Posts Tagged ‘Taylor Lewan’

Burning questions as Michigan football opens spring practice

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014


Morris-Gardner(Detroit News)

It has been just 59 days since Michigan’s season wrapped up with an underwhelming loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The 2014 season seems eons away as basketball season is about to head into conference tournaments and then the Big Dance. But while it may be hard to turn our attention back to football, Brady Hoke’s squad is set to return to the gridiron today to kick off spring practice.

Last season was as disappointing as any in recent memory because no one expected it to go the way it did. Most preseason expectations ranged from 9-4 to 11-2, and after the Wolverines topped Notre Dame in Under the Lights II, there was even some talk of national championship possibilities. Of course, Michigan followed up the high of that game with a thud against Akron, needing a last-second goal line stand to hold off what may have been a bigger upset than when Appalachian State stunned the Wolverines in 2007. And the season unraveled from there.

Now, needing to get the bad taste of 2013 out of its system, Michigan has a 2014 season opener to look forward to against, well, Appalachian State. But before we get there, let’s take a look at the biggest questions the Wolverines face heading into spring ball.

How much will Gardner be able to do this spring with a new offensive system to learn? (MGoBlue.com)

How much will Gardner be able to do this spring with a new offensive system to learn? (MGoBlue.com)

How healthy is Devin Gardner?

Brady Hoke turned some heads earlier this month when he seemed to imply that the starting quarterback role was up for grabs this fall.

“I think (the starting quarterback for next season) is an unknown,” Hoke said. “We were 7-6 (last season). And we’ve got a lot of young guys (on the team). We’ve got a lot of competition.”

In a technical sense it’s true. Gardner finished the 2013 season in a walking boot and couldn’t even play in the bowl game. Until he’s fully healthy he can’t be 100 percent presumed the starter. What if the injury is even worse than thought? What if it continues to linger throughout the offseason?

But assuming Gardner is able to fully heal there’s no question he’s the starter on Aug. 30. The main question is how much will he be able to do in spring ball?

New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will be the third Gardner has had in his career, and although he didn’t start under Calvin McGee, it will still be the third offensive system he has had to learn. Nussmeier has done wonders for the quarterbacks he has coached during his quick rise up the ranks, from Jeff Smoker to Drew Stanton to Tom Brandstater to Jake Locker to Keith Price to A.J. McCarron.

Sophomore-to-be Shane Morris is likely to benefit the most from Nussmeier’s quarterback expertise since he has three more years to work with him, but Gardner could very well take a significant leap in 2014 given his talent and experience. In 2003, Nussmeier helped Michigan State quarterback Jeff Smoker set a school record 3,395 passing yards after struggling as a junior. He then helped Drew Stanton improve from 1,601 yards in his first season to 3,077 the next year. Most recently, he helped Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron improve on a near flawless 2012 season.

It will be important for Gardner to participate in spring drills to continue the work that he has built upon the past four years, but most importantly to work with Nussmeier and learn his offense. Gardner can still do that if not at full speed, but it’s obviously better to learn at full speed than not.

Who will catch passes?

Jeremy Gallon graduated and took 42.6 percent of last season’s receiving yards with him. Add the production lost from fellow seniors Drew Dileo, Jeremy Jackson, Joe Reynolds, and Fitzgearld Toussaint — who finished as the team’s fourth-leading pass catcher — and Michigan has just 41.3 percent of its production returning.

Jehu Chesson is Michigan's leading returning true receiver with just 15 receptions (MGoBlue.com)

Jehu Chesson is Michigan’s leading returning true receiver with just 15 receptions (MGoBlue.com)

To make matters worse, tight end Jake Butt tore his ACL in offseason workouts, and while he’s likely to return at some point during the season, he may not be 100 percent. Devin Funchess was almost certain to make the official move to the outside prior to Butt’s injury, but with no other established pass catching tight end, Michigan may not be afforded to move him permanently.

The leading returning true receiver is Jehu Chesson, who caught just 15 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown. No other true wide receiver that caught a pass returns. The x-factor will be Chesson’s classmate, Amara Darboh, who was in line to start last season before a foot injury in fall camp sidelined him for the season. At 6’2″ and 212 pounds, Darboh has the size to be a formidable outside receiver, but will his foot be healthy enough to fully participate in spring ball? He impressed last spring and fall before sustaining the injury. Can he regain that form?

The unknowns are the cadre of true and redshirt freshmen that have been brought in in the past two recruiting classes. Jaron Dukes, Csont’e York, and Da’Mario Jones all redshirted in 2013 and Freddy Canteen, Drake Harris, and Maurice Ways are incoming. Of the latter group, Canteen and Harris enrolled early and will have a chance to show what they can do while getting their feet wet this spring.

All five have good height but will need to add some bulk to their thin frames, Canteen (6’3″, 170) and Harris (6’4″, 180) especially. Chesson played last season at 6’3″, 196 and seemed thin at times. York was listed at 6’3″, 180 last season, while Jones was 6’2″, 192 and Dukes 6’4″, 190, but by the time the spring roster is released, they will have surely added some muscle with a full season under their belts.

There is plenty of young talent and great size to go around, but who steps up and garners that hype that Darboh did a year ago before his injury will be one of the biggest aspects to watch this spring.

How will the line shape up?

The biggest disappointment in 2013 was undoubtedly the poor performance of the offensive line. While senior left tackle Taylor Lewan earned the Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award for the second straight year and right tackle Michael Schofield was solid, the interior was a sieve all season. Several different combinations were used throughout the season and the coaching staff even went as far as to try odd tackle over formations to utilize Lewan’s strengths in order to hide other weaknesses, but nothing seemed to make the offense any more efficient.

With the bookends gone to graduation and a new offensive coordinator the development of the line will be interesting to watch. Much was said throughout last season about Brady Hoke’s supposed inability to develop offensive line talent, but let’s not forget that his first full class was redshirt freshmen in 2013. Most linemen, even the most highly rated ones, don’t gain starting roles on the line until two or three years into their careers at minimum.

Graham Glasgow and Erik Magnuson struggled in 2013 but gained experience that will help them in 2014 (MGoBlue.com)

Graham Glasgow and Erik Magnuson struggled in 2013 but gained experience that will help them in 2014 (MGoBlue.com)

Highly-ranked offensive line hauls are great, but we shouldn’t have begun to sniff the payoffs until this upcoming season at the earliest. In a normal situation without the attrition from previous classes decimating the line depth, Kyle Kalis, Erik Magnuson, Blake Bars, and Ben Braden would have simply played reserve roles in 2013, heading into the spring of their redshirt sophomore season looking to work their way into the starting lineup. Instead, Kalis and Magnuson, along with true freshman Kyle Bosch, were forced into action before they were clearly ready and it showed. While that hurt the offense in 2013 it should pay dividends in 2014 as they can build upon the experience they gained.

One thing that is for certain is that, aside from injuries, everybody will get a chance to compete throughout spring practice for a major role this fall. Magnuson and Chris Bryant — both of whom started games last season — will be held out due to injury, but aside from that, who emerges as the starters is anyone’s guess.

Hoke hinted that they would start the spring with Logan Tuley-Tillman, David Dawson, Graham Glasgow, Kyle Kalis, and Ben Braden as the starting five from left to right, and the competition would go from there.

“We’ll obviously start with a five, but all that is going to be competitive, and with a young team, to some degree, even though they played a little bit, you’ve got to have it competitive,” Hoke said.

New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier won’t bring huge changes, but he will simplify the schemes the line uses in the running game. Last year, Hoke and then-offensive coordinator Al Borges tried just about everything they could think of to find something that worked. This year, Nussmeier will start with a basic inside zone and build from there. Whichever five emerge from the April 5 spring game as the starters will carry confidence and cohesiveness into fall camp.

