Never Too Early For A Michigan Football Game Preview: Connecticut at Michigan, September 4, 2010

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UConn Cornelius: "Our football helmets have a giant letter "C" on them....this big!

And the "C" is outlined in SILVAAAARRRR!"

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Michigan's 2010 season opener against Connecticut on September 4 in Ann Arbor will serve as dedication game to a newly renovated Michigan Stadium.  The "Big House", originally constructed in 1927 with 72,000 seats, will now have 83 new luxury boxes and 3,200 additional club seats, raising total capacity to over 108,000 fans per game.  This season opener is also important to Michigan's football team, coaches and fans as they try to place the disappointing 3-9 and 5-7 football seasons firmly in the past.  The recent NCAA's allegations that Michigan violated practice rules will be covered extensively by local and national media all the way up to kickoff, clouding what would normally be a festive occasion for the university and football program.

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UConn Football Team to Invade New Michigan Stadium, September 4th 2010

Michigan's fortune in selecting an opponent for this dedication football game may end up being consistent with their recent luck in other areas.  Recent adventures against teams like Appalachian State, Oregon, Utah and Toledo haven't exactly gone according to plan.  For the 2010 New Big House ceremony game, Michigan chose the Connecticut Huskies from the Big East conference. Connecticut hasn't been on the Division 1 football scene that long, but they should by no means be taken lightly. The Huskies may not look very impressive on paper either, but there may not be another team in the country heading into the 2010 college football season quite as confident and closely galvanized as this one is.   Here's why:

Bound with Sorrow and Resolve

Following a 38-25 home win over Louisville last October, the 2009 Connecticut football season looked very promising indeed given their 4-2 start.  Hours after that victory, however, head coach Randy Edsall and the Husky football team were devastated by the tragic stabbing death of Husky cornerback Jaspar Howard.  The Husky football team vowed to respond and dedicate the rest of the football season to Howard's memory. With the team's emotions overflowing onto the field of play, Connecticut proceeded to lose its next three games against conference foes West Virginia, Rutgers and Cincinnati by close margins of 4, 4 and 2 points respectively.  With their record now at 4-5, team moral could have easily spiraled out of control.  Instead the Husky players bounced back by winning their last 4 games and finishing the season 8-5 including a stunning 20-7 win over Steve Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks in the Papajohns.com Bowl.  UConn finished tied for 3rd place in the Big East at 3-4 in conference play,  From a sorrowful beginning, 2009 was arguably one of the more glorious and heart-rending finishes in college football history. 

Despite an opening game on the road in front of 108,000 plus Wolverine partisans, the 2010 campaign looks to be a very promising one for Randy Edsall's Connecticut team.

OFFENSE

UConn returns 9 starters on an offense that finished 23rd in the country in scoring (32 ppg) and 47th in total offense (398 ypg).  UConn ran multiple offensive sets, including some zone read, I formation and shotgun with 4 and 5 wide sets.  Their pretty balanced too, but a slightly more pass-centric team (2703 yards passing vs. 2,073 yards rushing). This could be a blessing or a curse for Michigan depending heavily on turnovers, special teams play, linebacker play, and the performance of last season's secondary.

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UConn QB Zach Frazer handing off to tailback Jordan Todman

QUARTERBACK

It must be nice to have Connecticut's quarterback situation. Starting senior quarterback Zach Frazer, a transfer from Notre Dame, returns in 2010, as does capable backup QB Cody Endres. Frazer connected on only 53% of his throws for a rather low 1,461 yards, 10 TDs and 9 INTs.  Endres was more accurate throwing as he connected on 64% of his throws for a similar sum of 1,354 yards, 6 TDs and 4 INTs.  Endres is apparently less mobile than Frazer, however, as he showed either great difficulty, or very bad luck, escaping sacks last year (14). 


As for Michigan's signal callers, they would be wise to take a long look at the exploits of quarterbacks that the UConn defense failed to control last fall, like Pitt's Bill Stull (268 yards, 67% completions, 2 TD passes, Cincy's Zach Collaros (480 yards passing, 78% completions, 75 yards rushing, 2 rushing TDs), South Florida's BJ Daniels (88 yards rushing, 3 rushing TDs). It's a lot of run and gun stuff that appears to align pretty well with the skills of Michigan's Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson.

