The University of Michigan Wolverines invaded East Hartford, Connecticut to face Connecticut’s Huskies in their second prime time football game of the season. Not only were they trying to secure their first victory away from the friendly confines of Michigan Stadium this season, where they seem to win whether they play well or not under Coach Brady Hoke, they wanted to erase any vestiges of doubt caused by last Saturday’s edging of a game Akron team. While they won, they did not accomplish that goal. For a large portion of the game, I thought Bill Martin had done us an extreme disfavor for scheduling this home and home. Many questions remain unanswered.
There were sighs of relief after the game last Saturday, but appropriately little victory jubilation was justified or evident. They were a pretty somber group of Wolverines after that game at the press conference. Captain Taylor Lewan provided a forcefully unique tirade regarding the team’s performance. He certainly was blaming the concentration and intensity without blaming individuals directly. That did not seem help to improve Saturday night’s offensive performance. The errors at the Quarterback position (2 interceptions and a fumble) and elsewhere (lost another fumble for a total of 2 of their 4 fumbles). This kept the heat on the Wolverines while the effort of Connecticut deserves credit. They also came to play. UConn had 3 sacks, their first of the year.
Last minute heroics by both the offense and defense, preserved the victory both last Saturday and this, but when it comes down to the necessary victory ingredient being a last minute scores and desperate defensive stands late in game against over matched opponents, things have obviously not gone well. Especially against two determined teams of provable lesser quality. That M did score 17 straight points is a bright spot.
The play of Devin Gardner in this one was perplexing. He demonstrated an inability to get rid of the football to avoid a sack. He often carries an unsecured football, but in spite of all this, he is still the Wolverines’ best offensive weapon, and it isn’t even close. His 11 passes netted only 64-yards, and no TDs. He had 3 sacks. Devin ran 19 times for 120 net yards and a TD.
This week was eerily similar in tone to last week. Down in the 4th quarter, and offensively sputtering, it seemed old mo was on the other side, this time UConn. Mike LB Desmond Morgan dropped into the passing lane and made a remarkable one handed collar of a Husky pass in the secondary, and rumbled forward 30-yards to the 12-yard line. Fitz ran it in for the 21-21 tie.
The Wolverines were sloppy regarding penalties, turnovers, and pass protection, both last week and this week. Their offensive execution was not consistently sharp, both weeks, but especially in the first half this week’s game. The second quarter was a nightmare. It seemed they had an extended Notre Dame game hangover. Finally, they did just enough to win.
Redemption was a prime Wolverine goal Saturday night, to prove they could play so-called “Wolverine” football, and that were ready for the grueling Big Ten season. Perhaps the defense is ready, or can soon be ready, but obviously the offense is not. This game was hardly reassuring on that count, and relieved few concerns..
The rushing game had been underwhelming, other than Gardner. They wanted to hone that against the Huskies and did to a small degree. The ground game was a priority over the spring and fall camps, yet it remains inconsistent. A 3.7-yards per rushing carry was dismal prior to Saturday’s game, and now is only slightly better.
Fitz Toussaint had his best rushing game of the season, but even so there were too many plays stopped for losses. Fitz rushed for 120-yards, and scored two second half TDs. The rushing attack totaled two-hundred yards and three TDs but was inconsistent, and ineffective for chunks of the game. Reference much of the first quarter, and the terrible second quarter. It appears that this offense is not sure of its identity, but that the defense is making strides. UConn got just one first down in the first quarter, but had three sacks on the day.
Devin Gardner again showed that he can make plays with his feet, but he took unnecessary sacks, fumbled, threw interceptions, seemed to have his confidence shaken in the passing game, and does not seem to be improving from prior games this year. Not a stellar performance by Devin. Even so, he did enough to enable a win.
Defensively, M needed a pass rush. It was thought Frank Clark would provide it, even though he had played below expectation in that area before the game with the Huskies. He was outstanding Saturday. Only five sacks going into this game was dismal for the defense. The defense improved on that statistic. Frank contributed two sacks.
