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Michigan vs. UMass Preview

Welcome to the big league, boys.  Mark L. Baer-US PRESSWIRE
Welcome to the big league, boys. Mark L. Baer-US PRESSWIRE

(17) Michigan (1-1) vs. Massachusetts (0-2); 3:30pm, September 15th; Ann Arbor, MI

Previous opponents: Loss vs UConn, 0-37; Loss vs. Indiana, 6-45

Quick, check the calendar to see what year these teams are playing. Is it 2010? No?

Okay, then we're good.

If, somehow we traveled back in time to the year 2010, you probably wouldn't be worried -- at least before the game. It was, after all, an FCS team coming to Ann Arbor. And hell, a loss like that is just like once in a lifetime, right?

Well, you would have been right, but you also would have walked away from that 2010 matchup with a bad taste in your mouth and a foreboding sense of just what horror awaited you once Big Ten season started. You would have been right about that too.

Needless to say, with UMass walking into Ann Arbor this time it is just as easy to be confident. Michigan may be having some problems, but that was against Alabama (the best team in the country) and Air Force (a tough team to prepare for because of the triple option). This is a team that is on the wrong side of a combined scoring margin of 82-6 and is just two games into an FBS existence.

So yeah, if things turn out like 2010, you can just go ahead and start drinking, because that foreboding feeling will be back in full force, and it won't go away.

Luckily, this one should go according to plan.

When UMass has the Ball

They probably won't score.

I'm just being honest. Thus far this season UMass has been downright terrible on offense, and that is against two teams that aren't known for being defensive powerhouses. Against Indiana last week the Minutemen only managed 264 yards of offense with one touchdown. This was a night and day improvement over the previous game against UConn where the Minutemen gained just 59 yards and three first downs. So yes, we aren't talking about a powerful offense.

Most tuned in Michigan fans will immediately recognize one name on the UMass roster: Mike Cox. Cox was seemingly always the most exciting player in the spring game during his career at Michigan, but never found a way to turn that into anything more than a few garbage time carries against bad teams.

Cox has since transferred to UMass for his final year of eligibility after graduating from Michigan, and has taken hold of the primary running back spot in the offense. This hasn't turned into much statistically -- mostly thanks to his five carries for negative four yards against UConn -- but Michigan fans do know that Cox is an impressive athlete. However, the problems that plagued him at Michigan are no doubt still there, so while he has the athletic ability to make trouble for Michigan's defense, the rest of his game probably won't be enough. That being said, UMass isn't afraid to try him in the wildcat to showcase his athleticism. Behind him is Chris Burns, who actually led all backs against UConn with 11 carries for 17 yards but didn't play against Indiana.

The offensive line has a great deal of experience returning with four starters back and three seniors poised to start, and it is a formidable group with most of the linemen on the roster weighing in at over 300lbs. It wouldn't be shocking to see Michigan's defensive line have trouble in this matchup as the coaches experiment with different looks to try to find the most effective combination of players.

The passing game has a lot of young potential, but not a lot of production yet. So far this year two freshmen, Mike Wegzyn and A.J. Doyle, have gotten time under center for UMass. Wegzyn earned the starting job and threw for 150 yards on a nearly 70 percent completion rate against Indiana, but Doyle has gotten time in both games. Wegzyn seems to be more of a rushing threat, as he tallied 32 yards on seven carries a week ago, but neither is much of a big play threat on the ground.

The receiving group was a question mark coming into the season as the Minutemen lost the top five receivers from last year's team to graduation, but there has been some solid production here thus far.

Tight end Rob Blanchflower has been a solid outlet option with five catches in two games, but the headliner of the group already seems to be Marken Michel. The 5'10, 185lbs. sophomore from Florida already has eight receptions for 82 yards in two games and is the leading receiver for the Minutemen. Tajae Sharpe also has receptions in both games for a total of four. The jury is very much out on this group.

The Outlook

I have a hard time picturing Michigan dominating the Minutemen like I think we all think they should, but that doesn't mean that the Wolverines can't find some success. Michigan will also most likely use this opportunity to get some playing time for the very young members of Michigan's defensive two-deep. This is the time to get James Ross, Joe Bolden, Ondre Pipkins, and Jarrod Wilson a lot of game reps.

With that in mind I wouldn't be surprised if UMass put up around 100 rush yards and 300 yards of total offense. As Michigan tries its best to get some playing time for the younger members of the team, mistakes will happen. However, I can't imagine that UMass will end up within three touchdowns, and Michigan's defense should be able to make some very good plays to constantly end drives before or just inside Michigan territory.

Advantage: Michigan

When Michigan has the Ball

It will score. A lot.

Michigan's offense hasn't had a whole lot of luck thus far this season. The Alabama game was marked by a comedy of errors and the Air Force game cast serious doubt on the Michigan offensive line as Fitzgerald Toussaint returned to the lineup in time to find no daylight.

Still, Michigan comes in with Denard Robinson. That, ladies and gentlemen is your offensive preview.

