Michigan-South Carolina Preview: The End of Something

With Marcus Lattimore out, more of the burden to move the chains will fall on quarterback Connor Shaw's arm (and legs). - Jeremy Brevard-US PRESSWIRE

Michigan takes the field one more time this season, looking to improve upon its 7-4 mark in bowl games against the SEC. The Wolverines look to bid another memorable senior class adieu on a winning note.

Exposition

Brady Hoke's debut season was about as perfect as an opening chapter to a head coach's career as one could be without, you know, actually being perfect. Michigan's path was to 11-2 was seemingly paved with gold as the Fates tossed flowers on the untrodden path before it. The 2011 campaign, fueled by the hysteria of Hoke's honeymoon period following the coining of "this is Michigan, fergodsakes," appeared to be charmed from the start. The page had been turned, and that white space on the top half of the page was an ode to what could be; unfettered, a blank slate, limitless opportunity.

And yet, there was something very tenuous about last season; like a mummified pharaoh encased in glass, it was great in theory and yet you can't help but with that a brief poke would turn it into so much dust.

This season, by all accounts, was expected. Quite honestly, we may have been fortunate to finish with the record that we did. Personally, I had us at 9-3 entering the season. The season gave us some great moments (ending the streak against MSU, the Northwestern game, another season's worth of Denard runs) and, of course, some unfortunate ones which need not be referenced again in detail.

Although I'm not quite as pessimistic as Chris, I too have felt sort of a post-Ohio State malaise regarding this season. I feel good about the direction of this team and this program under Hoke, but this year and most likely next will sort of feel like a Purgatorial nothing. If it wasn't for the particular group of seniors leaving Michigan after this game tomorrow, this season would not exactly top the charts

With that said, as meaningless as the bowl season is in truth, 9-4 undeniably looks better than 8-5. Michigan also has the opportunity to claim a very good win against South Carolina, a team which has completed back-to-back 10+ win seasons for the first time in its long history.

I've always found the fact that a team's bowl game --a meaningless exhibition contest played many weeks after the regular season has ended-- can often serve as a referendum of sorts on a coach or on a season as a whole. The former clearly does not apply for Hoke, but I think it's fair to say that if this season were a movie on Netflix, a win on Tuesday might make you give this flick a fourth star instead of tossing it into the Purgatorial pile of "Liked It."

On Offense

Once again, I am grateful for having the foresight to write about the offense first in my preview and recap posts. We've enjoyed two years of Al Borges, and in spite of all the frustration that it has fostered, I'm not sure that we can really pass an ultimate judgment for another year or two. Of course, I do wish that Borges had managed Denard better, but execution (the Notre Dame game), unfortunate circumstances (Nebraska) and personnel issues (the offensive line's inability to run block, a dearth of non-slot receiver options, etc.).

But, that's all in the past. Once again, Michigan is faced with the task of taking on an SEC team with a staunch defense. I have been a Borges supporter, but the second half of the OSU game shook even me a little bit, and, to be fairly honest, there hasn't been any evidence at all that this Michigan under Borges can score on a defense such as South Carolina's.

On the bright side, USC is not Alabama, at least not by any subjective, eyeball test measures of reckoning. The Gamecocks are 6th in defensive FEI (two spots ahead of Alabama, actually) and 10th in defensive S&P+, a play-by-play metric as opposed to the drive-oriented FEI.

If you are jonesing for dinosaur traditional stats, USC is 12th in total yardage (Michigan is 11th, MSU and Alabama are No. 1 and 2, respectively), 35th in third down conversion percentage D (36.42%) and 13th in scoring defense.

Going back to the Alabama comparison and FEI, Alabama has a pretty significant advantage in First Down rate (FD), Available Yards (AY) and Methodical Drives (Me). All of this is to say that USC will give up more yards and first downs than Alabama did. Jurassic Park III was on last night and I sort of watched it for some reason, so pardon this: if Alabama's defense is akin to a pack of hypercoordinated raptors, then South Carolina's defense is like the pterodactyl and its smaller but still terrifying young (Guess who the adult pterodactyl is...a hint: his name rhymes with Reggaeton Frowny.)

