When Wolverines Attack Huskies: A Michigan vs. UConn Football Preview

Preview: Michigan vs. Connecticut, September 4, 2010 - The *NEW* Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Kickoff 3:30 p.m. ABC

This is a supplemental post to the previous Maize n Brew preview to Never Too Early For A Michigan Football Preview: Connecticut at Michigan.

When You Crave Irrational Exuberance On A Level That Only Brett Musberger Can Deliver:

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Mr. Exaggeration, Brett Musberger:

"Exactly, but can you even see the little footballs on the stylish tie I'm wearing?"

"And we're here LIIIIIIIIIIIVE again in the BIG HOUSE in Ann Arbor to witness the first meeting ever between the Wolverines of Michigan and the Huskies of Connecticut!

It is a perfect day for football here in Ann Arbor! It's sunny. 70 degrees, and just look at this magnificent stadium folks!  The renovations to this legendary old field are finally complete and we have over 110,000 plus fans stocking up on cups of water,  scrambling to find their seats for what should be an excellent football game.  

The Connecticut Huskies' young football program has never played a football game before this many onlookers before, but I'll tell you something - from head to stern  this may be the most confident and talented UConn football team ever assembled.  Last year Randy Edsall and this football team overcame the tragic death of cornerback Jaspar Howard. They started the season 4-5, but persevered to win their last 4 football games, including a thrashing of South Carolina in their bowl game.   This year essentially everyone is back on offense including a great offensive line and rushing attack that will challenge the Michigan Wolverines from the first snap.

On the other side of the field we have Michigan and their embattled head coach Rich Rodriguez. This is his third year here and there's been nothing but a massive cloud of disappointment following him around ever since his arrival:  Contract disputes with West Virginia, massive Michigan roster attrition, back to back losses to chief rivals Michigan State and Ohio State in 2008 and last year, bad real estate deals, recruiting disappointments, key player injuries, and to top it all off -  major NCAA violations regarding practice rules at both Michigan and during his tenure at West Virginia.

Can it get any worse for Rich Rodriguez?  Will it ever get any better?  Well, on things for sure:  today's game is going to serve as an excellent indicator for Michigan's 2010 football season.  The Wolverines have a strong offensive line, some new faces at running back and the same questions as last year at quarterback. Who will emerge? Denard Robinson, Tate Forcier or Devin Gardner? They're talented, but they're really young.

The Huskies defense is already pretty accustomed to facing spread option offenses similar to Michigan's with the likes of annual Big East foes South Florida, Cincinnatti and West Virginia. On offense the Huskies like to emulate the punishing off-tackle  rushing attacks like Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State.

Randy Edsall is 0-6 versus Rich Rodriguez.

Will the underdog Huskies program emerge today from Michigan Stadium victorious with their first signature win since joining Division I football? Or will the clouds of disappointment around Rodriguez and Michigan finally be lifted for good with a win today?

Let's find out!

This football game is important for Michigan for the following reasons:

  1. The long wait for wins must end sometime. 3-9 and 5-7 consecutive seasons have seriously shaken the faith of over half the global Michigan football fan base.  The other half that still supports Rodriguez have their stomachs in their throats right now, worried that perhaps the worst may be still yet to come.  It's year three in Rodriguez's offensive, defensive, recruiting and conditioning systems.  Like it or not, fair or unfair, it's now or never for Rodriguez and his Michigan Wolverines to make a statement.  
  2. Michigan is 5-1 against Big East foes, the lone loss against Donovan McNabb's Syracuse team in 1998 in the Big House.  UConn is an up and coming football program.  The Huskies would be a worthy opponent this year for the Big Ten's best of football teams. There's no better test than this one for Rich Rodriguez and Michigan. UConn is a punishing run-oriented squad on offense that resembles some of Michigan's greatest Big Ten enemies.  On defense the Huskies are a talented, athletic group that held their own against five spread option offenses last year (Ohio, Baylor, West Virginia, Cincy and South Florida). A victory over UConn would send a signal to the rest of the Big Ten and the country that Rodriguez and Michigan have turned another page on the past. 
  3. A loss to UConn could be devastating to Michigan's team psyche.  It would mean that while the Michigan Stadium construction is complete, Rich Rodriguez remains late on finishing his own construction project with the Michigan football program.   And when you're late on important projects, there are usually consequences.  A reduction in team confidence heading into the Notre Dame road game would make Rodriguez's efforts to turn the ship even tougher.
  4. With seven home games this fall - and a painful history of losing key games down the stretch the last two years - the Wolverines must make the most of all of their home games in the Big House this fall. 
  5. These are the kinds of games that separate the men from the boys.  It's the kind of competitive match up where position questions at quarterback and  in the secondary can get answered mighty quick.

