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Michigan 24, UConn 21: Reality Falls With A Thud

For the second week in a row, a Michigan victory against an overmatched opponent raises more questions and creates doubt.

Chris Wormley in coverage i.e. the 2013 Michigan-UConn game in a nutshell.
Chris Wormley in coverage i.e. the 2013 Michigan-UConn game in a nutshell.
Jim Rogash

For the second week in a row, the 24+ hours since the completion of a Michigan football game were marked by, first, a tremendous sigh of relief. In that vein, that sigh of relief bears with it a heavy note, a song of future danger contained underneath that sigh like a baseline of subconscious trouble.

Perhaps you paced around, like I did, with your hands on your head as UConn began its final drive with over four minutes to go and Michigan only up by three. Before that drive began, UConn QB Chandler Whitmer was just 14-for-29 on the evening, throwing for just 147 yards, which is strange to look at on that box score in retrospect. The feeling that UConn would march down the field to tie--or worse, take the lead with very little time remaining--was almost inescapable, despite the momentum Michigan had generated late in the game.

Yet, UConn's final play, a 4th and 29 from its own 33, ended up three yards short, and Michigan headed into the much-needed bye week undefeated, albeit unimpressively so. Like last week, all we can say is that yes, this was certainly better than the alternative.

However, unlike last week, which was easy to cast aside as an unfortunate blip on the radar or the manifestation of the post-Notre Dame week hangover, it's difficult to explain this one away. With Michigan down 21-7 after UConn's Ty-Meer Brown returned a Devin Gardner fumble for a touchdown on the third play of the second half, a thought crept into my head that hasn't been there for quite some time: Maybe Michigan is just not a good football team?

Now, maybe that's a little premature. Maybe Taylor Lewan is playing hurt, maybe the interior OL needs more time to become a cohesive unit, maybe UConn was not quite as bad as their record indicated (I admit this is unlikely) and maybe Michigan is more the team it was in the second half, post-Gardner fumble, than it was in the first.

If all of these things are true, which I believe they are to some extent, then maybe things will be okay. The schedule is forgiving enough that Michigan should find its way to eight wins, even if it continues to play like this; it's not like the rest of the conference has looked exceptional outside of Ohio State (and to a lesser extent Northwestern and Wisconsin, although the latter is not on the regular season schedule).

With that said, as mediocre as the Big Ten is, the level of competition will improve from what we've seen the last two weeks. Michigan will see increasingly better offensive talent from this point forward, and if Gardner continues to make the head-scratching mistakes he's made thus far, it might not matter what improvements Michigan's offense as a whole can make.

This was a UConn team missing its right tackle, a linebacker and its best receiver, Shakim Phillips, by the way.

Despite all the doom and gloom, there were some encouraging things going on in the second half, namely Fitzgerald Toussaint finishing with 120 yards rushing at 5.0 yards a pop. Also, for a guy who supposedly doesn't necessarily excel in pass coverage, Desmond Morgan's fourth quarter interception to set up the tying touchdown run was a thing of beauty. Additionally, Michigan generated four sacks on the evening, including two, finally, from Frank Clark.

Unfortunately, that's basically where the optimism ends and cold reality begins. On Saturday in Hartford, reality fell on the Wolverines with a loud, discordant thud.

The Offense

I haven't made my way through the game a second time, so this week I will actually follow through on my promise to keep these sections relatively short. Needless to say, Michigan's offense once again looked like it was stuck in the mud for over half the game.

I already mentioned Toussaint's solid numbers, so how about New No. 98? After last week's fitting QBR of 66.6, Gardner finished with a rating of 38.7 in this one, going 13-for-25 for just 111 yards at an anemic 4.4 yards per attempt (not to mention two interceptions and a fumble).

For the second week in a row, Gardner spent much of the game looking visibly rattled. On Michigan's second drive, Gardner tucked it and ran despite having seemingly open receivers downfield; Spielman suggested that Gardner was still "shell-shocked" after the interception, a telling comment so early in the game. As painful as it is to say, Gardner's confidence after his brilliant performance against Notre Dame appears to be almost completely shot, and I'm not typically one to make these sorts of emotion-based, anecdotal points.

