years.
Prediction: This should be Zook’s final year as Illinois coach as the team bottoms out without some of the top-level talent that kept them remotely competitive the last two seasons. Even against Michigan, this team looks very green and overmatched — Michigan 37, Illinois 17
Breakdown: Purdue will feature their third starting quarterback in three years as Miami (FL) transfer Robert Marve, a former blue-chip prospect om 2007, takes over for Danny Hope’s squad. He will be missing one of the team’s top weapons, however, as running back Ralph Bolden will be out with a torn ACL suffered in the spring, leaving Purdue without a running back who carried the ball more than ten times in 2009. Marve does have one of the Big Ten’s top receivers returning in senior Keith Smith, who caught 91 passes for 1,100 yards and six touchdowns last fall, but he will have to throw from behind three new starters on the O-line.
On defense, the Boilermakers return six of their front seven, which will have to improve after Purdue finished 94th in the nation in rushing defense last year. They’ll be led by outside linebacker Joe Holland, who finished second on the team with 81 tackles last season, and defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, who tallied 13 sacks in 2009. The secondary is extremely inexperienced, however, with no starters returning and underclassmen dominating the two-deep. There could be a major dropoff after finishing 32nd in the country in pass efficiency defense last fall.
Kicker Carson Wiggs has a huge leg, which he displayed in hitting a 59-yard field goal in last year’s season opener, but he connected on just 14-of-21 attempts last season. Purdue will have to improve on their coverage units — they ranked 112th in the nation in kickoff return defense last season.
Key Matchup: Michigan’s passing game vs. Purdue’s secondary — We all expect that Michigan will be able to run the ball, but the real weakness for this Purdue squad is in the defensive backfield. No matter who is playing at quarterback by this point in the season, he should be able to pick apart this defense if the line gives him time to throw. If Michigan is moving the ball well through the air, this could be a blowout.
Prediction: Marve is an extremely talented player and a guy the Wolverine defense must respect, but Purdue is very thin at running back and their defense doesn’t look strong. Once again, Michigan should put enough points on the board to keep the defense from having the chance to blow the game — Michigan 34, Purdue 21
Game Eleven — Nov. 20: Wisconsin
Blogs of Note: Bucky’s 5th Quarter, On Wisconsin!
2009: 10-3 overall, 5-3 Big Ten, defeated Miami (FL) 20-14 in Champs Sports Bowl
Returning Starters: 16 (10 offense, 6 defense)
Breakdown: If Ohio State falters, Wisconsin could be next in line to win the Big Ten, especially with the return of ten starters from the conference’s top total, scoring, and rushing offense in 2009. Leading the way will be the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in tailback John Clay, who will run behind one of the country’s best run-blocking offensive lines. Quarterback Scott Tolzien led the Big Ten in passing efficiency last season, and he has a lot of options when he drops back to pass — wideouts Nick Toon, Isaac Anderson, David Gilreath and Kyle Jefferson all return, and Lance Kendricks looked great when filling in for the departed Garrett Graham at tight end last season. This should be the best and most well-rounded offense in the Big Ten in 2010.
The biggest question mark surrounding Wisconsin will be how they replace three starters along the defensive line, especially first-team All-Big Ten defensive end O’Brien Schofield. The onus will fall on DE J.J. Watt, who posted 15.5 tackles for loss in ’09, to become the team’s top pass-rusher and anchor the line while the three new starters get their feet wet. The linebackers are led by sophomore Mike Taylor, who totaled a team-high 46 tackles in the first seven games last year before missing the rest of the year with an injury, and senior Culmer St. Jean, who tallied 63 tackles last year. Two proven starters return in the secondary in corner Devin Smith and strong safety Jay Valai, but the team will have to break in two new starters as well. If there’s a major weakness on this team, it will likely be the pass defense, especially if the pass rush drops off in the absence of Schofield.
Wisconsin boasts two of the best specialists in the league in kicker Philip Welch and punter Brad Nortman, both juniors, but the return game needs to step it up after a disappointing ’09 performance.
Key Matchup: Mike Martin vs. center Peter Konz and guard John Moffit — Even though Wisconsin can move the ball through the air, their break-and-butter is still smashmouth, run-it-down-your-throat football. Mike Martin will have to hold the point of attack at nose guard against Moffit, one of the best guards in the country, and Konz, a sophomore. Stopping John Clay is priority number one, and Michigan won’t be able to do that if Martin doesn’t have one of his better days as a Wolverine.
Prediction: Despite some concerns in the secondary, Wisconsin is still one of the most complete teams Michigan will play this year. I don’t see how this defense finds a way to stop the run game without opening it up for Tolzien and his stable of wideouts — Wisconsin 31, Michigan 20
Game Twelve — Nov. 27: at Ohio State
Blogs of Note: Eleven Warriors, Men of the Scarlet and Gray, Our Honor Defend
2009: 11-2 overall, 7-1 Big Ten, defeated Oregon 26-17 in Rose Bowl
Returning Starters: 15 (10 offense, 5 defense)
Breakdown: Ohio State is loaded up this year for a run at the national title, and their offense could be one of the best in the country if Terrelle Pryor breaks out as a junior. Pryor, a preseason Heisman candidate, will be surrounded by experienced weapons. Running backs Brandon Saine and Boom Herron return, and they’ll be helped by the presence of highly-touted freshman Jamaal Berry, giving the Buckeyes a three-headed monster in the backfield. Receivers DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher return, as does tight end Jake Stoneburner, and four starters return on a talent-laded offensive line. This should be an explosive unit for the Buckeyes.
On defense, Ohio State has some big-time talent to replace, as defensive end Thaddeus Gibson, tackle Doug Worthington, and safeties Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell are all gone from the nation’s fifth-ranked scoring and total defense. There’s still a ton of talent, though, especially in defensive end Cameron Heyward, linebackers Ross Homan and Brian Rolle (the team’s top two tacklers last year), and cornerback Chimdi Chekwa. The defense could be susceptible at the back end, as they will have two new starters at safety, but expect the Buckeyes to once again boast a very strong defensive unit.
The Buckeyes must replace kicker Aaron Pettrey, but senior Devin Barclay appears very capable of taking over as the next Buckeye kicker who seemingly never misses, and sophomore Ben Buchanan takes over for Jon Thoma at punter.
Key Matchup: Michigan vs. pressure/expectations — The Wolverines may very well be playing for their head coach’s job in this game, and they’ll be facing a team that should be one of the very best in the country. Last year saw an overmatched squad hang in there against the Buckeyes, only to be done in by untimely turnovers. In a rivalry game this big, anything can happen (see: 1995 and 1996, for instance) — in a game where it appears OSU has the advantage in nearly every facet, much of this game will come down to the maturity of the team. If they can hang in there and believe, this could be a lot closer than people expect.
Prediction: Having said that, um, have you looked at Ohio State’s roster? Any expectations that Michigan will be able to go into the ‘Shoe and knock off the Buckeyes are, at this point, entirely unrealistic (though we can all dream, right?) — Ohio State 27, Michigan 13
Final Season Record: 6-6 overall, 3-5 Big Ten — hello, Little Caesars Pizza Bowl!