The University of Michigan non-conference football preview for 2009:
Western Michigan University Broncos
Western Michigan’s hopes in 2009 will be anchored by returning starting quarterback Tim Hiller, who will be playing his senior season.
Although the Broncos will be breaking in a relatively green receiving core, they return four out of five starters on the offensive line and a pair of solid running backs. There should be yards and points available for WMU in 2009.
A Michigan defense that severely underachieved in 2008 will be tested in the first game under new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. One specific match-up to watch will be Broncos’ wide receiver Juan Nunez vs. Michigan’s free safety.
Michigan will be fielding a new starter at the free safety position, as Stevie Brown has been moved to an attacking strong safety role. Whoever mans the rear guard for the Wolverines’ will have to keep an eye on Nunez, an emerging deep threat.
The weakness for Western Michigan will likely be their defense. They return only four starters, none of whom are in the secondary.
A developing Michigan offense under coach Rich Rodriguez should be improved at most positions, especially quarterback. The addition of much greater speed at that position will give the Wolverines more options (pun intended).
With most starters returning, Michigan should have a balanced attack; the main question will be how much incoming freshmen Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson play in the opener.
If Rodriguez is satisfied enough with their progress to allow either/both to play significant amounts of time, the Michigan offense will have a much more potent run/pass attack that could threaten the Broncos’ defensive youth.
In the first game of 2009, the University of Michigan will try to begin the Rich Rodriguez era in earnest, chalking 2008 up to growing pains. If they can develop a full-blown option attack, they might do just that.
Without a consistent running threat at quarterback, the Rodriguez offense creates tremendous pressure to execute each play properly. The margin for error is reduced nearly to zero.
Forcier and Robinson, however, have the physical skills to run the Rodriguez offense as it is meant to be run.
The Western Michigan game will be a quintessential Michigan opener—if Michigan has its act together, it should win easily. If not, the Broncos are good enough to scare the 100,000+ fans in Ann Arbor.
The University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish
A mediocre 2008 season for Notre Dame followed a dismal 2007, which was the worst season in the school’s long and legendary history.
It would be easy for prognosticators to assume that the 2009 season would be less than impressive. Highly hyped head coach Charlie Weis has not had a really good season with his own recruits yet.
However, the team is beginning to gel. Coming off of a win in the 2008 Hawai’i Bowl, the Irish should be a solid team, with a chance to compete against everyone they play (maybe even USC…maybe).
The Notre Dame offense should be able to score points and gain yardage in 2009, with quarterback Jimmy Clausen entering his third year as a starter and a solid receiving corps including Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, and tight end Kyle Rudolph.
The main question for their offense will be the running game. The Notre Dame running backs are not devoid of ability, but the group is without a star. Many will carry the ball for the Irish in 2009, but none has previously shown himself to be a real threat.
The offensive line in 2007 was possibly the worst in Notre Dame’s history, coming in dead last in sacks allowed. They were much better in 2008, but have yet to become a strength of the team.
With the return of left tackle Paul Duncan, who missed the ’08 season due to injury, the line should continue to improve. However, they have their work cut out for them.
Jimmy Clausen has thrown 23 interceptions to only 32 touchdowns. He can be extremely effective at times, but when he gets pressured he has a tendency to make bad decisions.
The Fighting Irish offensive line and running backs will have to continue to improve to give Clausen a chance to live up to his pre-college hype.
On defense, Notre Dame has questions, but they think they also have the answer.
Jon Tenuta, who was with the team last year, has now taken over the defensive coordinator position. Notre Dame will have a different formation in 2009, along with a new prime directive – to blitz.
The Fighting Irish have an assortment of athletic defensive linemen and linebackers—including many underclassmen—that will all try to get in on the attack.
If Tenuta (who is known for his aggressive blitz schemes) can organize them effectively, they could significantly improve the pass rush, which has been substandard lately.
With the aggressive blitzing, the secondary will be given less help and more pressure to perform.
Notre Dame’s defensive backs have shown to be solid tacklers, but may be vulnerable in the passing game. If Michigan can improve on last year’s passing game, they could have success against Notre Dame.
In fact, this idea might be the strongest ally for Michigan quarterback Nick Sheridan.
When Notre Dame visits Michigan Stadium for both teams’ second game of the season, incoming freshman Tate Forcier will likely have already played (at least a little bit).
Forcier enrolled in school early so that he could take part in spring training with the coaches and the full summer of workouts. He was very sharp in Michigan’s spring game, and looked very comfortable running the Rich Rodriguez offense.