How will the defensive coaching shakeups impact the defense?

Nussmeier replacing Borges was the only coaching staff change this offseason, but last week Hoke announced that the roles of several defensive coaches would be shaken up in an effort to create a more aggressive defense and streamline the staff. Most notably, Hoke won’t be coaching any specific position groups himself. He spent the past three seasons coaching the defensive line. Stepping back will allow him to take a larger role and perhaps devote more time to areas that may have been overlooked in the past.

Greg Mattison switches from coaching the defensive line to linebackers this season (MGoBlue.com)

Greg Mattison switches from coaching the defensive line to linebackers this season (MGoBlue.com)

Mark Smith, who has coached the linebackers the past few seasons, will take over the defensive line, while defensive coordinator Greg Mattison moves to the linebackers. Mattison coached the Baltimore Ravens linebackers — and good ones like Ray Lewis — and said on National Signing Day that he has been looking for bigger linebackers. Smith, meanwhile, spent 15 of his 32 years as a defensive line coach, but hasn’t specifically coached the position since 2002 at Indiana State.

Curt Mallory will be taking on more of a specialized role with just the safeties after coaching the entire secondary the past three seasons, while Roy Manning will take over the defensive backs. Manning was hired prior to last season to coach the outside linebackers.

“Everyone on the staff and the kids are really excited about these changes,” Hoke said. “Greg and I met and felt this was the best for everyone, including him and his ability to coach a position group and run a defense from the middle. When you look at Mark’s experience on the defensive line, then being able to split the secondary, where you have five positions and 20-plus guys, and with the way offense and passing has changed in college football, I think it balances our staff on that side of the ball.”

Michigan’s defense has gone downhill in each of the three seasons under the current staff. In year one, Hoke and Mattison transformed what was a sieve under Rich Rodriguez into the nation’s 17th-best total defense and sixth-best scoring defense. But those numbers have fallen the past two seasons from 13th and 19th in 2012 to 41st and 66th last season. While the offense had its share of well-publicized struggles, the defense was virtually unable to stop anyone over the second half of the season.

The coaching staff shakeup sounds like a sign of desperation at first glance, a coach trying one last ditch set of moves in order to save his job. That may be partially true, but it’s certainly worth a shot. Moving Mattison to coach the middle of the defense makes a lot of sense as that’s where he coached in Baltimore and the linebackers run the defense. Hoke stepping back from coaching a position group also seems like the right move, and Smith taking over a group with which he has considerable — if not recent — experience could invigorate the line. Finally, splitting the secondary among two coaches also make sense since there are so many bodies among the cornerbacks and safeties.

In a perfect world, the moves will create excitement among the players — at the very least shake up any complacency or entitlement that may exist. Even though Nussmeier is the only new addition to the staff, the whole defense will be playing for a new position coach and thus fighting even harder to make a statement and earn playing time. Should it have gotten to that point? No. But it can only be a good thing throughout the spring.

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)

A Thanksgiving salute to the seniors of Team 134

Thursday, November 28th, 2013


(MGoBlue.com)

Thanksgiving is a time for all to remember what they are thankful for, and on Saturday 17 Wolverines will take the field for the final time in Michigan Stadium. They’ll play their hearts out, hoping to redeem an otherwise lost season and play spoiler to their most bitter rival’s perfect season. But before we get there, let’s take some time to thank those men of the maize and blue that made the decision to attend the University of Michigan.

Taylor Lewan
Career starts Consecutive starts Honors
46 39 All-Big Ten first team (2012), second team (2011), Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year (2012), Walter Camp first team All-American (2012), Rotary Lombardi Award semifinalist (2013)

Thank you Taylor Lewan for sticking it out for all five years. Thank you for forgoing sure millions in the 2012 NFL Draft to return to school, finish your career, and help mentor the young offensive linemen. Thank you for carrying on the tradition that so many linemen before you began. Your senior season hasn’t gone as planned, but you’ll go down as one of the all time Michigan great left tackles and while it doesn’t show right now, your leadership and guidance of the young guys will pay dividends in the coming years. May a long and productive career in the NFL await you.

Jeremy Gallon
Career Receptions Career Rec Yards Career Touchdowns Career YPC
155 2,440 16 15.7

Thank you Jeremy Gallon for working hard to improve for five straight years. You committed to Rich Rodriguez while he was in the process of recruiting smaller guys but didn’t really even get to play in his offense. Thank you for sticking with Michigan through the coaching change and forcing yourself into the leading role in an offense built for taller receivers. You’re on pace to finish in the top five in every career receiving category and top two in single season receiving yards, despite standing just 5’8″. Whether the NFL comes calling or not, thank you for being a bright spot in an otherwise down season and best of luck for your future.

Fitzgerald Toussaint
Career Rushes Career Rushing Yards Career Touchdowns Career YPC
503 2,255 26 4.5

Thank you Fitzgerald Toussaint for bringing excitement back to the Michigan backfield for the first time since Mike Hart left. We’ll always have 2011 when you ran for 1,041 yards and, along with Denard Robinson, became the first Michigan tandem to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season since the 1970s. This season has been tough and last season ended with a gruesome injury, but thank you for pushing hard to overcome the injury and work your way back into the starting role.

Brendan Gibbons
Career FG Attempted Career FG Made Career FG % Career PATs
60 45 75% 156-158 (98.7%)

Thank you Brendan Gibbons for your improvement throughout your five years in Ann Arbor. Your freshman struggles are a distant memory as you have become one of Michigan’s all-time best field goal kickers. Your game winning kicks against Virginia Tech in the 2012 bSugar Bowl and Michigan State in 2012 will always be remembered, as will your other game-tying kicks. You are proof that vast improvement can be made year-to-year.

Drew Dileo
Career Receptions Career Rec Yards Career Touchdowns Career YPC Career Punt Ret Career Yds/Ret
39 560 5 14.4 11 7.2

Thank you Drew Dileo for coming north to play for Michigan and providing a set of sure hands. You’ll always be remembered for your big plays in helping Michigan end its losing streak to Michigan State in 2012, but more so for your hard work and dependability. When Hoke needed sure hands at returning punts, you filled in. Your ability to hold for field goals has been steady and the slide into the hold for the game-tying field goal against Northwestern this season will go down in history.

Michael Schofield
Career Games Played Career Starts
50 34

Thank you Michael Schofield for giving this year’s squad a veteran presence on the offensive line along with Taylor Lewan. While the season hasn’t gone as planned, your guidance of the young linemen will pay off down the road. You started your career at guard and then held down the right tackle spot for two years. Although you don’t have the accolades of Lewan, you’ve been a steady contributor and may you find a spot at the next level.

Thomas Gordon
Games Started Tackles Sacks Tackles for Loss FF FR INT
36 214 3 11.5 3 4 6

Thank you Thomas Gordon for holding down the secondary and providing a veteran presence while Hoke’s young guys work their way into the lineup. You were the team’s third-leading tackler in both 2011 and 2012 and currently rank sixth this year. Your interception ended this year’s Northwestern game in overtime and you led the Big Ten in fumble recoveries in 2011. Thank you for a productive career.

Cameron Gordon
Games Started Tackles Sacks Tackles for Loss FF FR INT
15 132 4 14 1 2 3

Thank you Cam Gordon for your flexibility over the past five seasons and being willing to play wherever you were needed in order to see the field. You came in as a receiver, switched to safety and then to linebacker and were named to the CollegeFootballNews.com Freshman All-America second team in 2010. A back injury forced you to miss time in 2011 but you fought your way back in 2012 and have played a key reserve role at linebacker and even defensive end the last two seasons. Perhaps most importantly you were named Academic All-Big Ten each of the last three seasons, so big things are in store for you when your playing days are done.

