Michigan has yet to face the UMass Minutemen of the Football Bowl Subdivision. That’s because the last time the teams squared off, two years ago, UMass was a member of the FCS, the Football Championship Subdivision. This year, the Minutemen made the leap to the big time, and they’re still searching for their first program win amongst the big boys.
The opener was about as ugly as it gets for anyone not named Savannah State. UMass put up just 59 yards of total offense and got shut out 37-0 by UConn without even running an offensive play in Huskie territory. Last week wasn’t much better. The Minutemen found some offense and the scoreboard, but still got pounded 45-6 by Indiana.
Michigan Stadium - Ann Arbor, Mich.
Two years ago, UMass nearly shocked Michigan in the Big House, needing only an onside kick recovery to have a chance of taking the lead in the final minutes. But that was a much darker time in Michigan football when defense was virtually an afterthought. Nationally, some may think it’s becoming that way again, but games against the top team in the nation and the top rushing attack in the nation will do that to anyone.
Since the game itself will be lopsided, perhaps the biggest story this week is the return of former Michigan running back Michael Cox to Ann Arbor. Cox transfered to UMass in the offseason when his fifth year was not renewed and has become the starting running back for the Minutemen. In his four years in the maize and blue, Cox tallied 177 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries, but was never able to work his way into the starting lineup. Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown, Sam McGuffie, Michael Shaw, Vincent Smith, Fitz Toussaint, and even Stephen Hopkins all passed him by, but he worked hard consistently during his time on the team. He still maintains friendships with many of his former teammates and they’re rooting for him on every Saturday but this one.
“He’s always been a good friend of mine and I’m going to root for him every week except this one,” said Taylor Lewan. “I hope he’s successful and hopefully our defense can contain him.”
The game will likely be over by halftime, so to make things interesting, perhaps we can throw out some prop bets. Like how long will it take for UMass to sniff Michigan’s side of the 50? Or how many minutes will Denard Robinson play before giving way to Russell Bellomy and/or Devin Gardner? Or who will get Ron Kramer’s No. 87 “Legends” jersey? The list could go on, but since this is a game preview and not a Vegas book, let’s take a look at the matchups.
When UMass has the ball
UMass is quarterbacked by true freshman Mike Wegzyn who has completed 27-of-48 passes for 207 yards, no touchdowns, and one interceptions thus far. If you’re keeping score, that’s one fewer yard than Denard threw for last week and 11 fewer yards than he rushed for.
The aforementioned Cox is the running back, but has managed just 32 yards on 20 carries so far. Wegzyn is the team’s second-leading rusher with 24 yards on 11 carries, while senior Chris Burns got the start in Week 1 and practically ran backwards. Head coach Charley Molnar replaced him with Cox last week and going forward, delivering this scathing review.
“Burns’ performance last week was not what he had hoped for,” Molnar said. “For a guy who basically had the job, every rep with the starters throughout summer camp, [he] just didn’t handle some of his responsibilities like a guy who’s been around and should have.”
On the outside, UMass is led by Marken Michel who has eight receptions for 82 yards. Freshman Tajae Sharpe and junior tight end Rob Blanchflower are the only other receivers with more than two catches so far, with four and five, respectively.
The offensive line will surely be bigger than Air Force’s but nowhere near the size of Alabama’s. The Minutemen return four of five starters from last season along the line, three of which started every game in 2011. Regardless of starting experience, UMass’ offense is much more in line with an offense that defensive coordinator Greg Mattison knows how to defend, as opposed to the physically dominating Tide and wacky tough-to-defend Falcons.
The offense is an up-tempo spread attack that Molnar, who was Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach the previous two seasons, is trying to install. But like we all saw in Year 1 of Rich Rodriguez’s offense, it’s going to take some time. The Minutemen rank dead last in yards per game and scoring so far and won’t put up much of a fight against Michigan. The only benefit to the Michigan defense is that the offense will be similar to what Notre Dame will employ next week, so it essentially serves as a tuneup for the Irish.
The two defenses UMass has faced thus far were lightweights compared to what they’ll face tomorrow. It’s safe to say they’ll muster more than 59 yards of offense – this being their third game and all – but it’s going to be tough sledding. With an average of just three points and 162 total yards of offense per game, look for Michigan’s defense to hold the Minutemen to similar numbers.
