Michigan at Purdue Preview: At An Impasse

Gregory Shamus - Getty Images

Michigan heads to West Lafayette on Saturday to face a Purdue squad that has dispatched three cupcakes and gave Notre Dame all it wanted in a close loss in South Bend. Needless to say, this is a big game for many in the Michigan program, namely Denard Robinson and Al Borges. This weekend will answer many questions about Team 133, for better or worse.

Michigan (2-2) at Purdue (3-1)

4:00pm ET, Big Ten Network; October 6th, West Lafayette, IN

Enemy Blog: Hammer and Rails

[NB: I'm taking the reins of the previewin' ship for this week...if this ends up being terrible, Zach actually wrote this.]

Team 133 is at an impasse. A loss this Saturday would be a harbinger of some fairly unpleasant times. Purdue, on the other hand, is 3-1, with its only loss coming in South Bend by a field goal after Tommy "The Closer" Rees engineered a late game drive that put Purdue away. It's difficult to get a handle on a team like this, one that has dispatched three cupcake teams--albeit with a second half scare last week against Marshall--en route to its current record.

Caveats aside, this Purdue team is clearly better than any other team fielded during the Danny Hope era. Stil, some glaring issues remain. I referred to the quarterback situation as "like the chocolate fountain at Golden Corral, it is a grotesque and superfluous arrangement" back in early June, and I'm not sure much has been done to detract from that somewhat tongue-in-cheek statement. Caleb TerBush has put up some nice numbers against Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan, and Marshall, but against the Irish he split time with Robert Marve en route to a dink-and-dunk-tacular 8/19 performance, passing for only 79 yards and throwing two picks (although he did toss the game-tying touchdown to Antavian Edison with just over two minutes remaining).

Like Northwestern's meeting with Indiana last week, Purdue's defense let up a bit in the second half against Marshall, allowing a 42-14 halftime lead to eventually become an underwhelming 51-41 victory. Again, like Northwestern, Purdue allowed a second half touchdown on special teams, off of a blocked punt returned for a score. Considering that the Boilers gave up only 20 points in South Bend, perhaps this is another opportunity to wonder whether or not Michigan's stalwart defensive performance against Notre Dame is as impressive as initially thought.

Nonetheless, Purdue does have some top notch talent at various spots on the defensive side of the ball. Likewise, Purdue also boasts some solid options at receiver and tailback. Although Jordan Kovacs was out for last year's game in Ann Arbor, one need only remember Gary Bush's 48-yard touchdown off of a screen pass from Caleb TerBush. Purdue does have some guys that can "do some things" in spite of the fairly underwhelming situation at quarterback.

In short, this is a game that Michigan absolutely has to have. As I said on Tuesday, I don't feel as if this is a team that Michigan will handily dispatch; however, Michigan should win. We will find out by around 7 PM Eastern Time on Saturday as to whether or not this is the 2007 Northwestern game redux, or...something else.

When Michigan has the ball

In light of last week's proceedings and Michigan's weaknesses relative to the Purdue defense's strengths, this is the side of the ball that will have me worrying as kickoff approaches on Saturday.

Ignoring the fact that Denard's last interception was basically a Hail Mary and fairly meaningless, he still threw three other picks against a ND team with a questionable secondary. Of course, Manti Te'o pitched in for the Irish in the turnover forcing game, mitigating that weakness for the Irish. On the bright side, Purdue does not have a Te'o in its linebacking corps (I'm not sure that anybody, even Alabama, has a singular linebacking talent like Te'o).

On the not so bright side, Purdue does have a pair of very good corners, corners who excel at making a play on the ball. Again, like I mentioned the other day: this is not exactly a development that assuages the fears of Michigan fans feeling squeamish about the prospect of a Denard Robinson forward pass.

Purdue features a duo of defensive tackles in Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston that very well could be the best pairing in the conference. Short is without a doubt the best player on the Purdue defense and likely the entire team, and seems like a guy ticketed for a first round selection in the NFL draft. The interior of Michigan's line is still nothing to write home about, although Elliot Mealer has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise.

Michigan did have occasional success against Notre Dame's Louis Nix, however. As Brian detailed in this week's offensive UFR, Patrick Omameh--of all people--got some pretty serious push on Nix during that long Toussaint run early on in the second half. Is that going to happen against Purdue? Maybe, maybe not, but it was an encouraging thing to see, especially from a guy notorious for not being an exceptional drive blocker against beefier defensive linemen.