Jibreel Black
Games Started Tackles Sacks Tackles for Loss FF FR INT
14 69 7 14 3 0 0

Thank you Jibreel Black for an under the radar but productive career. You waited your turn, serving as an important reserve defensive lineman in 2011 and 2012 before working your way into the starting lineup this season. You recorded three sacks in the final four games of 2011 and made a key sack in overtime against Northwestern this season.

Quinton Washington
Games Started Tackles Sacks Tackles for Loss FF FR INT
16 54 1 3 1 0 0

Thank you Quinton Washington for giving the team a veteran leader on the defensive line despite coming to Michigan on the other side of the ball. You started your career at right guard in 2010 before switching over to the defense. You blocked a kick against South Carolina in last season’s Outback Bowl and have held down the middle of the defense in the absence of Ondre Pipkins this season.

Courtney Avery
Games Started Tackles Sacks Tackles for Loss FF FR INT
18 109 1.5 5 3 3 2

Thank you Courtney Avery for outperforming your recruiting rankings and earning a spot as team captain this season. You’ll be remembered for your interception on Ohio State’s final drive in 2011 to seal the win, ending their winning streak. You tied a Michigan record for longest fumble recovery against Minnesota that same year. You’ve battled injuries but always found a way to get on the field. You were given the honor of wearing the No. 11 Legends jersey to honor the Wistert brothers, Francis, Albert, and Alvin, and that will be something you can be proud of when your playing days are over.

Thank you Joe Reynolds, Jeremy Jackson, Jareth Glanda, Erik Gunderson, Dylan Esterline, and Kristian Mateus for your contributions to the Michigan football program over the last four or five years. You helped prepare the team for battle week in and week out and can take pride in being able to don the maize and blue. Best of luck wherever your post football careers lead you.

These 17 young men will be honored prior to Saturday’s game, so regardless of how you view this season make sure to get there in time to give them the ovation they deserve. If you’re not happy with the way this season has gone, you can bet they feel it ten times worse, but all of them came in under a different head coach and, stuck out the transition, and have laid the foundation for Hoke’s future success.

Inside the Numbers: Sending out an S.O.S. on the LOS

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013


(Rick Osentoski, US Presswire)

Since returning to Ann Arbor in January in 2011, head coach Brady Hoke has preached that he wants to “hear football.” He wants to hear the sound of helmets striking each other, shoulder pads colliding into each other, and players trying to drive one another into the ground. He wants to “hear football” when Michigan takes the field because he wants his team to be tough, physical, strong, and powerful. Yet, the only thing Hoke has heard from his offensive line is silence.

Michigan’s offense has derailed in the month of November, and its offensive line deserves much of the blame. Prior to November, U-M’s offense averaged 42.4 points and 446.5 total yards in its first seven games. In its two November contests, the offense has scored 19 points and gained 343 total yards combined, averaging 9.5 points and 171.5 total yards per game.

To make matters worse, not only has Michigan rushed for minus-69 yards on 65 carries in its last two games, it has rushed for positive yardage in only one of those eight quarters. Against Michigan State, U-M set a program low with minus-48 rushing yards, breaking a 51-year-old school record that Michigan wanted to stand untouched for all of eternity. Then, with minus-21 rushing yards against Nebraska the following week, the Maize and Blue became only the second team this millennium to turn in negative rushing performances in back-to-back games.

Gardner has been sacked 14 times in the last two games (Detroit Free Press)

The lousy offensive display in East Lansing was unacceptable by Michigan standards, but was somewhat understandable. The Spartans’ defense was ranked in the top three in the nation in almost every relevant defensive category, including scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, and passing yards allowed. There is no doubt that MSU’s defense was one of the best defenses in the country, if not the best.

But Nebraska’s defense was not.  Prior to last Saturday, the Cornhuskers were ranked #46 in scoring defense, #70 in total defense, #85 in rushing defense, and #39 in passing yards allowed. This mediocre defense—the same one that allowed 516 rushing yards to its two prior opponents—stunningly prevented Michigan from netting positive rushing yards for the second straight week.

There is no way around it: Michigan’s offense currently is broken. Before it can be fixed, the problem must be identified first. For the Wolverines, they must look no further than the offensive line.

Entering the 2013 campaign, expectations for Michigan’s offensive line were high. Blame for last season’s sub-par performance from the offensive line was placed upon the three then-senior interior linemen—whom former head coach Rich Rodriguez recruited to play in his zone-blocking schemes—whose skillsets did not mesh well with offensive coordinator Al Borges’ man-blocking schemes. The below-average play was written off as a cost of the transition from Rodriguez’s spread read-option offense to Borges’ power offense. With talented, but inexperienced, interior linemen with skillsets more suited for Borges’ man-blocking schemes joining the starting lineup this season, significant improvement along the line of scrimmage was expected.

Instead, Michigan’s offensive line has worsened despite starting an All-American and future high-first-round NFL Draft pick at left tackle. The decline has never been more evident than in Michigan’s two November games, in which U-M rushed for minus-69 yards, lost more than one yard per carry, allowed 26 tackles-for-loss, and allowed 14 sacks. Thus, the Wolverines’ offensive line has been so poor in November that it has averaged 13 tackles-for-loss allowed and seven sacks allowed, while U-M’s backs averaged minus-34.5 rushing yards, in those contests.

However, the decline in the play of Michigan’s offensive line has not been limited to only the month of November. The cracks have been there all season. To oversimplify, an offensive line has two responsibilities: (1) create holes through which running backs run; and (2) prevent the opposing defense from sacking the quarterback. Michigan’s national rankings in offensive categories that help track whether an offensive line has maintained these responsibilities have tumbled. Not only have the rankings tumbled, they have fallen so far that they are similar to Michigan’s rankings in 2008—a year considered to be the season in which Michigan had its worst offense and offensive line in recent memory, if not ever.

To see the similarities, here is a table comparing these Michigan’s 2008 and 2013 national rankings in these offensive categories:

Michigan National Ranks: 2013 vs. 2008
2013 2008
Nat’l Rank Average/Game Nat’l Rank Average/Game
Total Offense T-83 385.33 109 290.75
Rushing Offense 97 135.33 59 147.58
Yards Per Carry 111 3.25 73 3.91
Passing Offense 51 250.00 108 143.17
TFLs Allowed 123* 9.00 116 7.75
Sacks Allowed T-105 2.89 T-57 1.83
*Last in FBS

According to the table above, the only offensive categories in which Michigan is better in 2013 than 2008 are total offense and passing offense. These improvements can be credited to quarterback Devin Gardner. Gardner—who leads the Big Ten in total offense and points responsible for—is a far superior quarterback than the platoon of Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan that completed less than half its passes in 2008.

However, Michigan has been worse in every other offensive category in the above table this season compared to 2008. Even though there are only 123 FBS teams, the Wolverines are ranked outside the top 100 in rushing yards per carry, tackles-for-loss allowed, and sacks allowed. Plus, Michigan is on the edge of being ranked outside the top 100 in rushing offense, too. To cap it off, U-M has allowed more tackles-for-loss in 2013 than any other FBS team in the nation, permitting defenses to tackle U-M players behind the line of scrimmage nine times per game.

Defenders shooting through the line has been a common site the last two weeks (Huskers.com)

It must be noted that offensive lines are one of the toughest positions to evaluate because there are no statistics that measure individual performance—at least none made available to the public. Coaches use other units, such as assignment grades and loafs, that indicate how well an individual offensive lineman has played. Assignment grades determine how well offensive linemen executed their assignments each game, while loafs measure how many times offensive linemen did not provide the effort needed to finish a play. But given that Michigan has started nine different offensive linemen in nine games, only one of which was due to injury, it seems likely that all stats measuring the performance of offensive lines have come to the same conclusion: Michigan’s may be one of the worst in program history.

