The Wolverines needed a positive start to the Big Ten campaign. They especially needed offensive rejuvenation. After demolishing Central Michigan Chippewa’s, and embarrassing Notre Dame’s Irish on the biggest possible prime time stage, before a record crowd of over 115,000, expectations were raised regarding the Wolverine’s capabilities locally and nationally.
Lowly Akron let the air out of that rising balloon, by not rolling over and playing dead, though M finally labored to victory. While Akron is well-coached, and played hard, they are among the MAC conference bottom feeders. Akron had lost to Towson earlier in the season. Towson? They did not, of course, honor that type of play against the Wolverines, presenting a well-coached and feisty game.
Surely that bad anomaly could not happen again. Even when it did, it should not have. The anomaly presented again against the Huskies of Connecticut. Not now at their peak of football prowess, the Huskies have since replaced then Coach Paul Pasqualoni, and are a struggling football team. As against Akron, the Wolverines were opposed by a team with an outstanding game plan, and with M buried in its own mistakes, the game was narrowly won by a late combination of offensive and defensive heroics. Again, too close for comfort, too close to brag about. Was this becoming routine and not an anomaly any more?
Before Minnesota, the Wolverines had looked like a championship contender for two games, and like an also ran for the most recent two. They were winning the games, but losing respect. They couldn’t protect the passer or rush the football. Minnesota just had to be the tie breaker, one way or the other.
For the first quarter the Wolverines played second fiddle to the Gophers running game. They dominated the Wolverines in yardage, and time of possession. The Gophers controlled 11.14 minutes to 3.46 minutes. Sloppy tackling hurt.
While the score was tied 7 up at the end of the quarter, it was mainly though the largess of Minnesota fumbling the football early, caused by a Jabreel Black hit and a by James Ross recovery. Otherwise M’s offense and defense struggled, and this was as bad a quarter of Michigan football as you want to pay to see. After a 16-play, 75-yard Gopher drive, the score was knotted 7-7 to begin the second quarter. The Gophers converted all five third downs on the drive.
In the second quarter the teams traded punts garnering great field position. The Gophers downed a punt on the M two, but Matt Wile bettered that with a punt downed on the Gopher one. The Wolverines then benefited from good field possession, and eventually Gardner hit Funchess for the score, on a 3rd and 14 from the 24. M led 14-7 at the half.
Receiving to start the third quarter, the Wolverines turned the game in their favor with an impressive 75-yard drive featuring a 21-yard Gardner to Funchess hookup, capped by a tough Derrick Green TD run from 2-yards out. M traded a Gopher FG for a 12-yard Fitz Toussaint TD romp, and the quarter ended M-28, Minn-10. Both Gallon and Dileo contributed important catches on the most important drive of the game.
Minnesota made it 28 to 13 with another field goal to start the fourth quarter, and the Wolverines answered with two TDs. Devin ran one in from 2-yards out, and Blake Countess zipped into the end zone from 72-yards out. Final M-42, Minn-13.
Lack of offensive line production has been problematic all spring and fall. Fans questioned whether it could suddenly improve against the Gophers. For at least part of the second quarter and the last half, the offensive line produced reasonably effectively. There were a few negative plays. The offense produced 348-yards on 52-plays. Fitz Toussaint ran for 78-yards on 17 carries, scoring two TDs.
The coaches dusted off five star recruit Derrick Green and he got 26-yards on 10 carries, with a strong run for a TD. Like Fitz he had a long run of 14-yards. Fitz is not so durable as to do all the heavy lifting at RB, nor is Devin. It was good to unlimber Green, even if he produced only modest results.
Devin Gardner had the chance to settle in the pocket and fire the ball in good form. While his passing was a tad off at times, he was bailed out occasionally by great catches from Funchess and Gallon and all. DG completed 13 of 11 for 235-yards and a TD with a long of 46. Devin also ran for a TD, slipping inside the pylon with deft footwork. With no interceptions and only one miscue under center (recovered by M), his performance was virtually error free. This team had 9 interceptions going into the Gopher game, and 8 fumbles, with three lost. Gardner was able steady up. Better protection was a great part of that. The coaching staff and the offensive line earned credit in bettering both the running game and the quality of pass protection.
The offensive coaches were innovative in that they moved Taylor Lewan over to the right side where he lined up in the tight end position for an unbalanced line. This provided a stronger running base. Their experiment of moving Graham Glasgow from right guard to center, with beefy Chris Bryant becoming the left guard, seemed to work seamlessly and was an improvement. Equally satisfactory and innovative was some usage of Devin Funchess at wide receiver.
Hoke on the Funchess usage: “We obviously planned it that way, getting him out on the perimeter a little bit is mismatch in a lot of ways because he runs awfully well. He’s a big target. And then we get in some of the 11-personnel times that we want to, he’ll be at tight end. But just trying to really take advantage of his skill set.”
The take away from this game in terms of good: This was a much needed Big Ten win. The Wolverines had to restore some of their confidence after recent inexplicable struggles against two poor football teams. Results proved the tinkering with the offensive line mostly effective, and that Devin Funchess can play wide receiver. The running game was improved. The Wolverines continued to rule their home field under Coach Hoke. This win made it 18 straight at home. The Wolverines are again an improving football team. They played a good to outstanding game in the last half of the 2nd quarter, and in the second half, on both sides of the ball.
With the exception of the first quarter, the defense was generally good, especially in the red zone. Mike LB Desmond Morgan continues to improve. He had 10 tackles, six solo. The defense held the Gophers to 281 net yards. The Wolverines are slowly rounding into a better football team.
Take away from this game in terms of bad: That first quarter was a nightmare, and it just might belong in the category below. The Gophers owned the ball in that quarter. It was a miserably slow start that could prove fatal against better competition.
Take away from this game in terms of ugly: A seemingly serious injury to DT Ondre Pipkins. We will have to wait for official word, but unfortunately he came off the field not touching the ground with one leg. If so, this is a major blow to the defensive line, but we have to wait and see.
Fortunately, the coaches had a bye week in which to prepare for Minnesota. They determined Chris Bryant would replace Graham Glasgow at left guard as Graham moved to offensive center, and that is what happened. This sat Jack Miller. The offensive inertia did not belong solely to Jack Miller. When playing, he snapped well, but sometimes appeared physically overwhelmed. Bryant is a load at 6-4, 316. He whiffed some, but contributed.
It seems the nascent running game finally is developing into a “Michigan” running game, but there are sterner tests ahead, and solid improvement is still needed. Next Saturday at Penn State at 5:00PM will be a sterner test. It will be bedlam, a sea of white.
Jerry Kills’ charges came into to Ann Arbor with fire in their eye and with every intention of providing at least a year’s room and board to the fabled Little Brown Jug, but the Jug is safely at home, and another Homecoming is history. It will be interesting to see how future scores are placed on the jug, as it is out of notation space.
The “Blast from the Past” was there and participated in another innovative halftime show. Unfortunately, Minnesota Coach Jerry Kill was not there as he had suffered another health issue and was not able to make the trip. Brady Hoke praised Coach Kill at the after game press conference, wishing him well, as we all do. Fortunately, the predicted rain and thunderstorms did not issue out of the leaden skies on a warm fall afternoon. This one is in the books.
Bring on the Nittany Lions.