Michigan might have occasional success running between the tackles with Toussaint from the gun or with Denard or standard iso keeper plays, but I am not expecting a shiny YPC figure when probing that area of the defense. Simply put, Michigan will make its hay attacking the edges, which I'm pretty sure has been said before every Michigan game in the Denard Robinson era. Nonetheless, it applies here, as Purdue's linebackers do not necessarily scare me as much as the interior of the defensive line. The one-two punch of Fitz and Denard, complemented by intermittent screen passes to Vincent Smith and Jeremy Gallon, will pave the road to victory in this one.

After the Alabama/Notre Dame Experience, I think that Borges comes out calling run, run, run. As such, it will be imperative for Michigan to get the ground game going early on; if the rushing attack isn't picking up yardage, those third and 6+ situations, combined with Denard's propensity to be a little overcaffeinated early on in games, is a recipe for turnovers. In addition to Purdue's tackles, corners Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen are also very impressive and will make plays on the ball if Denard affords them the opportunity.

The Outlook

There's a lot of cognitive dissonance going on here. On the one hand, Purdue did give up 34 points against Marshall last week, not including the aforementioned special teams gaffe. On the other hand, Michigan did just put up six turnovers in its last game, and although I am still apparently one of the few remaining Borges proponents, the question of "does Borges know how to use Denard?", whether fair or not, will continue to linger like the stench of sulfur in the air.

For the sake of reason, it should be noted that last week was most likely the nadir of Denard Robinson's career (at least I hope). Also, that Notre Dame defense might be the best one on Michigan's schedule, excluding Alabama's. Purdue does present some very worrisome problems, especially if the running game does not get going in the first half. However, I think that Michigan will attempt to mitigate these matchup problems by simply running away from Short and Gaston.

Of course, Denard will have to throw the ball at some point, despite the unrealistic wailing of some Michigan fans, who would seemingly have Michigan run a vintage Bo offense to mitigate Denard's weakness as a quarterback (which is, apparently, passing the ball in literally any situation). I'm sorry, but Denard will have to roll out from time to time, and he'll have to make better decisions when he does so.

Michigan will have success on the ground, and Denard should eclipse the 100-yard mark in this one, whether due to sheer brilliance or volume of carries. If Jekyll Denard comes out to play, Michigan will put up enough points to get the win. If Hyde Denard comes to play, Michigan might still win, but the situation gets far dicier.

Advantage: Push, pending which Denard shows up

When Purdue has the ball

After getting completely eviscerated by Alabama's ground game and a shaky game against an esoteric offense (i.e. Air Force), Michigan took care of business against UMass and pitched in an admirable performance against Notre Dame. Again, however, caveats regarding the quality of Notre Dame's offense will continue to apply until Notre Dame's offense does anything to reverse the feeling that it isn't that great.

Purdue burninated the countryside against EMU, EKU, and Marshall, scoring an average of 51 points per game. Those teams are certainly terrible, but this type of output is without a doubt an improvement for a Purdue offense that has looked pretty bad in recent years, even against questionable competition.

Purdue will once again roll with Caleb TerBush, who will continue to do his dink-and-dunk thing while allowing guys like Antavian Edison, O.J. Ross, and Gary Bush to make plays on the perimeter. It sounds like Robert Marve might be available (HT: mgoblog), but Marve playing would likely mean something has gone terribly wrong, like when you check your pantry and the only cereal you have left is one of those "healthy" ones that tastes like the cardboard box in which they are packaged.

Purdue will also lean on its ground game, which features two very solid backs in leading rusher Akeem Shavers and backup Akeem Hunt. The Boilermakers also has wild card sort Raheem Mostert, a special teams speedster who figures into the misdirection/general chicanery part of the ground game. Again, like Northwestern, Purdue is relying on its running game and defense, which perhaps runs contrary to each team's reputation as a pass-first spread with a questionable defense (although Purdue has fielded some good defenses over the years, like Northwestern...just not recently).

Purdue is currently 37th in total offense, just behind, of course, Northwestern. For those with an eye for advanced stats, Purdue's offense sits at 51st in S&P+, which is of course opponent-adjusted . Interestingly enough, they are also a pretty good 17th in Passing Downs S&P+, which seems weird but is probably meaningless at this point in the season (FWIW, definitions for "passing downs" and "standard downs are contained in the previous link).

Purdue has turned it over 10 times, one less turnover than Michigan's 11. If Washington and Campbell are able to replicate their performance against Notre Dame, Michigan should be able to force Purdue into some favorable passing down situations, and, maybe, some turnovers. Purdue has put up just over 200 yards rushing per game thus far, good for 32nd in the country. Again, who knows if this is actually meaningful (it probably isn't given the Purdue rushing attack against Notre Dame).