The strength of the Carolina D is at the defensive end positions, manned by aforementioned pterodactyl Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. Clowney racked up 13.0 sacks on the season and Taylor picked up 3.0 of his own. However, it doesn't end there, as reserve ends Chaz Sutton and Aldrick Fordham picked up 5.0 and 4.5 sacks of their own, respectively. As you would expect from an SEC defense, this defense will bring it on the edges.

To a certain extent, Michigan might not need to look to blocking schemes used by other teams in their attempt to neutralize Clowney because those teams don't have a player like Lewan. The odds are not great that Lewan completely stifles Clowney like Jake Long did Carlos Dunlap, but I doubt that he gets badly beaten. With Lewan looking to keep his NFL draft stock high, he'll be bringing his A game, especially after getting beat for a sack by a freshman Adolphus Washington against Ohio State.

To make it fairly plain: this is the most important matchup of the game. Here is an example of the sort of thing that Clowney can do and what Michigan needs to prevent from happening:

The depth at defensive end is so strong that South Carolina has created a package called "Rabbit":

Wanting more speed to defend against a mobile quarterback in Tuesday's Outback Bowl, expect South Carolina to break loose its "Rabbit" defensive package, which uses four defensive ends in obvious passing situations.

"We've totally dedicated ourselves to playing with four ends in passing situations this season," defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said Sunday after a morning practice at Jefferson High School. "You want to utilize your talent, and we didn't think we had much power inside. What we want to do to counteract that in passing situations is, instead of having guys push the pocket, let's put more speed out there."

The Gamecocks are led in tackles by 5'11'' Shaq Wilson (77 tackles) and safety D.J. Swearinger (70), with MLB Reginald Bowens coming in third with 55.

Wilson and Bowens are the starting 'backers, but the third second-level defender is represented by USC's hybrid "spur" role, manned by 6'2'' 241 pound senior DeVonte Holloman (54 tackles, 3 interceptions). Holloman leads the team in picks and is tied for second on the team in tackles for loss with 7.0 (Clowney leads in that department with a whopping 21.5 TFLs). Based on what I've seen, Bowens isn't the fleetest of foot, and Wilson is your standard undersized WLB. If we're counting him as a linebacker, Holloman is the primary havoc wreaker here. It seems to me that misdirection is Michigan's best bet.

On the outside, it's going to be smurfapalooza, as Michigan's undersized receivers go up against 5'9'' Akeem Auguste and 5'10'' Victor Hampton. USC is pretty good across the board defensively, and is 12th in passing defense S&P+. However, they're "only" 20th on passing downs (defined as 2nd & 8+ and 3rd & 5+). This leads me to believe that when the front four doesn't get to the quarterback, these corners can be had.

Tennessee passed 43 times against the Gamecocks and was only sacked once. Although the Vols lost, he went 27/43 for 368 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Obviously, Michigan is not going to throw that many times, this is simply evidence that the USC defense can look very mortal when the pass rush is kept in check.

Al Borges will need to be creative. As I detailed the other day re: the USC-Clemson game, South Carolina couldn't get off the field on Clemson's second drive. Except for one play during which Tajh Boyd held the ball for an extra sack and ended up spinning in the pocket right into Clowney, Clowney had very little impact. Chad Morris gave Ward a zone read look early with Boyd and tailback Andre Ellington, only to bring the H-back post-snap across the play to block (i.e. desperately impede in any way possible) Clowney. Clemson ran it three times, with great success on two of those plays.

Clemson also incorporated a solid blend of Wildcat, a nice option play near the goal line and standard north-south running from the pistol. I don't expect Borges to have magically come around to this stuff throughout the last five or six weeks, but Michigan is simply not scoring enough points to win this game if it does nothing new. The parade of I-form running and play action bootlegs (which at one time were an automatic big play but now equal doom) into an inevitably unblocked end will result in nothing but frustration and teeth-gnashing for all of us.