Unfortunately for the Wolverines, with only four games remaining, there is no permanent solution that will fix this before the season ends. A shift in Borges’ play-calling may slightly alleviate the problem.  As “Inside the Numbers” alluded to prior to MSU, Borges has been tipping his play calls based upon Michigan’s formation, especially on third downs. Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory confirmed this observation in the aftermath of the Cornhuskers’ 17-13 win against the Wolverines with this quote: “They had certain tendencies. Whatever formation they came out in, we knew what they were going to throw at us.” When defenses notice these tells, they adjust accordingly and put the offensive line in situations in which it has no chance to make the necessary blocks to execute a play successfully.

But Michigan fans must be patient because this would only be a temporary, limited solution. The other issues affecting Michigan’s offensive line—mostly inexperience—can only be fixed with time.  Of the seven linemen Michigan has started along the interior, six are no older than redshirt sophomores and zero made a collegiate start prior to this season. Plus, in 2014, U-M will have seven additional linemen—all of which currently are either redshirt freshmen or true freshmen—that will be available to play.

Raw talent will not be an issue for Michigan’s offensive line in the future. Of these 14 offensive linemen available to play in 2014, Rivals.com rated nine of them as five- or four-star high school recruits. These players have very high ceilings. The question will be whether Michigan will be able to develop and transform their vast potential into reality. If so, Hoke finally will be able to “hear football” from his offensive line once again. If not, the silence will become deafening.

Three Notes You Should Know Before Michigan-Nebraska

  1. At the moment, Michigan is a 2.5-point underdog against Northwestern, according to Las Vegas sports books. This is the first time in the history of this series that Michigan has not been a favorite against the Wildcats. Prior to this year, the Wolverines always had been at least a three-point favorite against Northwestern, with U-M being a 21.3-point favorite on average.
  1. Michigan has forced 18 turnovers through nine games this season, matching the number it forced in all of 2012. However, U-M has converted only 11 of those 18 extra possessions into 65 points—eight touchdowns and three field goals. Further, the Wolverines have turned the last three turnovers they have forced into only three points, despite starting the ensuing series at the opponent’s 41-, 33-, and 26-yard line.
  1. Wide receiver Jeremy Gallon has 947 receiving yards for the 2013 campaign and 2,278 receiving yards for his career. Gallon needs 40 receiving yards to pass David Terrell for the fourth-most career receiving yards in Michigan history and 53 receiving yards to become the 10th wide receiver in program history to have a 1,000-yard season.

You can follow Drew on Twitter: @DrewCHallett

Embarrassed in East Lansing: Michigan State 29 – Michigan 6

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013


(Melanie Maxwell, The Ann Arbor News)

Late in the third quarter, Raymon Taylor stepped in front of the intended receiver and picked off a Connor Cook pass, returning it to the Michigan State 41-yard line. It was just the play Michigan needed to jumpstart a comeback. I let out a nice shout, something along the lines of “YES! Go, go go go go, wooooooo!!!!” but my daughter, who was playing on the floor in front of me, immediately tensed up and said, “Stop yelling at me, daddy.” I spent the next few minutes explaining to my two-year old that I was cheering for Michigan, not yelling at her, all the while watching what should have been a game-turning moment go from first down at the Spartan 41 to 4th-and-31 from the Michigan 38. It was that kind of day.

Two weeks after breaking several offensive records against Indiana, the Wolverines broke another one, but this time it’s not one to be proud of. Thanks in large part to seven sacks and an overwhelmed offensive line, Michigan totaled negative-48 yards rushing, two fewer than the previous worst in Michigan history. It was that kind of day.

Final Stats
Michigan Michigan State
Score 6 29
Record 6-2 (2-2) 8-1 (5-0)
Total Yards 168 394
Net Rushing Yards -48 142
Net Passing Yards 216 252
First Downs 12 19
Turnovers 1 1
Penalties-Yards 3-39 5-25
Punts-Yards 8-327 5-204
Time of Possession 27:39 32:21
Third Down Conversions 2-of-13 9-of-18
Fourth Down Conversions 0-of-1 0-of-0
Sacks By-Yards 1-16 7-49
Field Goals 2-for-2 3-for-3
PATs 0-for-0 2-for-3
Red Zone Scores-Chances 1-of-2 3-of-3
Full Box Score

The talk leading up to the game centered around needing to match Michigan State’s physicality. Brady Hoke and Al Borges likened it to a street fight. Taylor Lewan said Michigan got bullied two years ago in East Lansing: “If somebody came up to you and hit you right in the face would you take that personally? Yeah, I take it personally.” Lewan was determined not to get bullied this time around, but Michigan State’s defense did the bullying in a clean, hard-nosed football sort of way, and Lewan resorted to, well, hitting a Spartan right in the face, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. It was that kind of day.

Trailing 6-3 early in the second quarter, Michigan showed signs of moving the ball. A Fitzgerald Toussaint nine-yard run – Michigan’s longest of the day – followed by a Gardner six-yard run and an 11-yard completion to Jeremy Gallon got Michigan across midfield. On 1st-and-10 from the Michigan State 49, Graham Glasgow’s snap sailed over Gardner’s head and the quarterback had to fall on it for a 20-yard loss. Gardner lost another yard on the next play and was sacked on third down. Lewan’s penalty moved Michigan back another 15 yards and the Wolverines faced 4th-and-48 from their own 13. Matt Wile’s punt went 43 yards – three more than his season average – and still didn’t reach the first down marker. It was that kind of day.

Midway through the second quarter, still trailing 6-3, Jehu Chesson went up and snatched a 58-yard pass from Gardner. It was just his eighth reception of the season and by far his longest and it put Michigan 1st-and-10 from the MSU 22. Three plays later, on 3rd-and-2 from the 14, Borges called a zone read and Gardner was stopped for a loss of seven, prompting former Michigan linebacker Larry Foote to tweet “That was the worst call I’ve ever seen on 3rd and short!!!!!!!!!!” Michigan settled for a field goal, which Brendan Gibbons banked in off the right upright. It was that kind of day.

Taylor Lewan losing his cool embodied Michigan's performance (Melanie Maxwell, The Ann Arbor News)

Jeremy Gallon, who set the all-time Michigan and Big Ten single-game receiving record two weeks ago, caught three passes for 57 yards on Michigan’s first five plays of the game. He caught just two for 10 yards the rest of the game, one of which was caught at the first down marker then fumbled backward, turning what would have likely been a first down on 2nd-and-5 into a 3rd-and-6, which Michigan didn’t convert. In the fourth quarter, needing two touchdowns with two-point conversions, Michigan put together it’s longest drive of the day. Gardner tried to connect with Gallon down the left sideline near the end zone, but Gallon was outmuscled by Darqueze Dennard, who picked it off, effectively sealing the game. It was that kind of day.

On Michigan State’s first play of the game, after Michigan had opened with a field goal, Cook rolled to his right. Fullback Trevon Pendleton, who had fallen down making a block, got up and leaked out to his left. As Michigan defensive end Brennen Beyer was closing in, Cook turned and lobbed it back across the field to Pendleton who was wide open and raced down the left sideline 49 yards to the Michigan 26. It was the fifth reception of his career and the longest pass play of the season for the Spartans. It was that kind of day.

When all was said and done, Michigan removed itself from contention for the Big Ten Legends Division title, gaining a season low 168 total yards – just 13 more than Youngstown State of the FCS managed against the Spartans. To make matters worse, it was Michigan’s fifth loss in the past six meetings with the in-state rival and because of the divisional realignment with Rutgers and Maryland joining the conference Michigan has to travel to East Lansing once again next season.