As you would expect given Purdue's wide receiver history (minus the Kyle Ingraham Experiment), the Boilermakers' top three wideouts are of the 6'0'' and under variety. As such, it's almost as if they will be fielding an army of slot receivers only. Antavian Edison is the headliner of the group, but, as already mentioned, we've seen firsthand that Gary Bush can make a play when called upon.

2011 Michigan Defense vs. Purdue Every Snap (via noonkick)

The Outlook

Overall, I feel a good bit better about this part of the game than I do about the Michigan offense. Purdue will run the ball and play it safe in the passing game. Purdue's backs should be able to have some success between the tackles; if they're averaging more than, say, 4.5 YPC or so, Michigan will be in trouble.

Otherwise, expect a reverse or two and a steady diet of wide receiver screens to Edison et al. Given the Michigan offense's propensity for turning the ball over, I would imagine that offensive coordinator Gary Nord won't want to take too many unnecessary chances.

Purdue is not exactly what you would call a "dynamic" offensive team, but they do have some respectable skill position talent. All those screens will test Michigan's often shaky edge tackling, particularly from guys like J.T. Floyd.

Purdue only averaged 3.0 YPC against Notre Dame, carrying it 30 times for 90 yards. Michigan's line is inferior to Notre Dame's, but if last week's performance against a Notre Dame team that I thought would run roughshod over the Wolverines is any indication, Michigan should be okay in this department. I imagine that Purdue will hover around 3.8-4.2 YPC in this one, which would be more than fine by me.

Advantage: Leaning Michigan

When someone is kicking the ball

So, the kicking game is always fun. The last time Michigan needed a big kick on the road in West Lafayette, it was 2004, with Garrett Rivas doing the kicking to put Michigan ahead, 16-14. Rivas was criticized at times, as kickers are wont to be, but he was extremely dependable. Likewise, I think that we can probably call Brendan Gibbons dependable at this point in his career, following a nice 2011 season and a respectable 3/4 start to 2012. Gibbons's leg is still questionable at best, but he is reliable up until about 40 yards out, which is fine...this isn't the NFL. Gibbons's only miss came last week against Notre Dame, a 43-yarder on the heels of Raymon Taylor's interception. Gibbons is also a perfect 14/14 on PATs.

Purdue PK Sam McCartney hasn't gotten much work at all, attempting (and making) only one field goal this season, a 33-yarder against Notre Dame. However, he is somehow only 9/12 on PATs, so that's something.

Otherwise, Will Hagerup is doing his best Zoltan impression, averaging 49 yards per punt thus far. However, Michigan has had some issues in actually getting down and covering punts before the returner has had a chance to take it upfield for 10 or so yards unhindered. Purdue punter Cody Webster has booted five more than Hagerup and doesn't have as good of a stat line but is still very solid at 44.1 yards per punt. Michigan's coverage issues might make this matchup a wash.

In the return game, Michigan should continue to get a couple good ones out of Norfleet and not much in the punt return game. Purdue has its own Norfleet in Raheem Mostert, who is averaging 22.6 yards per return with a long of 41 on the year. Like Michigan, Purdue likely won't get much on punts, where both starting corners (Johnson and Allen) have taken turns at the position, with Johnson being the main guy.

Advantage: Slightly leaning Michigan

Coaching

Purdue head coach and mustache aficionado Danny Hope is in his fourth year in West Lafayette as Joe Tiller's successor. Some Michigan fans decided to forever earmark a bit of distaste for Hope after the incident following the 2009 game, when he brought the previously suspended Zack Reckman with him to the postgame handshake in order to make RR feel bad and whatnot for ostensibly being the source of said suspension...CONTROVERSY!

Not really. Anyway, after losing the 2009 game, Michigan has won two straight against the Boilermakers, including an ugly win at Ross-Ade in 2010 and a thumping last year in the Big House. Hope is only 19-22 at Purdue, with this season being somewhat of a "show me" year for the Hope regime. After going bowling for the first time during Hope's tenure last season, Purdue is eyeing a potential trip to Indianapolis in light of the ineligibility of PSU and OSU and a weakened Wisconsin team. As such, expectations have gone up a notch.

This is just as much of a must-win game for Hope and the Boilers as it is for Michigan. As always, Michigan will likely be met with the rowdiest Purdue crowd that Ross-Ade will offer all season. Everyone does not like us so much, you see.

As for Michigan, Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison are still tremendous people who can do things out there for Michigan and are accountable to each other and the team and this great community that we have and all the things you have to do to be a Michigan Man.

