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Posts Tagged ‘Blake Countess’

Predicting Michigan 2015: The secondary

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015


PredictingMichigan-Secondary

Jabrill Peppers(Leon Halip, Getty Images)

Previously: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers

The unit with the most room to improve on Michigan’s defense under Jim Harbaugh is the secondary, which has been a weakness over the past few seasons. With the departure of both preseason starting cornerbacks from last season, Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor, there’s room for new guys to step in and make some noise under the new regime.

Luckily, there’s plenty of depth at both cornerback and safety for the Wolverines. A few younger players stepped in and played heightened roles during the 2014 season and figure to hold the reins heading into Week 1 against Utah.

Here’s a look at how the secondary will line up.

Probable starters

Jourdan-Lewis-vs-Miami-OH

Jourdan Lewis looks to build on a breakout season in 2014 (MGoBlue.com)

While the cornerback group might not have the depth of the safeties on paper, two rock solid starters should give Michigan a big lift against the pass. Jourdan Lewis was clearly the defense’s most improved player last season and burst onto the scene as the most consistent cornerback on the roster. Lewis has elite speed to go along with good hands and instincts, and by the end of the season he was matching up with opposing No. 1 wide receivers.

Lewis started seven games and picked up 39 tackles and two picks. He was Michigan’s best defense against downfield passes and broke up six passes. If he can build on his fabulous sophomore season, he’ll be the leader in the Michigan secondary.

Across from Lewis will be Stanford transfer Wayne Lyons, who played parts of four seasons for the Cardinal. Lyons injured his foot after two games as a freshman, qualifying for a medical redshirt and allowing him to transfer to Michigan as a graduate student.

Lyons enjoyed a decorated career at Stanford, playing 41 games at cornerback and appearing on the Lott IMPACT Trophy watch list prior to the 2014 season. He picked up 30 tackles as a senior and broke up three passes. He recorded 4.5 tackles for loss, forced two fumbles, and picked off two passes as a junior in 2013.

Lyons was recruited by Harbaugh in 2011 when he committed to Stanford and will rejoin his coach in Ann Arbor for his final college season. Lyons will likely win a starting job after Countess decided to transfer for his final season.

Harbaugh and his staff have a handful of options at secondary, though one of the starters will certainly be the dynamic Jabrill Peppers. Peppers, the best pure athlete on the team, was moved to safety this offseason after struggling to stay healthy as a true freshman. He played in only three games and recorded eight tackles, but the flashes of his ability have Michigan fans eager for his true coming out party.

Peppers joined Michigan as a five-star recruit who dominated his senior season at Paramus Catholic High School under Coach Chris Partridge. Peppers was a star on offense and defense in high school, but was recruited as a defensive back. In two years at Paramus Catholic, Peppers picked up 134 tackles, seven picks, and two sacks.

If Peppers stays healthy, he’ll likely be the best player on the Michigan defense.

At free safety, Jarrod Wilson returns from a fine junior season in which he recorded 50 tackles and two pass break-ups. At 6-foot-2, Wilson has size to go with his quickness and his ball skills have gotten better throughout his career. Wilson was huge for Michigan last season with the struggles at corner. If the Wolverines improve in front of Wilson this season, he’ll have more reign to force turnovers and break up passes.

Projected Stats – Lewis
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
40 2.0 4
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
25 42 14 56 0.0 1.5 0 8 2
Projected Stats – Lyons
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
45 2.0 3
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
43 81 46 127 0.0 4.5 3 7 3
Projected Stats – Peppers
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
50 3.0 4
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
3 6 2 8 0.0 0.0 0 0 0
Projected Stats – Wilson
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
40 1.0 2
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
36 56 52 108 0.0 3.0 1 4 2

Returning contributors

Michigan returns only one other cornerback who played a major role during 2014, Channing Stribling. Stribling played 10 games as a backup corner last season, making seven tackles. He has been a decent rotational guy in two college seasons, but will be asked to play a larger role as an upperclassman. Stribling is tall for a cornerback and is fast enough to stick with Big Ten receivers. His playmaking ability isn’t up to par with the likes of Lewis or Lyons, but he can hold his own.

Safety is a different story for Michigan in terms of depth. Delano Hill started five games for Michigan last season and made 21 tackles. He’s only six feet tall, but Hill is a great tackler and stands out as a security blanket downfield. Hill’s value lies in his versatility. He was used to cover both receivers and tight ends in 2014 and has a good nose for the ball. He’ll be on the field for a ton of snaps this season.

Right there with Hill is redshirt junior Jeremy Clark, who played in 11 games and made 18 tackles in 2014. Clark is huge for a safety – 6-foot-4 – and shares strengths with Hill. He’s a great tackler, a hard hitter and has good speed for his size. Clark is strong in the run-stopping game as a safety and can match up with any position player on the offense.

Dymonte Thomas also played a big role in 2014, playing in 10 games and making 27 tackles. He’s got the highest ceiling in this group of defensive backs after coming to Michigan as a five-star recruit. Thomas is fast and athletic, which allows him to stay with receivers downfield and play physical with ball carriers in front of him.

Hill, Clark, and Thomas give Michigan a ton of depth at safety and lift much of the weight off the cornerbacks’ shoulders. A.J. Pearson is another name to watch in the rotation, though he didn’t get much time last season. He could fill in anywhere in the secondary.

Projected Stats – Stribling
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
25 0.0 1
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
23 20 3 23 0.0 0.5 1 0 0
Projected Stats – Hill
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
22 0.0 1
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
20 14 7 21 0.0 0.0 0 0 0
Projected Stats – Clark
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
20 1.5 0
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
19 10 8 18 0.0 0.0 0 1 0
Projected Stats – Thomas
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
25 1.0 1
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
23 24 10 34 0.0 0.0 1 0 0

New faces

Michigan brought in two new cornerbacks this spring, led by Alabama native Keith Washington. Washington is defined by his elite speed in the secondary and will use it to make plays on the ball. If Washington can stick with receivers at the college level, he’ll be a dangerous corner when the ball is thrown to his side of the field.

Tyree Kinnel comes out of high school with just as much upside as Washington, though he doesn’t possess his elite speed. Kinnel is a sound tackler and can defend both the run and the pass.

Both true freshmen will get a chance to earn playing time in 2015, as Michigan’s cornerback group isn’t as deep as others. They’ll have to prove they can effectively cover Big Ten-caliber receivers to get a chance.

Meet the rest

Terry Richardson – senior, 5’9″, 174 from Detroit, Mich. (Cass Tech), 14 career games played
Travis Wooley – senior, 6’0″, 195 from Sault Sainte Marie, Mich. (Sault Area), no career stats
Matt Mitchell – sophomore, 5’10”, 179 from Dexter, Mich. (Dexter), no career stats
Brandon Watson – sophomore, 5’11”, 189 from Wilmington, Del (Eastern Christian Academy), no career stats
Reon Dawson – junior, 6’2″, 175 from from Trotwood, Ohio (Trotwood-Madison), no career stats
Francois Montbrun – junior, 5’10”, 183 from Ishpeming, Mich. (Westwood), no career stats
Anthony Dalimonte – junior, 5’9″, 176 from Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (Brother Rice), no career stats
Shaun Austin – senior, 6’1″, 202 from Plymouth, Mich. (Plymouth), no career stats

New in Blue: Stanford CB transfer Wayne Lyons

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015


Wayne Lyons

Wayne Lyons – CB | 6-1, 193 | Fort Lauderdale, Fla. – Dillard (Stanford University)
ESPN: 4-star, #7 Saf, 81 grade Rivals: 4-star, #6 Saf 247: 4-star, #4 Saf Scout: 4-star, #8 Saf
Other top offers: Stanford, Nebraska, UCLA, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Florida
*Class of 2011

Wayne Lyons became the second transfer to sign with Michigan since signing day Tuesday, joining D.J. Durkin’s defense as a fifth-year cornerback. Lyons spent the last four years at Stanford University, playing 41 games from 2012-2014 after his freshman season was cut short due to a broken foot.

Lyons’ calling card is his athleticism. He played both linebacker and cornerback in high school, so his tackling and ball-hawking skills help him stay with bigger receivers. He also ran track and specialized in hurdles, giving Michigan a dangerous speed combination to go with Jourdan Lewis.

Lyons picked up 30 tackles in 13 games last season, breaking up three passes and forcing a fumble. He recorded 69 tackles as a redshirt sophomore in 2013.

As a four-star recruit, Lyons was a top-10 cornerback out of Florida. He joins a Michigan secondary that lost starting cornerback Raymon Taylor to graduation and returns 2014 standout Lewis, senior Blake Countess, and gets mega-hyped Jabrill Peppers back from injury.

M&GB season preview roundtable

Friday, August 22nd, 2014


Roundtable-banner

It has become our tradition at the beginning of each season to preview the upcoming season via a staff roundtable. We answer several questions with our predictions and expectations for what the season will bring. Drew has moved on, but we still have Justin, Sam, Derick, and Josh. We also invited our partner at MmmGoBluBBQ, Joe, to join us for the roundtable. We also invite you to give your answers in the comments below. Tell us what you agree with or disagree with. Next week we will begin our game week coverage.

What are you most excited about this season?

Justin: I’m most excited about what should be a very good defense. With so much talent and experience returning, it should be one of the top defenses in the Big Ten and may have to carry the team, at least in the early going. The best Michigan teams in recent history have featured stifling defenses — most notably 1997 and 2006 — and I think I can speak for most Michigan fans when I say I miss the days of Michigan having a dominating defense. It’s a major stretch to say this year’s unit could be as good as the 1997 one, but anywhere close would make for a very good season.

Michigan's defense won't be as good as the 1997 version, but it is one to be excited about

Michigan’s defense won’t be as good as the 1997 version, but it is one to be excited about

With most of the big questions on the offensive side of the ball, the defense is going to need to be very good, and if it is we have two recent examples that could foreshadow the upcoming season: Notre Dame in 2012 and Michigan State in 2013. Notre Dame’s offense ranked 80th nationally in scoring, 38th in rushing, and 72nd in passing that year but still made it to the national title game thanks to its defense. Last season, Michigan State’s offense ranked 63rd in scoring, 59th in rushing, and 84th in passing but still won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl thanks to its defense. I’m excited for the possibility that Michigan’s defense, which should be more aggressive this fall, could carry the Wolverines to a special season.

Sam: I’m most excited about…football! After last year’s dreadful, seemingly never-ending season, I never thought I’d be so excited to see the Maize and Blue on the field just a season later, but I suppose hope reigns eternal right now. As far specific excitement about this team goes, I am really looking forward to seeing the whole defense working to live up to its enormous expectations. Every single position has an extremely strong two-deep, and every unit has at least one potential game-changer. With names like Frank Clark, Jake Ryan, James Ross III, and Jabrill Peppers, there’s no telling how good this defense could be. A consistent pass rush could mean a top-10 or even top-five defense nationally.

Derick: The most exciting storyline has to be the beginning of Jabrill Peppers‘ career in Ann Arbor. The No. 2 overall recruit has a chance to be a difference maker on defense and revive a kick return game that has been dormant since Steve Breaston left Michigan.

Josh: The defense and its personnel and scheme changes. I’d much rather see an aggressive, menacing defense with an average offense than an average defense with a high octane/high scoring offense. Luckily for Michigan it appears as though we just might get that menacing defense in 2014. That is something to be very excited about after we had to watch last year’s ‘bend but don’t break’ defense sit back and give up big gain after big gain.

Joe: I have a feeling that Coach Nussmeier will focus on building a strong run game with Green and Smith and help control the ball a little more than in recent years. Michigan has the horses to build an above avg. run game with these 2 and it will be fun to see if we can get back to a little smash mouth football at the big house. I’m also looking forward to some great BBQ on “Tailgate Tuesdays”.

What worries you most entering the season?

Justin: Okay, so this question is pretty rhetorical this year. The offensive line has to be the answer after last year’s meltdown and the loss of Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. If it’s as bad as last season, even a high-caliber defense won’t save the team. But I really don’t think it will be. Do I expect it to be a mauling, classic Michigan offensive line? Absolutely not. But I do think it will be more cohesive than last season and more sound with a simplified playbook. Even so, until we see it in action, the worry is there.

The huge question obviously lies with Erik Magnuson and the rest of the line (Matthew O'Haren, USA Today Sports)

The huge question obviously lies with Erik Magnuson and the rest of the line (Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

Sam: If anyone’s biggest concern at this point is not the offensive line, he or she may want a quick crash course in foot-ball (American style). I can say with a straight face that Michigan has some sort of chance of having a First Team All-Conference player at every single position on the field (yes, this is still optimistic, but it’s at least feasible in some universe) besides the offensive line, where Michigan may not have a single Third Team-caliber performer, feasibly. The line is replacing two senior tackles who will most likely start one day in the NFL; even with those stars, Michigan’s big uglies up front last year were atrocious. Most people have been taking the glass-half-full approach in saying that there’s no way it can get any worse; it’s hard for me to look at the names on paper and wonder how in the world it could get any better.