What a strange, strange season it has been, from the elation of the Notre Dame win to the depression of the Akron, UConn, and Penn State performances to the record-breaking thrill of Indiana to the embarrassment in East Lansing. With Nebraska, Northwestern, Iowa and Ohio State remaining, the ups and downs are likely to continue the next four weeks. And with no shot at Hoke’s stated goal – to win the conference – we resort to playing spoiler, especially when Nov. 30 rolls around.

Same game, different culture: UConn

Monday, September 23rd, 2013


(David Butler II, USA Today Sports)

As SuperFan of the Maize Rage student section at the University of Michigan, I have the opportunity to travel to all of the Michigan football away games and experience what football Saturday means in different parts of the country. This feature will run after each away game this season, detailing the gameday experience for Michigan games outside of Ann Arbor.

Football Saturday in Ann Arbor is one of the most precious traditions in all of college sports. The city shuts down to prepare for the game and campus fills with students making the pilgrimage down to the Big House where the largest audience in the country watches the Maize and Blue defend the most wins in college football.

Elsewhere, students around the country have their own ways of celebrating a home game, and this weekend my close friend Jonathan Wagenknecht and I made the trip east to see Michigan take on the Huskies in Hartford, Connecticut.

When we arrived at Rentschler Field, it was obvious how different the venue was from Michigan Stadium. A capacity crowd of around 42,000 fans broke the record for attendance at UConn’s home stadium, thanks to the 2,000 temporary bleacher seats that were added for this weekend’s game in response to Michigan fan demand for tickets.

Superfan Derick rocking the maize at Rentschler Field

Before even entering the stadium, I was turned away at the gate because of my cowbell. The gentleman scanning my ticket asked me if I “was part of the band, or something” and told me I would have to put Michigan’s most preferred instrument back in my car. Returning to the car would have been simple had UConn not used an airport landing strip to direct cars over half a mile away from Rentschler.

With no other option, Jon and I jogged back to the car against the flow of 42,000-strong heading towards the gates. We had to use the Cabela’s that shares a parking lot with the stadium to locate our car in the dark before returning to the field and joining the many Wolverine fans already in attendance.

Unlike Big Ten fans, the Connecticut faithful generally have very little confidence in their team. The best indication of this was a few gentlemen that told us we’d be doing them a favor if we won by 50 points, citing the need for a new head coach to lead the Huskies. Following home losses to FCS opponent Towson and the University of Maryland to begin the season, the fan base didn’t have any hope on Saturday night.

Or so they thought.

Instead, Connecticut fans got involved in the game in a very different way: betting the spread. From our vantage point next to the concourse, we were approached by several fans that after politely asking about our visit revealed to us that they had taken Michigan to cover the spread over their hometown team (Michigan to win by 20). One season ticket holder told us that ‘the team I’ve watched from this spot right here the last two weeks doesn’t stand a chance of sticking with Michigan.’

During the first half, it was tough to tell which team had a larger following in the stadium. Michigan fans showed up in full force, often making Rentschler feel like a little Big House, but despite their 0-2 start, UConn fans were loud and took over for most of the game.

When it was clear that Michigan wasn’t looking like the team that beat Notre Dame two weeks ago, a local fan came over to us and talked about the bet he placed on the visiting Wolverines. After assuring us that UConn Head Coach Paul Pasqualoni had been his high school gym teacher and Ray Allen a family friend, he implored us to tell him why Michigan wouldn’t run power football.

Through the first three games, the offensive line hasn’t been able to open anything up for running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Taylor Lewan’s dominance hasn’t even been enough to bully the defensive lines of Akron and UConn so far, and as a result Devin Gardner’s broken-play scrambles have turned into Michigan’s most reliable running attack.

The stats weren't pretty but Michigan escaped the Rent with a win

After the man heard this explanation he complained about the Michigan offense throughout the rest of the game until, when Michigan trailed 21-14, he had a sudden revelation. He frantically asked me what our kicker’s name was and whether or not he was reliable, to which I responded that Brendan Gibbons has made several big kicks in his career including one to win the 2012 Sugar Bowl.

Our friend responded that he ‘liked the sound of that name, and knew he was going to be our hero tonight.’ As fate would have it, he made a new bet on his cell phone that Michigan would win with a final score of 24-21. Although I have no experience in betting, the smile on this Husky fan’s face as he left the game lead me to believe that predicting the correct final score made up for Michigan failing to cover the spread.

This guy was a great example of Connecticut fans, who put little importance in winning and more on just enjoying the fan experience.

Part of this experience for students includes a bus ride to the game, as their campus sits about 20 minutes away from Rentschler Field. While leaving the stadium, one of these students turned to us and yelled ‘hey Michigan, did you cover your spread?’ and I responded that we covered my personal spread of one point.

Though the last two games have been terrifying, Michigan has avoided disaster by coming up with big plays late. Many people are jumping off the Wolverine bandwagon, but it appears that Michigan is just playing to the level of their competition every week. When a marquee game comes up on the schedule, Brady Hoke will have his team ready, so Michigan will have a chance in every game.

So at the time when that student sarcastically asked about the spread, I was just happy that the team had avoided losing to themselves once again.

Our friend Matt Ryan (no, not that Matt Ryan), who lives in Hartford showed us around the city after the game, and we happened to run into Connecticut’s starting punter, Cole Wagner. Seeing my vibrant maize shirt, Wagner walked over and talked to me about the game for a few minutes. I told him I thought we were going to give them the game that night.

He said he thought they were going to take it.

By the end of the night, I had a fairly good idea of how UConn fans approached football Saturday. Though they called Michigan coming to Rentschler ‘our Super Bowl,’ they didn’t take the loss nearly as hard as the Maize and Blue faithful do when the Wolverines falter.

Even though our losses are hard, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

This experience made me appreciate Michigan’s football tradition even more by contrast. Michigan Stadium is a truly special place to watch a football game, and the pride that all 110,000-plus fans take in their program is unparalleled.

The Wolverines didn’t live up to the expectations of Michigan and Connecticut fans alike. Offensively, they struggled to run the ball and Devin Gardner continued to throw interceptions. Until the end of the game, when Connecticut was scrambling, the defense couldn’t get enough pressure. But despite all of these mistakes, the trip was worth the drive, and made me appreciate how great it is to be a Michigan Wolverine.

Escape from East Hartford: Michigan 24 – UConn 21

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013


(MGoBlue.com)

With the game hanging in the balance and the offense struggling to find any rhythm, Michigan needed someone, anyone to make a play. Momentum was fully in UConn’s favor and the frenzied, record-setting Rentschler Field crowd could sense a monumental upset in the making.

It was deja vu for a Michigan squad that had staved off the unthinkable against a similar opponent a week ago. Now it needed a game changing play to do it once more.

UConn stood 1st-and-15 at its own 32 with the lead and the ball, having just stopped Michigan on 4th-and-2. Quarterback Chandler Whitmer fired a pass across the middle, but linebacker Desmond Morgan leapt up and snagged it with one hand. He raced 29 yards to the Husky 12-yard line and on the very next play, Fitzgerald Toussaint carried it in to tie the game at 21.

It was a play reminiscent of Charles Woodson’s grab against Michigan State in 1997 and Morgan may as well have reached in and stolen the hearts right out of the Husky faithful – and those from Columbus and East Lansing as well. While Michigan still needed another score and another defensive stop or two, Morgan’s play singlehandedly changed the momentum of the game.