Three Great Reasons to Wipe That Ridiculous Smile Off Of Your Face:

  1. Huskies Tailback Jordan Todman

When you consider the size and frame of Connecticut tailback Jordan Todman, he looks very much like the kind a football player that Rich Rodriguez might recruit.  At only 5-9, 190 lbs, one might be tempted to discount the junior's true value and talent running the football.  To do so however would be a fatal mistake.  Todman is the latest rev of what has become a rather successful Connecticut running back factory under Randy Edsall and running backs coach Terry Richardson. It's an assembly line that has churned out one fascinating model after another, like Cornell Brockington, Terry Caulley, Donald Brown and Andre Dixon


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Tailback Jordan Todman: UConn 1K Club Member, 2009 - ?

(Photo Joe Sadlek, All Pro Photography)

Benefiting from a behemoth offensive line paving the road for him this year, Todman will be one of the best tailbacks in the Big East, if not the entire country this fall.   Last year No. 23 racked up a stunning 1,188 yards on 235 attempts (5.1) and 14 touchdowns.  What's really scary to think about is that Todman achieved all that by pretty much splitting carries with fellow tailback Andre Dixon (1,093 yards on 239 carries and also 14 touchdowns).  Dixon has graduated, but Todman is not going to get 500 carries this year (that would be something else, wouldn't it?). As with past Edsall teams, the Huskies just love a one-two punch combo instead.  Todman will share carries again, this time with USC transfer tailback D.J. Shoemate, a somewhat bigger option, but with excellent speed and slashing ability.  Either way it doesn't make much difference: Shoemate and Todman, or Todman and Shoemate, Michigan's young defense and less-than-awe-inspiring secondary are going to struggle to catch, let alone wrap their arms around these two characters. 


Here's the real problem for a Michigan rushing defense with the services of Brandon Graham, Stevie Brown and Donovan Warren: They've allowed mediocre running backs to look really great, and have allowed good running backs to look, well, pretty damn good:  PSU Evan Royster 100 yards, Illinois Mikel LeShoure 150 yards, Purdue Robert  (Edit: Ralph) Bolden 96 yards, Wisconsin John Clay 151 yards, Ohio State Dan Herron 96 yards. In other words, unless Greg Robinson made substantial corrections to last year's lineup, there's no way in hell a Jordan Todman doesn't achieve over 100 yards rushing in this football game.

  1. The Entire UConn Offensive Line

The Huskies offensive line should not be taken lightly.  In fact, they are not light at all. They're heavy as hell. They're tall. They're experienced. And yeah, they like to pick fights and play a happy game of road grader against their opponents.  Like a Wisconsin, Penn State or Ohio State, UConn's O-line will probably have a lot of fun against Michigan's rather puny defensive line.   If their blockers ever get to the second level on a screen pass play to Todman, well, say your prayers Michigan fans. The truth is, most of these UConn lineman are going to be playing football on Sundays:

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No. 78 Guard Zach Hurd

"32 Eviscerated Linebacker Belly On Two, On Two....Ready! BREAK!"

LT Adam Masters RS So (6-4, 283)

LG Mathieu Olivier RS Sr. (6-6,294)

C Moe Petrus RS Jr (6-2, 292)

RG Zach Hurd RS Sr (6-7, 325)

RT Mike Ryan RS Jr (6-7, 325)

Listen carefully for an onslaught of French swear words once UConn Center Moe Petrus (St. Laurent, Quebec) makes his first encounter with Michigan DT Renaldo Sagesse (Montreal, Quebec)!

I'm not so sure I'd call them "Wisconsin-lite" anymore.  Seriously, from Olivier on down, it's like one massive bulldozer. 

Now, I do believe the Wolverines' defensive line will be the strength of the Michigan defense in 2010.  In fact, I think they'll be pretty vicious this fall - like J.R. Tolkien's Uruk-Hai, man!  But if Michigan's DL is the Uruk-Hai, then UConn's front five are probably going to be towering Ents, teeing off retribution on Isengard. 

In pass blocking, the Huskies have struggled at inopportune times in the past. They did surrender a disappointing 21 sacks in 2009, but they also improved dramatically in sack prevention as the season progressed.