Derick: After watching the spring game and the ‘Under the Lights’ scrimmage, how can the offensive line not be the No. 1 concern? Michigan’s defensive line was average for much of 2013, but looked like an elite unit against their offensive teammates. If Doug Nussmeier can’t improve this group, it won’t matter how much Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith have progressed.

Josh: The entire offense. They say that on defense 10 guys can fail as long as one guy makes the play. But on offense 10 guys can be doing their job and if one fails, then the play is lost. While the o-line clearly needs to be a cohesive unit that plays well, it’s not all on them and there are too many variables to work out before they can be a solid unit. Devin Gardner needs to be consistent and the running backs (whomever they may be) need to run with vision and be decisive. I see Michigan in a similar situation as Michigan State was coming into 2013; a potentially great defense that would be enough to carry them but no identity on offense. Last year the defense played well but faded late in the season as it was completely worn down after carrying the offense all year and it really showed in losses to Ohio State and Kansas State I fear we’ll see more of the same this year.

Joe: The offensive line is a HUGE concern due to the loss of both Schofield and Lewan. It wasn’t exactly a strong point last year and now it looks even more troubling. This group needs to gel quickly and improve on the “tackles for loss” that plagued them last year. 114 is way too many!

Who will be the breakout player on offense?

Justin: I would absolutely love to look into the crystal ball and pick a lineman that breaks out and puts together an all-conference season, and while it’s certainly possible, it’s impossible to predict. I also think Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith will split the workload, keeping either from truly breaking out. Therefore, it has to be a pass-catcher, and I’m going to go with Jake Butt. He’s out for the first couple of games at least, but is progressing very well in his return form a torn ACL. We got a taste of what he’s capable of last season — 20 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns — and once he returns, he could put up some solid numbers.

We all know Devin Funchess will be the go-to receiver for Devin Gardner, but he’s going to have to find others to distribute the ball to so opposing defenses can’t simply game plan Funchess out. It’s very likely that either Jehu Chesson or Amara Darboh breaks onto the scene, but as a tight end, I see Butt becoming a crutch for Gardner. Butt fits right into Nussmeier’s offensive system and could be primed for a big season as long as he fully recovers from his injury.

Sam: This one is pretty easy for me. I don’t think the offensive line is going to be good enough for Michigan to have a star running back, so I immediately look to the outside. There I find Amara Darboh, a gentlemanly sized 6’2″, 211-pound redshirt sophomore wide receiver who was held out all of last season with a foot injury. Devin Funchess is the closest thing the Wolverines have to a sure thing this year, so Darboh should have plenty of opportunities to take advantage of cheating defenses, and his nice hands, solid size, and football IQ should make him a favorite of Devin Gardner.

Derick: Freddy Canteen will probably have one of the greatest impacts on the offense, but I think Devin Gardner will be the breakout player. Gardner struggled for much of the 2013 season, but pressure from the defense and a non-existent rushing attack made his job much harder. A healthy Gardner should take advantage of a deeper receiving core and become the quarterback fans saw for a few games at the end of 2012.

Josh: I’m really down on the offense heading into this season. True, I’m not in Schembechler Hall, but nothing I’ve seen or read since last season has given me any indication that this offense will be any better than last year’s. A simplified system and zone blocking schemes will help but they haven’t had much time with Nussmeier and development takes time and many reps. Plus the mere fact that a TRUE freshman is in line to start at left tackle tells me that this line is still in shambles and that could derail the entire offense, again. That said, I think Jake Butt (once he returns) is prime for a breakout season. I foresee Gardner looking for a safety valve as he runs for his life behind an inept line and Butt should be that safety valve. We saw glimpses of what Butt could do late in 2013 and I expect him to pick up where he left off.

Joe: I am hoping that an in shape and focused Derrick Green turns into the five-star tailback we recruited two years ago. If he can pound the ball and help control the clock, this offense can put up some big numbers. An effective Green would free up some young receivers and an elite Funchess down field.

Who will be the breakout player on defense?

Justin: Yeah, it’s a pretty generic answer that I’m sure others will give, but I’m going with Jourdan Lewis. The hype coming out of the spring and fall camp is too much to ignore. The coaching staff has talked about being more aggressive defensively, and Lewis fits that mold at corner. If he truly has beaten out either experienced corners like Raymon Taylor or Blake Countess, he’s earned it and it will only make the secondary better.

Can Jourdan Lewis live up to the hype he has garnered throughout the offseason?

Can Jourdan Lewis live up to the hype he has garnered throughout the offseason?

Sam: Defensive breakout players are a little bit harder for me to predict, and I admittedly don’t even know who would rightfully qualify as a “breakout” player this year. Would a senior Frank Clark, who has been solid but never great, qualify? How about a junior linebacker who has been playing plenty of snaps for two full seasons? I’ll assume I’d get picked on for taking either of those guys, so let me go with Jourdan Lewis, a 5’10”, 175-pound sophomore cornerback from Cass Tech. If preseason reports and practices are to be believed, it seems that Lewis has managed to wrestle away a starting spot from either senior Raymon Taylor or redshirt junior Blake Countess, both of whom were pretty solid contributors a season ago. The coaches have been emphasizing increased physicality and aggressiveness on defense, particularly from the cornerbacks, which fits right into Lewis’s strengths. If he indeed plays the first snap on defense against Appalachian State next week, Jourdan Lewis must have something going for him.

Derick: It has to be Jabrill Peppers. If he can’t contribute in the secondary then Michigan will be vulnerable to the pass all season, since Blake Countess is the only proven cornerback that can cover Big Ten recievers.

Josh: Jourdan Lewis, and it’s not even close. Yes, I do think Jabrill Peppers will show us why he was one of the best incoming recruits in recent memory but my money is on Lewis to really make massive strides from last season. He got his feet wet last year while relying on great athletic ability but now he has the technique and mental aspect to add to it. I fully expect him to be an All-Big Ten performer, and one of the best defenders in the conference, by season’s end.

Joe: Can I say Jake Ryan as my breakout player? I know he is a team captain and a stud at linebacker, but after missing five games last year due to a torn ACL, he will shine all season if healthy. He is a must for this team to keep pace defensively.

Michigan will win the Big Ten if…

Justin: The offensive line improves to simply average and the defense is as good as advertised. The defense will have to carry the team early on while the offense finds its feet, but I truly believe this is a team that has a lot of potential. It will all rely on improvement from the offensive line, but like I said above, if the defense lives up to the hype, a 2012 Notre Dame or 2013 Michigan State season is not out of question.

Sam: Michigan will win the Big Ten if the defense doesn’t allow a single point. In all seriousness, the defense has to be elite (probably allowing 15 or fewer points a game in Big Ten play) and the offensive line has to be above-average for Michigan to compete for their first conference championship since 2004. I think the defense can be elite, but I still think the offensive line is going to struggle a little bit too much for the team to reach Pasadena or beyond.

Derick: Michigan will win the Big Ten if the quarterback pressure we saw throughout camp was actually because of the elite defensive line Greg Mattison has assembled. If the offensive line can actually protect Gardner and create holes for the running game then the rest will fall in place.

Josh: Michigan State and Ohio State completely implode and each have multiple conference losses, a miracle happens with the offensive line’s development early on, Devin Gardner finally becomes the consistently good QB we know he can be all while Jabrill Peppers exceeds the hype, plays both sides of the ball and becomes the first true freshman to win the Heisman (read: I don’t think it’s even remotely possible for Michigan to win the B1G Ten this year). I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again, Michigan won’t be ready to legitimately compete for the B1G Ten until 2015.

Joe: We can get strong and smart play up front, as well as from our quarterback position. We must eliminate the untimely sack or tackle for loss that killed us on important drives last season. C’mon O-line, make it happen!

What’s your prediction for the season? Record, who will Michigan lose to, what bowl game will Michigan play in?

Justin: Regardless of how much improvement the offensive line shows, I don’t see Michigan winning less than eight games this season. But I think they’ll win more than that and finish the regular season 10-2 with losses to Notre Dame and Michigan State. I don’t think Notre Dame will be that great this year, but early on Michigan will still be trying to get its offense up to speed, and despite a valiant effort from the defense, bad things just happen in South Bend. The latter because Michigan State is still the team to beat in the Big Ten this season and, while Michigan will play closer than they have the past two years, it will be extremely tough to pull one out in East Lansing.

I do think Michigan will go into Columbus at season’s end and pull off a big win, leaving a three-way tie atop the East Division, but Michigan State will get the nod into the Big Ten Championship game. Michigan will go to the Capital One Bowl. I never predict the outcome of bowl games before the season because so many variables come into play about who the opponent will be.

Our predictions range from 8-4 to 10-2 with the Capital One Bowl being the most likely destination

Our predictions range from 8-4 to 10-2 with the Capital One Bowl being the most likely destination

I’m optimistic about this season and think this team will be very close to having a really special season that will surprise some people, but in the end it will come up just short, setting up big expectations for 2015.

Sam: My final prediction for the 2014 Michigan football season is as follows:

Record: 10-2, losses at Michigan State and at Ohio State
Bowl game: Wherever generic 10-2 Big Ten teams end up this season (too many to keep track of).

I think it will be a successful season overall that falls just short of the ultimate goals of conference and national championships. Michigan State’s defense should be able to wreak havoc on the offensive line yet again, and though Ohio State will be without Heisman hopeful Braxton Miller all season, their backup will have enough time to gel by the end of the season that the Buckeyes will edge the Wolverines once again at home.

Derick: I think Michigan’s season should be pretty straightforward. The Maize and Blue are great in Ann Arbor, so an easy home schedule should translate into seven wins. But tough road games at Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State make me shudder, and Brady Hoke’s resume on the road should turn all three games into losses. Michigan should take care of Northwestern and Rutgers on the road, giving it a 9-3 record for the season. Two Big Ten losses isn’t going to cut it for a trip to Indy, so Michigan will end up in the Capital One Bowl. Could Michigan win every single game on its schedule? Absolutely. But until fans see this team play solid football, there’s little reason to believe that more than nine wins are on tap.

Josh: My heart wants to be optimistic but my gut says this team’s lack of sufficient development spells doom in 2014. The offense has too many question marks for me to feel comfortable about having anything but very low expectations for them, which in turn puts more pressure on the defense to carry the team, again. The schedule does not set up in Michigan’s favor, with both MSU and OSU on the road (both of which are all but guaranteed losses in my mind). And as we’ve seen in the past Hoke’s teams consistently lose games they shouldn’t, mostly on the road (at Iowa in ’11, at ND and Nebraska in ’12 and atPSU, Nebraska and Iowa last year). They’ve gotten incredibly lucky against Northwestern the past two seasons and something tells me that luck may run out in 2014. Notre Dame, while losing several key players, is still on the road and that tilts the odds slightly in favor of the Irish. Utah could be a very dangerous trap game, sandwiched Miami (Ohio) and perennial bottom feeder Minnesota. Throw in the perennial inexplicable loss we’ve come to expect from Hoke’s Michigan teams and we’re sitting at 4 or 5 losses.

Right now I don’t see this team being better than 8-4, and not in the hunt for the East division. I see losses to MSU, OSU and then two more out of Notre Dame, Utah, Penn St. and Northwestern. They’ll still end up in a decent bowl because they’re Michigan, so something along the lines of the BWW Bowl like last year. Of course, I hope I’m completely wrong and the offense can come together and prove me horribly wrong but I won’t hold my breath.

Joe: I am predicting a 9-3 record for the Maize and Blue with losses at MSU, Northwestern and Ohio. Don’t ask me to explain the Northwestern loss, I just have a bad feeling. This will put them in the Outback bowl on Jan 1. 

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Cornerbacks (part two)

Friday, July 25th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-CB

This week, as part of our summer-long preview of Michigan football in 2014, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking who will be the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten this upcoming season. The players listed are whom we believe will be the most successful in 2014, not necessarily those who have had the most success in previous years. Part One of our cornerback rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed the bottom half of the Big Ten’s top-10 cornerbacks. If you have not had the chance to read it yet, I recommend that you do so before proceeding. Read it? Fantastic! Then let’s unveil who will be the five best cornerbacks in the Big Ten this fall.

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part OnePart Two | Running Backs: Part OnePart Two | Wide Receivers: Part OnePart Two
Tight Ends: Part OnePart Two | Offensive Line: Part OnePart Two | Defensive Line: Part OnePart Two
Linebackers: Part OnePart Two | Cornerbacks: Part One

5. Desmond King, Iowa | Sophomore – 5’11”, 190 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 44 25 69 3.0 0 8 0
Career Totals 44 25 69 3.0 0 8 0
(AP)

(AP)

Iowa’s Desmond King is one of two rising sophomores to make the top five on this list. Last summer, King arrived in Iowa City with little fanfare. He had been only a middling three-star recruit, not even in the top 1,000 of 247’s composite national rankings. King, who had offers from only MAC schools throughout most of the recruiting process, was set to attend Ball State before a late offer from the Hawkeyes convinced him to play in the Big Ten. It turned out to be the correct decision for both parties.