If Forcier is developed enough by then, he could be the starter early in 2009. If not, coach Rodriguez may opt instead to give the bulk of the early playing time to Sheridan, who has a year of experience with the offense.
Notre Dame will be the stiffest non-conference test for the Wolverines in 2009. If the Michigan protectors can withstand the Jon Tenuta blitz package, then Michigan should be able to score points.
If the Notre Dame protectors cannot buy Clausen time to throw, Notre Dame could have a hard time gaining field position, and could be forced to play from behind.
Notre Dame will be the early-season measuring stick for Michigan, and the game could also have implications on the fate of Charlie Weis as head coach of the Fighting Irish.
If the Wolverines have shored up their deficiencies from 2008, they could consummate a new era of Michigan football.
If not, Michigan could lose to their rivals for the second year in a row.
Eastern Michigan University Eagles
The obvious story regarding Eastern Michigan’s 2009 meeting with Michigan is the homecoming of former Michigan defensive coordinator and new Eagles head coach Ron English.
What some fans might not know, however, is that the game will also mark a homecoming for Eastern Michigan’s running backs coach. Tyrone Wheatley was a star running back for Michigan and now coaches the position for EMU.
The Eagles boast one of the better players in the MAC conference in quarterback Andy Schmitt. Schmitt is quite experienced and will be protected by an offensive line that played very well in 2008.
That offensive line will, however, be without its star T.J. Lang, who has been hired by the Green Bay Packers.
The EMU running game is much less established. Wheatley appears to have some talent to work with at the running back position, but the question of consistency remains.
If Eastern Michigan can fill the gap left by Lang and maintain the high level of offensive line play. If they can run the ball with even mild success, then the Eagles should be able to drive the field.
Coach English has his team running a pro-style offense, which should provide his seasoned quarterback with all the opportunities he needs to be successful in 2009.
The Eastern Michigan defense, however, has much more to prove than the offense.
Gone is linebacker Daniel Holtzclaw, a four year starter in the middle of the defense and one of the greatest players in EMU history (ranking 2nd all-time in tackles).
The defensive secondary is the specialty of coach English, so that unit should improve under his guidance. As a whole, though, the Eagles defense has a lot of work to do.
Eastern Michigan is located right off of Washtenaw Avenue. Just down the street, Washtenaw Avenue is called Stadium Boulevard…as in Michigan Stadium.
The extreme proximity of these schools makes each meeting a little bit special. The return of English and Wheatley will only add to the cross-town interest of the game.
EMU does not want to be looked at as Michigan’s runt brother.
However, they will have to jump on the scoreboard early and often if they hope to compete with the Wolverines, who will by game three (when they meet the Eagles) be gearing up for the Big Ten season. Michigan will have something to prove in this game—though perhaps not as much so as against Notre Dame.
If the Michigan defense has recovered from a grim 2008 season, it should be smooth sailing for the Maize and Blue against Eastern.
Delaware State University Hornets
I admit, when I heard that Michigan’s schedule included Delaware State, I raised an eyebrow at the possibility of the Wolverines playing another team that sported the legendary winged helmets—a team that also recently competed for the 1-AA (FCS) championship (losing to, ironically enough, Appalachian State in the final game).
Then, I realized that it was Delaware State and not the University of Delaware. Big Difference.
No insult intended to the Hornets of Delaware State, but they are certainly not at the same level as their in-state rivals.
When Michigan was beaten by Appalachian State in Ann Arbor in 2007, it was very possibly the biggest upset in the history of college football. Delaware is nowhere near as good in 2009 as Appalachian State was then, and Delaware State is even farther behind.
Delaware State would seem to have virtually no chance to win this game.
Michigan will be halfway through their season and should have all of the gears moving by that point.
The Wolverines will have played three non-conference games, followed by three Big Ten games (including a trip to East Lansing to play Michigan State in the annual rivalry game) before playing Delaware State.
The week following the DSU game, Michigan will play Penn State – who could be the best team in the Big Ten conference in 2009. There is always the potential “look-ahead” factor with the Penn State game looming, but it won’t be enough for the Hornets.
The main focus for Michigan against DSU will be to keep their impact players healthy, and to give real-time game-situation workouts to players and strategies that would otherwise not have the opportunity. Beyond that, the main focus will be…focus.
In 2008, Michigan lost several games that they could have won if not for catastrophic failures of composure. They should have beaten the outmanned University of Toledo team. The Wolverines could have beaten Utah, a team that went undefeated in 2008 and stunned Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
In 2009, Michigan has a chance to erase those bad memories one at a time. If they can keep their focus and eliminate some of the mistakes that plagued the 2008 season, the University of Michigan could take the first steps down the road that leads back to football dominance.