Spring practice has begun in Ann Arbor, Mich., but youwouldn’t know it by the weather. An early start combined with the lingering effects of the polar vortex has Michigan practicing indoors as snow and ice remain piled up outside.
The uncharacteristic sub-zero temperatures match the general mood after last season’s 7-6 finish.
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.
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Last week the Wolverines barely escaped an embarrassing loss at home against Akron. Within minutes of watching the Wolverines surrender two fourth-quarter touchdowns, and very nearly two more, Michigan head coach Brady Hoke decided that a Sunday practice was in order.
This week they barely survived an embarrassing loss on the road to Connecticut, winning 24-21.
Hoke might need to have the Wolverines practice right when the plane lands back in Ann Arbor, and not stop until after their bye week.
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Brady Hoke Monday 9/9 Press Conference Quotes
On Akron being a noon game. Donuts!
Is Devin Gardner Superman?
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In its second night game ever, the Wolverines unleashed the pack against the Irish in a spectacular Michigan Stadium setting under the lights, and before an energized crowd 115,109 strong. That is a college football single game attendance record.
At his Monday presser Coach Hoke thanked the fans for their participation. This is genuine appreciation and the second time this year he has stressed it. Saturday night was a stunning success in what is said to be the last Irish appearance in Ann Arbor for some years. As you know, Notre Dame has chosen to end the series, thus removing a spectacular competition from college football’s early season.
Both programs will continue to prosper despite the discontinuance. So will college football. But it seems it may be the Irish who may have sacrificed the most.
It was especially sweet to collar the Irish in this next to last opportunity. Michigan has lately dominated the Irish, but they are always a storied and tough opponent with a vaunted lucky streak no matter where they play, and Touchdown Jesus at home.
Saturday night the Wolverines played better football on both sides of the ball, but certainly did not play their best football. They were not perfect on either side of the ball, and neither were special teams. At his Monday presser Coach Hoke cited a bad punt, being out of lane on KO returns, and of course the hit out of bounds was a foolish penalty. No youthful excuses. This is “big boy” football.
Special teams had some problems, but they seem correctable. It is also a little worrisome that Dennis Norfleet appears to have a problem hanging onto punts, as he dropped one. Dennis had an overall good game otherwise. He has remarkable speed.
The Wolverines were still good enough for an impressive win. Notre Dame came to play as expected. They managed 314-net yards passing, and 96- net yards rushing, totaling 410-yards.
At his Monday press conference, Coach Hoke addressed the passing yardage. He indicated that M had planned to give up the short passes (7-yard hitch passes) in order to keep receivers in front of them. When the pass coverage area is compressed in the red zone, things improved.
Still, that 314-yards passing appears to be an area that needs work, as does stopping the run. Monday Brady said that there were not as many missed tackles (as he previously thought). Hoke on the defense postgame: “… I think you have to give Tommy Rees some credit. I think the kid is a good quarterback. He’s proven that against us now three years in a row. He’s accurate. They have some big-play receivers, we played mostly off when we did play man. We were going to give them some of those throws, and I think the thing that was disturbing a little bit was they ran the ball in there when we were set up defensively well enough where they shouldn’t. Even though we played mostly a seven-man front all day.”
On his thoughts on changing the defensive approach in the second half … “That was critical. You know, I think Greg (Mattison), especially in the second half, mixed some things up from a front standpoint to coverage standpoint, zone blitzes and then some zero blitzes, and I thought it worked out pretty well.”
Hoke on Monday on the team… “From an offensive standpoint we’ve got to pick up some of the interior blitzes better. I know (offensive line coach) Darrell (Funk) was disappointed because he thought they had enough looks at it to do a better job. Defensively we tried to play — and we did play this way for most of the game — with a seven-man front. We’ve got to fit the run a little better with a seven-man front. At the same time (Defensive coordinator Greg) Mattison talks about changing the math; and that means getting off the block and making tackles, and we’ve got to do that a lot better.”
The Wolverines countered ND’s production with 294-yards passing and 314 rushing for a total of 460-yards. A fairly close game, but M’s two interceptions by Blake Countess (his first and second) helped to vanquish them. Michigan has risen to 11 in the AP poll from 17.
At times the Devin Gardner led offense appeared unstoppable. He was 21 of 33 for 294-yards and 4 aerial TDs. He also ran for 82-yards and a score. Participation in 5 TDs is outstanding. Before the game he was awarded Tom Harmon’s 98 Legends Jersey. For the first time in 73 years, Number 98 was seen on a Michigan player.