As a true freshman last season, King flashed potential that could turn him into a star cornerback in this conference. He started 12 of 13 games for one of the best defenses—against both the run and the pass—in the nation. The Hawkeyes were ninth nationally in scoring defense, sixth in total defense, and ninth in passing yards allowed per game. Thusly, it should be no surprise that Iowa’s pass defense was considered to be just as stout by advanced metrics. Iowa was 10th in the nation in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, 17th in passing efficiency defense, and 13th in Passing Defense S&P+, an advanced statistical model which analyzes what defenses allow on a given play versus what they are expected to allow. Simply, Iowa’s pass defense was exceptional, and King was a big reason for it.

Although King was the No. 2 cornerback on the roster behind B.J. Lowery, what made his campaign so impressive was the versatility he displayed as only a true freshman. In coverage, King tallied eight pass defended. Although he failed to grab one interception, there have been freshman cornerbacks in the past who have were unable to earn one their first season before recording a heap of them later in their career. For instance, see a certain Michigan cornerback below. But what was most important was that King showed he could succeed both in Iowa’s Cover-2 scheme and on an island in man-to-man. Further, King also proved he can be an asset in run support. He posted 69 tackles, 44 solo stops, which were the most by any Iowa defensive back, and three tackles-for-loss. There are few things King cannot do.

It is clear that Iowa landed a gem in King. He appears to be a blossoming stud in the Big Ten. However, there is one concern that must be noted about King’s upcoming sophomore season. Although it was already implied that Lowery graduated, the Hawkeyes also lost safety Tanner Miller and the entire corps of starting linebacker. Among the five of them, they accounted for 12 of Iowa’s 13 interceptions last season. How much will Iowa’s pass defense suffer with the departure of five starters in the back-seven? Can King do enough to replace that production? Or will Iowa’s pass defense experience a significant dip? It will be interesting to see how King performs without the help he had from these talented teammates last year, which is why he is No. 5 on this list.

4. Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin | Sophomore – 5’9″, 172 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 25 5 30 0 0 4 4
Career Totals 25 5 30 0 0 4 4
(Jonathan Quilter, Columbus Dispatch)

(Jonathan Quilter, Columbus Dispatch)

The other rising sophomore that should become one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten this season is Wisconsin’s Sojourn Shelton. Like Iowa’s Desmond King, Shelton was a true freshman that started 12 of 13 games at cornerback for the Badgers. Unlike King, though, Shelton proved that he can be an elite cover corner. At 5’9” and 160 pounds, Shelton was not the biggest corner by any means, but he had the speed and agility to keep pace with any receiver in the conference. Accordingly, he had nine passes defended last season. But, more importantly, four of those nine were interceptions. His four interceptions were tied for the third-most in the conference and led Wisconsin. Because of his speed and reflexes, Shelton will always be a threat to pick off passes thrown in his direction.

However, although Shelton has beefed up to 172 pounds this year, he still is very small. This negatively impacts him in two ways. First, Shelton will struggle to be effective in press coverage. He does not have the size to jam the receiver at the line of scrimmage and may be too vulnerable to being torched over the top. Second, Shelton will not provide much assistance in stopping the run. While it is clear that Shelton does not shy away from delivering physical hits, his lack of size makes it easy for blockers to escort him out of the area. This is a big reason why he had only 36 tackles last year, even if 31 of them were solo stops. Shelton still will be an excellent corner in the Big Ten, but his lack of size will always be something that holds him back a bit.

Yet, with a year of experience under his belt, Shelton should be ready to improve upon a fantastic freshman season. He returns to a secondary that performed very well last year. Wisconsin finished 17th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 19th in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, 18th in passing efficiency defense, and 28th in Passing Defense S&P+. This was essentially a top-20 pass defense that returns three of its four starters. Shelton will be comfortable with his fellow teammates in the secondary and may be able to contend for All-Big Ten honors, assuming Wisconsin can adequately replace its entire defensive front-seven.

3. Jordan Lucas, Penn State | Junior – 6’0”, 198 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 45 20 65 4.5 1.0 16 3
2012 1 0 1 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 46 20 66 4.5 1.0 16 3
(Jason Plotkin, The York Daily Record)

(Jason Plotkin, The York Daily Record)

With the two sophomores—Wisconsin’s Sojourn Shelton and Iowa’s Desmond King—sliding in at No. 4 and No. 5 on this list, we are left with three juniors that will vie for the label as the Big Ten’s best cornerback. One of these juniors is Penn State’s Jordan Lucas. Lucas became a full-time starter last season and demonstrated very quickly that he was the best cornerback on Penn State’s roster. He defended a remarkable 16 passes—three interceptions, 13 pass breakups—in 2013. Not only was this five more than the number of passes defended by any other Nittany Lion, it also was tied for the third-most in the conference with Ohio State’s Bradley Roby and Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste—both of whom were selected in the first two rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft. And, unlike Indiana’s Tim Bennett, who led the nation with 21 passes defended, Lucas earned that number as the leader of a passing defense that allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards per attempt in the conference.

Further, Lucas exhibited a level of physicality on the perimeter that few Big Ten cornerbacks exuded last season. In addition to his 16 passes defended, Lucas added 65 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, and one sack. He was the third-leading tackler on Penn State, and no Nittany Lion had as many solo tackles as he did (45). Plus, as discussed yesterday when breaking down Northwestern’s Nick VanHoose and Maryland’s William Likely, 4.5 tackles-for-loss is an exceptional number for any cornerback. It indicates that he can knife his way into the backfield to make key stops against the run. And, if you want even more proof that Lucas can lay the wood, he also forced two fumbles. There are many cornerbacks that can provide tight coverage against the pass, but there are few that like to hit as hard as Lucas does.

In 2014, Lucas should be able to do much of the same as he did last season. He once again will be the top cornerback in a secondary that returns two other starters. Lucas will benefit from having Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last year, alongside him. The two of them will form one of the best corner-safety tandems in the Big Ten. If there is one area where they need to improve, though, it is their pass defense in third-and-long situations. Last season, Penn State allowed its opponent to convert 13 first downs when the opponent needed 10 or more yards on third down. No other Big Ten team conceded as many first downs in such a distance-and-down situation. If Lucas can rectify this problem, not only will Penn State’s pass defense improve according to basic and advanced metrics, he also will contend for All-Big Ten first-team honors this fall.

2. Blake Countess, Michigan | RS Junior – 5’10”, 183 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 26 20 46 2.0 0 4 6
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2011 30 14 44 1.5 0 6 0
Career Totals 56 34 90 3.5 0 10 6
(Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports)

(Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports)

The two cornerbacks who will be the best in the Big Ten in 2014 both reside in the state of Michigan. Once again, fans of the Wolverines and Spartans will have something about which to bicker and debate. And, to be fair, both sides have several solid arguments they can offer to support the idea that their player will be the best cornerback in the conference. But the best guess is that Michigan’s Blake Countess will have to settle for No. 2.

Entering last season, there was a giant question mark hanging over Countess. After an impressive debut season in 2011 that unfairly drew comparisons to Michigan legend Charles Woodson, Countess tore his ACL while covering a punt in the opening quarter of the 2012 season. He was forced to miss the rest of the year and redshirt. Although players, especially the more athletic ones, generally can recover quickly from an ACL injury given today’s advances in medical science, there was anxiety among the Michigan fan base about whether Countess would regain his freshman form. Not only did he regain it, he significantly improved upon it.

Last season, Countess had one of the best campaigns by a Michigan cornerback in quite some time. After not intercepting one pass as a freshman, he completely flipped the switch last fall. He led the conference with six picks, which also was tied for seventh nationally. Further, his six interceptions were the most by a Wolverine since Todd Howard also had six in 2000. Countess was an interception magnet because he became adept at suckering the quarterback into poor throws. He would feign that he was playing a certain coverage, tricking the quarterback to believe that another receiver in the nearby area was open. But, as the quarterback began to step into his throw, Countess would quickly shift into that area and undercut the pass for an interception. It was beautiful to watch. Although, Big Ten quarterbacks would disagree as they began to avoid Countess’ side of the field later in the season.

However, Countess could not top this list because there is a red flag about his press coverage, which he will be playing much more of this season. Michigan’s passing defense regressed in 2013 and was only an average unit. The Wolverines were 66th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 57th in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, 51st in passing efficiency defense, and 54th in Passing Defense S&P+. The mediocrity of these ranks can be attributed to the soft coverage Michigan played, which involved its corners lining up 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. And, given referees’ inclination not to call defensive pass interference on every play, Michigan believes its passing defense will be more effective with more press coverage.

But Countess is not the most physical cornerback at 5’10”, 180 pounds and has struggled in press coverage in the past. The best example is when Michigan left Countess on an island against Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett, who then proceeded to haul in 10 catches for 176 yards and three touchdowns. The good news for Michigan is that Lockett was one of the best and most explosive wideouts in the country. Countess likely will not have that a challenge like that in the Big Ten this fall. Nonetheless, there is still a concern about being beat over the top, which is why Countess should be the second-best, but not the best, Big Ten cornerback in 2014.

1. Trae Waynes, Michigan State | RS Junior – 6’1”, 183 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 35 15 50 1.5 0 5 3
2012 2 3 5 0.5 0.5 0 0
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 37 18 55 2.0 0.5 5 3
(Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today Sports)

(Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today Sports)

Michigan’s Blake Countess may have had the better individual numbers last season, but Michigan State’s Trae Waynes arguably was a starter for the nation’s best passing defense. Under the tutelage of head coach Mark Dantonio and, especially, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, the Spartans have set the standard for passing defense the past three seasons. Michigan State has finished in the top 10 in Passing Defense S&P+ each of the past three year and in the top spot in 2012 and 2013. Further, looking at last year’s stats alone, Michigan State was third nationally in passing yards allowed per game, second in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, and first in passing efficiency defense. So, if you were starter for a secondary that put up those numbers, you probably are alright at this cornerback thing.

Last season, Waynes started all 14 games in his first season as a full-time starter. He registered 50 tackles, 35 of which were solo, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, one fumble recovery, and eight passes defended—three interceptions and five pass breakups. None of these numbers are super exciting, especially when offenses were more inclined to target Waynes rather than future first-round selection Darqueze Denard. But it is always important to note the context in which Waynes produced these numbers. Michigan State prefers that its safeties are uber-aggressive. They play closer to and attack the line of scrimmage more frequently than other teams’ safeties, which leaves Michigan State’s corners on an island more often. Yet the Spartans still had the best passing defense in the nation. This is because Waynes, at 6’1” and 183 pounds, not only has the size to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage but also can run step for step with the receiver if he does release. Sure, there were times when Waynes would be beat over the top, like on Stanford’s opening drive in the Rose Bowl, but it usually took a perfect throw from the quarterback to do it.

Next season, Waynes will be Michigan State’s top cornerback now that Dennard is in the NFL. Given the trend the Spartans have set as consistently being one of the best pass defenses in the nation, accordingly, Waynes should be considered one of the best cornerbacks in the nation as well. In fact, he is ranked as the second-best cornerback prospect in the 2016 NFL Draft class and already projected by some to be a first-round selection as an early entrant in next year’s draft. No cornerback in the Big Ten has the size, press skills, and cover skills that Waynes has, which is why he will be the best cornerback in the conference this fall.

So what do you think? Do you agree with our list? Should Michigan State’s Trae Waynes or Michigan’s Blake Countess be ranked No. 1 on this list? Or should it be someone else? And was there another Big Ten cornerback that should have made the top five on this list? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Next week, we will tackle the remainder of the secondary by ranking who will be the best safeties in the Big Ten.

Predicting Michigan: The secondary

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014


Predicting-Michigan-Secondary

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan(Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports)

Greg Mattison owns all of the tools to turn what was a shaky secondary in 2013 into a strength of the defense during his fourth season under Brady Hoke at Michigan.

Last season Michigan’s tendency to surrender the big play allowed teams to hang around before eventually costing the Wolverines in a late comeback by Penn State in Happy Valley. This unit has all the tools to shut down Big Ten receivers, but a few key players need to make major spring adjustments.

The Starters

Blake Countess was the clear-cut top defensive back for Michigan during the 2013 season, snatching a team-high six interceptions and taking on opponents’ best receivers every week. But this is an important offseason for the redshirt junior, as his ability to turn when the ball is in flight stands between him being a good defender and perhaps becoming one of the best in the conference. Countess often got beat despite tight coverage because he was looking at the receiver rather than finding the ball. If he can make an adjustment to look for the pass while staying in front of his man, offensive coordinators might stop throwing his way.

