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Outback Bowl preview: Michigan vs South Carolina

December 31st, 2012 by Justin Potts


[I did a Q&A for the fantastic South Carolina site Garnet and Black Attack, which you can read here. You can also read their game prediction here. Hint: they don’t pick Michigan.]

A month has passed since Michigan last set foot on the gridiron, yet the sour taste of defeat from that post-Thanksgiving Saturday has not escaped. Because of the rivalry nature of the game and the way it went down, it will continue to sting, but there’s one thing that can at least wash it down until next season: Gamecock.

Michigan is historically average in bowl games (20 wins in 42 appearances), but has won two of its last three and also won the last Outback Bowl it played in 10 years ago.

Raymond James Stadium  -  Tampa, Florida
1pm EST  -  ESPN
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South Carolina Head Coach: Steve Spurrier (8th season)
Coaching Record: 65-37 (207-77-2 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Shawn Elliott/Steve Spurrier Jr.
Defensive Coordinator: Lorenzo Ward
Returning Starters: 11 (6 offense, 5 defense)
Last Season: 11-2 (6-2)
Last Meeting: Michigan 34 – South Carolina 3 (1985)
All-time Series: Tied 1-1
Current Streak: Michigan 1

In the grand scheme of things, this game won’t have much significance for the program, win or lose, since it’s still in the process of being rebuilt, but it goes without saying that a win would give the team some momentum heading into the offseason.

Perhaps the main thing riding on the game is Denard Robinson’s legacy. The lovable, dreadlocked highlight-reel waiting to happen will long be remembered as one of the greats to ever don the maize and blue, but can he shed the perception that he can’t win big games? To go in depth on the topic is for another story, but a great performance against a great defense on the national stage would be a fitting sendoff for the man who has given the program the face of a Michigan Man through the tumultuous times.

South Carolina will be the fourth team in the AP top 11 that Michigan has faced (would be BCS Top 10 if Ohio State were eligible). Michigan lost to the other three. The Gamecocks are statistically very similar to Michigan, but lost just two games, to LSU and Florida in back-to-back weeks in October. The Gamecocks avoided playing Alabama and Texas A&M, and played a non-conference schedule of East Carolina (8-5), UAB (3-9), Wofford (9-4 FCS), and Clemson (10-2).

When South Carolina has the ball

As we showed in our First Look, South Carolina averages about a point more than Michigan and gives up about a point less. Michigan has the better rushing game by about 45 yards per game, while South Carolina has the better passing game by about 30.

One of the most interesting aspects to watch will be how Steve Spurrier utilizes his two quarterbacks. Connor Shaw was the starter for most of the season and completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 1,732 yards, 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s also the team’s third leading rusher with 339 yards, but averages just 2.8 yards per rush, sacks removed. His 173.2 passing yards per game ranked 11th in the SEC, but he avoided making mistakes for the most part. His best game of the season came against Tennessee when he threw for 356 yards and three touchdowns. His worst game was a 9-for-20, 72-yard performance against Florida.

Ace Sanders is the main offensive threat for SC (Joe Robbins, Getty Images)

The other quarterback in the equation is sophomore Dylan Thompson who started two games, against East Carolina and the season finale against Clemson. In those two, he completed 44-of-78 passes for 640 yards, six touchdowns and just one interception. He also played considerable time against Florida, completing just 8-of-20 passes for 83 yards and an interception. He’s not the runner Shaw is, but obviously has the better arm.

Shaw is accurate when given time to throw, but will either take off or throw off balance if faced with pressure. Thompson has the ability to pick Michigan’s defense apart. Spurrier has said that both will play, but what is unclear is how much of each we will see.

The running game is average at best without Marcus Lattimore who missed the final three games of the season after tearing his ACL. Lattimore had 662 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging 4.6 yards per carry through the first eight games, but the leading rusher now is senior Kenny Miles who has 358 yards on 3.6 yards per carry. Miles’ rushing totals in the three games he was the feature back mirrored his season ypc average, but if you remove the game against FCS Wofford, it dips to just 2.7. Freshman Mike Davis split time with Miles late in the season and averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 28 attempts.

The receivers are mostly little guys of the Jeremy Gallon variety. The most dangerous is Ace Sanders, a 5’8″, 175-pound slot man who has 36 receptions for 439 yards and seven touchdowns on the season. He’s coming off his best game, a six-catch, 119-yard performance against Clemson. Bruce Ellington (5’9″) leads the team in receptions (38) and yards (564) and also has six touchdowns. He had back-to-back 100-yard games against Tennessee and Arkansas. Lattimore had the third-most receptions on the team prior to going down, while Miles has 16, 10 of which came in the final three games. Tight end Rory Anderson is third on the team with five touchdowns, though he has caught just 13 passes, while fellow tight end Justice Cunningham has 22 receptions for 287 yards.

The offensive line is ok but not great. They are big and athletic, averaging about 320 pounds, and are built to manhandle defensive linemen. But they have allowed 35 sacks on the season and haven’t given the Gamecocks much of a rush offense once Lattimore went down. Unfortunately for Michigan, the Wolverines have recorded just 19 sacks all season and may not be able to take advantage of this weakness.

