Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Breaston's Turn to Lead the Team

I recently saw a copy of the Ann Arbor News on the newsstand with Steve Breaston on the cover story, entitled "Poetry in Motion". I didn't have any money on me at the time, so I couldn't buy it, and it was gone when I went to look for it later that day. I wish I could've purchased the issue, because Breaston is by far my favorite college football player. Here's a link to the online version.

So far this season, we haven't as much from Breaston as you might expect. Two seasons ago, Breaston worked under the shadow of Braylon Edwards, and last season under the shadow of Jason Avant. This was supposed to be the year of Steve Breaston. Sophomore receiving sensation Mario Manningham changed all of that rather quickly, jumping onto the national scene with a three touchdown performance before a national audience in the game versus Notre Dame. Before injuring his knee on a non-contact playing during the Michigan State game, Manningham caught 8 touchdown passes over the a four game stretch, taking over the national lead in touchdown receptions, with nine in six games. Aside from Manningham, fellow sophomore Adrian Arrington has also begun to make a name for himself with three touchdown catches in the past two games. Together, the emergence of Manningham as a deep threat and Arrington as a mid-range threat has allowed Breaston to focus on short-yardage routes. Breaston has become a machine at moving the chains. Short 2 and 3 yard routes become ten to five yard plays as Breaston makes breaking tackles look as easy as slicing butter with a hot knife.

I've sort of been waiting for Breaston to reach his true potential over the past 2+ seasons. His first huge performance was against Texas in the Rose Bowl, where he shattered O.J. Simpson's Rose Bowl record, with 315 All Purpose Yards. Michigan ultimately lost that game 38-37, when the Longhorns kicked the winning field goal as time expired, but Breaston's amazing performance left a lasting impression. Time after time during Breaston's first couple seasons with Michigan, he made plays that left your jaw on the floor. He is already the alltime leader in both kickoff returns and punt returns, and is only the second big ten player to register 1,000 career yards in kickoff returns, punt returns and receiving yards. He doesn't have a lot left to prove at the college level.

Yet, after witnessing everything that Breaston can offer, Michigan fans are left wanting more. It looks like now is the time for Michigan fans to discover what Breaston is truly capable. When asked for comment concerning the injury to Manningham, an almost giddy Lloyd Carr would only state that the team received great news and Manningham would miss at least one game. Citing sources close to the team, the Detroit Free Press reported that Manningham underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus. Reports from ESPN conclude that Manningham will likely be gone for two to six weeks. Michigan has two huge games in the next two weekends before a relatively easy stretch going into the Ohio State matchup on November 18th. Two opponents stand in the way of an undefeated Wolverine team marching into Columbus for a chance to take the #1 ranking from OSU: Penn State and Iowa.

This upcoming evening matchup on the road at Penn State is the perfect opportunity for Breaston to step up and play the game of his life. Breaston is a Pennsylvania native, and this will be his first game in his home state during his four year college football career. Breaston states "It's a game I've been looking forward to. I'm excited about it - I'm not going to lie".

In order to manage the clock and maintain possession of the football, Michigan is going to rely on their running game. Look for Mike Hart to have a career day. In order for Hart to have room to operate though, the Michigan passing game must remain intact. The combination of a lethal short game with Mike Hart and a lethal long threat in Manningham has been giving the opposition fits all season long, and that type of balanced offensive attack must continue over the next two weeks in order for the Wolverines to be successful.

This game isn't going to be a cakewalk. Penn State isn't the same team that was one second away from a perfect season, but they are more than capable, and must be chomping at the bit in order avenge the last second loss to the Wolverines last season. The game is on the road, and at night. Vegas seems to agree with me that it will be a tough game, listing Michigan as a 6.5 point favorite.

Last season, it was Mario Manningham that provided the heroics against Penn State. A pass to Steve Breaston 3 yards outside of the endzone was dropped, leaving two seconds on the clock, and time for one last play. Henne connected with freshman Manningham, showing a flash of the brilliance displayed this season. The win over Penn State was a lone bright spot in an otherwise forgettable season for the Michigan Wolverines. This season, there will be no last second heroics from Mario Mannigham to salvage the game. This time, it's up to Steve Breaston.

Early last season, after the graduation of Braylon Edwards, Michigan started the year by trying to make Breaston the team's deep threat. Henne threw at least 4-5 long 50-60 yard passes to Breaston the end zone. Steve had no problem blowing by the defenders, and getting close to the ball, but he never really appeared comfortable making the catch. The plan was eventually abandoned. At the time, Breaston never quite appeared comfortable making the long, running over-the-shoulder catch.