Countess was joined in 2013 by Raymon Taylor, who made 12 starts and grabbed four interceptions of his own as a junior. Big Ten quarterbacks were much more willing to throw at Taylor last season, and he was largely outmatched by most of the tougher receivers. Taylor is likely to start at cornerback, so his improvement through the offseason is one of the most important factors in improving the defense as a whole.

If Countess ends up playing the majority of his minutes at nickelback it will make room for talented sophomore Jourdan Lewis, who caught two interceptions during the spring game and sparked a buzz among the defensive coaches during the early spring. Much like Taylor and Countess, Lewis is around 5’10″ and 175 pounds. He played a limited role as a freshman, but did appear in eight games and batted down two passes.

Jarrod Wilson is ready to become the full-time starter at safety after picking up two interceptions and 50 tackles as a sophomore. Wilson gives the Michigan secondary an aggressive ball hawk that loves to support the running game. Mattison takes advantage of the junior’s versatility to send him into the backfield when he’s not dropping back in coverage.

The other safety position appears to be wide open for a cast of younger players trying to earn a starting job. Dymonte Thomas spent some time in the secondary as a freshman, but Delano Hill took most of the first-team snaps during the spring game. One of these sophomores will separate themselves during the offseason, but they are both in the running heading into fall camp.

Career Stats – Countess
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2011 30 14 44 0 1.5 1 6 0
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2013 26 20 46 0 2.0 0 4 6
Totals 56 34 90 0 3.5 1 10 6
Career Stats – Taylor
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2011 1 1 2 0 0 0 0 0
2012 33 12 45 0 0 0 1 2
2013 61 25 86 0.5 1.5 0 9 4
Totals 95 38 133 0.5 1.5 0 10 6
Career Stats – Lewis
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2013 14 3 17 0 0 0 2 0
Totals 14 3 17 0 0 0 2 0
Career Stats – Wilson
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2012 4 4 8 0 0 0 0 0
2013 28 22 50 0 2.0 0 2 2
Totals 32 26 58 0 2.0 0 2 2
Career Stats – Thomas
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2013 5 2 7 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 5 2 7 0 0 0 0 0
Career Stats – Hill
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2013 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0

Veteran Depth

Michigan developed an abundance of depth at the cornerback position during 2013 as Mattison used a packed rotation while trying to find players that could hang with Big Ten receivers. Though many of his combinations faltered, Michigan now boasts plenty of corners to make the spring competition more productive.

Senior Delonte Hollowell hopes to play the most important role of his career in 2014 as he tries to crack the lineup behind a host of younger players. Hollowell has played sparingly at cornerback throughout his Michigan career, including four times as a backup last season. The Detroit native contributes predominantly on special teams and will need a strong offseason to stay in the mix for a secondary position.

The perfect scenario for Michigan’s defense would include sophomore Channing Stribling stepping up during camp and earning a major role in the secondary. Stribling offers the Wolverines a weapon that many of the other cornerbacks lack: Size. At 6’2″, the sophomore is equipped with the tools to defend some of the biggest and most dominant receivers in the Big Ten if he can earn a spot in the rotation before August 30.

Career Stats – Hollowell
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2011 5 1 6 0 0 0 0 0
2012 1 3 4 0 0 0 0 0
2013 1 1 2 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 7 5 12 0 0 0 0 0
Career Stats – Stribling
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2013 14 2 16 0 0 1 0 0
Totals 14 2 16 0 0 1 0 0

Newcomers

Michigan fans are eagerly awaiting Hoke’s most prized recruit as a head coach: Jabrill Peppers. The five-star defensive back owns the talent to step on campus and start at cornerback right away, and Mattison will likely give him every opportunity to do so. Though the early comparisons to Charles Woodson are premature, Peppers arrives at Michigan with as much talent as any recruit in recent memory and could greatly improve the defense single-handedly. In Drew’s latest mailbag last week, he projected Peppers to start the season as a reserve nickelback, but eventually snag the starting strong safety spot. The ideal situation would be if Hill or Thomas can win the spot and Peppers gets his feet wet at nickelback, but if Peppers does beat out the other two, he’ll be well on his way to living up to the hype.

Drew’s mailbag: Peppers’ position, Hoke’s headset, and captains

Monday, July 14th, 2014


It is time for another edition of Drew’s Mailbag, which will run frequently throughout the offseason as Maize and Go Blue prepares for and previews the 2014 Michigan football season. The topics will cover more than just football, though. I will address any questions regarding Michigan athletics, including basketball, recruiting, etc., you may have. So fire away on Twitter (@DrewCHallett) or via email (drew.maizeandgoblue@gmail.com).

Where do you see Jabrill Peppers in the cornerback mix this upcoming season? –Steve (@SteveCKays)

Well, to tell the truth, I do not think Jabrill Peppers will really be in the mix at cornerback this season. Remember in 2009 and 2010 when Michigan’s depth at cornerback was abysmal because it seemed like every player at the position either suffered a season-long injury, transferred, was kicked out of the program, or denied admission? Those days are long gone.

Look for Peppers to start out at nickel but end up at strong safety this season

Look for Peppers to start out at nickel but end up at strong safety this season

Michigan finally is loaded with depth at cornerback. And talented depth, too. The Wolverines return their two starting cornerbacks in Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor—both of whom have two years’ worth of starting experience. Countess was one of the best corners in the Big Ten last season. Not only did he consistently execute his assignments, his six interceptions were tied for the most in the conference and matched the most by a Wolverine since Charles Woodson had eight during his Heisman-winning season. Accordingly, Countess was named to the All-Big Ten first team by the media. Lining up on the other side of the field will be Taylor, who has proven to be an above-average Big Ten cornerback as well. He was more prone to mistakes and mental mishaps than Countess, but he excelled in man coverage, nabbed four interceptions of his own, and led the team in tackles. Given the experience of and production from both Countess and Taylor, there is little chance that Peppers cracks the starting lineup at field or boundary cornerback.

The only chance Peppers has to be truly in the mix at corner will be at nickelback—the third corner who enters when the defense deploys a nickel package. Head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison prefer to insert their talented but inexperienced corners at nickelback before shifting them to the outside. At nickelback, these budding stars have an easier time acclimating to the speed of college football and more room for error. This would be the perfect position for Peppers to make his debut. Even Hoke agrees. However, this spot likely will be manned by Jourdan Lewis. Lewis flashed great potential in eight games as a true freshman last season and signs of improvement this past spring. There were even rumors that he was challenging Taylor to be the starting boundary corner. Although Peppers has arrived on campus with arguably more hype than any previous Michigan recruit, Countess, Taylor, and Lewis appear to have locked down the three starting corner spots. At these positions, Peppers likely would be nothing more than a reserve along with Channing Stribling and Delonte Hollowell.

However, just because Peppers may have a minimal impact at cornerback this season does not mean he will have minimal impact overall. Michigan is not in a position where it can keep a consensus five-star recruit and the highest-rated Michigan signee in the recruiting-services era on the bench. Peppers will play, and he will see the field a bunch. One of the strengths of Peppers’ game is his versatility. He has the size, body, and athleticism to play multiple positions. Consequently, even though Peppers will first play nickelback according to Hoke and is projected to be an NFL corner in a few years, Peppers will make his mark as Michigan’s strong safety this season.

Whereas Michigan is stacked with talented depth at cornerback, the Wolverines’ depth at safety is shakier. Free safety likely is set with Jarrod Wilson resuming his role as the starter, but, with Thomas Gordon graduating last season, there is an opening at strong safety. In the spring, players like Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas competed to become the starting strong safety. However, no one emerged, and the competition will continue into fall camp. A strong safety must be a pseudo-linebacker that can play closer to the line of scrimmage to provide run support, as well as drop back into coverage in the middle of the field. Essentially, strong safeties need to be physical, tackle well in space, and have the athleticism to cover lots of ground in a hurry. Peppers has all of these attributes and would fit into this role wonderfully. Because he is only a true freshman, Peppers may make his debut during the non-conference slate as a reserve nickelback to get his feet wet, but, by no later than Michigan’s Big Ten opener, I expect Peppers to be named Michigan’s starting strong safety for the remainder of the season.

Will Brady Hoke be wearing a headset on the sidelines this year? –Henry (@henry_bouldin)

Yes. Will Brady Hoke wear his headset on the sideline at all times this year? No. As he has the past three seasons, Hoke will only wear a headset when he feels he needs to wear one. In all likelihood, this will be on critical third and fourth downs, as well as key drives in the fourth quarter of competitive games. Otherwise, Hoke will keep the headset off, so he can spend more time coaching his players directly on the sidelines rather than worrying about the play-calls.

And I am totally okay with this. It is not as if Hoke is completely out of the loop with regards to Michigan’s play-calling or gameplan during the game. This could not be further from the truth. Hoke has a member of the staff that relays every play to him. He knows every play that has been called before it is executed on the field. If there is a play or scheme that Hoke does not like, he will throw on his headset and make his concerns known, whether it be to counsel with his coordinators or to overrule them. And, this year, if Hoke does have a problem, both of his coordinators—Doug Nussmeier and Greg Mattison—will be on the sidelines next to him.

Plus, why is it necessary for a head coach to don the headset at all times if he still has the play-calls relayed to him? A head coach hires an offensive and defensive coordinator to organize the schemes and call the plays with his input. But it does not mean that the head coach must micromanage every single detail about the gameplan during the game. A great head coach must be able to trust his staff to execute their assignments and responsibilities. Hoke demonstrates that he has that trust in his staff when he does not wear the headset. This has the potential to backfire by placing too much trust into a member of the staff (See: former offensive coordinator Al Borges). Nonetheless, I have no problem with a head coach trusting his staff to do what they are supposed to do, so he can be more effective coaching, inspiring, and motivating his players on the sideline.

And the funniest thing about this topic to me? In 2011, Michigan fans did not care one iota about Hoke not wearing a headset. Why? Because Michigan had an 11-2 record and won the Sugar Bowl. In fact, fans praised, calling him a throwback coach that had faith in his coaching staff. However, after the past two seasons, fans have begun to blame anything they think may be contributing to Michigan’s struggles, including Hoke’s headset. It is amazing how that works.

Who do you think will be this year’s football captains? –Tanya (@ilah17)
Jake Ryan is the obvious choice; could Frank Clark join him?

Jake Ryan is the obvious choice as captain; could Frank Clark join him?

Let’s start with the obvious: linebacker Jake Ryan will be elected as a Michigan football captain for the second straight season. It was a surprise to the public when it was announced that Ryan had been voted a captain last season. The surprise was not because Ryan was not talented or because he was not capable of being a leader. The surprise was because Ryan had suffered an ACL injury in the previous spring, and there was uncertainty about when he would return to the field and how effective he would be. Yet, despite all of this, Ryan’s teammates still viewed him as one of their best leaders and named him a captain as a redshirt junior. There is no doubt that Ryan will be asked to resume his duties as captain now that he is 100-percent healthy and ready to regain his All-Big Ten form from 2012.

The offensive captain likely will be fifth-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner. First, he is the only senior on scholarship that competes on the offensive side of the ball. Generally, the players named captains are seniors and, in some cases, juniors. It is difficult to see the most experienced player on the offense not named a captain. Second, Gardner is the quarterback, which implies that he must be a leader in the huddle and on the sideline. It would be somewhat concerning if it was announced that Michigan did not elect its redshirt-senior starting quarterback as a captain, even if Hoke continues to claim that there is quarterback competition for some reason. Third, Gardner, along with departed wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, carried the entire offensive load last season. Gardner had one of the best statistical seasons ever by a Michigan quarterback while taking an endless pounding behind a sieve-like offensive line. I just cannot see a player with the experience and production of Gardner, especially at quarterback, not be named a captain.

After Ryan and Gardner, it becomes tricky. In the past three seasons under Hoke, Michigan has had two, three, and four captains in one of those years. In 2012, there was a clear leader on offense and on defense: Denard Robinson and Jordan Kovacs. The question is whether the Michigan roster feels similarly about Gardner and Ryan this season. I think they might, which is why I believe that Michigan will have only two captains this season. If Michigan was to elect one or two more captains, they would definitely come from the defensive side of the ball. The options would be senior defensive end Frank Clark, senior linebacker Desmond Morgan, senior cornerback Raymon Taylor, and redshirt junior cornerback Blake Countess. If I had to pick two of those options, I would pick Clark and Countess. But this is all moot because I expect Ryan and Gardner to be the only two Michigan captains this season.

Third annual M&GB Hail Awards

Thursday, January 16th, 2014


It’s that time of year again – time to take one final look back at the football season that was and hand out our awards for the top players, plays, and moments. The past two years we posted this on Christmas Eve, but this year decided to wait until after the bowl game.