Again, Connecticut constitutes a brilliant, early test for Greg Robinson's young defense. It's a perfect indicator for how Michigan's season will likely unfold.  So in many respects, this is it, folks! If Michigan can somehow shed blocks and wins some battles up front over a span of 60 minutes, then there is more than just hope for the Wolverines against similarly-sized opponents later on this season.  But if Michigan fails again to stop the run, giving up tons of yardage on the ground, then the Wolverines will be exposed for all to see with the same defensive weaknesses of the last two seasons.  From Indiana's Pistol offense right on down to Ohio State's smash-mouth spread mix, opponents may be able run right at Michigan with impunity once again.

  1. UConn Linebackers Lawrence Wilson, Greg Lloyd and Scott Lutrus

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Pitt sburgh QB Bill Stull About to Perform Double Somersault Into A Facemaskplant. Degree of Difficulty? Eight.

Courtesy of UConn Linebacker Lawrence Wilson

(Photo from Vito J. Leo of HTNP.com)

The summer press clippings out of Connecticut have high-lighted, bolded and underlined the major defensive losses to injury of star defensive end Marcus Campbell and MLB Greg Lloyd. Yet Husky fans aren't exactly slicing their wrists. Why not? Well, Greg Lloyd is going to play despite a knee injury, and because senior linebacker Lawrence Wilson may also have a major say in how things play out during Michigan's new stadium dedication game festivities. As a linebacker, Lawrence Wilson is the real deal. He's merciless, extremely agile and quick. He'll will remind Michigan fans a lot of Shawn Crable.  Wilson was credited with an unbelievable 140 stops, 5 sacks and 11 tackles-for-loss last year as a junior.  He led the Big East with 10.4 tackles per game and hit double-digits for stops in 8 games last fall.  No surprise then that the guy is already on the Bronko Nagurski Watchlist for 2010. With his responsibilities, he could have a major impact on Michigan's read option attack.


The UConn defensive line is young, but talented enough to keep opposing blockers from getting to the second level, which in the past has freed up the linebackers Lawrence Wilson, Scott Lutrus and Greg Lloyd to make some very big plays. Wilson is really dangerous on the edge as a pass rusher, and is probably the hardest hitter on the Huskies squad.  Greg Lloyd, no longer injured, will probably assume the Husky (middle) linebacker position. Lloyd had 91 tackles last fall from that spot and is an exceptional pursuit man and tackler.  There's also Scott Lutrus, is a smart and quick linebacker who in the past also played the Husky middle linebacker position.  Lutrus was injured twice last fall but eventually returned to action and double-digit tackling performances.  He has excellent tackling technique. All of UConn's linebackers have experience, speed, as well as good pursuit and wrap-up tackling abilities - ideal characteristics for facing the edge passing and option-run attacks of spread offenses like Michigan's.

When Wolverines Attack! On Offense:

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Denard Robinson: Wings on the Helmet, Not On the Shoes

Michigan has something to prove on offense in this game. There were improvements in rushing and scoring last fall to be sure. Still, Rodriguez's unpatented, yet extremely successful spread option offense hasn't properly gotten off the ground at Michigan.   For some reason, the right ingredients have never seemed to find their way into the kitchen.  In 2008 Rodriguez had the choice of starting a tall, slow, pro-style quarterback in Steven Threet or a RS freshman walk-on in Nick Sheridan. That experiment worked out pretty much as expected.

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Michigan Tailback Vincent Smith

In 2009 Michigan's attack featured quicker, more mobile versions in Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson under center, but turnovers, poor reads and a mountain of mental errors over 12 games were too costly to overcome.  This fall Michigan still has questions at quarterback, but this time they are the "good kind" of questions: Like which of these three guys is going to shred opponents into ribbons in the most embarrassing fashion imaginable? For now, preliminary indication is that this guy will be Denard Robinson.  Robinson is the fastest and most elusive player on the Michigan team, and sufficient evidence suggests that Denard has more than dramatically improved his reads, timing and passing skills during the off-season.   This might worry Randy Edsall and staff. UConn will not only be trying out a brand new secondary group, but also two new redshirt sophomore defensive ends in this game.  It's going to be difficult for UConn to simulate Denard Robinson's abilities in practice, so these two factors could be a recipe for trouble against an improved read option attack.   If Robinson somehow falters, Tate Forcier and the Vince Young-like Devin Gardner will be chomping at the bit to take snaps. The Wolverines' offensive line is not only back at full strength, but they have much needed depth at every position (another important item that has been frustratingly off the menu the last two seasons for Rich Rodriguez.)  The Wolverines' receiving corps could be one of the deepest and fastest groups in the Big Ten this fall with Darryl Stonum JR Hemingway, Martavious Odoms and Kelvin Grady.  But will they get enough touches to keep defenses honest?  The other major question mark for Michigan on offense is  the running back spot.  The power backs will be Mike Cox (a Connecticut native) and true freshman Stephen Hopkins, while sophomore Vincent Smith and junior Michael Shaw will probably share duties at the all-important tailback spot. Since the 2006 football season Michigan has failed to maintain a healthy stable of running backs.  This must change if Rodriguez is ever to get this offense humming at full throttle.