I'll reiterate what I said the other day: if this game is likely to reveal anything of note, it's whether or not Borges is truly as stubborn as has shown and whether or not he can win Michigan a game with his playcalling against a superior team. Even I, the guy who watched the video of Al Borges reading 'Twas The Night Before Christmas more than once, don't think it's unreasonable to ask for this to happen.

Hey, even Mike DeBord did it in the 2008 Capital One Bowl, although I'm still convinced that someone had Men In Black-style brainwiped him after the OSU game and showed him some spread offense highlights. Unless this mysterious brainwiper is still hanging around, Borges will need to get this one done on his own.

On Defense

The defensive side of the equation is a little more pleasant to think about. The South Carolina offense sans star tailback Marcus Lattimore is not exactly fearsome. With that said, South Carolina does present some dynamic playmaking threats on the outside in special teams demon Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington. Both are also of the shorter variety, but Michigan will need to be vigilant or these guys will bust a big play on them eventually.

At quarterback, Connor Shaw should be back after missing the Clemson game with an ankle injury suffered during the preview week's game against Wofford. FWIW, Shaw's backup, Dylan Thompson, had a solid game against Clemson in relief, and Spurrier said that both quarterbacks will play on Jan. 1:

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is already on record as saying that Shaw will start for the 10-2 Gamecocks’ in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl game against 8-4 Michigan. Spurrier also made it clear that Thompson will also play, and probably do so early in the game.

So, that's out there. Will Thompson actually play? I don't know, honestly. Either way, Shaw had an efficient if aesthetically unspectacular season. He completed 67.3% of his passes for 1,732 yards and 15 touchdowns to seven interceptions. Although his rushing numbers don't really show it (339 yards, 2.8 YPC, three touchdowns), Shaw can run a little bit when he needs to. This play was called back, but it does illustrate the sort of wheels that he has:

I don't need to tell you that Michigan has had trouble containing quarterbacks who can move, even under Greg Mattison's tutelage.

I won't pretend to be able to speak to the quality of each USC lineman, but they do seem to be a little green, with three underclassmen in the starting five and senior center T.J. Johnson and junior right guard Ronald Patrick occupying the remaining two spots.

South Carolina isn't necessarily afraid to throw on first down, as 35% of his passes this season came on first down. They were generally of the shorter, more conservative variety; Shaw maintained a 7.8 YPA on first down compared with 8.34 and 9.31 on third and fourth downs, respectively.

With Lattimore having been knocked out for the season during the Tennessee game, backup Kenny Miles took over the starting role for the remainder of the year. Miles gained 358 yards on just 3.6 YPC on the season. However, despite being behind a guy like Lattimore on the depth chart, Miles has proven himself to be a decent receiving threat out of the backfield, having amassed 168 yards on 16 receptions this season.

Overall, however, Miles does not strike me as a guy that will really kill Michigan unless there are some pretty serious defensive breakdowns. Freshman Mike Davis has complemented Miles well, and the two have combined to create a somewhat serviceable rushing attack in Lattimore's absence.

I do see Michigan potentially having some problems on the outside with the speed of Ellington and Sanders. No. 3 receiver Damiere Byrd (12 receptions, 303 yards) is also of the shorter variety. J.T. Floyd wasn't exactly the speediest or most physical of corners, but losing an experienced player like that doesn't exactly help matters.

I feel pretty good about Raymon Taylor's ability to cope with USC's perimeter speed, but I'm having some pretty unfortunate flashbacks to that score that Courtney Avery gave up early in the Alabama game. Even more disconcerting is the notion that completely untested guys like Delonte Hollowell, Terry Richardson and the recently moved Dennis Norfleet are the next guys in when Taylor or Avery need a break. I imagine that Michigan will continue to move Thomas Gordon down to slot corner in nickel situations (with Jarrod Wilson in at safety) to mitigate the seriousness of this situation.

USC does have some taller receiving options at tight end in Rory Anderson (13 receptions, 264 yards, five touchdowns), who at 6'4'' 218 is of the Devin Funchess mold. Justice Cunningham is more of a blocking sort at 6'4'' 264 lbs., but he does have some decent receiving numbers as well (22 receptions, 287 yards).