Team 134 held high expectations by most, coming off of a disappointing 8-5 season. With Devin Gardner at the helm, most assumed the pro-style, power running offense was about to take flight. And through the first two games there was nothing to make anyone think otherwise. Michigan throttled Central Michigan to start the season and then beat Notre Dame in style under the lights. At that point, Michigan fans were certain this team could win the Big Ten and possibly compete for a national title.

But back-to-back scares at the hands of Akron and UConn tempered those expectations quickly, and after a good win against Minnesota, Michigan suffered its first defeat of the season in quadruple overtime at Penn State. From there, it was pretty much all downhill save an offensive explosion against Indiana and a triple overtime win at Northwestern. Michigan State and Nebraska held the Wolverines to a combined negative-69 yards rushing. Iowa held Michigan to just 158 total yards and 10 first downs and the regular season culminated with a fantastic performance that ultimately came up just short against rival Ohio State. In the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Michigan was completely outclassed by Kansas State and the season ended with an even more disappointing 7-6 record.

The underachievement prompted the firing of offensive coordinator Al Borges and the hiring of Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to the delight of Michigan fans everywhere. The doom and gloom of 2013 finally, briefly, gave way to hope for 2014. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s relive the top moments of Team 134.

To revisit previous years awards: 2012, 2011.

Harmon Player of the Year Jeremy Gallon

Everyone knew entering the season that Jeremy Gallon was in for a big year. He came alive at the end of the 2012 season when Denard Robinson went down and Devin Gardner stepped in at quarterback. But no one expected a record-breaking season.

His 1,373 yards broke Braylon Edwards’ single-season receiving record of 1,330 which was set in 2004. He also shattered the single-game receiving record (and the Big Ten’s) with his 14-catch, 369-yard performance against Indiana.

“For decades, the prototypical wide receiver at Michigan has been 6’3″, 210 pounds, and had an ability to outmuscle an opposing secondary,” said Drew. “Yet, despite being listed at a minuscule 5’8″, Jeremy Gallon completed of the best statistical seasons for a wide receiver in the 134-year history of Michigan football. Although opposing defenses knew U-M could not run the football and that Gallon would be Devin Gardner’s go-to target, Gallon still broke record after record after record.”

“Was the leader on an offense that struggled to do much of anything this season,” said Chris. “Was consistently reliable any time the team needed him.”

Votes: 6
Others Receiving Votes: Devin Gardner (1)

Previous Winners:
2012: Denard Robinson
2011: Denard Robinson

Chappuis Offensive Player of the Year Jeremy Gallon

Gallon finished the season with 89 receptions, 1,373 yards, and nine touchdowns. The next closest receiver, Devin Funchess, had 49 for 748 and six. No running back did much of anything this season, and only Devin Gardner could be considered for the offensive player of the year award in terms of production.

Gallon had big-time performances against Notre Dame, Indiana, Northwestern and Ohio State and came close to 100 yards in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. He caught at least four passes in all but one game (Minnesota).

“Record setting year and pretty much the only consistent player on the team,” said Josh. “Without him we might have had a losing record.”

“Devin Gardner and Taylor Lewan each had great seasons that will be overlooked because of turnovers and Michigan’s record, respectively,” said Drew. “But this is an easy choice. Jeremy Gallon was Michigan’s best offensive player. Not only did Gallon have the most receiving yards and second-most receptions in a single season in school history, he also caught at least four passes in 12 of 13 games in 2013. On an offense that was wildly inconsistent, Gallon was one of the few constants.”

Votes: 7
Others Receiving Votes: None

Previous Winners:
2012: Denard Robinson & Devin Gardner (tie)
2011: Denard Robinson

Schulz Defensive Player of the Year Blake Countess

No Michigan defender truly stood out this season, especially with last year’s winer, Jake Ryan, sidelined for the first half of the season. But Blake Countess recorded a team-high six interceptions, including one in the end zone against Notre Dame to seal the win. He had a 72-yard interception return for touchdown against Minnesota and also picked off Braxton Miller.

Countess also tied for the lead among the secondary with two tackles for loss and recorded four pass breakups. He was named first team All-Big Ten by the media.

“After missing the 2012 season with a knee injury, there were some questions whether Blake Countess would be able to return to his form from his freshman season,” said Drew. “Thankfully, for Michigan fans, Countess not only returned to form, he improved upon it. Countess was one of the few playmakers on U-M’s defense in 2013. His six interceptions were tied for third-most in program history and the most by a Wolverine since Todd Howard’s six picks in 2000. And once Countess made those picks, he knew what to do with them, garnering 169 interception return yards – the third-most in the nation and the second-most in U-M history.

Votes: 4
Others Receiving Votes: James Ross III, Raymon Taylor, Desmond Morgan (1 each)

Previous Winners:
2012: Jake Ryan
2011: Mike Martin

Yost Coach of the Year Jeff Hecklinski

After a season in which Michigan underperformed all around and offensive coordinator Al Borges was let go, voting for Coach of the Year was not an enviable task. But alas, one position group did perform well and that was the receivers, so Jeff Hecklinski gets the honors.

Jeremy Gallon set the all-time Michigan single-season receiving record and combined with Devin Funchess to set the record for most receiving yards by a duo in school history (2,121). In addition, Jehu Chesson developed into a solid blocking receiver.

“Hecklinski wins for me because his receivers showcased big play ability, were a consistent bright spot in an otherwise forgettable season, and laid some big-time hits (see: Jehu Chesson vs. Notre Dame),” said Sam. “Hecklinki’s unit was all the more impressive considering one of the two presumed starters, Amara Darboh, went down late in fall practice with a season-ending injury and didn’t play a game.”

Votes: 4
Others Receiving Votes: Greg Mattison (1), None (2)

Previous Winners:
2012: Greg Mattison
2011: Brady Hoke & Greg Mattison (tie)

Little Brown Jug Game of the Year Under the Lights II win over Notre Dame

Had Michigan converted the two-point conversion against Ohio State, that would have been the hands-down favorite, but instead the big early September victory over Notre Dame takes the cake.

The season still held high hopes and a win over the defending BCS runner-up in the final meeting between the two storied schools in the Big House was a surreal scene to behold.

“It was the second night game in the history of Michigan Stadium,” Drew said. “It had the largest attendance to ever witness a football game. And, most importantly, it was Michigan’s most complete performance of the season. Devin Gardner lit up the Fighting Irish for five touchdowns, throwing three to Jeremy Gallon, and the Wolverines’ defense allowed only two offensive touchdowns.”

“Gardner was both spectacular and spectacularly bad all in the frame of one half, Gallon was outstanding, and the season seemed oh-so-promising on that warm September night,” said Sam.

Votes: 5
Others Receiving Votes: Near upset of Ohio State (2)

Previous Winners:
2012: Last second field goal to beat Michigan State
2011: 40-34 win over Ohio State

Howard Play of the Year Fire drill FG to force OT at Northwestern

For the second straight year our play of the year involves a game against Northwestern. Last year, Roy Roundtree’s acrobatic catch to set up the game-tying field goal got the honors. This year, it is the fire drill field goal at Northwestern to get Michigan into overtime that gets top billing.

With 18 seconds remaining, trailing by three, facing 3rd-and-23, Michigan snapped the ball at the Northwestern 44-yard line. Devin Gardner dropped back and fired a bullet to Jeremy Gallon at the 26 near the right sideline. But he was hit immediately and couldn’t get out of bounds.

As the clock ticked down, the field goal unit ran onto the field. Holder Drew Dileo slid into position and kicker Brendan Gibbons simply took a few steps back as the snap went. He then booted it through the uprights sending the game into overtime where the Wolverines won.

“Incredible effort and execution to save the game, and essentially a winning season,” said Josh.

“Even though it shouldn’t have been needed after poor clock management by the Michigan coaches, the field goal unit did a great job of getting out on the field quickly and Brendan Gibbons did a great job to make a rushed, pressure packed field goal in a less than ideal situation,” said Chris.

Votes: 6
Others Receiving Votes: Desmond Morgan’s game-saving one-handed INT at UConn (1)

Past Winners:
2012: Roy Roundtree’s acrobatic catch against Northwestern
2011: Denard’s touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree to beat ND

Biakabutuka Performance of the Year Devin Gardner against Ohio State

This one may be semi-controversial since it came in a losing effort, but the vote was nearly unanimous. In the biggest game of the season, Devin Gardner put together a performance for the ages. Battling injuries, the junior shredded the Ohio State defense, passing for 451 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for another. Had he completed the two-point conversions it would have gone down as one of the greatest performances in Michigan history.

“Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon broke school and conference records with their spectacular performances against Indiana,” said Drew. “But Gardner’s 451-passing-yard, five-touchdown performance against one of the best defenses in the nation in Ohio State was absolutely sensational. Not only did Gardner shred OSU’s defense, he continued to do so after he broke his foot. After suffering the injury in the third quarter, Gardner fought through it, completing 18 of 27 passes for 182 yards and three touchdowns, and was a two-point conversion shy of leading Michigan to its biggest upset win over its bitter rival from Columbus since 1969.”

“After a season of inconsistent performance following the Notre Dame win, Gardner came on strong against Ohio State to give the team and fans hope for a stronger senior season next year,” said Chris.

Votes: 6
Others Receiving Votes: Jeremy Gallon’s 14-catch, 369-yard, 2-TDs vs Indiana (1)

Past Winners:
2012: Denard recording 101% of offense vs Air Force
2011: Denard’s five TDs in win over Ohio State

Friedman Quarterback of the Year Devin Gardner

Devin Gardner struggled early in the season, but his decision making and accuracy improved as the season went on. He finished second in the Big Ten with 246.7 yards per game, as well as second in total offense (286.9) and fourth in pass efficiency. His total yards (3,443), passing yards (2,960), and total touchdowns (32) are second best in school history and he didn’t even play the bowl game. He had dynamic performances in big games against Notre Dame and Ohio State and committed a total of just seven turnovers in his final eight games.

“His heart and toughness helped lead this team, though not always consistently, to a winning record,” said Josh. “He was just shy of only the second ever 3,000-yard passing season in history and bailed out the team time and time again despite an inept line. Without Gardner this team would be 4-8, or worse.”

Votes: 7
Others Receiving Votes: None

Previous Winners:
2012: Denard Robinson & Devin Gardner (tie)
2011: Denard Robinson

Heston Running Back of the Year None

For the first time in the short three year history of the M&GB Hail Awards, we are leaving one award on the table. It’s no secret that Michigan’s running game was subpar this season, and it wasn’t all the fault of the running backs, but four of our six writers voted to award it to no one at all.

“None of the three Wolverines that carried the football at least 30 times this season – Toussaint, Devin Gardner, and Derrick Green – averaged more than 3.5 yards per carry,” said Drew. “Only three Wolverines averaged more than five yards per carry: Dennis Norfleet, Shane Morris, and Devin Funchess – a wide receiver, a backup quarterback, and a hybrid tight end-wide receiver, respectively. Further, Morris notched U-M’s longest run of the season with a 40-yard draw on U-M’s final drive of the season. That is depressing.”

“When your leading rusher recorded 648 yards on 3.5 yards per carry and the longest run of the season came in a blowout bowl game by your backup QB, no running back deserves this award,” said Sam.

Votes: 4
Others Receiving Votes: Fitzgerald Toussaint (2), Derrick Green (1)

Previous Winners:
2012: Denard Robinson
2011: Fitzgerald Toussaint

Carter Receiver of the Year Jeremy Gallon

What else is there to say that hasn’t already been said? Gallon swept the player of the year, offensive player of the year, and now receiver of the year awards thanks to a record-setting season. He also won this award last season.

His 1,373 receiving yards, 105.6 yards per game, and 6.8 receptions per game each ranked second in the Big Ten behind Penn State’s Allen Robinson. His nine touchdowns ranked third. He also recorded a catch in 39 straight games. Remarkably, he was edged out by Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis for first team All-Big Ten despite Gallon having better numbers in every receiving category.

“Gallon is the only Wolverine to be ranked in the Top 3 in Michigan’s record book for most catches and receiving yards in a game, season, and career,” said Drew. “No, not even Braylon Edwards, Desmond Howard, or Anthony Carter can say that.”

“What Gallon did in the Indiana game was incredible, but it was just one sample of his incredible season,” said Derick.

Votes: 7
Others Receiving Votes: None

Previous Winners:
2012: Jeremy Gallon
2011: Junior Hemingway

Dierdorf Offensive Lineman of the Year Taylor Lewan

Everyone knows that most of Michigan’s struggles this season stemmed from the offensive line. It’s hard enough to break in the entire middle of your line in one season, let alone doing so with walk-ons and freshmen. But Taylor Lewan was not part of the problem. Sure, he let his emotions get the better of him against Michigan State, but he performed arguably better than he did last season.