Toussaint had some success Saturday night, but Michigan still wasn't having a whole lot of success running between the tackles. The fact that Michigan has to resort to a Gardner roll out to the perimeter on third & 1, as it did on its second drive, is a quintessential example of this reality.

I had the chance to watch the Wisconsin-Purdue game at Camp Randall on Saturday (in which the Badgers ran for 388 yards at 8.1 YPC) before the Michigan game; it is quite disheartening to see what great run blocking looks like and then watching Michigan try to cobble together an organic rushing attack (i.e. something that isn't Gardner just running around). On the heels of the Denard Robinson era, it's like Yogi Berra once said: it's deja vu all over again.

Michigan's best play still appears to be Gardner running around, on designed runs or otherwise. Unfortunately, Gardner is not Denard in that respect, even if he is in fact one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the country on the move. I readily admit that this is a completely unfair thing to say, but it was hard to watch that game without thinking what Denard's rushing total would have been against a team like UConn; because I was at that game and it is for some reason coming to mind as I write this, I get the feeling that Denard would have had an Indiana 2010-esque performance in this one.

However, Gardner's 17-yard touchdown scamper in the first quarter--plus two other carries on that drive of 14 and 11 yards--were perfect examples of what Gardner is capable of. That isn't going away as long as he's healthy, which is somewhat of a concern, as Gardner started to look a little shaken up late in the game.

On the not so bright side, after that second drive Gardner had just 17 more rushing yards the rest of the game. It's no coincidence that that offensive production all but dried up from that point until Michigan turned it on halfway through the third quarter.

In the passing game, Gardner took three sacks, all of which, from my recollection, should have been avoided. The worst of the bunch came on 2nd & 10 from the UConn 31, with Michigan driving in search of the tying score. After that seven yard loss, Gardner followed with a 15-yard run that led to the failed 4th down attempt. Again, this is a reductive point to make, but Gardner's most formidable enemy seems to be himself, as he at times simply does not get rid of the ball when he needs to do so. As far as gameday experience goes, it's worth mentioning again that Gardner is still a relatively inexperienced quarterback; nonetheless, Michigan will have a hard time beating many Big Ten teams worth writing home about if the turnover parade continues.

The Defense

Like last week, it's easy to think things were bad all around simply as a byproduct of the general tenor of the game. Michigan's defense did not play a great game, or even a particularly good one, as seemingly everyone not named Blake Countess got beat over the top at various points.

Nonetheless, Michgan's defense gave up just 14 points, with another score coming from the Gardner fumble and another on a short field after the Da'Mario Jones incident (yes, that is how I am referring to that). So, only seven of UConn's 21 points are 100 percent on the defense. Does that make you feel any better about the state of things? No, probably not, but at this point you have to seek out a silver lining here and there.

Additionally, UConn's only touchdown drive that was unaided by Michigan started at its own 44. For all of the offense's struggles, the defense has gotten the job done the last two weeks despite the ugly box scores and the nasty turn the season's macroscopic narrative has taken.

On the ground, if you remove Whitmer's seven carries for -35 yards (and one "team" carry for a loss of two), UConn rushed for 84 yards on 17 carries, which doesn't seem like much but amounted to 4.94 yards per carry. However, 38 of those yards came on three carries, for what it's worth.

UConn managed a first down on its opening drive, but the Wolverine defense went on to force four straight three-and-outs before the Huskies' first aforementioned unaided TD drive and the touchdown following the Da'Mario Jones Incident.

In the second half, Michigan's defense forced the UConn offense to go: three-and-out, missed field goal (from the Michigan 29), interception, three-and-out and turnover on downs. In short, when Michigan's offense and special teams weren't making life hard for the defense, Greg Mattison's side of the ball was getting the job done, minus some intermittently leaky play at corner.

As mentioned earlier, Michigan finally generated some pass rush again, with one early in the second quarter from Clark, another from him on UConn's final drive, and 0.5 apiece from Raymon Taylor and Jibreel Black in the third quarter and another split sack from Chris Wormley and Mario Ojemudia in the fourth. Given that UConn had already allowed Whitmer to be sacked 10 times in two games, if Michigan didn't generate any pass rush, there would have been even more rending of garments and gnashing of teeth.