I still like Al Borges, too, which seems equivalent to admitting that you like Creed or something these days, but whatever. With that said, this is a pretty enormous game for Gorgeous Al. This isn't Alabama or Notre Dame's defense we're facing. Purdue certainly has talent--some of it top notch, first round talent--but there's no reason for Michigan not to dictate the direction of the game when it has the ball. By "dictate" I mean Michigan doesn't have to assume that Denard running the ball is a futile endeavor or that the opposing defense's weakness in the secondary means that Michigan needs to feel somehow obligated or resigned to the fact that throwing downfield with regularity is the way to go.

Did I mention that this is a pretty big game for Borges? I did? Okay.

Advantage: Michigan

Other Bits and Pieces

Key Matchups:

  • Michigan's interior OL vs. Short/Gaston--Fairly self-explanatory here, but Michigan simply cannot afford to get caved in up the middle with regularity or Denard will inevitably transform into Evil Denard at some point. I imagine that Borges knows this and will try to attack the edges...but at some point Michigan will have to execute some between the tackles running plays in order to keep the defense honest and keep Denard from getting snowed under by a horde of expectant defenders before even making a cut on the outside.
  • Evil Denard vs. Glorious, Awesome Denard Who Can Do No Wrong. Again, I'm getting the feeling that, in light of the story this week regarding Borges's comprehensive review of every offensive play since he's been at Michigan, the Wolverines will come out and run. A lot. I don't think that Borges will need to deploy the fatalistic "we're not going to succeed at running Denard like we want to so let's test 'em deep" philosophy in this one.
  • Michigan's interior DL vs. the Purdue interior OL. Purdue's offensive line is actually bigger than you might expect, but upon first glance I find the fact that their guards, Peters Drey and Devin Smith, are 6'6'' and 6'7'', respectively, to be kind of odd. Is that normal? I feel like it's not. Insert something about leverage and pad level and maybe Washington and Campbell won't get blown off the ball because of the Pat Massey Theory. We'll see. Purdue's offensive line isn't exceptional but it is a veteran group and has done pretty well in the ground game so far, ND game notwithstanding.
  • The wide receivers (namely Gardner) vs. running the right routes. Given Allen and Johnson's ability to pick off the quarterback, Michigan cannot afford any sloppy routes (e.g. Gardner's seemingly lazy slant on one of Denard's picks against ND). Michigan's receivers cannot make Denard's job harder than it already is. If Denard throws any picks, let it be due to sheer inaccuracy rather than miscommunication or poor route running.
Alternate Programming
Just in case you for whatever reason want to flip to some other games during commercial breaks, we've got quite the buffet of college football going this weekend: LSU at Florida, 3:30; Illinois at Wisconsin, 3:30; Oklahoma at Texas Tech 3:30 (the latter actually somehow playing defense these days, one of the surprising twists of 2012); Georgia at South Carolina, 7:00; West Virginia at Texas, 7:00; and Nebraska at Ohio State, 8:00.

Unlike most of the non-conference portion of the college football season, there's quite a bit of high level football to be watched this weekend.

Inanimate Object Threat Level: 7 out of 10. I dubbed this the Trap Game of the Season (sponsored by Admiral Ackbar) during our flurry of roundtable posts during the summer. This game still feels like a trap.

I think that Michigan is the better team, but that obviously by no means guarantees victory. Purdue's defensive strengths are perfectly arranged to strike at Michigan's offensive weaknesses (i.e. running between the tackles and passing in general). Denard's ND game only magnifies the creeping unease that I'm currently feeling about the offense against a defense with aggressive corners and the ability to bring the best kind of pressure (i.e. via the defensive tackles).

Final Predictions:

-Toussaint has a nice game but doesn't break the 100-yard mark. Something like 16-20 carries for around 80 yards sounds about right.

-Michigan holds Purdue to under 300 yards of total offense.

-Purdue's running game will probably look something like what Michigan saw against Notre Dame. The "good" plays will run from 5-7 yards, with a few 10-20 yards plays spaced out throughout the game.

-Borges hears the calls of the unruly masses and calls a game resulting in a 65:35 run-pass split.

-Denard throws two interceptions, one in Purdue territory.

-Dennis Norfleet will return a kick into Purdue territory.

-Brendan Gibbons will attempt four field goals and make three.

-Kawann Short gives Michigan headaches at times, bringing the painful memories of Jerel Worthy's play screaming out of our collective subconscious.

-No trick plays this week.

I don't feel great about this game or this prediction, but I think Michigan has just enough to grit out an aesthetically displeasing win. Of course, another Turnoverpalooza negates pretty much all of this.

At this point--or any point, really--a win is a win.

Michigan 23 - Purdue 17

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