For the second straight year, Lewan was named the Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year for the Big Ten. His decision to return for his senior season didn’t pay off with a Big Ten title or a trip to Pasadena, but his mentoring of the young linemen will pay dividends in the years to come.

“It’s very difficult to evaluate individual linemen without a trained eye, and even more so when the whole line appears to be a sieve, but Taylor Lewan will be a top-15 NFL draft pick for a reason,” said Sam. “Re-watch a few games and only pay attention to Lewan and you will see why…and wonder how the line could be so bad.”

Votes: 5
Others Receiving Votes: None (2)

Previous Winners:
2012: Taylor Lewan
2011: David Molk

Messner Defensive Lineman of the Year Frank Clark

Michigan fans have been waiting for Frank Clark to break out, and while he still hasn’t shown his full potential, he did have a solid season on an underwhelming defensive line. He started all 13 games and recorded 42 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, and two fumble recoveries. He was named All-Big Ten second team by the coaches. In the loss to Penn State, Clark had two sacks and two fumble recoveries, one returned for a touchdown.

“The one ‘bright’ spot on the line,” said Josh. “He was not always consistent, a theme for the whole team, but he showed progress and appeared to make some significant improvement as the season wore on.”

“In a six-game stretch from the Minnesota game to the Iowa game, Clark accumulated 9.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks,” said Drew. “In that span, Clark also recovered two fumbles, including one he returned 24 yards for a touchdown. Clark’s playmaking ability made him Michigan’s best defensive lineman in 2013, but Clark needs to showcase that ability consistently as a senior in 2014.”

Votes: 5
Others Receiving Votes: Willie Henry (2)

Previous Winners:
2012: William Campbell
2011: Mike Martin & Ryan Van Bergen (tie)

Simpkins Linebacker of the Year Desmond Morgan

This was the closest vote of all the awards, but Desmond Morgan narrowly edged out James Ross III. Morgan started all 13 games and finished third on the team with 79 tackles, recorded one sack and 4.5 tackles for loss, one interception, three pass breakups, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. He’s not the most athletic player on the field, but is more often than not in the right place at the right time and fundamentally sound. His one-handed interception against UConn saved the game and was likely the difference between a winning season and a losing season.

“James Ross III may have had more tackles, tackles-for-loss, and sacks than Desmond Morgan, but Morgan made fewer critical mistakes throughout the season,” said Drew. “Morgan was the rock in the middle of the defense that Michigan could count on each game to make thumping tackles at the line of scrimmage. Ross III improved as the season progressed, but sometimes his aggressiveness would throw him right out of the play. Plus, without Morgan’s amazing one-handed interception against Connecticut, Michigan likely would have suffered one of its worst upset losses in school history.”

“More often than not, when Michigan stopped an opposing running back for fewer than four yards, Morgan was in on the tackle,” said Sam.

Votes: 4
Others Receiving Votes: James Ross (3)

Previous Winners:
2012: Jake Ryan
2011: Jake Ryan & Kenny Demens (tie)

Woodson Defensive Back of the Year Blake Countess

Countess also won our Defensive Player of the Year award. He came back from a torn ACL and recorded 42 tackles, two tackles for loss, four passes defended, and a team-high six interceptions. He earned first team All-Big Ten honors from the media and second team from the coaches.

“Raymon Taylor led Michigan with 86 tackles, nine pass breakups, and added four interceptions of his own,” said Drew. “But Taylor had better statistics than Blake Countess only because opposing offenses consistently attacked Taylor’s side of the field, avoiding Countess in the progress. Not only did quarterbacks avoid targeting Countess’ side of the field, when those quarterbacks did try to attack Countess, he made them pay. Countess made great plays on the ball on each of his six interceptions, which are tied for the most by a Wolverine this millennium.”

“Countess seemed to always be making plays on the ball on his way to a Big Ten-high six interceptions and All-Big Ten honors,” said Sam.

Votes: 5
Others Receiving Votes: Raymon Taylor (1), None (1)

Previous Winners:
2012: Jordan Kovacs
2011: Jordan Kovacs

Hamilton Special Teams Player of the Year Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons had quite the career in Ann Arbor, going from a freshman unable to hit the broad side of a barn to Mr. Clutch and Michigan’s all-time most consistent field goal kicker. He finished his career having made 45-of-60 with a record 16 straight and a 141 straight extra points. This season he converted 15-of-20 field goal attempts and finished fourth in the Big Ten in scoring.

“Northwestern game tying FG saved the season,” said Josh. “We’d easily be 6-7 without it.”

“After making only one of five field-goal attempts as a freshman in 2010, Brendan Gibbons made 29 of 35 field-goal attempts (82.9 percent) during his sophomore and junior seasons,” said Drew. “Gibbons was close to maintaining that conversion rate in his final season, making 15 of 20 field-goal attempts for a 75 percent conversion rate. And, most importantly, Gibbons oozed reliability at the position. Gibbons set school records for most consecutive field goals (16) and most consecutive PATs (141) this season. Further, Gibbons made three game-tying field goals in the final five minutes of regulation or in overtime in 2013. Gibbons may never have had had a booming leg, but Michigan fans will learn they took him for granted next season.”

Votes: 6
Others Receiving Votes: Dennis Norfleet (1)

Previous Winners:
2012: Brendan Gibbons & Dennis Norfleet (tie)
2011: Brendan Gibbons & Jeremy Gallon (tie)

Hart Newcomer of the Year Jake Butt

For the second straight year this award goes to a tight end. Jake Butt stepped in as a true freshman and worked his way onto the field, ultimately becoming a key piece of the offense by season’s end. He started eight games and played in all 13, recording 20 receptions for 235 yards and two touchdowns. His biggest game came against Ohio State when he caught five passes for 85 yards and a score. He also made a great one-handed touchdown catch in overtime against Northwestern.

“When Brady Hoke stepped on campus, he made it clear that tight ends would play a pivotal role in his offense,” said Drew. “In his first full recruiting class, Hoke reeled in Devin Funchess and A.J. Williams. However, both has had trouble maintaining blocks, which led to Funchess’ transition to wide receiver. Enter: Jake Butt. Butt, as a true freshman, was not only Michigan’s third-leading receiver with 20 catches, 235 receiving yards, and two touchdowns, but he also displayed an ability to block that Funchess and Williams have not. If Butt can add a few more pounds in the offseason, expect him to contend for All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore next season.”

Votes: 6
Others Receiving Votes: Derrick Green (1)

Previous Winners:
2012: Devin Funchess
2011: Blake Countess

Schembechler ‘Those Who Stay’ Senior of the Year Jeremy Gallon

This is always a hard one to pick each year because there are usually two or three departing seniors that have left their mark on the program and will be missed. A case could certainly be made for Lewan here, but six of the seven of us went with Gallon.

When the diminutive slot receiver from Apopka, Fla. first stepped foot on campus no one could have imagined he would finish his career as one of the best receivers in Michigan history. But that’s just what he did. He broke Braylon Edwards’ single-season receiving record, caught a pass in 39 straight games, and set the Big Ten record for receiving yards in a game.

He finished his career third in receptions (173) and yards (2,704) in Michigan history.

“From RichRod’s leftover to Michigan record holder,” said Josh. “He was the one bright spot in an otherwise disappointing and depressing season filled with inconsistency and baffling play/play calling. He made an impact on the program that no one could have imagined and will remain in the record books for years to come.”

“Consistently counted on to make big plays, always stepped up when it mattered, provided good leadership for the rest of the team,” said Chris.

“In eight Big Ten games, Funchess averaged 4.88 catches and 72.75 receiving yards per game,” said Drew. “His improvement at wide receiver will allow Funchess to be Gardner’s top target in 2014. Funchess has become a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses, but he must limit his dropped passes next season.”

Votes: 6
Others Receiving Votes: Taylor Lewan (1)

Previous Winners:
2012: Denard Robinson
2011: Mike Martin

Harris Most Improved Player of the Year Devin Funchess

Last season, Devin Funchess won the Newcomer of the Year award. This year, he adds the Most Improved Player of the Year award. While he burst onto the scene in Week 2 of his freshman year, he was one-dimensional and faded in the second half of that season, finishing the year with 15 catches for 234 yards and five touchdowns. This year, he was a consistent receiving threat all season, upping his numbers to 49 receptions for 748 yards and six touchdowns.

“His blocking left much to be desired but his ability as a pass catching nightmare match-up stood out,” said Josh. “A few too many drops for someone with his skill set but still made a major jump from 2012 to 2013.”

“Funchess had some bad drops toward the end of the year, but after finally moving to wide receiver for good, Funchess wreaked havoc on some opposing defenses on his way to a solid 49-catch, 748-yard season,” said Sam.

“In eight Big Ten games, Funchess averaged 4.88 catches and 72.75 receiving yards per game,” said Drew. “His improvement at wide receiver will allow Funchess to be Gardner’s top target in 2014. Funchess has become a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses, but he must limit his dropped passes next season.”

Votes: 5
Others Receiving Votes: Raymon Taylor (1), James Ross (1)

Previous Winners:
2012: Devin Gardner
2011: Brendan Gibbons & Fitzgerald Toussaint (tie)

Inside the Numbers: Screw the numbers, Beat Ohio (State)

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013


(Bentley.umich.edu)

Michigan versus Ohio State. Maize and Blue versus Scarlet and Gray. The greatest rivalry in all of sports. No fancy nickname or trophy is needed to enhance the rivalry’s prestige. It is known simply as “The Game,” a term that implies that no athletic competition is better, more important, or more anticipated than the one played on the gridiron between the Wolverines and the Buckeyes each year in late November.

And, yet, this year, Michigan fans are dreading the 110th edition of “The Game.” Even worse, U-M fans are apathetic about it. Yes, they still have an interest in the game’s result. But the passion and fanatical excitement that usually accompanies that interest? Gone. Or diminished, at best.

Michigan fans finally have bailed on this season. They held onto hope for as long as they could that the Wolverines could right the ship, even after the Wolverines needed incredible plays just to eke out victories against Akron, Connecticut, and Northwestern—teams with a combined 9-23 record. But after U-M blew a 14-point halftime lead against Iowa to lose its third game in four weeks, fans let go of that hope.

To see the quantitative effect, go to Stubhub.com. Ticket prices for “The Game” have plummeted this month. In the summer, the cheapest ticket one could find for this Saturday was for $232, and the average ticket cost $380.38. Those prices made Michigan-Ohio State one of the ten hottest tickets of the college football season. However, this week, prices have dropped to as low as $60 because Michigan fans are selling their tickets en masse. They would rather allow Ohio State fans infiltrate Michigan Stadium than witness firsthand the beatdown that the Buckeyes likely will impose on the Wolverines.

While Michigan fans should support the team through thick and thin, their apathy is not misguided. No matter how one tries to analyze the numbers, whether this year’s statistics, the recent history of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, or how teams perform as an underdog generally, all signs point to a game that most Wolverine fans will want to forget.

The duo of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde will be tough to stop, but the same could be said about Rex Kern and Jim Otis in 1969 (Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

Ohio State enters this Saturday as the third-ranked team in the nation. The Buckeyes have won a school-record 23 straight games and have yet to experience defeat at the helm of Urban Meyer. In contrast, the Wolverines have been trending downwards. After an 11-2 record in Brady Hoke’s inaugural season in Ann Arbor, U-M is just 15-9 the past two years and has lost four of its last six contests.

On the field, Michigan’s defense has performed well most of the season, but Ohio State’s offense will be the most explosive and dynamic it will face. OSU has scored the third-most points and gained the seventh-most yards in the nation. Further, the Buckeyes have topped 30 points in all 11 games and scored at least 40 in all but two. To make matters worse for U-M, OSU runs an up-tempo offense. The last time Michigan’s defense faced an offense that lines up at such a rapid pace, it allowed the most points it has this season—47 to Indiana.

On the other side of the line of scrimmage, many consider Ohio State’s defense to be a weak link, but that description is only proper if relative to the strength of OSU’s offense. The Buckeyes are ranked #8 in scoring defense and #12 in total defense. Ohio State’s defense will seem like a sideline-to-sideline roadblock to a Michigan offense that has averaged only 10.5 points and 200.75 total yards in regulation of its last four games. To compound the Wolverines’ problems, OSU employs one of the best pass rushes in college football, registering the second-most sacks in the country. This is likely that last thing that Michigan’s offensive line—ranked 110th in sacks allowed and dead last in tackles-for-loss allowed—wants to hear.

The statistics suggest undoubtedly that Ohio State is the better team. By far. Las Vegas sports books agree with that sentiment, too, setting the Buckeyes as a 15-point road favorite against Michigan. This is not unfamiliar territory for the Maize and Blue. This is the fourth time in the past six years that Ohio State has been a double-digit favorite against the Wolverines.