Final Stats
Michigan UConn
Score 24 21
Record 4-0 0-3
Total Yards 289 206
Net Rushing Yards 192 47
Net Passing Yards 97 159
First Downs 19 12
Turnovers 4 1
Penalties-Yards 5-45 6-70
Punts-Yards 5-212 8-305
Time of Possession 35:47 24:13
Third Down Conversions 7-of-17 1-of-11
Fourth Down Conversions 0-of-1 0-of-1
Sacks By-Yards 4-31 3-24
Field Goals 1-for-1 0-for-1
PATs 3-for-3 3-for-3
Red Zone Scores-Chances 3-of-3 2-of-2
Full Box Score

Following Toussaint’s touchdown, Michigan forced a three-and-out and Drew Dileo returned the punt the Husky 25-yards line. A 15-yard penalty on Jourdan Lewis brought the ball back to the 40, but Michigan was able to eat up half of the remaining time on the clock and add a 21-yard Brendan Gibbons field goal to take a 24-21 lead.

UConn took over with 4:36 remaining and got into Michigan territory before the offensive ineptitude bug struck them. On 3rd-and-12, a false start pushed the Huskies back five yards and on the ensuing play Frank Clark sacked Whitmer for a loss of 12. The last ditch effort to convert on 4th-and-29 fell three yards short and Michigan ran out the clock.

The game started out the way the previous three did, with Michigan’s defense forcing a punt on UConn’s first possession of the game. But unlike the previous three, Michigan wasn’t able to the first time it had the ball. Instead, a promising drive ended with an interception off a tipped pass.

After a UConn three-and-out, Michigan’s offense put together what would be its best drive of the night, going 69 yards in 11 plays. Devin Gardner ran it in from 17 yards out to put Michigan ahead 7-0.

UConn got on the board midway through the second quarter with an eight play, 56-yard drive to tie the game. On the first play of Michigan’s next possession, Gardner was intercepted again, this time on a deep ball to Jehu Chesson. UConn was unable to capitalize, but the Husky punt hit the leg of freshman receiver Da’Mario Jones and the Huskies recovered on the Michigan 9-yard line. They punched it in to grab a 14-7 lead.

Michigan opened the second half with the ball, but on 3rd-and-1, Gardner had the ball knocked out of his hands as he tried to pick up the first down. A UConn defender scooped it up and raced 34 yards for a touchdown. Suddenly, Michigan found itself down by two touchdowns in the third quarter to a team it was favored to beat by 18 points.

Desmond Morgan got a kiss from Brady Hoke and a hug from Greg Mattison (MGoBlue.com)

On the first play of Michigan’s ensuing possession, Gardner scampered 39 yards to the UConn 25, but a holding penalty on Taylor Lewan brought it back and Michigan was unable to get anything going from there. The defense forced a Husky three-and-out and the offense finally struck once again. On 2nd-and-10 from the UConn 35, Gardner checked out of the shotgun and into the pistol, running an option to Toussaint who weaved through the Husky defense for a touchdown.

The win keeps Michigan unbeaten on the season, but concerns abound after a second straight scare at the hands of one of the worst teams in FBS. The defense, however, isn’t one of those questions. UConn gained just 206 total yards, gained just 12 first downs, averaged 1.9 yards per rush, and converted just 1-of-11 third downs. In reality, only seven points can be pinned on the defense since the second touchdown started on Michigan’s 9-yard line and the third was a UConn defensive score.

Frank Clark recorded a pair of sacks, his first of the season, while Raymon Taylor, Jibreel Black, Mario Ojemudia, and Chris Wormley each had half a sack. Blake Countess had a pair of tackles for loss.

Michigan’s offense gained 289 total yards, 192 of those on the ground. Toussaint had his best game of the season with 24 carries for 120 yards and two touchdowns. Gardner completed 11-of-23 passes for no touchdowns and two interceptions. He also rushed 19 times for a net of 64 yards, though when sacks are removed, he gained 106.

Michigan gets a bye week to heal up and work on the issues that have come about the past two weeks before returning home to face Minnesota on Oct. 5.

Stay tuned for more breakdown and analysis of Michigan’s escape from East Hartford in the days to come.

Notre Dame postgame transcript: Brady Hoke

Sunday, September 8th, 2013


(Justin Potts, M&GB)

“You guys ready to go home? It’s late.”

On the plan of running wide early in the game…
“Well, we thought that we had a chance to get the edge and with Mike (Schofield) and Taylor (Lewan), the two tackles, we felt that we could take over block, zone it out, and then got a couple good blocks by (Devin) Funchess. He’d motion over or be stationary there and that let Fitz (Toussaint) determine where he wants to cut and I thought Fitz made some really good runs tonight. He had some really good cuts.”

On how the offensive line was able to neutralize Notre Dame’s defensive line…
“Well, I don’t know if neutralize is the right word, but at the same time they had some success too. I thought the three interior guys, they take a lot of pride, Taylor and Mike have really taught those guys well (and) Darryl Funk has. They just, good fundamentals and really wanted to finish every block.”

On breaking two records, Gibbons’ consecutive field goals and the attendance record…
“It’s nice to see Gibby because a couple years ago, to me, he wasn’t really kicking the ball as well. To see the work ethic that he put forth and the confidence that his teammates have in him is part of it. I think having the all time attendance record, I think that’s pretty cool, and it was a great atmosphere.”

On what he was disappointed by with the defense…
“You’ve got to give Tommy Rees some credit. I think he’s a good quarterback and I think he’s proven that against us now three years in a row. He’s accurate. They have some big play receivers. We were playing mostly off until we did play man. We were going to give him some of those throws and I think what was disturbing a little bit was they ran the ball in there a couple of times when we were set up defensively well enough to where they shouldn’t, even though we played mostly a seven man front all day.”

On the defense’s ability to come up with a big play when needed at the end of the game…
“Well, that was critical. I think Greg (Mattison), especially in the second half, mixed some things up from a front standpoint to some coverage standpoint, some zone blitzes and some zero blitzes, and I thought it worked out pretty well.”

On whether he spoke to Devin Gardner after the interception…
“Every time he comes off the field we talk. Maybe we’re going to need more, like I told him tonight, we’re going to need more because we were struggling a little bit defensively. They were efficient sometimes. When he came off the field (after the interception) I didn’t have to say a word to him because he was beating himself up all the way off the field. It was one of those things that he knows better and I’ll go back to the same thing (I’ve said before), it’s a blessing and a curse when you have that ability.”

On Gardner’s athletic ability allowing him to get that pass off instead of just taking a sack…
“Yeah, there’s no question. He’s very conscientious in trying to do things that are going to help the team and stay away from those negatives.”

On how it felt to beat Notre Dame…
“Well, it’s always nice to win. It’s just such a great rivalry and to be able to be on the right side of it always feels good. It also tells you a lot (about) where you’re at when we play them early in the year, where you’re at as a program, what we need to do if we want to win the Big Ten Championship. I think we learned a lot about that because of the team we played.”

On whether the offense achieved the balance he wanted it to…
“That’s probably what we’d like to be, that 55-45, somewhere in there, run-pass. We always like to run it a little more, especially with the tailback if we’re having success. We had some tonight.”

On  Jeremy Gallon and the work he has put in to become an elite receiver…
“You know, Jeremy is, I guess I would say first of, he’s a very very tough kid. As well as he catches the ball, finds those seams and creases, he blocks. And when he blocks, he gets on people. Catching the ball is important for him, but he loves to block. And I think how he comes to work every day, because he does come to work every day, and how he competes is probably one of his strengths.”

On Gardner storming off the field…
“Well, storming off the field…I think there’s different storms that can happen. It wasn’t one that I think a whole lot of people would notice, but when good things and bad things happened during the course of the game I think he was pretty even as far as demeanor and how he looked.”

On whether Michigan took it personal this week that Notre Dame ended the rivalry…
“You know, I don’t think so. I think we were playing Notre Dame and I think they always think that – and I’m going back to the Michigan teams that I coached on when I was an assistant – and I just think that there are certain games that you get very excited about, those rivalry games. So I don’t think there was any kind of…I mean, we just…we want to win. And we want to win every week. And we want to win and improve as we win.”