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Michigan Wide Receiver and Kick Returner Darryl Stonum

(Photo by Lon Horwedel, AnnArbor.com)

When Carcajous Attack! On Defense:

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Michigan Linebacker Craig Roh, via isportsweb.com
 

Michigan was not a good defensive team in 2008 and they actually performed even worse in 2009.  One subtle and little-discussed item about Michigan's defense: The 2010 season will signify the first time since 2004-2005 seasons that Michigan had the same defensive coordinator in back to back years with Greg Robinson.  Perhaps musical chairs at defensive coordinator is not such a bad game to play in other leagues, but in the Big Ten, where defense means everything, continuity is without question a very good thing.  At the very least, fielding a competent rushing defense puts Big Ten teams in a position to achieve upsets and bowl eligibility.  Even with the most vanilla of offenses, competent rushing defense can win conference championships in the Big Ten. This is what Michigan has sorely lacked.  This is what Michigan needs in 2010 and for this game against UConn. At the risk of all else, including long touchdown bombs over the heads of freshman safeties, Michigan must have some semblance, ANY semblance, of a competent rushing defense in 2010.

Unfortunately, Michigan is not going to be able to play 60 minutes against UConn's offensive line and rushing attack for this football game.   Not because of the Michigan DL size or the linebacker talent, but because the Wolverines simply do not have the experience required in the secondary at both safety and corner postions to provide the kind run support that will be desperately needed whenever the UConn offensive line hits the second level.  And make no mistake, despite Michigan's strong defensive front, UConn WILL get to the second level on a regular basis in this game.

Against the pass UConn has a good quarterback in Zach Frazier, but a no name group of wide receivers.  They might be good, but nobody knows. Michigan is unlikely to stop any downfield pass plays in this game anyway, but they do have a chance to stop some drives simply by keeping the play in front of them and hoping for a drop or an errant throw by Frazier. The biggest passing threat is not really the Huskies wide receivers anyway.  Michigan must pay close attention to UConn's TEs and tailbacks, particularly TE Ryan Griffin over the middle and tailbacks Todman and Shoemate catching swing passes and screens out of the backfield. 

Does Randy Edsall even need a passing strategy for this football game? I mean, you'd be a fool not to exploit Michigan's youth in the defensive backfield in this with one play action pass after another. Then again, there may be tons of fun to be had wearing down the Wolverines by running off tackle for 6 plus yards a pop. At some point UConn's staff has to be asking themselves: "If Indiana, Illinois and Purdue can do it, then why can't we?" 

The Last Time:

These two teams have never met before.  They will meet again on September 21, 2013 at Rentschler Field, East Hartford, CT. By that time Michigan will either field one of the best rushing offenses in the country, or be struggling to reconstruct a brand new pro-style offense by some unknown head coach which will probably closely resemble that of the Kansas City Chiefs.  For now Rich Rodriguez enjoys a 6-0 record against Edsall all-time since 2004. Over the years Rodriguez has rubbed more than a fair share of salt into the Huskies wounds. Consider Rodriguez's last demonstration of ultimate power back in 2007:  A merciless 66-21 shellacking of UConn by his best West Virginia team ever in Morgantown.. The Mountaineers clinched the Big East title with this win. This coincided with not only public humiliation on ESPN, but the formal destruction of UConn's Big East title hopes, and a dramatic fall from the Top 25 rankings.  


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Randy: "Aww fantastic to see you again! Have a great game, Greg!"

Gerg: "That's "Super Greg" to you, Goddammitt! Can't you see the "S" on my shirt, Randy?"

What to Expect:

(Markus pacing up and down, back and forth.  Rodriguez, distracted, looks up.)


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Richrod1_mediumRich Rodriguez: What's the matter with you?

Markusr2007_mediumMarkusr2007: I don't know.

Richrod1_mediumRich Rodriguez: You're acting like you're nervous or something.

Markusr2007_mediumMarkusr2007: Well, yeah, I am.

Richrod1_mediumRich Rodriguez: What are you nervous about? I'm the one that's under the gun here. The first game of the season kicks off tomorrow.

