Who: Appalachian State Mountaineers (2013 record: 4-8)
Time: Noon ET
Date: Aug. 30
Place: Michigan Stadium--Ann Arbor, Mich.
The long wait is finally over.
Team 135 hits the Big House turf this Saturday, hoping to bounce back from an underwhelming 2013 that begin with what felt like one of the most hollow 5-0 starts in Michigan football history (2010 is another contender in this department).
With that said, football is here -- no matter how worried about the offensive line you may be, that is without a doubt a good thing. The winged helmets gleam the brightest the first time they trot out onto that field each season; unlike 2007, Michigan fans hope that sheen doesn't dissipate into a fog of melancholic photons.
Quite a bit has changed since that fateful day on Sept. 1, 2007. I was a bright-eyed freshman, disappointed with the end to the previous season, but hopeful. Michigan would battle with Ohio State once again, not only for the Big Ten title, but even a spot in the national championship game in the Bowl Championship Series system (pour one out for the BCS, y'all).
Of course, that...didn't happen. With that said, much has come to pass since then. Neither program has the same coach, Armanti Edwards can no longer hurt Michigan as he tries to make the Chicago Bears' final roster and the very stadium in which the Mountaineers upset the Wolverines looks far different than it did then. Additionally, coming off of a 4-8 season, the 'Neers will be making their FBS debut this year as a member of the Sun Belt Conference, led by second-year head coach Scott Satterfield. On the bright side for ASU, they do return 16 starters.
Naturally, U-M running backs coach Fred Jackson is the only remaining connection to that day. If aliens ever invade Earth centuries from now, Fred Jackson will be there to tell them they have the best spaceships he's ever seen, and he's been Omicron Persei 8.
If you're a glass half-full sort of person, this is an opportunity to exorcise. If not, Saturday is going to be an unnecessarily tense time for you.
Then again, where would you be without that? Without the tension, it's just a game that happens to be played on a field in a big stadium. With a dash of tension and a little heat, you have college football.
When Michigan has the ball
The following was probably said by me on numerous occasions last season, and given reports regarding the offensive line throughout the summer and fall, it remains relevant: if Michigan cannot run the ball successfully against the Mountaineers, things may even bleaker than imagined.
Defensive ends Deuce Robinson (6'5'', 252 pounds) and Thomas Bronson (6'3'', 275 pounds) return. They managed just two sacks between them last season. I'll let Bill C. take it away (from his February ASU preview):
Georgia game aside, Appalachian State had a decent defense, especially over the last half of the season. The Mountaineers allowed 4.9 yards per carry and only 11.5 yards per completion -- both entirely acceptable numbers. But they had no pass rush whatsoever, bringing down opposing quarterbacks just eight times in 303 pass attempts. Against Georgia, whose scorekeeper is one of the most hilariously liberal recorders of QB hurries in the country (let's put it this way: Georgia supposedly had 109 hurries last year while Florida State had 29; how do you feel about the accuracy of that?), ASU recorded zero sacks and zero hurries in 42 Dawg passes.
Needless to say, Michigan's tackles should (again, should) get a gentle push into the 2014 season. ASU doe shave some beef in the middle in nose tackle Tyson Fernandez, who stands at 6'2'', 345 pounds. However, he moved to the position from the offensive line, immediately slotting into the starting lineup. Can Michigan move him? Another "if they can't, well, uh oh" type of battles in the trenches.
Facing an odd front in ASU's 3-4 defense will be a nice challenge in an ostensibly safe environment for Michigan's young offensive line, so green it might even be called verdant.
ASU returns two of its top three tacklers in linebackers John Law (ILB) and Kennan Gilchrist (OLB), but lost leading tacklers Karl Anderson (81.0 tackles in 2013). At 225 and 200 pounds, respectively, there should be holes for Green et al to attack.
On the back end, safeties Doug Middleton and Kevin Walton are back (both listed as strong safeties), as is senior corner Joel Ross (5'10'', 188 pounds). However, leading tackler in the secondary, free safety Alex Gray, is gone. Given very little expected pass rush, the only thing stopping Michigan's offense on this day will be turnovers, whether of the random fumble variety or the Devin Gardner 2013 Notre Dame game interception brand. In 2007, Chad Henne went 19-for-37, with an interception in Appalachian State territory and a failed fourth down conversion on the following drive from ASU's 33-yard line.
Let's no do that again.
When the U-M defense is on the field
It remains to be seen whether Michigan's defensive slide to close last season was a result of exhaustion, general malaise or real personnel/talent issues. I lean mostly toward the first explanation, with a side of malaise.
Overall, however, most people are feeling pretty good about what this defense can bring to the table in 2013. In this contest, the Wolverines will look to contain returning junior quarterback Kameron Bryant. As a sophomore, he completed 71.2 percent of his passes en route to 2,713 yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. He's not much of a running threat, however, with just 158 yards on 1.7 yards per carry--he did pitch in three touchdowns on the ground, though.
Running back Marcus Cox, however, certainly is a running threat. As a freshman, he racked up 1,250 yards and 15 touchdowns. He has been dealing with a "minor" knee injury, and has been listed as day-to-day as recently as Aug. 16. My guess is he plays; if so, it'll be a decent test for Michigan's defense up the middle. Backing him up are RS Fr. Terrence Upshaw and true freshman Josh Boyd, Rivals 2-stars.
A major bright spot for the Mountaineers? Returning experience on the offensive line. Once again, Bill C. has you covered:
Another reason for optimism: ASU returns one of the most experienced lines in the country. Granted, that experience has come at the FCS level, but six returnees have started at least 11 games, and the line has combined for 143 starts in all. As I like to say, injuries hurt in the present tense and help in the future tense; well, the present tense was unkind to ASU's offensive line for basically two straight years. Welcome to the future tense. Bryant was barely sacked (yes, while throwing a lot of quick passes) with last year's patchwork line protecting him; he should have plenty of time this year, too.
ASU will run the ball with Cox and hope he can break some tackles, while Bryant will get rid of the ball quickly when he does let it fly. As such, ends Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer might not have ample opportunity to pin their ears back and rush upfield, For the most part, that shouldn't be necessary. Win first and second down to set up the pass rush on third, and Mattison's Book of Blitzes opens up; hello, Jabrill Peppers nickel blitz in your face.
At receiver, ASU lost top threats in the spectacularly-named Andrew Peacock and Tony Washington, who combined for 1,645 yards receiving in 2013. Adding to his importance to ASU's gameplan, Cox is also the squad's leading returning receiver--he hauled in 43 receptions for 558 yards last season.
Barring even more disastrous blocking than expected and a Gardner miscue or two, there is absolutely no reason for Michigan to revisit 2007's abominable defeat at the hands of the Mountaineers. This isn't an established, championship program that it was when Jerry Moore piloted the squad to that upset; this is a rebuilding outfit attempting to find its way in the FBS.
In short, expect something not unlike last season's opener against Central Michigan. Michigan 41, Appalachian State 10.