On at what point he realized he needed to tell Devin we need more…
“I say that every game. You can get a feel for a game. We went three and out the first possession defensively, and I just think we always know we’re going to need more.”

On the two interceptions by Blake Countess…
“Yeah, the last one, number one, being an athlete and catching the ball that was kicked, but also being in the right place at the right time and just playing through the play. He was pursuing towards the ball and that’s what you like to see. The first one gave us great field position, a great opportunity, and it was well needed at the time.”

On where the offense is now in terms of the style he wants it to be compared to what it was with Denard Robinson at quarterback…
“Well, number one, we were fortunate to have Denard. Al (Borges) was smart enough to conform what we do with the abilities that you have on your team – and you need to do that in all, offense, defense, and kicking game. I would say this is more like what we’d like to do. We’re going to be multiple enough personnel-wise, multiple enough from a formation standpoint – two backs, three backs, whatever it takes, another offensive tackle in, a lot of different things that we like to do – but this was more like what we want to do.”

On how important was it for Devin to make plays with his legs, picking up a lot of critical first downs…
“Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. It is critical. When he doesn’t see what he wants to first and second read he does a nice job pulling the ball down and getting what he can, and we’re fortunate that he has that kind of ability.”

On what he learned about Devin in this signature game that will help for the bigger games going forward…
“I don’t know if I learned a whole lot different than I knew, because I get to see him every day. But I would say the thing that you take form it is he made some very good plays but a the same time he’s got to be more consistent once in a while.”

On the one lasting memory he will take away from tonight, the last home game against Notre Dame…
“Probably two things…three things. Probably winning for maybe the last time. 115,000 and a sea of maize. And it didn’t necessarily happen tonight, but honoring Tom Harmon and having Mark (Harmon) here. It was special. He visited with our team and it was really a special thing.”

On the injuries…
“AJ (Williams) got a little bit of an ankle. He came back in, probably could have gone, but would not have been as effective as we’d like him to be. Taylor’s fine, he got poked. Jeremy’s got a little muscle that he’s got to work through.”

On whether he brought up Brian Kelly calling it a regional rivalry this week…
“Never did.”

On what he learned about the team…
“What we learned a little bit about our team is we can be a good football team if we do a better job playing the run, if we’ll be a little more – and this is all defensive perspective to some degree to start with – be a little tighter in coverage. I think we’ll have a little more confidence to do that. I think in the kicking game, Dennis (Norfleet) had a couple of good kickoff returns. I think they were blocked decently well. Obviously, we gave up some field position, had a kickoff out of bounds, and a punt that wasn’t exactly like we’d like to punt the ball, and they had a return. So those are things that we need to work on so that they don’t happen again.”

Fried Chicken: Michigan 41 – Notre Dame 30

Sunday, September 8th, 2013


(MGoBlue.com)

It was a perfect script through three quarters of play. A raucous Big House that featured multiple fly-overs, a pregame ceremony honoring the greatest player to ever don the maize and blue, the largest college football crowd ever, and a halftime performance with a message from Beyonce complete with lasers and blue LED lights, it was truly a site to behold. On the field, unlike last season’s meeting in South Bend, Michigan was able to move the ball with relative ease, going up and down the field to the tune of nearly 367 yards – 68 more than the entire offensive output last season – and stretching a 14-point lead. It had all the makings of a Wolverine romp in the final Big House meeting against the hated rival who, in Brady Hoke’s words, “chickened out” of the rivalry.

And then it started to unravel.

Over the next ten minutes of game action, the crowd fell silent and the tension permeating through the Big House was so thick it could be sliced with a knife.

Final Stats
Michigan Notre Dame
Score 41 30
Record 2-0 1-1
Total Yards 460 410
Net Rushing Yards 194 108
Net Passing Yards 294 314
First Downs 25 23
Turnovers 1 2
Penalties-Yards 6-50 4-33
Punts-Yards 3-94 2-80
Time of Possession 34:04 25:56
Third Down Conversions 6-of-12 8-of-15
Fourth Down Conversions 0-of-0 0-of-2
Sacks By-Yards 1-9 1-8
Field Goals 2-for-2 3-for-3
PATs 5-for-5 3-for-3
Red Zone Scores-Chances 4-of-4 3-of-5
Full Box Score

Devin Gardner, the newly crowned recipient of a Michigan Legends jersey, had avoided costly mistakes until that point and seemed in complete command of the Wolverine offense, even in the face of what will likely be the toughest defense he will face all season. But on 3rd-and-11 from his own 16, he faced a pair of Irish defenders in his face. As he had done all game, he rolled to escape them but this time their containment was too good and he found himself in his own end zone. As they made the hit, Gardner tried to throw it away, but it fell right into the hands of a diving Stephon Tuitt and suddenly Michigan’s comfortable 14-points lead was cut in half.

Needing a big response, Michigan took over once again and Gardner quickly found Jeremy Gallon for a seven-yard gain. But Gallon, who had a career game with eight receptions for 184 yard and three touchdowns, stayed down on the Michigan Stadium turf. He eventually walked off the field, but on the next play a false start negated the gain. On the ensuing play, both Devin Funchess and Taylor Lewan went down and nothing could go right. Michigan was forced to punt and Matt Wile’s boot went off the side of his foot, just 21 yards downfield and Notre Dame took over near midfield.

A touchdown would tie the game and George Atkinson III gashed the middle of the Michigan defense for 16 yards on the first play. Tommy Rees hit Chris Brown for 11 yards and suddenly the Irish were 25 yards away from the end zone. But the Michigan defense stiffened. On 3rd-and-8 James Ross III had a chance to seal the game, but wasn’t able to hold onto an interception in the middle of the field. Notre Dame settled for a field goal to pull within 34-30.

Michigan took over with 9:15 remaining in need of a long scoring drive to turn the momentum back in its favor. In the span of four plays, Gardner found Fitzgerald Toussaint for a 22-yard gain and a 31-yard gain to the Notre Dame 21. Two Irish pass interference penalties later, Michigan had 1st-and-goal at the Irish two. Gardner faked the handoff and rolled to his right, but everyone in the stadium, including ND’s defense, knew it was coming and he was stopped for a two-yard loss. On the next play, Gardner found Drew Dileo for a four-yard touchdown pass and the Michigan Stadium crowd could finally exhale.

Devin Gardner earned Tom Harmon's #98 Legends jersey (MGoBlue.com)

But there was still four minutes on the clock, and if recent history in this rivalry was any indication that was a lifetime. On Notre Dame’s first play of the drive, Brennen Beyer broke through for Michigan’s first sack of the game, a nine-yard loss. But passes of 10, 21, 12, and 11 yards later, Notre Dame was knocking on Michigan’s door once again. Two straight seven-yard completions to TJ Jones took the Irish to Michigan’s six-yard line, but Rees’ pass over the middle sailed high of his target, bounced off the knee of Raymon Taylor and right into the hands of Blake Countess for a touchback.

Michigan ran out the clock after Gardner scrambled for 14 yards and a first down, and for the first time since the third quarter Michigan fans could go wild.

Following the game, there was a sense of relief among the Michigan players, coaches, and fans alike. A joyous occasion – the second night game in Michigan Stadium history and the final home game against Notre Dame – nearly turned heartbreaking. The players spoke with a somber tone, fully aware that they had let the Irish back into it and hammering the point that they still had a lot of work to do.

Yet in the end, it was Michigan’s fourth win over the Irish in the last six meetings and sixth in the last eight. It keeps the Wolverines unbeaten and leaves a lot of excitement for the rest of the season.

