The disappointing 2005 season in which the Michigan Wolverine football team went 7-5, including losses to rivals Notre Dame and OhioState, still lingers in the mind of theMichigan faithful. This year, Lloyd Carr and the newly revamped coaching staff that now features Ron English at defensive coordinator and Mike DeBord at offensive coordinator now face an uphill battle in one of the toughest conferences in the world of college football. Road tilts with Notre Dame,PennState, andOhioState will not help causes asMichigan tries to recover from their worst season since 1984 and Lloyd Carr?s worst season in his 11 year tenure.
The key to the season? Get the running backs going and BEAT ND! A large portion of Michiganfans across the country have expressed that a win over Notre Dame in South Bendon September 16th will catapult the Wolverines to a highly successful season. If they don?t?well, we don?t really want to go there. Michigan has not exited the non-conference season without a loss since 1999, a season in which we won the Big Ten title, beat Ohio State, and beat Alabama in the historic 2000 Orange Bowl. This is a perfect example of what we are capable of doing if we avoid the early losses. The next two seasons we lost early to UCLA and Washington and finished a mediocre 9-3 in 2000 and 8-4 in 2001. In 2002, we lost in South Bend and went on to go 10-3 with an Outback Bowl berth. The next two seasons didn?t fit the criteria, however. Michigan lost at Oregon in 2003 and lost at Notre Dame in 2004, but still won the Big Ten Championship and went to the Rose Bowl. Both seasons we lost in Pasadena. Last season?do we really want to go there? To summarize, we lost to ND early, went on to lose four more games, and lost in the Alamo Bowl. Now that that?s over, on to 2006!
Michiganreturns the stellar backfield of Mike Hart and Chad Henne. The duo combined for 3,213 of Michigan?s 4,611 yards on the offensive side of the football even with the absence of the third year starting running back for a good majority of the season. Steve Breaston returns as well, and many may say that he had a down year in 2005. His receiving numbers took a significant drop as he only racked up 291 yards and two touchdowns. Mario Manningham will try to work some more magic as he did in the last second victory over the then undefeated Penn State Nittany Lions. TheWarren,Ohio native caught 27 balls for 433 yards and six touchdowns last season. Breaston and Manningham will most likely compete for the number one receiver as Jason Avant served that role last season. Avant?s departure to the NFL will be felt because he wasMichigan?s leading pass catcher with 1,007 yards. He was the only Wolverine receiver in 2005 to surpass the 1,000 yard mark. Senior tight end Tyler Ecker will also assist in the passing game. He was the fourth leading receiver when he caught 21 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns. He will be facing much pressure after the Alamo Bowl debacle but will have a steady season asMichigan?s starting tight end. Rounding out the receiving corps and most likely seeing regular playing time are freshman LaTerryal Savoy, sophomore Adrian Arrington, and senior Carl Tabb. Players nagged by injuries include Doug Dutch and Antonio Bass.
The man distributing the balls to these talented receivers will beChadHenne?and only Chad Henne.Michigan?s back-up, Jason Forcier, has not had any game time. Hence, if Chad Henne goes down, so does our season unless Forcier pulls a magic trick out of his pocket and dazzles us. Last year, Henne was the leader, at many times of this struggling offense. He seemed to be the only constant as he was the one that stayed injury free throughout the season. Henne struggled a great deal in the Notre Dame game, with two turnovers in the red zone. The offense, in the entirety, went only 0-3 in the red zone. Henne finished the season strong as he, at some times, was the only one that kept us in the game. After the Notre Dame game, he finished with 2,076 yards, 20 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. He averaged 210 yards per outing.
TheMichiganoffense?s biggest fault was most definitely the running game. Many feel that with a more potent running attack last year, we may have beaten many more teams and may not have had to suffer through five heart wrenching losses. With Mike Hart?s early injury and the time he came back,Michiganwas 2-2 with losses to Notre Dame andWisconsin. Kevin Grady gained only 79 yards after Hart?s exit early in the Notre Dame contest. When Hart returned againstMichiganState, he displayed what he can do when he is healthy. He racked up 222 yards inEast Lansing, then followed with a 116 yard output againstMinnesotaand an impressive 108 yards against a very goodPennStatedefense. That would be all theMichiganfaithful would get for a while, however, as he left theIowagame early due to an apparent injury. Hart missed the following two games against Northwestern andIndianaand was held to 15 yards in his return againstOhioState. The lack of a rushing game killed the Michigan offense and that?s why we are talking about a 7-5 season, not a 10-2 or even 9-3 year. The whole offense was a mess with injuries on the offensive line and back field. WhenMichiganwent over the 150 yard mark in the rushing department, we were 6-0. When we went under 150 yards, we were 1-5, with the only win atIowa. That tells you how important and vital the rushing attack has become atMichigan. You gotta stay healthy and you gotta run the football.
Running the football all starts up front. Offensive linemen, Rueben Riley, Adam Kraus, and Jake Long, return to a line that was battered and bruised last year. Most returning offensive linemen got significant playing time last year due to injuries. Upper classmen will dominate the line as two juniors and three seniors hold up the fort. Senior Mark Bihl will start as the center man, and junior Adam Kraus and senior Rueben Riley will be at the guard spots. Hart and company will use senior Mike Kolodziej and junior Jake Long at the tackle positions.