Key Performance Comparison: UConn QB Zach Frazer vs. UM QB Tate Forcier

Edge: Frazer. Frazer makes good decisions and plays remarkably well in big games. Plus he's got proven receivers at the ready, and a solid offensive line that has repeatedly shown that it can both run- and pass-block equally well.  Forcier possesses that scary, unpredictable "mojo" factor.  This "mojo"tends to reveal itself Michigan football games much like a Harvey Dent coin flip from the Batman comic series: horrific brilliance or brilliant horror. Take your pick, Michigan fans. Forcier can make very big plays with his legs or his feet on any given down, but last year he simply tried to do too much by himself.  This led to repeated injuries, not to mention costly mistakes.  While Forcier will likely improve his physique, playbook knowledge and abilities going into 2010, Frazer will have improved also. Unlike Michigan's quarterbacks, Frazer has the confidence that comes from a decisive bowl win over an SEC team that was ranked 15th nationally in total defense (South Carolina).

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Tailback Jordan Todman: Another UConn 1K Club Member (Photo Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

RUNNING BACK

On the one hand Michigan defensive coordinator can probably count his lucky stars that senior Husky tailback Andre Dixon has finally graduated. Dixon was an elusive, but powerful sort, racking up 1,093 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2009. But GERG really shouldn't count those supernovas before they explode in his face. The other starting tailback, Jordan Todman returns.  Todman was the Huskies' leading rusher last year and also cracked the 1K rushing mark (1,188), tacking on 14 rushing touchdowns for good measure.  UConn likes to rotate in backs, so next fall junior strongman Robbie Frey and 3-star true freshman Leon Kinnard will probably get significant touches this coming fall.

Key Performance Comparison: UConn TB Jordan Todman vs. UM's mystery replacement(s) for Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown at tailback

Edge:  Todman. Jordan Todman doesn't get injured. He played 11 games in 2008 and all 13 games last year.  He's fast, durable, delivers in big games and has a wall of gargantuan friends paving the streets for him.  On the other side of the field, Michigan's best returning rusher is Michael Shaw, who, like his predecessors Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown, has been injury prone.  When was the last time Michigan had a running back play in all 13 games anyway? I think it was 2006. Michigan may be faster and deeper at running back than UConn is, but one must check the Wolverines as "unproven" in the durability category.  Rich Rodriguez needs at least two reliable running backs in 2010 to step forward and break the tailback injury curse.  Mike Cox and Fitzgerald Toussaint appear to be ready for the challenge.

OFFENSIVE LINE

In 2009 Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon were busy doing two things: watching defenders fade away in their rear view mirrors, and busting open celebratory piñatas in opponent end zones. Like 28 piñatas over 13 games, to be exact.  UConn's rushing offense was not as good as Pittsburgh's or West Virginia's, but the Huskies led the league in rushing touchdowns (30).   The challenge for Michigan is that 4 out of 5 starting Husky offensive lineman return for UConn in 2010, including tackle Mike Ryan, guards Mathieu Olivier and massive Zach Hurd. Talented Moe Petrus also returns at center.  Except for Petrus, this entire group is at least 6 foot 5 and 315 lbs plus. This will make interesting viewing against Michigan's comparatively smaller, leaner and younger 2010 defensive front of Mike Martin, Craig Roh, Ryan Van Bergen and William Campbell. 

Key Performance Comparison: UConn OL vs. UM DL and LBs

Edge: UConn! While UConn is bigger and more experienced, Michigan is not that small anymore up front. The Wolverines will be considerably quicker and should get into the backfield more often than the Huskies would like. UConn surrendered 21 sacks and had 13 interceptions last year.  Michigan's glaring weaknesses may be at linebacker and less surprisingly in the secondary. If UConn's blockers ever get to the second level on a regular basis, Michigan is going to pay.  The Wolverines' run defense was already atrocious in 2008 and actually worsened in 2009.  If Michigan's linebacker play doesn't show significant improvement over this off season, then it's theoretically possible for Michigan to play even worse total defense yet in 2010.  The good news is that Wolverine fans won't have to wait too long on the answer to this question about the linebackers. UConn's offensive line and rushing attack will probably have made the answer abundantly clear well before the first commercial break.

