Looking at the six biggest storylines, narratives, and matchups heading into this weekend's game against UMass.
1.) Is Michigan going to cruise to an easy victory?
After a season-opening defeat at the hands of Alabama and a closer-than-expected win over Air Force, it's been a struggle so far for Michigan throughout the non-conference portion of the schedule. In years past, Michigan has often had issues with playing lesser, non-BCS teams away at home during these non-conference games (including a close 42-37 win over UMass just two years ago). A comfortable win that enables the starters to spend most of the game on the bench would be a welcome reprieve from both the too-close-for-comfort wins of the past and from the issues Michigan has had thus far this year.
Fortunately, it looks like UMass will simply be overwhelmed this week. The Minutemen have lost both of their games this season to UConn and Indiana by an aggregate score of 82-6, will be playing quite a few freshmen, and have been generally uncompetitive thus far in this, their first season in the FBS (Division 1-A). UMass doesn't boast the same type of talent that they did in 2010, and of course Michigan should be better than they were the last two teams these teams played. It's not out of the realm of possibility that UMass could jump up and scare Michigan a bit, but the talent divide is vast and Michigan should be able to get out to a big lead early against the Minutemen.
2.) The offensive line's run-blocking woes.
In my "New Math" post from yesterdayI found a troubling statistic: so far this season, Michigan's running backs (Fitzgerald Toussaint, Vincent Smith, and Thomas Rawls) have combined for a total of 49 yards on 27 carries. Even though those numbers are skewed by Alabama's impressive run defense, Toussaint's lackluster performance against Air Force -- 8 carries for 7 yards -- was disconcerting, especially considering how undersized the Air Force defensive line was. Denard Robinson did rush for over 200 yards in that win over Air Force, but production from the Michigan running backs is a sorely needed aspect of this offense that has been missing so far this season. Indiana ran for 333 yards against UMass last week despite losing their starting quarterback Tre Roberson to injury. If Michigan's offensive line can't get much of a push and can't open up holes for Toussaint -- who didn't really do too badly against Air Force, he just had no room -- and Michigan's other backs, it might be time to panic.
3.) The defense needs to lock down this UMass offense.
The Minutemen have only put up six points this season. They only gained 59 yards against UConn in the season opener. They're a combined 7-33 on third down conversions. Their quarterback is only a freshman. UMass has a very bad offense, and Michigan should be more than able to dominate this game on that side of the ball. A poor showing against Alabama's cast of awesome running backs and the best offensive line in college football was predictable, but conceding over 400 yards to Air Force and consistently getting beat by the Falcons' tripe option offense was a surprise. Michigan's defensive turnaround was the most impressive thing done by the coaching staff last year, the defense just hasn't looked very good yet this year. With how poorly the UMass offense has done thus far, Michigan's defense should be able to put up an impressively dominant performance tomorrow.
4.) Denard is somewhat accurate now(?)
From MGoBlog's offensive UFR of the Air Force game:
I mean, I'm just like you guys. Wheels on the money, corner routes on the money, even one of those dinky Purdue routes in traffic squeezed in there. He stood in against pressure and shot darts out to his WRs. QBs make mistakes. There are those little frustrating moments when the guy won't just RUNNNNNNN and you're going HNNNNNNGGGG because look at all that space on third and three. But if you're trying to tell me this is not a significant leap forward, you crazy.
I completely agree with Brian on this: Denard Robinson actually has improved as a passer. The Alabama game can essentially be explained away as "Dee Milliner and friends destroy Michigan receivers, so Denard really can't throw anywhere." Against Air Force though, Denard showed better accuracy than he has shown in perhaps any other game so far in his career. Even though he won't pass very much against UMass tomorrow, some well-placed throws would be very encouraging -- hopefully this progress is real.
5.) Freshman as far as the eye can see.
If the game gets out of hand early -- and by all means, it should -- plenty of freshmen could see time against UMass. James Ross and Joe Bolden are pushing the starters at the inside linebacker positions and will play quite a bit. AJ Williams and Devin Funchess saw plenty of time at tight end last week, and likely will again. Guys like Ondre Pipkins, Mario Ojemudia, Jarrod Wilson, and Terry Richardson will get a ton of reps on defense as they try to cement their roles as contributors off of the bench. Dennis Norfleet -- who's returned kicks pretty well thus far -- should see some time at running back, which would be exciting. Even though the game might be a blowout, it will be interesting to see which young players spend a lot of time on the field and how well they'll do once they're there.
6.) Mike Cox is coming back to Ann Arbor.
Former Michigan running back Mike Cox has used the graduate student transfer rule to become immediately eligible at UMass after spending four years at Michigan. Cox wasn't able to make much of an impact during his career here, but he's coming back as a key offensive contributor for the Minutemen. Hopefully Cox is able to play well in his homecoming -- he's running behind an inexperienced offensive line but he's still a talented back. It's never common to see a former Wolverine on the opposite sideline, so it will be interesting to see Cox suiting up for someone else in the Big House.