The good news for Michigan is that Vegas’ betting lines do not determine the outcome of games. Rather, they indicate the quality of two teams relative to one another and help determine which games a team should win and which games a team should lose. The bad news, though, is that Michigan has not won a game against Ohio State that it was supposed to lose in a long time—since 2000 to be exact. Also, Michigan is only 2-10 against the spread versus OSU since then and has not covered the spread against its rivals from Columbus since 2006. Given this trend, the odds that Michigan will not only cover the 15-point spread, but also win outright against the Buckeyes are bleak.

Additionally, under Hoke, Michigan has lacked the ability to upset opponents when given the rare opportunity to do so. In the 11 games in which his team was the underdog, Michigan has won only three times for a paltry winning percentage of 27.3. The Wolverines earned those upset victories against Notre Dame and Illinois in 2011 and Northwestern this season—although, Michigan was no more than a 4.5-point underdog in each.

To be fair, Michigan is not the only team with a poor winning percentage as an underdog. Most teams struggle to win these games. Otherwise, the people employed by Vegas sports books most likely would be pursuing another profession. As the following table indicates, since 2011, all but two Big Ten teams have lost a majority of the games in which Vegas deemed them an underdog:

B1G Schools’ Records as a Favorite and an Underdog Since 2011 – By School
School Overall Record Record as a Favorite Record as an Underdog
MICHIGAN 26-11 (70.3%) 23-3 (88.5%) 3-8 (27.3%)
Illinois 13-23 (36.1%) 12-7 (63.2%) 1-16 (5.9%)
Indiana 9-26 (25.7%) 7-5 (58.3%) 2-21 (8.7%)
Iowa 18-18 (50.0%) 16-8 (66.7%) 2-10 (16.7%)
Michigan State 28-10 (73.7%) 22-5 (81.5%) 6-5 (54.5%)
Minnesota 17-19 (47.2%) 10-2 (83.3%) 7-17 (29.2%)
Nebraska 27-11 (71.1%) 24-5 (82.8%) 3-6 (33.3%)
Northwestern 20-17 (54.1%) 14-3 (82.4%) 6-14 (30.0%)
Ohio State 29-7 (80.6%) 25-3 (89.3%) 4-4 (50.0%)
Penn State 23-13 (63.9%) 19-4 (82.6%) 4-9 (30.8%)
Purdue 14-23 (37.8%) 11-2 (84.6%) 3-21 (12.5%)
Wisconsin 28-11 (71.8%) 27-5 (84.4%) 1-6 (14.3%)

However, not all underdogs are the same. Small underdogs have a significantly better chance to win than an underdog projected to lose by double digits. This should not be groundbreaking to most. The following table provides, since 2011, how often Big Ten underdogs have won based on the value of the spread:

B1G Schools’ Records as an Underdog Since 2011 – By Spread Value
0.0 to +3.0 +3.5 to +7.0 +7.5 to +10.0 +10.5 to +14.0 +14.5 or More
22-21 (51.2%) 9-34 (20.9%) 8-25 (24.2%) 1-17 (5.6%) 2-40 (4.8%)

There have been three different types of Big Ten underdogs recently. First, teams that were an underdog by a field goal or less actually have won more often than they lost. Second, teams that were an underdog by more than field goal but no more than 10 points won just more than one-fifth of their games. Michigan has been no exception under Hoke. U-M is 2-2 in games in which it was a three-point underdog or less, 1-5 in games in which it was a 3.5-point to 10-point underdog.

The third type, which unfortunately applies to Michigan this Saturday, consists of teams that were projected to lose by more than 10 points. These teams win outright only once in a blue moon. Since 2011, these underdogs have won only three times in 60 chances. Here are those three monumental upsets:

B1G Underdogs (10.5 Points or More) that Won Outright Since 2011
Date Underdog Opponent Spread Score
Oct. 29, 2011 Minnesota Iowa +14.5 22-21
Nov. 5, 2011 Northwestern Nebraska +17.5 28-25
Oct. 19, 2013 Minnesota Northwestern +12.5 20-17

This is only the sixth time since at least the mid-1990s—and likely much earlier than then—that Michigan has been this type of underdog. In that span, the Wolverines have pulled off the shocking upset only once, but it was not under the direction of Hoke. Instead, it occurred in Lloyd Carr’s final game as Michigan’s head coach, when the Wolverines beat Urban Meyer- and Tim Tebow-led Florida, 41-35, in the 2008 Capital One Bowl, despite being a 10.5-point underdog.

Nevertheless, this was not the only time that Maize and Blue pulled off such a big upset. The 2008 Capital One Bowl may be fresher in the minds of Michigan fans, but the other one was slightly more notable. On November 22, 1969, the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes arrived in Ann Arbor with a then-school-record 22-game winning streak to play Michigan. Prior to that year, OSU had beaten U-M in 11 of the past 15 games of the rivalry, including a 50-14 rout in 1968. Very few outside the U-M locker room, if any, expected Michigan, a 17-point underdog, to beat a team considered by some at the time to be the best college football team in the history of the sport.

It will take a monumental effort to pull off what the 1969 team did (Bentley)

The rest is history. Michigan manhandled Ohio State for all 60 minutes, relying on seven OSU turnovers en route to a 24-12 victory, which was coined by ABC play-by-play announcer Bill Flemming as “the upset of the century.” The historic upset sent Michigan to the Rose Bowl, prevented Ohio State from clinching its second straight national championship, and sparked the legendary Ten Year War between Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes. It is regarded by many as the most important win in Michigan football history.

So what does this mean entirely for the 2013 Michigan football team with “The Game” only three days away? It means that the Michigan fan base does not believe the Wolverines can upset the Buckeyes. It means that the statistics do not believe that the Wolverines can upset the Buckeyes. It means that Vegas sports books do not believe that the Wolverines can upset the Buckeyes.

Guess what? They are all probably right. The odds that the Wolverines upset the Buckeyes are slim to none.

So despite the fact the author of this column has preached for weeks that the truth lies within the numbers, the Michigan players need to walk out of the Michigan Stadium tunnel at noon this Saturday and yell collectively, “Screw them! Screw the numbers!” They need to remember 1969. They need to remember that, although they may not be as talented as that 1969 Michigan team, the Wolverines have stunned the Buckeyes before as a double-digit underdog. They need to remember that history has a tendency to repeat itself.

And, most importantly, they need to #BeatOhio.

Three Notes You Should Know Before Michigan-Ohio State

  1. This Saturday will be the third straight game that Michigan will be an underdog. Two weeks ago, U-M was a 2.5-point underdog against Northwestern, and, last week, it was a six-point underdog to Iowa. This is the first time since the final three games of the 2010 season against Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Mississippi State that the Wolverines have been an underdog in three consecutive contests.
  1. Both Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor added interceptions to their season totals. Countess became the 14th Wolverine to pick five passes in a season—the most by a U-M player since Todd Howard intercepted six passes in 2000. Taylor’s fourth interception meant that Michigan has two players with at least four picks in the same season for the first time since 1998.
  1. As this section has mentioned almost weekly, Jeremy Gallon has been climbing up Michigan’s receiving lists. Gallon has 1,109 receiving yards this season, needing only 66 yards on Saturday to have the second-most, single-season total in school history. In addition, Gallon and Devin Funchess have 1,795 combined receiving yards in 2013. If they add 262 more to that total by season’s end, they will be the most prolific single-season receiver duo in U-M history.

You can follow Drew on Twitter: @DrewCHallett

Frozen: Iowa 24 – Michigan 21

Sunday, November 24th, 2013


(MGoBlue.com)

Following last week’s triple-overtime victory at Northwestern, Michigan had a chance to continue to build momentum heading into the big showdown next week with unbeaten rival Ohio State. Instead, with wind chills hovering around zero in Iowa City, Michigan’s offense remained frozen and Iowa handed the Wolverines their fourth loss of the season, 24-21.

The game started on a high note when, on Iowa’s first play of the game, Jake Ryan got pressure on quarterback Jake Rudock and Brennen Beyer picked it off at the Iowa 7-yard line. He carried it into the end zone to put Michigan ahead 7-0.

Final Stats
Michigan Iowa
Score 21 24
Record 7-4 (3-4) 7-4 (4-3)
Total Yards 158 407
Net Rushing Yards 60 168
Net Passing Yards 98 239
First Downs 10 21
Turnovers 1 4
Penalties-Yards 2-20 3-31
Punts-Yards 10-354 4-150
Time of Possession 26:35 33:25
Third Down Conversions 4-of-14 4-of-15
Fourth Down Conversions 0-of-0 1-of-3
Sacks By-Yards 1-4 1-14
Field Goals 0-for-0 1-for-2
PATs 3-for-3 3-for-3
Red Zone Scores-Chances 2-of-2 3-of-5
Full Box Score

On their next possession, Iowa drove down the field, but kicker Mike Meyer missed a 36-yard field goal. Michigan wasn’t able to do anything with its possession and Matt Wile’s punt into the stiff wind went just 19 yards. Iowa took over at Michigan’s 45, and punched it in seven plays later on a 5-yard pass to tight end CJ Fiedorowicz.

Michigan went three-and-out, and once again, Wile’s punt into the wind gave Iowa possession on Michigan’s side of the field, this time at the 42. But Iowa couldn’t do anything with it and failed to convert a 4th-and-4.

At the beginning of the second quarter Michigan punted again, this time with the wind, and Iowa was forced to start at its own three. On 3rd-and-8, Blake Countess picked off Rudock at the Iowa 30, and Michigan took advantage of the short field. Six straight runs put Michigan at the Hawkeye two, and on 2nd-and-goal, Devin Gardner connected with tight end AJ Williams to put Michigan back ahead at 14-7.

Late in the second quarter, Iowa punter Connor Kornbrath found out what Wile had to deal with in the first. His punt went just 27 yards into the wind and Michigan took possession at the Iowa 47. Ten plays later, Gardner completed a 9-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Gallon to give Michigan 21-7 halftime lead.

Despite a 14-point lead, Michigan’s offense had just 113 total yards in the first half, taking advantage of a defensive touchdown and good field position.

The second half, however, was a different story. On the third play of the third quarter, Rudock found Tevaun Smith across the middle, who raced 55 yards for a touchdown. Michigan’s four offensive possessions in the quarter went three plays, five yards; three plays, zero yards; three plays, six yards; four plays, minus-one yard.

It was only a matter of time before Iowa would capitalize, and they did so on their first possession of the fourth quarter, driving 60 yards on nine plays, culminating with a 9-yard Mark Weisman touchdown run to tie the game at 21.

The interception forced by Jake Ryan was the highlight of the game for Michigan (MGoBlue.com)

Michigan’s ensuing possession lost four yards in three plays and the Wolverines punted it back to Iowa. Nine plays later, Meyer hit a 34-yard field goal to give the Hawkeyes their first lead of the game, 24-21.

Needing some late-game magic like a week ago, Michigan mounted its first positive drive of the second half. On 3rd-and-8, Gardner completed a pass to Jeremy Jackson for 18 yards to the 50. After a loss of one, Fitzgerald Toussaint took a screen pass 13 yards to the Iowa 38. Toussaint lost a yards on the next play, and on 2nd-and-11, Gardner rushed to his left for eight yards, which would have set up a short third down already in field goal range. But Iowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens stripped the ball from Gardner’s right hand and recovered it along the sideline.

Iowa needed just to run out the clock to seal the win. Michigan’s defense held the Hawkeyes on first and second down, but on 3rd-and-10, Rudock completed a 12-yard pass to Fiedorowicz to end the game.

Michigan finished the game with just 158 total yards of offense – fewer than it had in the losses to Michigan State and Nebraska – and just 10 first downs. Gardner completed 13-of-28 passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns. Derrick Green rushed for 27 yards on 11 carries, while Toussaint carried the ball just six times for 12 yards. Gallon caught six passes for 47 yards and Devin Funchess, who dropped three or four catchable passes, was held to just one reception for two yards.

The only positive to come out of the loss – and it’s a hollow one at that – is that Michigan set the all-time NCAA record for consecutive games without being shut out, breaking a tie with BYU. It was Michigan’s 362nd straight game putting points on the board, dating back to a 1984 game at Iowa.

Michigan now heads home to close out the regular season with Ohio State, who has won 23 straight games and has already locked up a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game against Michigan State. The Buckeyes, ranked third in the BCS standings, still have hopes of a national championship if either Alabama or Florida State stumbles. Michigan will surely be a heavy underdog, but stranger things have happened.

Michigan-Michigan State game preview

Friday, November 1st, 2013


Last season Michigan got the Michigan State monkey off its back with a 12-10 win in the Big House. But tomorrow’s meeting carries even greater implications since Michigan already has a conference loss. There is no margin for error left if the Wolverines want to win the Big Ten Legends Division as a loss would effectively put Michigan two-and-a-half games behind the Spartans with four games remaining. It would also be Michigan’s fifth loss in the past six matchups with the hated rival, something nobody in maize and blue wants to face.

