Last week, Michigan might have gotten the wake up call that it needed when they were nearly defeated by the Akron Zips. Despite the lackluster performance, the Wolverines came out of the game victorious, winning by a score of 28-24. This Saturday, Michigan will go on the road for the first time as they face of against the University of Connecticut Huskies. The game will kickoff at 8 p.m. on Saturday on ABC.
Michigan comes into the contest at 3-0 after narrowly defeating Akron and UConn comes in at 0-2. The Huskies lost their opening game at home to Towson 33-18. After a bye week, Maryland visited UConn and defeated them 32-21. The Huskies are not a very good team. They have dropped their first two games of the season, both at home in front of their 40,000 person capacity stadium. Michigan should be able to handle the “prime-time” atmosphere, but they must focus on playing a heck of a lot better than last week.
Here are some of the keys to Saturday’s game.
Michigan offensive line
Through three games, the big guys up front haven’t performed as well as hoped. They were man-handled last week by a team that has gone 1-11 each of the last three seasons. Senior captain Taylor Lewan said after the win last week that the team must prepare better, or they will not win another game this season. With the way the O-line has played thus far, I would not be surprised to see some new guys playing in the interior line. Lewan and Michael Schofield are entrenched in the tackle positions, but the guys on the inside are on the hot seat after last week. Jack Miller, Graham Glasgow and Kyle Kalis could see a hit on their playing time this week as a result of their performance a week ago. Expect to see a new face or two, namely sophomore guard Chris Bryant.
The play of the offensive line is crucial to Michigan’s success. To date, they haven’t blocked for the run well enough and they have allowed too much pressure on their quarterback, Devin Gardner. I have to believe after last week’s scare that the offensive line will have a solid week of practice and be prepared to handle another inferior opponent on Saturday.
UConn’s defense has struggled in its two games this season, as it has given up 450 yards per game, which puts them at 104th in the nation. Akron’s defense wasn’t any better a week ago, but I think the offensive line will be ready this week.
Side note: Taylor Lewan was seen wearing a boot on his injured ankle from the Akron game. He referred to it as a “fashion statement” but he was limited in Tuesday’s practice. No need to worry though, as he is expected to start on Saturday.
Establish the run
Coming into this season, Michigan was thought to run more of a traditional pro-style offense that would feature a solid running game. So far, that is not the case, as their quarterback is their leading rusher through three games. Fitzgerald Toussaint has received most of the carries so far, but has been limited to just 199 yards on 55 carries (looking at you, O-line).
As stated before, I think the offensive line will come out and handle the Huskies and spring Fitz for some big runs and more consistent success in the running game. The Akron game might have been the best thing for this young Michigan team, giving it motivation each and every week, and not taking their opponents lightly.
It appears that the Wolverines are focused on Fitz as their primary back until proven otherwise. Freshman Derrick Green has received just one carry each of the last two weeks.
Toussaint has shown brief flashes of solid play so far, but a lot of that last week was negated by penalties from the offensive line.
I see Fitz having a big game and Michigan will rely less on the legs of Devin Gardner for its production in the running game. The UCONN defense struggles in all facets of its game, but it has allowed 215 yards on the ground per game this season, against teams far less talented than the Wolverines.
Defend the pass
For the second consecutive week, the Michigan defense allowed 300 yards passing. Akron was able to throw the ball all over last week due to a lack of pass rush (again) and relaxed coverage in the secondary.
Pass rush has been an issue in every game so far this season and I would like to think it will improve this week, but we will have to wait and see if that happens. The pressure showed up when it mattered most, as Brennen Beyer hit Pohl on the last play of the game last week. Michigan will need to see a lot more of that this week.
The Huskies feature a pretty big and experienced offensive line, but it has not done well in the run game or protecting its quarterback. It has allowed a fair share of pressure, which could lead to a number of sacks for the Michigan defense.
The secondary has also been put under the microscope because of the opposition’s success passing the ball. While the secondary is very young, they have under-performed through three games. Raymon Taylor was beat deep multiple times a week ago and Akron’s Kyle Pohl was able to drive down the field because of the way the D-backs played off of the receivers.
UConn relies on its passing game in their offense, as their running games is horrendous. Through their first two games, they have managed only 118 rushing yards. Lyle McCombs receives most of the carries for the Huskies in its inept running game. Their passing game, however, is much more productive. They throw for 278 yards a game, which is ranked 37th in the country. Quarterback Chandler Whitmer has thrown for a lot of yards, but also suffers from the turnover bug. He’s thrown for 3 touchdowns, but has also been picked off 3 times. Shakim Phillips has caught all 3 of those touchdowns and is UConn’s leading receiver coming into the game.
I expect to see a better performance out of the secondary this week. One bright spot so far has been Blake Countess, who added another interception last week. The young secondary will hopefully will get better with every game under its belt.
Devin Gardner has thrown an interception in every game this season. He threw for three last week and also fumbled once.
It is clear that this trend cannot continue if Michigan hopes to achieve its championship goals this season. Gardner has actually thrown an interception in every game he has started at quarterback in his career.
While Gardner played the “worst game of his career” last week, he also provided the Michigan offense with the majority of its yards. When Gardner is on, so are the Wolverines. They rely on him to do big things and turning the ball over is not one of them.
Gardner needs to start taking sacks when pressured and not force bad throws which eventually get picked off. That has been his biggest problem so far this season. His decision-making has been questionable at times this season, but I expect him to improve as the season progresses.
He should focus on making good reads and delivering high-percentage balls to his receivers. Jeremy Gallon, Devin Funchess, Jake Butt, Drew Dileo and now Jehu Chesson (emerged last week with first career catch and TD) have performed well when the ball has been delivered accurately to them.
Gardner will turn things around this week against a struggling Huskies defense. He assured in the post-game press conference last Saturday that the performance against Akron will not be repeated. I think I believe No. 98.
Other game notes
- Sophomore tight end A.J. Williams is recovering from an injured ankle, but fully participated in Tuesday’s practice.
- Senior safety and team captain Courtney Avery also practiced. He has been sidelined through the first three games after a scope was done on his knee a few weeks ago.
- Cam Gordon was limited in practice due to an undisclosed injury.
- Brady Hoke mentioned that Mario Ojemudia might be playing through some pain because of an injured shoulder.
- The last time Michigan and UConn faced off, former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson went off. Denard went 19/22 for 186 yards and a touchdown and added 197 yards rushing and another score, leading the Wolverines to a 30-10 victory. Could another big performance from a Michigan quarterback happen again?
Michigan comes in as the favorites once again (15.5 point favorite). Last week’s win against Akron will fuel the Wolverines to beat up on the Huskies on Saturday night. They will aim to improve vastly in all areas of its game and I think that they will on national television. Michigan will once again thrive under the lights to win 49-13 and I see Fitz Toussaint having a big day on the ground.