This is obviously an amusingly simple offensive attack (amusing because of who their head coach is), one that finished with a 59:41 run-pass split on the season. Naturally, with Lattimore out, USC has to lean on Shaw a little bit more.

Arkansas was the only BCS opponent that Shaw had to face sans Lattimore (the game next week was against Wofford and Shaw missed the next game against Clemson), and he went 14/22 for 272 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. That was Arkansas, not Michigan's elite pass defense (which, yes, is certainly partially attributable to the complete lack of B1G quarterbacking talent).

Special Teams

You know the story re: Michigan's special teams. The Norfleet buzz that was born early in the season gradually dissipated as the year trudged onward. Gibbons is Gibbons (a person time traveling to the present day from 2010 would be so confused by this statement). Will Hagerup is out, which means either Matt Wile or Kenny Allen take over punting duties. Any opportunity of Michigan being able to flip the field went away with Hagerup's suspension.

Ace Sanders is one of the most dangerous punt returners in college football.

Maybe Hagerup being out is a good thing for this game...no booming punts=less space for Sanders to set up his return path? Wishful thinking, perhaps. Luckily, USC is sort of mediocre on kickoff returns. Bruce Ellington handles kickoff return duties, and is averaging 22.2 yards per return this season with a long of 50.

USC kicker Adam Yates is 11/15 on the year. He might not be Ryan Succop, but he does have a pretty good leg; he's 2/3 from 40-49 yards out and 1/2 from 50+ with a long of 51 yards.

Overall, the absence of Wile and Ace Sanders sway this phase of the game in South Carolina's favor. Michigan can only hope that this ends up being a push, because if it isn't then it's likely benefiting the Gamecocks.

Predictions of Negligible Worth

Defensively, I just don't see South Carolina tearing Michigan up. They will probably have a couple nice drives, but the key as always is making sure that those drives end in field goals. The Gamecocks likely won't try to take too many chances in the passing game either; Michigan should be ready to defend a decent amount of screens thrown to USC's army of speedy short guys. After Taylor and Avery, the situation at corner is fairly grim, but South Carolina is not a team that's going to pull a 2006 Ohio State and have their fifth best receiver try to beat our fifth best corner (at least I don't think they will).

If Michigan prevents big plays like it has done throughout all of the last two regular seasons, the defense will once again give the offense an opportunity to win the game.

For the first time, my partially ironic but mostly genuine Borges support is cut by not insignificant amounts of doubt, concern and apprehension. I can mostly forgive the Alabama performance because the Crimson Tide are simply above Michigan's level right now, but the fact remains that Borges hasn't really successfully taken apart a top notch defensive team yet at Michigan. Forget about Alabama, Notre Dame and Michigan State...Michigan had a tough time on offense through about 75% of the Northwestern game.

I don't think that Michigan comes out and gets 2011 Gator Bowl'd. I do not see USC having the raw offensive firepower to overwhelm the Wolverines; Sanders et al are the wild cards in this one. If Sanders can score on special teams or any one of the receivers can land a big play --whether on a screen or pass downfield-- Michigan is likely sunk.

The unfortunate and annoying nature of predictions is that you can only make on. I can envision Michigan winning this game. If Borges has found a way to utilize Denard in this, the final chapter of his Michigan career, then perhaps Michigan can recreate some of the offensive success Clemson had with Boyd and Ellington in the first quarter of its game against South Carolina.

Predicting an outcome is simply a matter of probability: which outcome is most probable? In this case, Al Borges having developed a fresh gameplan that capably incorporates Denard in some fashion is, sadly, not the most probable outcome. From an execution standpoint, Devin Gardner was exposed a little bit against Ohio State, and the pass rush is not going to get any more forgiving against the Gamecocks.

Simply put, I don't think Michigan can scrape together enough points to win this one, but the game should at worst be within reach, if not very close.

Score: Michigan 17, South Carolina 26.

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