The time has come to once again make Breaston the go-to guy for the next two games. For Michigan, the key will begetting the ball in Breaston's hands. He makes people stand up out of their seats almost every time he touches the ball. Last season, Michigan resorted to many trick plays to get the ball in Breaston's hands, including having him line up at quarterback for a rush, double-reverses, screen passes, and laterals with three receivers lined up on the same side for blocking.

There is no doubt that Breaston has the ability to make the big places, and change the complexion of a game. So far this season, Breaston has been effective, if somewhat unspectacular, but he has not yet reached the end zone. With all the hype surrounding Mario Manningham and Mike Hart, Breaston has averaged 103.5 All Purpose Yards per game, putting him in the upper echelon of Division I, at 67th in the nation. His 23 receptions put him in 15th in the big ten. Two weeks ago, against Wisconsin, Breaston had a career high 116 punt return yards on 9 touches. The Wolverines had excellent starting field position all night long, starting on average at their own 41 yard line.

In addition to Steve Breaston, the Michigan receiving corps will include Adrian Arrington, Carl Tabb, and freshman Greg Matthews. As the lone starting senior receiver, the responsibility will lie on Breaston's shoulders to help ensure that the Michigan offense puts points on the boards and controls the flow of the game. The biggest area where Breaston can make a difference is in the return game. Over his career, Breaston has 3 punt returns for a touchdown, and 1 kickoff return for a touchdown. In a single game against Texas, he returned 6 kickoffs for 221 yards. So far this season, Breaston has returned only 6 kickoffs all season long, for a total of 114 yards. A large part of that is that Michigan's defense has been so tough this season, that they really haven't had to face very many kickoffs. On top of that, opposing teams seem to do whatever they can to keep the ball out of his hands on the kickoff and punt returns. In addition, it appears that Breaston has been a little more conservative this season. In previous seasons, Breaston was fearless, refusing to call for the fair catch when there almost no chance he would avoid the initial tackle. Injuries have hampered him in the past, so I'm glad he is taking this approach, but he is so quick off that first move that I think he can stand to be a little more aggressive on fielding kickoffs. Breaston himself realizes that his return game isn't quite where he wants it to be yet "It's really been kicking me so far. In the game, I try to get into that rhythm (So far) I basically haven't"

Penn State's rush defense is ranked 15th in the nation, giving up only 79.5 yards per game, or 2.52 yards per carry. Michigan is going to try running the ball, but the yards will not come that easy. For comparison, the toughest rush defense they've faced so far has been Wisconsin, ranked 46th at 118.6 yards per game. Since their deep threat in Manningham is gone, Michigan will have a tougher time stretching out the opposing defense, allowing Penn State to close up on defense. Penn State's passing defense is much more average, giving up 205.8 yards per game, ranked 75th in the nation. The speed of Breaston will be a key factor in keeping the Penn State defense off-balance. Expect Breaston to have a big return game, pumped up by the chance to play in front of family and friends in his home state.

For much of the past two seasons, Breaston has been hampered by injuries. A sprained hand kept him from playing to the best of his abilities. Highlights from last season include the first half from the Indiana game last year, where Breaston picked up 201 all purpose yards and a touchdown in the first half alone, before Michigan brought out the second stringers. Breaston also had another big bowl game against Nebraska, where he registered 226 all purpose yards.

I've always wondered whether or not Breaston could become an effective NFL player. He has been compared to Anthony Carter, who had a prolific career in the NFL. Breaston is undersized, and his great running speed will be less effective at the NFL level. To his credit, Breaston is very elusive, excelling at losing would-be sure tackles, and has excellent bursting ability, allowing him to change direction and reverse the field at full speed. I took a look at a few NFL draft previews, and it appears that scouts see the same potential in Breaston that we as Wolverine fans have witnessed for years. Fox Sports has Breaston listed as a late first round pick, at number 27, with a chance to go up if he has a breakout season. So far, the breakout season hasn't happened, but he has been steady and effective.

I'd like to see Michigan make an effort to get the ball into Breaston's hands as often as possible over the next few weeks - A few screen passes, having him take a snap or two at quarterback, perhaps a double-reverse with Hart. Hopefully, Henne can come up with some passes that find Breaston on the move in the secondary, because once he gets into that open field with the ball, he has the ability to take it to the house. Breaston is one of the most dangerous open field players in the business, so if you get the ball into his hands, good things will happen.