RECEIVERS

UConn and Michigan's receiving stats are remarkably similar in that the philosophy appears to be the same: spread the wealth and always keep them guessing.  Eight different Husky receivers had 10 catches or more, and 7 different players caught touchdown passes.  Michigan is fortunate that leading Husky wideout Marcus Easley has graduated.  Easley's replacements are equally dangerous, however.  Kashif Moore had 370 yards receiving and 3 TDs. Isiah Moore, Dwayne Difton and Michael Smith were all contributors last fall and have great hands. Another receiver named Mike Lang might also head into the Husky receiver rotation next fall.  Lang held backup KR duties last fall, and caught only 2 passes, but one of them went for a 50 yard touchdown.  The UConn Huskies passing barrage wouldn't be complete without the threat of 6-6, 230 lbs TE Ryan Griffin over the middle (another Tony Moeaki anybody!?) or tailback Jordan Todman (21 catches, 185 yards) used in the flat or underneath for center screens.

Michigan has a talented cast of receivers as well.  Ten different Wolverines caught 10 passes or more and 10 different players caught 1 touchdown pass or more.  Michigan has the talent to make opponents suffer on the edge this season behind sure-handed slot receivers Martravious Odoms and Roy Roundtree.  There are game breakers and wide receiver in Junior Hemingway, Darryl Stonum and freshman sensation Jeremy Gallon also.  The Wolverines have two good tight ends as well in Kevin Koger and Martell Webb who should not be ignored. What is perhaps most interesting here is that from this cast of players, no one receiver has emerged as a game breaker.  This needs to change.

Key Performance Comparison:  Both teams have 5 to 6 experienced, seasoned receivers vs. some of the least experienced Michigan and UConn secondaries their respective histories. Gee, lemme think.

Edge:  Tie.  Neither team has a proven game breaker at receiver yet.  The Huskies have all the right ingredients in place to run the ball off-tackle, throw accurate screens to tailbacks, and to convert third downs with ease - thanks to Michigan's corners being instructed to play 10 yards off.  Kashif Moore will be the go-to guy for long bombs from Frazer.  Michigan has reliable possession receivers of Odoms, Roundtree and freshman Jeremy Gallon, but does not have a consistent deep threat.  Sort of shame, since both UConn and UM secondaries will likely have the words "Easily Exploited" embroidered on their jerseys this fall. 

DEFENSE

Connecticut fielded an average, functional defense in 2009.  The Huskies finished 72nd in the land in total defense surrendering 382 yards per game.  They also surrendered 25 points per game (60th in scoring defense).  Nevertheless, the Huskies defensive roster in 2010 is littered with several talented stars, and they've become a much more solid and seasoned unit.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The Huskies do lose DE Lindsey Witten to graduation, but everyone else comes back along the front including defensive tackles Jesse Joseph, Kendall Reyes and Tywon Martin.  Against the run UConn was pretty good last year (48th nationally, 1,651 yards).  Reyes is the sack machine and Martin has become a terrorizing threat on the edge.  This group will likely be even better in 2010.

Key Performance Comparison: Michigan's offensive line vs. UConn's Kendall Reyes and Tywon Martin. 

Edge: Slight edge to Michigan.  The Wolverines do lose guard David Moosman and tackle Mark Ortmann, but their 2010 replacements (Patrick Omameh and Perry Dorrestein) are probably bigger and quicker players.  This will be a match up of team strengths in some respects, but over the course of the game Michigan should be able to wear down the Huskies defense and earn some success both rushing and passing.

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UConn Linebacker Lawrence Wilson closes in on Pitt QB Bill Stull (Photo from Vito J. Leo of HTNP.com)

LINEBACKERS

Connecticut probably returns the best linebacking corps in the entire Big East conference for the 2010. Scott Lutrus, Jory Johnson and sack master Lawrence Wilson all return.  Wilson is the best defender on the Connecticut team full stop.  Michigan has to contain him or he'll dedicate Michigan Stadium in his own honor. All of the linebackers have good sideline-to-sideline speed that comes from having to face a long list of spread offenses in the past, yet they're also big enough to attack blockers and hit the gaps full steam.  They're experienced and deep. These backers played outstanding football last year and should become a key strength for the Huskies defense in 2010.

Key Performance Matchup: UConn LB corps vs. Michigan spread option attack of Tate Forcier, Denard Robinson and the Wolverine Slot Machines (Martavious Odoms, Roy Roundtree, Kelvin Grady and Jeremy Gallon)

Edge: About even.  The Huskies held their own against the spread option and spread pass centric offenses of West Virginia, South Florida and Cincinnati last year.  The Husky LBs are fast and mean. The UConn DL also does a good job to keep the pressure off their linebackers so they can blitz gaps and make tackles for loss.  Michigan will be one of the fastest football teams UConn will play all season long, so it will be interesting to see that speed going up against UConn's more experienced linebackers. This will be a great match up to observe, but UConn's experience versus spread teams could become an interesting advantage here.