Fans in East Lansing want to believe the tide is turning, or has already turned. They’ll tell you that Michigan no longer owns the state. But this isn’t the first time Michigan State has gained a brief upper hand in the rivalry. Yes, Michigan holds a 68-32 advantage (plus five ties), but from 1950 to 1968 MSU went 13-4-2. Enter Bo Schembechler.

He replaced a coach who was, at the time, the worst in program history. Sound familiar? Bo promptly lost to Michigan State in East Lansing his fist season – Michigan’s fourth loss in five meetings. But from there, Michigan won the next eight against the Spartans and went on a 30-8 run under Bo, Gary Moeller, and Lloyd Carr.

The series finally turned back in State’s favor when Rich Rodrigeuz took over, and by the time Brady Hoke was hired to replace the new worst coach in program history Michigan had lost three straight. Like Bo, he lost his first meeting in East Lansing, but turned the tables a year later.

Quick Facts
Spartan Stadium – 3:30pm EST – ABC
MSU Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (7th season)
Coaching Record: 76-46 (58-29 at MSU)
Offensive Coordinator: Jim Bollman (1st season)
Defensive Coordinator: Pat Narduzzi (7th season)
Returning Starters: 11 (5 offense, 6 defense)
Last Season: 7-6 (3-5, 4th Legends)
Last Meeting: Michigan 12 – MSU 10 (2012)
All-Time Series: Michigan leads 68-32-5
Record at Spartan Stadium: Michigan leads 17-12-1
Current Michigan Streak: Won 1
Last MSU Win: 2011
Last Michigan Win at MSU: 2007

Our neighbors up I-96 want you to believe they own the rivalry now, but if Michigan could regain the series dominance once after a few lean years there’s no reason to think it can’t do so again.

Michigan State comes in as the leaders of the Legends Division with a 7-1 record overall and 4-0 record in conference. The lone loss was a 17-13 defeat at Notre Dame on Sept. 21 in which the Michigan State offense was limited to just 254 total yards – their lowest of the season.

The seven wins, however, have come against six FBS opponents with a combined record of 15-30 and an FCS foe. Not exactly a formidable group of opponents.

The nonconference slate included wins over Western Michigan (26-13), South Florida (21-6), and Youngstown State (55-17) in addition to the Notre Dame loss, while the Spartans opened conference play with with four of the worst teams in the Big Ten – Iowa, Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois. If any team in the top half of the Big Ten was anything worse than 7-1 at this point it would be a major disappointment.

Michigan has the advantage of coming into this one off a bye, which means Hoke and staff had two weeks to prepare for the Spartans. But Hoke’s teams have struggled to win on the road since he arrived in Ann Arbor. Can Michigan pull off the win and put themselves in the Legends Division driver’s seat? Or will Michigan State regain the Paul Bunyan Trophy for the fifth time in the last six years? Let’s take a look at the matchups.

Michigan defense vs Michigan State offense: When Michigan State has the ball

Offense is not what wins the games for Mark Dantonio’s squad this season, but after a sluggish start to the season, it has shown some signs of life the past few weeks. Early on, it seemed the Spartan offense was struggling to find its identity after losing Le’Veon Bell to the NFL. Dantonio and first-year offensive coordinator Jim Bollman shuffled through quarterbacks trying to find the right one to simply move the ball without an every down workhorse to carry the load.

In the first two games of the season, Michigan State’s offense scored just 19 points combined (two touchdowns, a missed extra point, and two field goals) against Western Michigan and South Florida. The 26 total points MSU scored against WMU are the lowest the Broncos have allowed all season, and 14 of those came from the Spartans’ defense. The 21 total points MSU scored a week later are the third fewest scored against USF this season, but again 14 of those came by way of the MSU defense. The two teams that scored fewer than 21 points against USF – Cincinnati (20) and UConn (10) – did so with their offense, which means no offense has scored fewer points agains the Bulls than Michigan State.

Connor Cook's arm has been inconsistent, but he has avoided turnovers (Rey Del Rio, MSU Athletic Communications)

The Spartan offense seemed to get going, scoring 55 against Youngstown State, 26 against Iowa, 42 against Indiana and Illinois, while being held to 13 by Notre Dame. But then Purdue came to town and the MSU offense of the first two games returned. Purdue’s defense allows 34.4 points per game but Michigan State’s offense mustered just seven. Even Indiana State of the FCS, which hasn’t won a game against Division 1 competition, scored more offensive points against the Boilermakers.

As mentioned above, much of the early season scoring troubles originated from the quarterback position. Last year’s starter, Andrew Maxwell, began the season as the starter but completed just 15-of-30 passes for 114 yards in the first two games. Redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor got a shot, but was equally as ineffective, failing to record a touchdown. Dantonio finally settled on redshirt sophomore Connor Cook who fully grabbed the reigns against Youngstown State and has been up and down since, but has proven most capable of managing the offense.

Cook has completed 59.9 percent of his passes this season for 1,238 yards, 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Against Notre Dame, he completed just 16-of-32 for 135 yards and against Purdue he connected on just 13-of-25 for 107, but in the other four games he has completed 68.1 percent of his passes. The most impressive performance was last week against Illinois when he missed on just one of 16 throws for 208 yards and three touchdowns.

The Spartans don’t throw downfield a lot, instead using the run to set up a lot of crossing routes and underneath passes, which is a big reason for Cook’s rather pedestrian but mistake-free numbers. He also doesn’t have a many standout targets to throw to, but redshirt sophomore Macgarrett Kings Jr is his favorite target. Kings leads the team with 26 receptions for 303 yards and has big play ability on crossing routes. Senior Bennie Fowler is the second leading receiver with 20 catches for 278 yards and leads the team with four touchdowns. He had a big game against Iowa, catching nine passes for 92 yards and a score, but hasn’t caught more than three passes in any other game. Redshirt junior Tony Lippett is the tallest receiver at 6’3″, while Aaron Burbridge and Keith Mumphrey are the only others that have double digit receptions.

The running game is headlined by redshirt junior Jeremy Langford who has really come on in Big Ten play. After failing to reach 100 yards in each of the first five games, the 6’0″, 206-pound back has eclipsed 100 yards in each of the last three. He leads the team with nine touchdowns, and his 141 carries are third-most in the Big Ten behind Fitzgerald Toussaint (155) and Iowa’s Mark Weisman (149). He has averaged 23 carries a game in the last three.

The only other back that has more than 50 carries is redshirt junior Nick Hill, who has 55 for 289 yards. True freshman Delton Williams is the bruiser of the bunch at 6’1″, 220. He saw his first action once Big Ten play started and leads the team with a 7.2 yards per carry average. Against Indiana he ran 12 times for 92 yards and he had five rushes for 78 yards and a touchdown last week against Illinois.

While there aren’t a lot of big time playmakers on the Spartans’ offense, the line might be its best unit. It has paved the way for a respectable running game and most importantly has protected Cook, allowing a conference best six sacks, which is half as many as Michigan has allowed. The main reason for the consistency is the lack of major injuries which have plagued the MSU offensive line the past few years. The line is anchored by fifth-year seniors, right guard Dan France and left guard Blake Treadwell who have a combined 50 starts on the line.

Overall, Michigan State’s offense is the definition of conservative and that’s by design. With such a strong defense and a first-year starter at quarterback, there’s no reason to take too many risks offensively. Michigan hasn’t had much success at getting to the quarterback this season, so don’t expect many blitzes to try to attack the stellar offensive line. Look for Michigan to sell out to stop the run and force Cook to make throws to beat them. That’s essentially what Notre Dame and Purdue did and Cook wasn’t very accurate.

Michigan offense vs Michigan State defense: When Michigan has the ball

Defense is the reason for the excitement in East Lansing as Pat Narduzzi’s group leads the conference and ranks in the top three nationally in most defensive categories. As mentioned above, the Spartan defense has scored five touchdowns, singlehandedly keeping MSU in some games early on. They give up just 12.3 points per game and have allowed just three total points in the past two weeks. Only Indiana’s high-powered offense has scored more than 17 points, but the 28 the Hoosiers scored were still well below their season average and 19 fewer than they scored against Michigan two weeks ago.

Michigan's line will have its hands full with Marcus Rush and the rest of the MSU defense (MSU Athletic Communications)

It’s an aggressive defense that doesn’t do anything outrageous, but is well coached and plays good fundamental football. Despite losing two very good players on the defensive line, tackle Jerel Worthy and end William Gholston, the unit might be even better this season. Redshirt sophomore Shilique Calhoun is certainly an upgrade to Gholston. He currently has eight tackles for loss and four sacks and leads the nation with three defensive touchdowns. The other end is redshirt junior Marcus Rush who has started 34 career games and has three sacks of his own this season. Nineteen game starter Tyler Hoover is also a veteran on the line and redshirt sophomore Damon Knox rotates in as well.

The linebackers are a very smart and talented group led by seniors Denicos Allen and Max Bullough who are the team’s leading tacklers with 48 and 47, respectively. Allen has three sacks and is tied for the team lead with eight tackles for loss, while Bullough has one sack and 6.5 TFL. Junior Taiwan Jones is another experienced player who starts at the Star linebacker position.

The secondary may be the best, and certainly the most aggressive unit on the team. The corners play press coverage and are prone to pass interference penalties, but are a big reason the defense is so good. Darqueze Dennard may be the best cover corner in the Big Ten and has two interceptions and seven pass breakups to show for it. The senior has started 34 career games and was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last season. Redshirt sophomore Trae Waynes has performed well despite being a first year starter. Safeties Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond have a combined 49 career starts and 13 interceptions.

There’s no question this will be the best defense Michigan will face all season, and for an offense that struggled against the likes of Akron and UConn, that’s more than a bit worrisome. But the problems that plagued the Michigan offense in those games – most notably turnovers – have been more under control since Michigan’s last bye week, and this offense has more weapons than any team Michigan State has faced yet this season.

Michigan has had trouble moving the ball against the Spartans the past couple of years, but it was also much easier to defend with Denard Robinson’s inability to make the throws that Devin Gardner can make. State was able to load the box and force Denard out of his comfort zone. With Gardner, that can lead to big plays.

The other third: Special Teams

Michigan State has used a pair of kickers for field goals this season and they have combined to make 10-of-13. Senior Kevin Muma made 4-of-6, but was replaced by true freshman Michael Geiger who has made 6-of-7 with a long of 49. Muma handles kickoffs and has a touchback rate of just under 50 percent. Redshirt junior punter Mike Sadler is one of the Big Ten’s best, currently second with a 43.1-yard average.

Nick Hill and Macgarrett Kings handle the kick returns, which have been few and far between this season. The Spartans have only returned nine kicks through eight games for a meager 17.4-yard average. Receiver Andre Sims Jr shares punt return duties with Kings. Sims has 15 returns for an average of 8.6 yards, while Kings has 11 for 8.5.

Prediction

Gardner will pick up yards with his feet but if he takes care of the ball Michigan will win (MGoBlue.com)

The absolute biggest key to this game will be turnovers. If Gardner avoids the bad mistakes that he made against Akron, UConn, and at the end of the Notre Dame game, Michigan will have a very good shot to win this game. If he feeds right into the Spartan defense, it will likely spell doom. Michigan State’s offense likely isn’t going to put together many long scoring drives, so the last thing Michigan can afford is to give up a defensive touchdown or turn the ball over in its own territory giving MSU a short field.

It’s vitally important for Michigan to get off to a quick start. Michigan State’s offense isn’t built for playing from behind and its defense gains momentum as the game goes on. If Michigan falls behind and has to get out of its normal offense, State’s defense can tee off on Gardner. A couple of early scores will change the game and force the Spartans back on their heels, opening things up, and take the crowd out of the game.

Look for Michigan to start the game with the shotgun and pistol looks and try to dictate the way the game goes before settling into its more traditional under center offense. As Drew pointed out in his Inside the Numbers post earlier in the week, Michigan has had twice as much success running the ball out of the shotgun/pistol than under center, but it will need to run about half of its offense from under center simply to have a balanced offense. Michigan State hasn’t allowed a team to rush for 100 yards yet this season, but I think Michigan will eclipse that mostly because if there is one thing State’s defense has struggled with the past couple of years it’s dual threat quarterbacks. Ohio State’s Braxton Miller and Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez both had big games last season, and Indiana’s Tre Roberson had a good game a couple weeks ago. Gardner is less one-dimensional than Denard Robinson and will be able to extend plays with his legs while making throws Denard couldn’t make.

Defensively, Michigan will force Cook to pick apart the defense. Jake Ryan, who is in line to make his first start of the season, will be key in stopping the quick screens and jet sweeps that Bollman likes to run. This isn’t a big play offense, so as long as Michigan can stop the run it shouldn’t have much trouble holding the Spartans to less than 20 points, which will be enough to allow Michigan to win the game.

Michigan 24 – Michigan State 17