Markusr2007_mediumMarkusr2007: You wanna know what I'm nervous about?!  I'll tell you what I'm nervous about! I am in the dark here with all this Bandit, Spur and 3-3-5 crap! I have no idea what's going on! All I know is that you're screwing up and I can't help.

Richrod1_mediumRich Rodriguez: You left me a little camera, didn't you?

Markusr2007_mediumMarkusr2007: Oh, Rich! I'm watching you go down in flames, and you're bringing me down with you, and I can't do anything about it!

Richrod1_mediumRich Rodriguez: And?

Markusr2007_mediumMarkusr2007: Well, I hate to bring it up because I know you've got enough pressure on you already. But, I understood we'd be at least 11-1 and heading to a BCS title game just as soon as you won your first conference title! Meanwhile, two years later, my niece, Michigan State, has gone to consecutive bowl games. My Official Michigan Game Clock is (stamps foot three times) ticking like this, and the way your tenure is going, I ain't never getting tickets to a BCS title game!

Richrod1_mediumRich Rodriguez: Markus, I don't need this. I swear to God, I do not need this right now, okay?! I've got an NCAA committee that's just aching to throw me in jail, an idiot named Dantonio who wants to fight me for two hundred dollars, slaughtered cornerbacks, giant referee whistles! I ain't slept in four years! I got no money, a major secondary problem, and a little football season which, in the balance, holds the entire lives and well-being of thousands of Michigan alumni scattered across the globe, not to mention your (stamps foot three times) Official Michigan Game Clock!; my career, your life, the entire Michigan football tradition, and let me see, what else can we pile on?

Is there any more SHIT we can pile on to the outcome of this game against UConn?!

Is it possible?!

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Markusr2007_mediumMarkusr2007: Maybe it was a bad time to bring it up.

Bad times.

That's all he's known since his arrival. 

But maybe something will change. UConn is going to be the lever that either propels Michigan forward or sets them back again.  It probably won't be the most important game of the season for the Michigan Wolverines. But it will be pivotal. It will be symbolic.

Offensively, both teams are going to have a field day throwing the football.  I would not be surprised to see UConn's tight ends and tailbacks have a lot of success in the short passing game (think Iowa game 2009). A Frazier touchdown bomb for six against Michigan's safeties is not out of the question either.

Expect to see a crisper, faster no huddle offense from Michigan, with the usual meat-grinder blasts zone blasts off tackle, and plenty of exciting quarterback draws by Denard Robinson for big gains.  Michigan will attack the edge and find good success with their sure-handed receivers of Roundtree, Grady and Odoms.  It's a good bet that either Darryl Stonum is going to be wide open for a post pattern throw against UConn's youthful secondary. Will the timing and accuracy be there from the quarterbacks?

As good as UConn's linebackers may be in pursuit and tackling, Edsall's defenses never succeed in shutting down spread option offenses.  And so it will be against Michigan.  Like BJ Daniels of USF and Zac Collaros of Cincy before him, Denard Robinson could have a very big day rushing and throwing the football in this game. 

The main thing to watch will be the defenses.  UConn has a fantastic running game, and Michigan has only displayed a rickety rushing defense.  Michigan lost a lot of good tacklers to graduation last year.  UConn should have a relatively easy time on the ground.  I would be surprised (pleasantly) if Michigan finds a way to shut down or even slow down UConn's rushing mix.

The special teams play will of course be critical in this game because Michigan has two brand new faces  in punter Will Hagerup (true freshman) and placekicker Brendan Gibbons.  Neither has played a down at the college level.  In contrast UConn has a reliable PAT and FG specialist in junior David Teggart, but will introduce a new face at punter in Cole Wagner this fall.  I'd mentally prepare yourselves for some major screws ups by Michigan in specials teams play from kickoff coverage, punt coverage and especially PAT/FGs.  Punter Will Hagerup will have a great first game.

Both teams have explosive, home-run options on kickoff return.  UConn uses TB Jordan Todman and Michigan has WR Darryl Stonum. 

Neither defense will be particularly dominant in this game.  Both offenses should do well moving the ball and scoring points.  I view Michigan as an underdog in this contest, because I think Connecticut has just the right combination punches to knock Michigan down: a powerful running attack, big, physical offensive line, a veteran quarterback, and a decent enough front 7 on defense to prevent some explosive plays by Michigan..  

Michigan's talented offense should be explosive enough on occasions to keep the scoring tight. However, the lack of a stout rushing defense will be Michigan's undoing.

Prediction: Connecticut 34, Michigan 31

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