Friday, September 20, 2013

Breaking Points: UConn edition

I will be heading up to Madison, Wis., for the weekend, and I'm hoping to snag a ticket for the Badgers' Big Ten opener against Purdue (which kicks off at 2:30, well before Michigan hits Rentschler Field). This won't be a full-blown preview, just a list of various points of concern, hope, idle speculation, etc.

So, what should Michigan fans watch for as the Wolverines take on the 0-2 UConn Huskies? Here are some, none of which are probably news to you:

  • Good Devin Gardner vs. Evil Devin Gardner. Unfortunately, this was also a dichotomy that existed during the Denard Robinson era. As we've seen thus far, Gardner has killed Michigan--although not to the tune of a loss, yet--with turnovers, and not even of the understandable kind. Consider the first interception against CMU, the easiest pick six in the world against Notre Dame and a take-your-pick of last week's four turnovers against Akron, and you have a pretty Kafkaesque picture thus far. In short, Gardner needs to go out and have a pretty clean, mistake-free day against the Huskies, not because Michigan is in danger of losing if he doesn't, but because you'd just like to see a little improvement i.e. removal of those Bad Idea Jeans decisions. The season is still young, but the Huskies defense is tied for 66th in the country in forced turnovers, with two fumbles and two interceptions. If there are Michigan turnovers in this one, the odds are they'll be of the bad mistake kind and not as a result of UConn's defensive play. 
  • Non-existent pass rush vs. possibly non-existent UConn offensive line. The Huskies have allowed QB Chandler Whitmer to be sacked 10 times in two games, a number that ties them for 121st in the country in that category; only Idaho has allowed more sacks (a whopping 21 for the Vandals). This is where I kindly suggest that Frank Clark records a sack. If Michigan can't get to Whitmer at all on Saturday, it might be time to really start worrying about the Big Ten schedule, even when Jake Ryan gets back. For what it's worth, the Terrapins sacked Whitmer six times, including 2.5 from the amazingly named linebacker Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil
  • Run blocking vs. UConn's defensive front. After the Akron game, citing the following point is perhaps a mark of hubris, but after games against Towson and Maryland, the Huskies are ranked 104th in run defense. They've given up 430 yards on 93 carries, good for 4.6 yards per carry. One of these days, Michigan is going to find a poor run defense it can actually run against: maybe this is the week? I gave the offensive line more of the blame for last week's performance than I did Fitzgerald Toussaint, but after reading MGoBlog's offensive UFR, Toussaint definitely is missing more holes than I thought (and I was already of the mind that he was doing a little too much dancing). Against UConn, you'd like to see those one yard losses go for two yards (at least), and those 4-5 yard runs go for double digit yardage. Of course, this has been the biggest problem for Michigan post-2011, so another mediocre performance on the ground against a bad team would not be a surprise. 
  • Vanilla coverage vs. passing offense. Greg Mattison has stuck with fairly conservative coverages in the secondary thus far, and probably for good reason. However, against a pass-happy team like UConn, it will be interesting to see what Mattison does if UConn's dinking and dunking translates into semi-regular gains of the standard first down variety or, worse, the dreaded big plays (of which Michigan regrettably gave up a few against hapless Akron). Whitmer threw the ball 46 times against Maryland; Michigan's defensive backs must be ready to tackle immediately. Additionally, Whitmer has thrown three picks in two games, so the odds are good that he'll gift Michigan at least one. As long as Michigan's turnover margin is no worse than last week's minus two--which isn't asking a lot--there should be no real danger of losing this game. 
As strange as it is to say, this is an important game for Michigan, a sort of litmus test for many of Michigan's starters, if not all of them. While Michigan fans will want to see a smashing Bo-esque romp of a victory, I think a game marked by protection of the ball on offense and few (or zero) big plays allowed on defense will be the ticket for this one. Score: Michigan 38, UConn 14. 

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