Wednesday, August 29, 2007

"Dr. Strangecoach, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb"

With the season opener bearing down on us, we have conveniently skipped the creamy filling in the middle of Michigan's schedule (EMU, Northwestern) and proceed now with the next installment in our touchy-feely, Dr. Phil-like season preview: Purdue.

In many ways, Purdue under Joe Tiller has been the perfect opponent for Michigan. They are usually a step or two above the dregs of the league, but still a step behind the big-timers. They present enough of a challenge so that media and fans get prepared for a tough game. Yet time after time, it seems, they come into A2 and lay an absolute egg. 31-3 in '03, 24-10 in '01 in a game that wasn't as close as the score suggests, and 38-12 in '99, in a game where their receivers must have dropped a dozen balls. So Michigan gets credit for beating a quality opponent without really breaking a sweat.

This is effect is one part Joe Tiller, and one part Lloyd Carr. Tiller's wide open offense tends to attract headlines and has raised the Purdue program to the level of semi-relevance on the national stage. But he's not the best in-game coach out there, and it often seems like he out thinks himself. His one dimensional offense is easy for a team with superior athletes, like Michigan, to defend. His defenses, while good at rushing the quaterback, have trouble stopping physical teams that like to run the ball. In short, Purdue's weaknesses tend to match Michigan's strengths.

I also think Lloyd Carr's innate conservatism tends to help in these games. The Michigan scoring offense / ball possession offense split has been well documented. What's also quite well established, but often ignored by the mainstream media, is that when they need to, Michigan will open up the offense and put up yards and points on the board. This often seems to happen when they fall behind in games (see last year's OSU game). Occasionally, when Carr and his staff feel like an opposing offense will put up a lot of points, they start the game in quick-scoring mode. This has happened several times against Purdue. The result is that Michigan jumps out to a quick lead and then Purdue gets even more one dimensional, allowing Michigan to blitz like crazy and you end up with a one sided affair.

This year's Purdue squad looks similar to Tiller's past squads. They return 9 starters from an offense that was second in the big ten in total offense last year. Two year starter Curtis Painter returns after throwing for almost 4000 yards last year. The wide receiver group, led by first team all big-ten Dorien Bryant might be the best in the big ten.

Unfortunately, the defense, which was one of the worst in the big ten, despite missing Michigan and Ohio State, also returns 9 starters. Especially worrisome is a pass defense that gave up almost 300 yards per game, including over 400 to MAC power Ball State, despite the presence of first round draft choice DE Anthony Spencer.

With Michigan's questions on defense, Purdon't is a good candidate for a 54-51 2000 Northwestern type game. Overall, i would expect the Boilers to be somewhere between barely bowl eligible and a trip to one of the Florida bowls.