Devin faltered in the second half when he scrambled in the Wolverine end zone, and tried to throw a pass to escape. Trapped, he was hit as he passed. It fluttered into the hands of the Irish and suddenly a 14 point lead became 7. Obviously chagrined, Devin left the field storming according to Coach Hoke: “He was storming off the field — I think there are different storms that can happen, and it wasn’t one that I think a lot of people would notice but when good things and bad things happen during the course of the game, I think he was pretty even, you know, as far as demeanor and how he looked.” Hoke said Monday that Devin’s ability to create is both a blessing and a curse. Said he will not slide. Too competitive.
He stayed “even” enough to engineer a 10-play, 75-yard TD that rescued his team’s peace of mind and his and the team’s fortunes on a four-yard TD pass to Jeremy Gallon. The jump from a four point lead to an eleven point lead severed Irish comeback expectations. Hoke on what went through his mind when Devin (Gardner) threw the fourth-quarter interception and if Hoke went one-on-one with him … “Every time he comes off the field we talk. It may be ‘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, and they were efficient in some things.
“When he came off the field I didn’t have to say a word to him, because he was beating himself 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, it’s a blessing and a curse sometimes when you have that ability.”
Fitz Toussaint was large in the second half even if the coaches are not entirely satisfied with TB rushing yardage contributions yet. Fitz’s 22-yard gallop in the second half was very much needed. He rushed 22 times for 83-yards.
Devin had some help from his receiving friends, too. Jeremy Gallon is of smurf size, but he plays as big as anybody and bigger and better than many. Gallon snagged eight passes for 184-yards and 3 TDs. He has become an outstanding receiver in combination with Devin. Devin on his chemistry with Gallon … “He’s like a bulldog. We work so hard, since I got here. You guys are just now seeing it, but behind the doors we’ve been working so hard, and we’re finally getting an opportunity to display it in front of the biggest crowd in college football.” On his first TD catch Gallon made a tremendous spin move to race to pay dirt.
Another reliable and talented smurf is Drew Dileo and he provided the Wolverine scoring capper with 4-yard TD grab culminating a 75-yard TD drive that iced the victory by putting the Wolverines up 41-30. Devin was poised and determined, as well as right on target, during this drive that became so critical because of his earlier interception.
Brief recap and scoring:
The defense held on the first ND possession. A 3-play, 77-yard drive ensued and B. Gibbons hit a FG of 44-yards. M-3, ND-0. Gallon then snagged a pass he turned into a 61-yard TD (as described above). M-10, ND-0.
Notre Dame answered with a 75-yard 10-play drive. M-10, ND-7.
Gardner got 6 on a 2-yard run. A 12-play, 75-yard drive. M-17, ND-7. ND and M each nailed FGs of 22 and 32-yards respectively. M-20, ND-13. Gallon caught another TD, this time a 12-yard score. M-27, ND 13. Countess came up with an outstanding interception and returned it 30-yards to the ND 23-yard line. Gardner to Gallon took it in from there, for a 12-yard score, culminating a 23-yard drive. M was up 27-13 at the half. Wrong again, I thought it was turning into a rout.
Third Quarter: ND remedied my misconception after the half by producing 6 via a 90-yard, 12-drive to make it 27-20, but Gardner to Gallon made it 34-20 on a 13-yard pass, driving 78-yards on 7-plays.
Devin gave up six by his end zone miscalculation of trading a two point safety for an end zone interception. M-34, ND-27, and then ND compounded the misery by means of a 6-play, 29-yard drive for a 40-yard FG. M-34, ND-30. This last drive benefited from two pass interference calls on ND.
A Gardner to Dileo pass already described provided the scoring capper for a happy final of 41 to 30. But with 4:18 left it was not over. The M KO went out of bounds. Starting at their 35 the Irish proceeded to M’s 6-yard line with a couple of minutes on the clock. ND QB Tommy Rees fired a pass into the end zone. M’s Taylor hit it with his knee. It caromed into the air and Countess pulled it in to preserve the lead and the win. This was the second carom reception of the day. The first was on the first Irish TD.
This game provided unforgettable spectacle and competition as well as a boost to Wolverine hopes and expectations for the season. But the Wolverines have moved on to competing with the Akron Zips next Saturday in their first meeting.
A proud MAC team, they would like nothing better than to beat the Wolverines, and the Wolverines would like nothing better than to treat them as they treated their fellow league members the Chippewas. Under Head Coach Brady Hoke the Wolverines have won sixteen straight at home. They are always in need of another.
Note: I apologize that this article was not published in as timely a fashion as usual due to some onetime and unavoidable personal circumstances. Next week and in the weeks thereafter it will be in the usual timeslot. Hope you are there.