Michigan at UConn
East Hartford, CT | 8:00PM, ABC
Enemy Blog: The UConn Blog
This week, in order to not jinx Michigan to within four yards of a painful upset against a seemingly overmatched team, the snark will be kept to a minimum. Yes, on paper it looks like Michigan should have a sizable advantage. No, I will not believe that until I see it.
Not only did Michigan struggle to put away Akron a week ago — a team that hadn't won a road game in years and strung together a series of one-win seasons — but this Saturday night Michigan will be going on the road for the first time this season. Rentschler Field isn't very big, seating just 40,000 people, but it has a pretty good repuations when things are going well, at least Robert Griffin III thinks so:
"When we played at UConn my freshman year, that was the loudest place I've ever been as a football player," Griffin continued. "The stands are right next to the field, it was packed, and everyone was yelling. That was probably the coolest place for me to play at aside from Texas, Texas A&M and Nebraska."
Its no shame for a stadium that opened a decade ago to be behind those three college football meccas.
So, the Huskies have that going for them. When you add in a rough performance from Michigan last week that exposed some flaws and proved that Devin Gardner just might not be a golden god after all, this game looks to be a bit more worrisome than it was last week at this time when most figured it was one or two notches to the right of "bye week" in terms of difficulty. As last week showed, that's why you play the games.
When Michigan has the ball
This is one of those situations where I'm not really sure how much UConn will have to do with things. Watching Michigan nearly blow the game against UConn a week ago, a few things stuck out. Devin Gardner pretty much fell apart as a passer, stalling drives with interceptions and turning the fourth quarter from an unsatisfying but mildly comfortable double digit slog to the end into a "holy shit, this is a one score game" panic-fest. Meanwhile, Michigan's run game stagnated for much of the day, leading to a handful of negative run plays and a lot of long third down attempts that Michigan simply couldn't recover from. Meanwhile, the defense bent and bent some more as quick passes and individual errors hurt the Wolverines' efforts to mount a sufficient pass rush and fluster Kyle Pohl.
Points one and three are pretty cut and dry. Point two is something a litlte more complex, as evidenced by Brian at MGoBlog's grading of the offensive line play. I'll let him explain:
We've been trying to figure out why the run game sucks so much basically since the season started, and every time I try to explain this I talk about the offensive line mostly and then go "oh by the way, Toussaint probably should have done something different." Those add up. He's turning 2 yards into -2 yards and 10 yards into 4 yards too often and not making up for it much. He's got a nice 14-yarder against ND and then yet another cutback into trouble when he had a gaping hole that he managed to turn into 22 yards by breaking a tackle and juking. That's it.
So there are really two things at work here. One: the offensive line is missing assignments and making mistakes. This is what happens when three games into the season your three interior linemen are still combining for less than ten career starts. Growing pains: not just the reason you know who Robin Thicke's dad is.
The other thing is that despite the line having problems, it seems like it isn't getting rewarded for doing things right. Watching the game the first time I thought Toussaint was the best player on the field, and that it wasn't even close. He ground out some important long runs and was getting met with a lot of defenders by the line. What I didn't notice upon first viewing was just how badly he was mis-reading some of his blocking. Cutbacks and bounces are last resorts. Toussaint seems to think that they are options 1 and 1a. When he is set up with good blocking, he isn't using it and that is leaving yards on the field.
UConn's run defense doesn't look too foreboding. After two games it is giving up 4.5 yards/carry. Both Maryland and Towson (!) have went over 200 yards in a game thus far. I talked with The UConn Blog in a Q&A yesterday, and the strength of the run defense looks to be in the middle. After reading Brian's UFR I'm not sure that matters anymore. This one is on Toussaint (and Gardner if and when the coaches see fit to let him get out and run).
Similarly, when Michigan is passing the ball, it doesn't seem like UConn will be as big a potential impediment as Devin Gardner going Akron on himself. UConn is giving up 9.8 yards/attempt in the passing game. This isn't a great pass defense, but it might not need to be.
This one is on Gardner. If he makes mistakes early and lets that affect him, things could get rough in the early going. If he settles in and doesn't try to force things, Michigan will be in good position to move the ball, even if he has one or two mistakes.
This one comes down to success on early downs. Michigan needs to get something from its run game to set up manageable second and third down conversion opportunities. Last week the Wolverines went 0-7 on third-down tries of 9+ yards and two of those plays ended in turnovers. That can't happen in this one.
When UConn has the ball
Through two games, only two UConn players have more than three rushing attempts. Lyle McCombs has 36 carries for 129 yards and a not so imposing 3.5 yards/carry average. Quarterback Chandler Whitmer has 17 for -43, although that number includes nine sacks for 65 yards. This is good news for two reasons. First, UConn hasn't had much success running the ball. Second, nine sacks in two games is b-a-n-a-n-a-s.