But wait, there's more -- this is a full game preview, after all. UMass is currently switching back to the 4-3 after a year spent as a 3-4 team under the previous coaching staff. Yes, both "switching defense" and "previous staff" should make you well aware of how well UMass fared in the 3-4 thanks to our own experience with "switching defense" and a "previous staff". Thankfully for UMass it was such a quick transition so the defense should move back without a lot of growing pains.

Along the line, ends Trey Seals and Ryan Delaire have been the most productive getting into the backfield, but the team as a whole only has 7.0 TFLs and one sack to its name thus far, and the starters at the position are Kevin Byrne -- returning from eight starts a year ago -- and Stanley Andre who has no significant experience before this season. Charles Thompson returns in the middle to hold down the nose tackle job, and next to him will be Galen Clemons, who played in a reserve role in 2011. The line isn't huge, but Byrne is 290lbs., Thompson is 282lbs., and Clemons is 275lbs, so this won't be like playing Air Force again. Whether that is good or bad is still up for debate.

The linebackers will be led by senior Perry McIntyre, a terror from a year ago that was the Minutemen's most destructive player with 11.5 TFLs and six sacks. Next to him are two players new to the starting lineup. Tim Brandt is a redshirt junior that spent last year playing in a backup role. Sophomore Greg Hilliard played in ten games a year ago. Both outside linebackers are on the smaller side (Hilliard is 205lbs. and Brandt is 212lbs.) which could help Michigan in establishing a run game.

Antoine Tharpe returns at corner after starting most of last season, and he is joined by redshirt freshman Randall Jette. However, the linchpin of this Minutemen secondary is Darren Thellen, a 6'2, 207lbs. redshirt senior and fourth year starter at free safety. He is as good of a last resort as you will find on a mid-major team, and he should help limit Michigan's big plays to an extent. The Minutemen are still looking for a starter at strong safety as both redshirt freshman Iric Harris and true freshman Joe Colton have gotten one start in the first two games.

The Outlook

This isn't a particularly experienced defense, as a number of starters and contributors are first and second year players or new to contributing roles, but guys like McIntyre and Thellen should keep the rest of this defense together and producing at a solid clip.

Still, MIchigan has the advantage at quarterback and running back. If the receivers continue to play well and the offensive line rounds into form, there is no reason that Michigan should struggle on offense in this one.

Advantage: Michigan

When Someone is Kicking the Ball

We know what Michigan has. Will Hagerup is back to kicking the stuffing out of the ball, Brendan Gibbons is a dependable field goal kicker, and Matt Wile is going to put every kickoff through the uprights. Other than Jeremy Gallon reverting to his old form in the punt return game, things are pretty solid. The big X-factor is whether or not Dennis Norfleet can further capture all of our hearts with a kickoff return touchdown.

Blake Lucas handled kicking duties for the Minutemen a week ago. He missed both his kicks -- a field goal and an extra point. As for punting, Jeff Strait handled punting in the first game (nine punts, 42 yards per punt) and Colter Johnson punted in the second (ten punts, 44 yards per punt). Jordan Broadnax has taken the lions share of return duties -- kickoffs, because the other team scores a lot -- and done very little with the opportunity.

This one should be an advantage for Michigan barring any huge mistakes.

Advantage: Michigan

Other Stuff

Key Matchups

  • The offensive line vs. all of our worst fears - Thus far Michigan's offensive line hasn't done a whole lot to inspire confidence. If Michigan can't come out against UMass and consistently reestablish the line of scrimmage, the worry and chatter is only going to pick up in the week before Notre Dame.
  • Freshmen linebackers vs. playing time - After last week you can be sure that Michigan is going to lean heavily on James Ross and Joe Bolden at linebacker to try and get the two more experience for Notre Dame and the impending Big Ten season.
  • Denard vs. a slow start - Michigan needs to come out early and set the tone for this game, and there is no better way to do that than for Denard Robinson to put together a great first quarter and give Michigan a big lead early.

Alternate Programming: The afternoon slate of games is not strong, but if you enjoy watching pain and suffering, check out Navy at Penn State. Northwestern also looks to continue its solid start to the season with a game against Boston College. Finally, watch Alabama at Arkansas because with John L. Smith and Nick Saban in the same stadium, you know things are going to get interesting.

Inanimate Object Threat Level: Two. Michigan should win this one with ease. My remote can rest easy for a week.

Final Prediction:

- Denard Robinson hits the bench in the second quarter after totaling three touchdowns and 200 total yards.

- Devin Gardner is not the first quarterback off the bench, and doesn't see any time under center until the game is already well in hand in the fourth quarter.

- Fitzgerald Toussaint finally looks right, averaging over 6.0 ypc. Thomas Rawls ends up leading the team in rushing with nearly 100 yards -- mostly gained in the second and third quarter.

- Demens and Morgan start, but Bolden and Ross play the vast majority of the game.

- We still have questions about the defensive line after this game.

Michigan should be able to pull away from the Minutemen early. This is a team trying to claw its way up to be an FBS level team, but the transition is far from over. The Wolverines will have the game well in hand at halftime, UMass manages a couple inconsequential scores, and Michigan walks away with a 45-10 win.