SECONDARY

The loss of Jaspar Howard weighed heavily on this unit last fall. By allowing opposing QBs to complete 67% of their throws and surrendering 130 first downs, UConn had some difficulty stopping people all season long. CB Robert Vaughn and S Robert McClain are now gone and the only starting returnees will be S Jerome Junior and CB Blidi-Wrey Wilson. Redshirt junior Harris Agbor should take over at the open safety spot, while redshirt sophomore Dwayne Gratz is a potential candidate to take the other corner spot.

If there's a weakness of this UConn team in 2010, it may very well be the defensive secondary yet again.  Michigan's passing attack should be much improved this fall with a talented trio of quarterbacks and one of the deepest group of experienced receivers in the entire Midwest. If Tate Forcier gets time to throw (and he has an annoying habit of creating more time), then UConn's defensive effort along the front and middle will come to naught.

Key Performance Matchup: UConn corners vs. Junior Hemingway and Darryl Stonum.

UConn will not win this battle.

Edge: Michigan. If Forcier gets any time to throw, the Wolverine receivers will commit some major property damage.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Connecticut

Connecticut returns RS junior David Teggart as their PK and FG specialist. Teggart was perfect on PATs (47 of 47) but somewhat erratic at FGs (14 of 23, 60%).  He has good distance (47 yarder vs UNC and 42 yarder at Cincy).  He also helped UConn defeat South Florida on a last second 42 yarder to end the 2009 regular season.  Teggart can be scary good when it really counts.

The Huskies share Michigan's challenge in replacing their punter. Desi Cullen had a 43 yard average in 2009.  Cullen's replacement in 2010 will likely be sophomore Chad Christen.

Michigan

The Wolverines lose both their starting place kicker Jason Olesnavage as well as a 4 year starter at punter, Zoltan Mesko.  Not good. Candidates at placekicker include senior Bryan Wright, highly rated RS freshman Brendan Gibbons, and walk on Eddie Murray.  At punter Michigan returns backup punter Bryan Wright, and adds true freshman star Will Hagerup to the lineup. 

Edge: No one knows. Teggart vs. Gibbons is probably equal.  For punting I give Michigan a slight edge because Gibbons, Hagerup are both very highly rated and should perform well in 2010.

HOW IT WILL PLAY OUT:

ESPN's Rece Davis, Lou Holtz and Mark May are going to be giggling like schoolgirls, playing up the significance of Michigan's alleged NCAA violations and damning any response made by new AD David Brandon.  Whatever can be done will be done to rain intentionally, publicly and with malice aforethought, on Michigan's celebratory parade. Bank on it.

Setting the christening ceremony of the new Michigan Stadium aside for a moment, the table appears to be set in this game for both quarterbacks to have a lot of fun setting the britches of the opposing secondary on fire. The defensive lines might have something to say about all that, but once things settle down the key questions are three-fold:

Which quarterback is the better leader and football player?

Which secondary is less horrible? 

Which defensive line can control the line of scrimmage?

The better quarterback is probably Zach Frazer of Connecticut at this stage due to his greater experience, lack of injuries and overall confidence, though it's also unwise to discount Michigan's Tate Forcier or Denard Robinson in this game.  Frazer knows he must get the ball to his playmakers.  Forcier and Robinson need to learn to operate similarly in order to win this game.

The better secondary in this game may be...wait for it....Michigan's. Whaaa?  That probably surprises people to hear. Yes, the Wolverines are very young, and gave up ridiculous 3rd down conversions and touchdown pass plays all of last year. They did not do a very good job on run support either. But defensive coordinator Greg Robinson now has some better talent and depth to work with in 2010, and there probably won't be any walk-ons starting at safety or corner or defensive for Michigan either. The problems will not be fixed. But they won't get any worse.

The UConn and UM defensive lines are likely comparable, but the Huskies OL could be a major problem for Michigan's linebackers. The team with the fewest turnovers, best rushing offense, and best rushing defense will win this game. 

Connecticut is riding high after the 2009 season and stands an excellent chance of beating Michigan in this game.  Even if the score is close, UConn has experience bringing down opponents in the final stretch whether at home or away.  Michigan can win this game by holding on to the ball and relentlessly attacking UConn's undermanned secondary. This would keep UConn's voracious defensive lineman and linebackers honest. 

Prediction: Connecticut 38, Michigan 36

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