When Michigan has the ball
UMass’ defensive weakness matches up with Michigan’s offensive strength. A week ago, Indiana quarterback Tre Roberson rushed for 114 yards and combined with Cameron Coffman to throw for 263 more. In one sense, it was great preparation for facing Denard Robinson this week. On the other hand, if they couldn’t stop a poor man’s version of Denard, do they have any hope of slowing down the real thing? I’d say the answer is a mixture of both. Denard will get his yards for sure, but that won’t be Al Borges’ game plan like it was against Air Force. UMass will sell out to stop Denard from beating them with his legs and Borges will look to get Fitz Toussaint going again. Don’t be surprised if Toussaint finishes with more rushing yards than Denard and Denard has a good day passing.
The Minutemen defense is led by an experienced group of linebackers, most notably senior Perry McIntyre who has a team-high 21 tackles so far. He led the team with 116 a year ago. On either side are redshirt junior Tom Brandt, the team’s third leading tackler, and sophomore Greg Hilliard, who leads the team with two tackles for loss.
The line in Molnar’s new 4-3 defense has six players returning who played in eight or more games last season. Stanley Andre isn’t one of them, but he’s fourth on the team with 10 tackles so far. Nose tackle Chaz Thompson and ends Ryan Delaire and Trey Seals round out the group. Seals has the team’s lone sack thus far while Delaire has 1.5 tackles for loss.
The secondary impressed Molnar in the offseason, but has given up 250 passing yards per game. Senior safety Darren Thellen is the ringleader with 16 tackles and a pick so far. Corners Antoine Tharpe and Randall Jette are doing their best.
Michigan won’t have much trouble moving the ball or finding the end zone. Look for Borges to get Toussaint going and work on a few things, but not open up the playbook more than needed.
The other third
The two Brandons (Levengood and Yelovich) combined to go 8-for-14 last season, but Molnar wasn’t impressed when he came in. He brought in two preferred walk-ons and a junior college transfer to compete for the job. Blake Lucas won the job, but missed his only try of the season to date. Punters Colter Johnson and Jeff Strait have split time but done a good job, averaging 43 yards per punt. UMass has had just three kickoffs so far and one has gone for a touchback, so Dennis Norfleet won’t get many opportunities to break a big return. In the return game for UMass, Jordan Broadnax is dangerous, averaging 23.7 yards per kick return, but Matt Wile has done a nice job of kicking it deep into the end zone.
Rushing Attempts: 12 – Denard will pass Billy Taylor for 7th in career rushing attempts
Michigan won’t leave this one in doubt like it did last week and the last time these two teams played. A heavy dose of Toussaint with some Denard on the side will be the recipe in the first half. Look for Denard to break another big run, have a good day passing, and give way to Russell Bellomy or Devin Gardner at some point in the second half. Greg Mattison’s defense will be enough to confuse the young UMass quarterback and hold Cox in check. Michigan will cruise.
Michigan 48 – UMass 9
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the game will be the announcement of which player gets the honor of wearing Ron Kramer’s No. 87 “Legends” jersey. Kramer played nearly every position for the Wolverines from 1954-56, namely tight end, defensive end, running back, quarterback, kicker, and receiver. He was a two-time All-American and three-time first team All-Big Ten selection. He also played basketball, leading the Wolverines in scoring twice, and ran track. He was drafted fourth overall in the 1957 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers where he played seven seasons before playing three with the Detroit Lions. He’s a member of the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and the Packers Hall of Fame.
Since Kramer was best known for his tackling ability as a defensive end, along with his blocking ability according to then-head coach Bennie Oosterbaan, the safe bet would be Craig Roh. But Roh is a senior with just 10 games remaining, and last week we saw Oosterbaan’s No. 47 go to sophomore Jake Ryan. So who else could get it? If Frank Clark hadn’t gotten into legal trouble, I’d say he’d be a candidate, but since one of the qualifications is character, he’s out. Tight end Devin Funchess is an option, but will it be given to a true freshman with two career games under his belt? If Hoke thinks he’s worthy, then I’m all for it. Otherwise, if Funchess keeps up the production he showed last week, he’ll make a name for himself in No. 19.