Seven years ago Michigan hosted Ball State in an odd November non-conference matchup. The Wolverines were 9-0 at that point, ranked second in the nation, but on that day the Brady Hoke-led Cardinals almost pulled of a shocker. In front of a stunned Big House crowd that Michigan squad, led by Chad Henne, Mike Hart, Steve Breaston, Mario Manningham, Jake Long, LaMarr Woodley, David Harris, and Leon Hall, nearly suffered a demoralizing defeat. Henne threw a pick-six. Hart fumbled for the first time in two years. The defense gave up nearly 300 yards.
Hoke had some good teams at Ball State, but that wasn’t one of them.
Following the game, Henne acknowledged that with a showdown at Ohio State looming the team wasn’t completely focused.
“I think that is a lot of the reason why we weren’t focused,” Henne said. “Coming into the game, people were reading too many press clippings.”
“Coming into this game, everybody was talking about the hype about Michigan and Ohio State, and it kind of overlooked a team like Ball State. If you disrespect a team, they’re going to come out and give it their all.”
Michigan responded with a 34-3 thumping of Indiana, holding the Hoosiers to just 131 total yards and then played one of the all-time great games in the history of The Game a week later in Columbus, falling 42-39 to the top-ranked Buckeyes.
The point is that even great teams suffer letdowns every now and then. Ball State had a chance to tie the game twice in the final minutes just like Akron had a chance to win the game on the final play last Saturday. Michigan was fortunate to come out with a victory and the man who was on the other side of that 2006 affair knows that all too well.
All eyes will be on how this team responds this week against UConn. With all the negativity surrounding the team following last week’s performance, the Wolverines shouldn’t need anything else to fire them up, but perhaps the fact that it’s a primetime game on ABC rather than a noon start on Big Ten Network will be enough.
UConn is probably a team of a similar level as the Indiana team the 2006 squad rebounded with, and while no one is expecting this Michigan defense to put forth as dominant a performance, the expectations remain for a big, convincing win.
The Huskies enter with an 0-2 record, having lost to Towson of the FCS and Maryland, both at home. The Towson game was closer than the score indicates, but the Tigers racked up nearly 400 yards of offense including 201 on the ground. The Maryland game wasn’t quite as close as the final score shows as the Terrapins widened a 13-10 halftime lead to 32-13 before UConn scored with a few minutes to play.
Paul Pasqualoni is in his third season in Storrs and Husky Nation is already calling for his head after going 5-7 in each of his first two seasons. Prior to taking over in 2011, he spent 14 years at Syracuse, going 107-59-1 with six bowl victories, as well as six seasons in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins. In fact, as head coach of Syracuse, he went 1-1 against Michigan, beating the Wolverines 38-28 in 1998 and losing 18-13 in 1999.
In that 1998 matchup, Pasqualoni had Donovan McNabb at quarterback, a luxury he doesn’t currently have. Can he pull off the upset in front of the largest crowd in UConn history? Let’s take a look at the matchups.
Michigan defense vs UConn offense: When UConn has the ball
Following a disappointing 2012 season in which the Huskies ranked 118th nationally in scoring offense, Pasqualoni brought in Cincinnati wide receivers coach TJ Weist to run the offense. Weist spent four seasons on Gary Moeller’s staff in the early 1990s, first as a volunteer graduate assistant and then as receivers coach, guiding the likes of Desmond Howard and working alongside Greg Mattison.
He inherited seven returning starters including junior quarterback Chandler Whitmer who completed 57.6 percent of his passes for 2,659 yards last season. But it was his 9-to-16 touchdown-to-interception rate that Weist is hoping to significantly improve. The results are mixed so far this season with 555 yards on 60.8 percent completions and three touchdowns, but he has also thrown three more picks. Against Maryland last week put up a lot of yards (349), but threw two interceptions and just one touchdown.
His main target is junior Shakim Phillips who has 15 receptions for 255 yards and all three touchdowns so far. By comparison, Jeremy Gallon has 18 receptions for 297 yards and four touchdowns through three games. The former four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American Bowl participant originally attended Boston College before transferring to UConn and sitting out the 2011 season. However, he strained a hamstring at the end of the Maryland game, so while he insists he will play he might not be at full speed. Fellow junior Geremy Davis is the only other Huskie with double digit receptions so far with 10 catches for 154 yards. He was UConn’s leading receiver last season with 44 receptions for 608 yards, but caught just one touchdown pass.
In the backfield, Lyle McCombs is the feature back for the third straight year, but is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry on 36 attempts so far. He managed just 53 yards on 19 attempts against Maryland last week. In 2011, he broke the 1,000-yard mark with 1,151 yards and seven touchdowns, but those numbers declined last season due to injuries and off the field troubles. No other back on the team has more than three carries this season, so it’s clear McCombs will be the workhorse once again. He’s also the team’s third-leading receiver with eight catches.
Deshon Foxx plays the Dennis Norfleet role, a slot guy with four receptions for 54 yards and three rushes for 21 yards. Weist is counting on Foxx to be the speedy playmaker the offense needs with the ability to take a speed sweep for a big play.
The offensive line returns four starters from last season. Sixth-year senior Jimmy Bennett is the left tackle with 16 career starts, while redshirt senior Kevin Friend brings 29 career starts to the right tackle position. However, Friend is questionable this week with a high ankle sprain, which could force Xavier Hemingway into his spot. The redshirt sophomore was pushed around the past two weeks, allowing a pair of sacks against Towson and a safety against Maryland. If Friend is out tomorrow, look for Michigan to pick on the right side of the Husky line.