In Connecticut, M faced their second trap game in a row. The Huskies home base is Rentschler Field. An estimated 42,000 attended. M visions of a switch to a nearby pro stadium and filling it with pro Wolverine fans was understandably squashed by the Connecticut AD. Michigan’s football reputation being what it is, this was deemed by them to maybe be the best football program to play in their stadium. A win would have cemented their football reputation like none other, and they almost made it happen.
Built in 2003, they packed 42,000 into Rent, which was sold out for M’s second night game of the year. Michigan had better talent, more speed, and three wins on the season. The Huskies had lost to Towson 33-18, and 33-18 to Maryland. East coast writers gave the Huskies little chance, even though the Huskies were well coached under Paul Pasqualoni, who coached in the NFL Some critics saw his job in jeopardy with the unpopular loss to Towson. A perfect trap was set.
U Conn is now a refugee from the Big East Conference. The Huskies are part of the American Athletic Conference (AAC). Their football high point was participation in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl, which they lost to Oklahoma.
UConn team has some talent, not the least of which is Yarwin Smallwood. He had 14 tackles against Maryland,16 against Towson, and 17 against the Blue. He caused a fumble. Huskies QB Chandler Whitmer has a strong arm and good receivers. Unfortunately for their cause, they had three dinged starters, including Yarwin, who played anyway, and showed no effects. Whitmer lost 34-yards rushing but completed 16 of 32 passing attempts for 159-net yards, and two TDs. He suffered 4 sacks, plus the game changing Morgan interception.
Matt Wile punted well, but put a KO out of bounds at a critical time. Drew Dileo returned three punts, one of them at crunch time for 24-yards.
Michigan’s offensive prowess played second fiddle to its defense in the first. Gardner threw an interception on M’s first possession, but recovered to score the only TD of the quarter, on a 69-yard, 11-play drive. Devin supplied a 17-yard scoring run. M-7, UC-0.
The M offense continued to stumble, with another interception being thrown. UC drove to 7 with an 11-yard pass, and it was 7 all. M fumbled and UC subsequently scored on a 7-yard pass. M-7, UC-14.
The Wolverines received the KO, punted, held, then fumbled. On a weird error by the M offensive punt team, a punt rolling on the ground was touched. UConn reovered, and advanced thirty-four yards for a score. M-7, UC-21. Fortunately that ending UConn’s scoring for the day. Fitz ran in a 35-yarder after the defense held. M-14, UC-21, to restore a degree of hope.
At 9:55 Desmond Morgan made his leaping interception and thirty-yard run to the UC 12. Fitz scored from there on a very nice run, and it was tied at 21 up. Brendan Gibbons secured the final lead with a 21-yard FG. Final M-24, UC-21. M’s defense was outstanding in the 4th quarter and U Conn QB Whitmer was often not left standing in that quarter.
The bright spot in this game was the play of the defense. Many of the younger players played at crunch time, and acquitted themselves generally well. Chris Wormley contributed.
The future effectiveness of the offense remains a question with Big Ten play coming up. Against good teams, and UConn was not one, offensive mistakes could bury the Wolverines championship hopes. It is not all Devin Gardner, although his errors are a consistent concern. The consistency of the offensive line is another. Outside of Devin, the running game is not robust, even with Fitz running for 120-yards against inferior football competition. UConn had not had a sack this season and got three against the Wolverines. The past two Saturdays have proved more of a challenge to the Wolverines than expected.
If there ever is a time to give others a look on the OL, and tweak it, now is the time with a bye coming up.
Those pesky Gophers look more competitive this year. Is possession of the jug in jeopardy?
Like last week it is so much better to teach when winning, rather than losing, but the hurdles will continue to be tougher to surmount as this season progresses. The Wolverines will have to rise to the challenge. They are not there yet.