Michigan's run defense has been good-not-great so far this year. A lot of that has been scheme. Michigan just played two teams that wanted to pass the ball a lot on quick passes, and that pushed linebackers into more coverage, opening up some opportunities for opposing teams to run. At the same time, Michigan's early success against third-and-short runs in the Notre Dame game seemed to get into Brian Kelly's head and this is year three of Michigan looking pretty good in those situations against traditional running attacks.
So far UConn hasn't shown itself to be much of a really strong running attack, but part of that has been playing from behind in both games this year. Chandler Whitmer only went for 200 yards in the first game against Towson, but game two against Maryland, he put 349 yards up against Maryland. Although in the Maryland game Whitmer threw two interceptions.
When he is throwing the ball well, it usually goes to Shakim Phillips, who is responsible for all three of Whitmer's passing touchdowns on the season and already has 255 yards on 15 catches.
Still, Michigan has done a pretty solid job of limiting big plays when opposing quarterbacks aren't dropping fade routes into small windows over coverage (I'm looking at you Kyle Pohl). The safeties have been a relative strength of the team, and Jarrod Wilson is no longer looking to be a big liability on defense.
The biggest thing Michigan will have going for it is that the UConn offense doesn't seem to be all that consistent or capable of exploiting Michigan's weaknesses. The Huskies have converted just 9 of 31 third-down attempts this year (29%) and on UConn's four red zone trips it has come away with just one touchdown. Michigan gave up two second half touchdowns last game against Akron, but did a good job of forcing a couple long field goal attempts.
The Wolverines should be able to keep UConn's offense under wraps for the most part.
When someone is kicking the ball
This could be a problem for Michigan. Matt Wile has two straight games in which his punting performance put Michigan in a handful of bad positions. If he is still punting there is the chance that things continue to go poorly, although Hoke has a good history of calming kickers down and getting them to produce (see: Gibbons, Brendan). Kenny Allen could make an appearance as well, and he seems to have a solid leg from all reports.
Gibbons should be fine. Missing one field goal — from 45 yards no less — in the last 17 tries isn't cause for concern. Also, Dennis Norfleet continues to look tantalizingly close to breaking a return as long as he makes good decisions on what to return and what to let go.
UConn punter Cole Wagner is averaging 37.5 yards per punt, so there isn't a lot to be afraid of just yet. Freshman Brian Lemelle has two returns for two yards. Chad Christian is 3 of 3 on the year. Small sample sizes, yo.
The opportunity is here for Michigan to have an advantage in special teams, but mistakes have been a big problem thus far.
Keys to the game
- Turnovers: Last week showed what happens when a heavy favorite plays give-away. If Gardner throws three picks and fumbles again, Michigan is in trouble.
- Limit big mistakes on defense: The WOlverine defense has been doing a good job of keeping opponents out of the red zone by extending drives and forcing teams to execute the whole way down the field. UConn shouldn't be able to test this. Also, a pass rush would be nice.
- Don't make me claw my eyes out, special teams: Srsly.
Alternate Programming - A whole lotta nothing. This weekend is light on good matchups, and with Michigan playing at 8pm its worth it to take some time during the day to do the things you'd normally do that don't involve figuratively stuffing your face with football. If you are going to tune into games, North Carolina-Georgia Tech is about the only decent looking game at noon, and considering I'm saying that about a triple option team and UNC should tell you how bad things are. The second round of games does feature Tennessee-Florida and Michigan State-Notre Dame, which is great for those people that like watching teams with no offense take on, well, you get the point. Arizona State-Stanford starts at 7pm, so there's that.
Inanimate Object Threat Level: 3 - Okay, so I probably undersold Akron last week, but everyone did. UConn could provide a little more of a threat, and it is becoming clear that the biggest threat to objects within an arms reach of my seat on the couch is Michigan's tendency to implode spectacularly at inopportune times. This one should be fairly uneventful, but not completely.
Final Thoughts - Michigan shouldn't have any trouble with UConn. The Huskies feature an ineffective offense and a defense that hasn't shown much ability to consistently stop an opponent.
Will this matter? It depends on how Michigan plays. The Wolverines have struggled with turnovers and offensive consistency and instead of using last game to work some of these issues out, Michigan nearly collapsed completely. Gardner needs to tighten up, the offensive line and Fitzgerald Toussaint need to get on the same page, and the defense needs to generate some pressure on the quarterback to force mistakes. I think all of this happens, although not at the level all of us would like to see. Youth, man.
Michigan 38 - UConn 10