Tyler Bullock, who started the last eight games of 2012, was supposed to be the starting center, but a leg injury has forced UConn to insert Penn State transfer Alex Mateas into the center position. He was routinely pushed back by Maryland’s defensive line last week. Bullock did play some at right guard at the end of the game last week, but it remains to be seen whether he will see more time this week. Left guard Steve Greene has 20 career starts under his belt, while right guard Gus Cruz started five games last season.
While the UConn offensive line has a lot of starting experience, it was the 121st-ranked rush offense last season and currently ranks 122nd this season. If there was ever a game for Michigan’s defensive line to get off the schneid it is this one. The Huskies have allowed 10 sacks through two games.
Whitmer operates mostly out of the shotgun with one back offset and one tight end. Weist likes to line up three receivers to one side and one on the other, which typically results in a throw to the single receiver, Phillips. This is how Phillips scored a 75-yard touchdown last week. Maryland used a blitz-heavy scheme to pressure Whitmer and attack Hemingway, which is typically Mattison’s style, but we haven’t seen it the past two weeks. After getting torched by Kyle Pohl a week ago by sitting back, expect Mattison to dial up the blitz early and often this week.
Michigan offense vs UConn defense: When Michigan has the ball
Both Maryland and Towson moved the ball well against the UConn defense, and both did so with a fairly balanced attack. Towson passed for 193 yards and rushed for 201, while Maryland gained 277 through the air and 224 on the ground. The 212.4 rushing yards allowed per game ranks 104th nationally and both the Tigers and Terps had individual rushers go over 100 yards. Maryland quarterback CJ Brown gained 122 yards on 16 carries, while running back Brandon Ross was five yards short of 100 on 18 carries. Towson running back Terrance West gained 156 yards on 36 carries.
Only five starters return form last year’s UConn defense which ranked ninth nationally in total defense. Three starters from that unit that are no longer around were drafted this past April, most notably tackle Kendall Reyes who was selected 49th overall by the San Diego Chargers.
The leading player on this year’s defense is the only returning starting linebacker, Yawin Smallwood. He led the Huskies with 120 tackles last season and ranked second with 15 tackles for loss. He already has 30 tackles in the first two games, which is twice as many as the next closest. Ryan Donohue and Graham Stewart are the other starters. You and I cheered for Stewart a couple years ago when, while playing for Florida, he blocked an Ohio State punt and returned it for a touchdown in the Gator Bowl. He played in 12 games for the Gators that season before transferring to UConn a year ago. Donohue is a Maryland transfer who played in 20 games for the Terps in 2009-10.
The four-man front includes redshirt senior tackle Shamar Stephen who has played in 34 career games. He ranks third on the team with 14 tackles so far this season. The other tackle is is redshirt sophomore Julian Campenni who started two games last season. End Tim Willman leads the team with 1.5 tackles for loss this season. He started the final game of 2012 and earned the starting role this year, while redshirt junior Angelo Pruitt is the other end.
The secondary is led (on the stat-sheet) by redshirt freshman safety Obi Melifonwu who has 15 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and an interception so far. Free safety Ty-Meer Brown is the most veteran of the unit with 19 career starts. He has nine tackles and a fumble recovery on the young season. The corners are senior Taylor Mack and redshirt junior Byron Jones. Mack has the team’s only other interception this season.
Last week, UConn played Maryland conservatively, intent on not giving up the big play, which they failed to do. The Huskies didn’t blitz once and mostly sat back in a quarters or cover two defense. Against both Maryland and Towson, UConn’s linebackers were susceptible to the run fake, getting drawn up and allowing space behind them, so look for Michigan to take advantage of the play action.
UConn hasn’t sacked the quarterback yet this season, so the Michigan offensive line – which might be shuffled this week – has an opportunity to perform well. Maryland had good success running the zone read and inverted veer, which Michigan doesn’t do as much with Gardner, but has success with especially later in the game.
The other third: Special Teams
Redshirt senior Kicker Chad Chirsten has made all three field goal attempts with a long of 34. He converted 14-of-21 last season and has a career high of 50. He also handles kickoff duties. Last week, only one kickoff resulted in a touchback, so that could be beneficial for Dennis Norfleet. Fellow redshirt senior Cole Wagner was a second team All-Big East selection last season with a 40.5 yards per punt average. Through two games this season he has already punted 15 times and is averaging just 37.5 yards.
Phillips and Foxx are the kick returners. Neither has broken one yet, but Phillips has a long of 39 yards. Freshman receiver Brian Lemelle is the only Husky who has returned a punt – two for two yards.
A more focused Michigan team will take the field tomorrow night looking to atone for a poor performance last week. Devin Gardner will be crisp like he was against Central Michigan and Notre Dame. Michigan will look to get Fitzgerald Toussaint established early to set up the play action. Later in the game, the offense will mix in the zone read and inverted veer and Gardner will have a big day with his feet and arm.
The defense will be more aggressive rather than sitting back and letting Whitmer pick them apart. It might give up a couple of big plays, but overall it will keep the UConn offense off balance and result in the best performance of the season to date, piling up several sacks.
The nation will be watching to see just how Michigan responds from the Akron letdown. Everybody wants to know if this team is as good as it looked in the first two weeks or if those were just a mirage. A bye week follows, so Michigan will play with a chip on its shoulder and win convincingly.
Michigan 45 – UConn 20