Even so, the most disheartening thing seemed to be that UConn, when it started to get comfortable later into the second quarter, felt comfortable attacking Michigan downfield as opposed to your standard dinking and dunking. On the unaided TD drive, UConn's Geremy Davis scorched Courtney Avery down the right side, reeling in what appeared to be a tremendous touchdown grab (which was then overturned after a review).

However, on the very next play Whitmer hit Davis for 18 yards, with Taylor executing the "inside and in front" philosophy. Michigan sent two blitzers on the play (Bolden and Beyer, I believe), with Ross hanging out in the middle of the field just five yards off the line of scrimmage and Frank Clark sitting on the flat. The result was a wide open Davis on a little slant route, with Taylor helplessly trailing him and Jarrod Wilson fortunately making the tackle before much YAC was acquired.

Following a 12-yard run from Max DeLorenzo (his longest of the season to date), Michigan's defense held him to no gain on first & goal and Whitmer fumbled on second & goal. On third, from the 11-yard line, Michigan came out in a conservative four-high look and rushing four. Whitmer had all day to study his options, ultimately hitting walk-on tight end Spencer Parker for an 11-yard touchdown in the middle of the end zone.

Parker split Blake Countess and Joe Bolden with ease en route to the end zone; despite starting the play standing on the goal line, Thomas Gordon wasn't quick enough to get to the spot for a PBU, but this one, according to Spielman, is on Countess, who did very little to impede Parker's progress. This play wasn't quite as bad as the Akron touchdown early in the third quarter of last week's game, but the Wolverine defense made it about as easy for Whitmer and Parker to connect on this play as possible.

UConn didn't do a whole lot outside of this drive (and the drive ending in a missed field goal), but the secondary play was far from encouraging for Michigan. This does not bode well for Michigan's chances against Ohio State, Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State's Allen Robinson and possibly even Indiana's passing attack.

Special Teams

Minus the Da'Mario Jones Incident, special teams weren't much of a factor. Brendan Gibbons made up for his miss last week with the game-winning kick this time around, a 21-yarder.

Dennis Norfleet only returned two kicks, but did take one 29 yards to the Michigan 44 late in the second quarter. One of these days he'll break one, but, then again, I said that after practically every game last year too.

Matt Wile had a much better outing than last week, booting five punts for an average of 42.4 yards per and a long of 47, including one that saw UConn start a drive at its own 10 after returner Brian Lemelle fumbled.

On the other hand, UConn didn't do anything in the return game, and kicker Chad Kristen missed his lone attempt of the night.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • A ray of sunshine amid dark skies: UConn was just 1-for-11 on third down.
  • Since I'm looking for silver linings, despite the secondary's poor showing overall, Blake Countess had himself a solid evening. Countess tallied four tackles, including two tackles for loss.
  • I'm really not sure how Chris Wormley ended up in coverage (pictured at the top of this post) on UConn's touchdown following the Da'Mario Jones Incident, but he did, and the play ended exactly as you might expect.
  • While Gardner has gotten a lot of flak for his mistakes, it should be noted that he did learn from his fumble against Akron (i.e. the option play when he chose not to pitch to Toussaint). This time around, Gardner made the pitch, and Toussaint scampered down the right side before cutting it back for a 35 yard touchdown to cut the UConn lead to 21-14. The run capped an encouraging nine play, 75 yard drive that took four minutes and 23 seconds.
  • Elsewhere, I wrote that as long as Michigan avoided a turnover margin of worse than -2 (which is what it was against Akron), they wouldn't be in any real danger of losing. Well, they were -3 against UConn.
  • Taylor Lewan did not seem to have a great evening, which included getting beat for a sack in the first quarter. I've seen it mentioned elsewhere, but he might be playing hurt after getting shaken up last week against Akron.
  • Here are this week's MGoBlue "Notes"; Toussaint had the sixth 100+ yard effort of his career and his first since the 2011 Ohio State game.