Gardner finished 21-of-33 for 294 yards, four touchdowns and the one interception. He also rushed 13 times for 82 yards (96 when sacks are excluded) and another score. Toussaint took every running back carry but one, rushing 22 times for 71 yards and caught one pass for 31. Gallon led all receivers, while seven others caught passes. Defensively, Taylor led the way with 11 tackles, one for loss.

Michigan accumulated 460 yards of offense, more than any team gained against Notre Dame last season except for Alabama. The 294 passing yards were more than anyone except Oklahoma. While Michigan’s defense was content to sit back and rush three or four, Rees passed 35 times and threw two interceptions. The Michigan offense out-rushed the Irish 194-108.

Michigan hosts 0-2 Akron next Saturday, travel to 0-2 UConn after that, and then get a bye week before opening Big Ten play. The next three weeks should give the Wolverines a chance to work out some kinks from the first two games and rest up the injured players before getting into the real grind of the Big Ten season.

Stay tuned for reactions from the players and coaches, our thoughts on the game, and a look at next week’s opponent, the Akron Zips.

Friend vs Foe: Notre Dame

Thursday, September 5th, 2013


Ryan Ritter of the Notre Dame blog Her Loyal Sons is our guest for this week’s edition of Friend vs Foe. He will provide his perspective on how Notre Dame can beat Michigan on Saturday. You can follow him on Twitter @HLS_NDTex or the site’s main feed @herloyalsons. Josh is handling the Michigan perspective and you can follow him @jdemille9.

So what do the Irish need to do to win in the Big House for the first time since the Weis era (seriously, how did y’all allow that to happen?!)?

With Tommy Rees once again the Irish starting QB, I can’t help but think of 2011′s tilt under the lights. After all, Rees will return to the scene of the nightmare that unfolded in that fourth quarter and there is no doubt those memories stick in the minds of both ND and Michigan fans a bit more than his performance in 2012.

However, this appears to be a different Rees, or Reesus, as he is now known among a good portion of the ND faithful. Rees had a career best 16-23, 346 yard, 3 TD performance against Temple in week one. Granted, the game was against Temple; however what stood out most was Rees’ accuracy, especially on the deep ball which has practically been non-existent in his ND tenure. 2011 Rees, aka Turnover Tommy, did not make an appearance and really only had one pass the was ever in real danger of being an INT.

The ability to get Amir Carlisle and the running game going is crucial to ND's success on Saturday (Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

Rees does not need a career day in order to beat Michigan; however, he must continue to protect the football and make smart passes. Otherwise, the Irish will find themselves scrambling to stay in the game.

Probably more important than Rees though, are the five, yes five, quality running backs. Amir Carlisle made his Irish debut with a bang, ripping off a 45 yard run with his first carry. George Atkinson III returns, although it seems Kelly is still hesitant to use him as an feature back due to his continuous failures to lower his pads which led to him getting rather rocked by a Temple defender on one of his initial carries. Cam McDaniel led the Irish in carries and maintained a very solid 5.4 yards per carry. Finally, you have freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston who Kelly seems to still be feeling out just how to use them.

Without a solid rushing attack, the Irish offense is dead in the water. The book on Tommy Rees is simple: rush three, drop eight and make him beat you with his arm. A solid rushing attack negates the defensive gameplan and opens the playbook up for the Irish.

Switching to the defense, it is hard to predict and preview just what the Irish will do. In the first half against Temple, the Irish ran man coverage more than they ever had in the Kelly era. On top of that, they blitzed more than I can remember in recent memory as well, and I’m not talking the usual 3-4 blitz that brings a fourth pass rusher, but ones that brought five or six to the line. This strategy backfired against Temple. Connor Reilly managed to settle in, made the proper hot reads and used his feet to take advantage of the open field that the spy-less man coverages gave him. In the second half, the Irish went back into their more familiar zone coverages and turned in a much better defensive performance.

I’m not exactly sure if defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was using Temple as a test for whether or not a more aggressive style of defense was viable or not. Either way, I wasn’t a fan of the results and I do not believe the Irish can go against Michigan running man coverage the majority of the time. If Temple receivers can find space against man-to-man coverage and Connor freakin’ Reilly can cause damage, I can only imagine what Michigan and Devin Gardner can do.

Instead, the Irish need to follow the 2012 defensive recipe to success: bend, don’t break. Keep plays in front and don’t get burned deep. Further, the Irish pass rush must remain as fearsome as it was last year to ensure that Gardner never gets as comfortable as Reilly did in the first half. Further, the Irish need to spy Gardner and ensure his tendency to scramble is neutralized as best as possible.

Should the Irish manage to put everything together as described above, there is no reason why the Irish’s last trip to Ann Arbor for the foreseeable future won’t be a successful one.

Notre Dame’s passing attack looked very good against Temple last week. Tommy Rees threw for a career high 346 yards on 16-of-23 and added three touchdowns. Despite putting up almost 550 total yards of offense they also gave up almost 400 yards to a Temple team that is not known for their football program. The star of the Temple offense was its quarterback, Connor Reilly, who passed for 228 yards while also rushing for 65 more on 12 carries. They allowed a lot of yards, though only one touchdown, and did not force a single turnover and only recorded one sack. Clearly this is not even close to the same Notre Dame defense as last year, at this point at least.

True, Tommy Rees played well and the Notre Dame offense was moving along quite well from a yardage standpoint, but it concerns me that they only managed to score four times on a Temple team that was 4-7 a year ago.

Without Everett Golson in the backfield the Notre Dame offense is a shade of what it was in the latter half of 2012. Rees is a capable quarterback with a ton of experience but he is not a threat to make plays with his legs like Golson. Most of the vaunted ND defense has returned but their inability to force any turnovers and only nab one sack against Temple is interesting.

Thomas Gordon returns from suspension to solidify the UM secondary against a good passing team (John T. Greilick, Detroit News)

If Michigan can keep ND out of their backfield making plays then this one won’t be close for long. The Irish had trouble with a mobile quarterback last week and odds are Devin Gardner is at least twice the athlete Connor Reilly is.

Thomas Gordon comes back this week to anchor the secondary and with the rust shaken off from last week Michigan should be in good shape back there. If they can limit the big plays, or even prevent them, then Michigan will be in prime position to win. The defensive front looked better, albeit against an overmatched CMU line, at creating pressure without the blitz and that should carry over. Mattison will still dial up some blitzes but if the front four can get there without them then this team is all the more dangerous. If Frank Clark and Co. can at least make Rees move around more than he wants and force him into some quick and/or bad decisions Michigan will win.

On offense, and in this series lately, it’s all about not turning the ball over. The team that commits the fewest turnovers wins, period. Last year Michigan gifted Notre Dame six turnovers and still had a chance to win the game late. The year before Notre Dame coughed it up five times, allowing Michigan to go on an epic game winning drive for the ages in the fourth quarter.

While Gardner did throw two picks last week we can probably chalk those both up to first game jitters and rust. He admitted they were bad (reads) passes and I’m sure it will be a point of emphasis in practice this week. Luckily for Gardner, he only has classes on Monday this fall, and with it being Labor Day this week he was left to focus solely on ND all week long. I don’t expect him to make those types of passes this weekend.

Fitz Toussaint looked pretty good running the ball and the offensive line opened up some good holes for both he and behemoth freshman Derrick Green. There was some concern about Green being overweight coming into camp but he looked solid to me and let’s be honest, he has tree trunks for legs so it’s no wonder he’s 240 pounds. If the line can open up some lanes again then the play-action pass should be set up nicely for Gardner.

This game will not be easy, but the keys to winning are simple. Limit the turnovers (win the turnover battle), pressure Rees into making bad decisions and run the ball well to set up the play-action passing game. That’s how Michigan will win.