Look for Carolina to try to force Michigan to stop the run at first, to see if Michigan’s defensive line can stop an SEC rushing game. Also expect the old ball coach to let Thompson try to pick apart the Michigan secondary with an underneath passing game, getting the ball to playmakers in space. Also, expect them to test Courtney Avery often, who is filling in for the suspended J.T. Floyd.

Devin Gardner will have to be decisive with Jadeveon Clowney coming after him

When Michigan has the ball

Defensively, SC has the better rush defense and Michigan has the better pass defense and Michigan gives up an average of just one fewer total yards per game. Both defenses hold opponents to 36 percent third-down conversion rate.

All of the talk heading into the game centers around the matchup between Michigan All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan and SC’s All-American defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney led the nation 13 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss and is already talking about contending for the Heisman Trophy next season. He’s the type of freak athlete that NFL teams will love to get their hands on when he enters the NFL Draft following the 2013 season. A lot of pressure will be on Lewan to hold him in check, which virtually no one has been able to do all season, and keep the combination of Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner upright.

But Clowney isn’t the only good player the Gamecocks have on defense. The other end, Devin Taylor, has three sacks and eight tackles for loss and is a good athlete. The interior is merely average, although Michigan’s interior offensive line is just average as well, which will negate any advantage in the interior run game.

The linebackers, led by senior middle linebacker Reggie Bowens, are solid. DeVonte Holloman is a playmaker at the Spur position and free safety D.J. Swearinger is good in run support. The rest of the secondary is made up of aggressive ball hawks that are good cover men, but tend to try to make the big play or strip the ball rather than make the tackle, which leads to extra yards.

For Michigan’s offense to have any success at all, it’s going to have to feature the creativity that Al Borges displayed in the Iowa game. Michigan isn’t going to be able to line up and run right at the Gamecocks or simply rely on Gardner dropping back to pass often. He’ll have Cloweny or Taylor in his face all day. Denard is going to have to line up all over the field and be used in several different ways, both as a playmaker and a decoy. Most importantly, Borges has to show, or at least make the defense believe that Denard can and will pass the ball anytime he has it in his hands. That wasn’t the case against Ohio State and the Buckeyes shut him down in the second half.

The other third

Rushing Attempts: 19 – Denard will pass Butch Woolfolk for 6th in career rushing attempts.
Rushing Yards: 78 – Denard will pass Anthony Thomas for 2nd in career rushing yards. With 88, he will pass West Virginia’s Pat White (2005-08) for the NCAA FBS record for career rushing yards by a quarterback.
Rushing Touchdowns: 1 – Denard will pass Mike Hart for 3rd in career rushing touchdowns.
100 rushing yards: Denard will tie Tyrone Wheatley for 3rd in career 100-yard rushing games.
Pass Completions: 17 – Denard will pass Tom Brady for 5th in career completions.
Pass Yards: 211 – Denard will pass Elvis Grbac for 3rd in career passing yards.
Receiving Yards: 8 – Roy Roundtree will pass Tai Streets for 6th in career receiving yards. With 34 he will pass Mario Manningham for 5th. With 41 he will pass David Terrell for 4th.
Field Goals: 1 – Brendan Gibbons will pass Bob Bergeron for 6th in career field goals made. With 2 he will tie Ali Haji-Sheikh for 5th.

Kicker Adam Yates made 11 of 15 attempts with a long of 51. He also had two blocked. Punter Tyler Hull averaged just 39.4 yards per punt, which ranked last in the SEC. Where the Gamecocks are dangerous is on punt returns. Ace Sanders ranks fourth nationally with an average of 14.5 yards per punt return. By comparison, Gallong averages just 5.5. Sanders returned one for a touchdown and is capable of doing so at any time. Ellington is the kick returner and is merely average at 22.2 yards per.

Prediction

The outcome of this game rests squarely on Borges and his ability to find enough offensive creativity to negate Clowney. The good thing is he had five weeks to gameplan and practice with Denard in various packages and formations, as opposed to trying to throw him in during a normal game week. Denard should be much more familiar with the offense from a variety of spots than he was against Iowa or Ohio State. I think this gives Michigan an advantage over South Carolina because the Gamecocks really don’t know how Borges will utilize Denard. It’s not like they have 12 games worth of tape to study.

There won’t be much scoring in this one and. Expect a similar score as last year’s Sugar Bowl. Borges’ offense may work well early in the game, giving Michigan hope, but it will be important to sustain it as Carolina adjusts. If Lewan and Michael Schofield can’t keep Clowney and Taylor out of the backfield, it could be a long day for Michigan.

Defensively, there likely won’t be many big plays given up as SC will run right at Michigan and dink and dunk underneath. Aside from the Lewan-Clowney matchup, the Spurrier-Greg Mattison matchup will be very intriguing as both are considere masterminds on their respective side of the ball. Will Mattison be able to adjust to a multiple quarterback offense?

Overall, it will be a close game with neither team pulling away, but short of Michigan executing flawlessly on offense, it’s hard to see the Wolverines pulling it out. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

South Carolina 24 – Michigan 20