Now to theMichigandefense. LaMarr Woodley anchors a very good front seven for the Wolverines. Woodley was a monster last year, making 48 tackles, 14 of which were for losses. He wasMichigan?s leading sacker with seven and forced three fumbles. David Peabody, frequent poster at the umgoblue.com fan forum, will even be sporting a t-shirt that says ?Guns don?t kill people, LaMarr Woodley kills people?. Linebacker David Harris returns for his fifth and final year forMichigan. He was the leading tackler for the defensive unit last year, compiling 88 tackles and five for a loss. Chris Graham and Prescott Burgess round out the linebackers. That duo combined for 123 tackles and including seven behind the line of scrimmage.
The defensive secondary features three returning starters who allowed 207 yards passing yards per game and only 14 touchdowns through the air. Senior Willis Barringer and Leon Hall will resume their respective positions. Hall was Michigan?s leading interception man with four. The senior cornerback also returned the memorable 83 yard fumble against Northwestern that put Michiganahead, 14-0 in that contest. Willis Barringer was third on the team in forced fumbles. Morgan Trent will serve as the other cornerback, opposite of Leon Hall. Trent, the speedster from Brighton, Michigan, was third on the team with four pass break-ups. He also had one interception and 22 tackles. Lastly on theMichigan defense, but certainly not least, Brandent Englemon will supply the Wolverines with a solid free safety. TheCovington,Kentucky native played in 11 ofMichigan?s 12 games last year. In those 11 games, Englemon recorded 42 tackles, two sacks, and two fumble recoveries. If the secondary stays health, knock on some serious wood, this should be a very good group. Players that could see time at these positions are Charles Stewart, Jamar Adams, Brandon Harrison, and Darnell Hood.
The special teams unit is an area thatMichiganhas had some troubles with over the years. Garret Rivas will return after an average season at best. The senior fromTampa,Florida, went 19-26 last year on field goals. His longest was a decent 47 yards againstMinnesota, a game in which he went 2/4. He was perfect inside 20 yards, 2/2, but went 8/10 from 20 to 30 yards. He was 9 for 14 from the 30 and beyond. He hit the game winner in overtime againstMichiganState, and nailed four field goals against Northwestern. His 33/35 extra point conversion led him to be Michigan?s leading scorer with 90, just less than twice as much as the second leading scorer, Jason Avant. Ross Ryan proved to be a reliable leg last year as he sent 40 of his 69 kick-offs into the end zone for touchbacks. He averaged 62 yards per kick. The punting situation does not seem to be settled at this juncture. Ross Ryan and Zoltan Mesko, a European native, will be battling to see who receives the starting punter position. In spring practices, Mesko seemed to have a very strong leg and had some punts surpass the 60 yard mark. Steve Breaston seems re-energized and back to his usual self. Last year, he took the ball back only once for a touchdown on his returns and averaged 12.3 yards per punt return and 28.1 yards per kick off return.
Now, to the coaching. Lloyd Carr made some very good changes as Terry Malone and Jim Herrmann moved on. Carr promoted Mike Debord and Ron English to the offensive and defensive coordinator, respectively. What does this mean? Henne will thrive under Debord?s system. Debord incorporates the tight end very well and will spread out the field, something that has been missing the past few years inAnn Arbor. Many believe that Henne?s forte is throwing the deep ball, and Debord will do that. On the defensive side of the ball, Ron English has lead very spirited practices that will hopefully lead to a more aggressive style of play. Blitzing packages should be expected for opposing offenses. The aggressiveness may lead to allowing some big plays, but in the big picture, it will force more turnovers and help our offense out immensely. Again, another scheme that has been missing inAnn Arborsince 1997.
Now, onto prediction time. My optimism may be too evident but I?ll try to take off my maize and blue glasses and postpone the maize and blue kool-aid intake for this, but don?t be 100% sure that will happen. In 1997, whenMichiganwon the national championship, they were coming off an 8-4 season that included an Outback Bowl berth and a disappointing fifth place finish in the Big Ten. Let?s compare 1996 to 2005. We went 7-5 last year, fifth in the Big Ten, and with an Alamo Bowl trip. Now, I am not guaranteeing a national championship, nor am I even guaranteeing anything, however, if history repeats itself, the Wolverines just might follow up a well, terrible, season with a strong one. Michigan might not have what it takes to win three road games against three top teams, BUT, a win must be there for Notre Dame and Ohio State. I don?t think we will have any problem with our home tilts, but atMichigan, they always seem to lose a game to an inferior opponent. With that in mind,Michigan, in my prediction of course, will go 10-2 with a Big Ten Championship and a BCS Bowl berth. I think they might drop one of the road contests and lose a silly one to eitherIowa,Wisconsin, orMichiganState.
Only time will tell if the coaching changes change anything, if we can resolve our rushing situation, and if our defense can come back with a chip on their shoulder and play ?angry?.