Michigan was the trendy pick to win the Big Ten's west division in 2013 until narrow escapes against 3-7 Akron and winless UConn caused many to reconsider. The defense has been an issue the last three games, giving up 43 to Penn State, 47 to Indiana, and 29 to Michigan State. Some might forgive the Penn State loss as it ended after four overtimes, but the defense still gave up 34 points in regulation.
Quarterback Devin Gardner hasn't been the offensive spark that many expected after the end of last season. He's still completing less than 60% of his passes with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He's still Michigan's second leading rusher with 474 yards and nine touchdowns. Fitz Toussaint is Michigan's only other rushing threat; he's rushed for 595 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. Last week against Michigan State, Toussaint only rushed for 20 yards. Backup freshman running back Derrick Green has rushed for only 105 yards, as he's been limited to mopup duty for the most part.
Gardner's primary target in the passing game this season is Jeremy Gallon, who's caught 50 passes for 898 yards and seven touchdowns. Tight end Devin Funchess is next with 29 receptions for 557 yards and four touchdowns. Drew Dileo has only eight catches this season, and has only played sparingly over the last month due to an unspecified injury; he's expected to return to action this weekend.
Junior cornerback Raymon Taylor leads Michigan's defense with 56 tackles as well as eight pass breakups with three inerceptions. Fellow cornerback Blake Countess has four interceptions on the season. Junior middle linebacker Desmond Morgan's 55 tackles and sophomore weakside linebacker James Ross III's 54 tackles rank second and third on the team. Strongside linebacker Jake Ryan is indeed back from his ACL surgery, getting the start last weekend against Michigan State.
Looking at the statistics, Michigan ranks tenth in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 154.9 yards a game. The Wolverines 3.7 yards per carry average trails only Purdue. Michigan's offense relies on Gardner's arm; the Wolverines rank fourth in the Big Ten in passing. Defensively, Michigan ranks 11th in the Big Ten defending the pass, giving up 255 yards each game. Michigan's the best rush defense that Nebraska has faced so far, giving up just 105 yards per game, ranking fourth in the Big Ten.
I'm not sure the statistics will tell us much about this game, thanks to the injuries to Nebraska's offense. But it would seem that Nebraska's offensive strength matches up with Michigan's defensive strength. Could Nebraska win a defensive battle? That would seem to be unlikely, based on results thus far. Below, you'll find our preseason previw of the Michigan Wolverines.
Preseason Preview of the Michigan Wolverines
Many people think that Michigan's 2012 football season turned in the second quarter of last year's game at Nebraska. The Wolverines were driving deep into Nebraska territory when Denard Robinson injured a nerve in his elbow of his throwing arm. Robinson had to leave the game, and was replaced by redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy who was awful. Almost Joe Bauserman awful. 16 passes, 3 completions to Michigan receivers, 3 interceptions to Nebraska's secondary. Michigan would only get a field goal on that drive, and another late in the third quarter as Nebraska won 23-9. The next week, Devin Gardner moved back from receiver to quarterback for the rest of the season to lead Michigan to the Outback Bowl. Robinson missed the next two games, then played running back and receiver the rest of the season. Some speculate that if Gardner had been inserted into the Nebraska game, Michigan would have won in Lincoln. Maybe, though it's important to remember that Nebraska led Michigan on the scoreboard and on the statistics sheet that that point. Gardner could have made the game closer, but it wouldn't automatically result in a Wolverine victory in Lincoln.
This season, Gardner will be Michigan's quarterback barring any sort of injury. Bellomy tore an ACL in the spring, so if Gardner goes down to injury, Michigan likely would turn to true freshman Shane Morris, a five star recruit who is the ideal prospect for Al Borges' offense. At 6'4" and 210 pounds, Gardner isn't a bad fit for Borges' preferred pro-style attack. Last season, he completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 1,219 yards and eleven touchdowns in five games despite spend most of last year practicing to be a receiver, not quarterback. Now, that Gardner is firmly entrenched at quarterback, his numbers will undoubtedly improve in his junior season. After the starters, it's likely that the Wolverines will look to a large, touted group of freshmen that Brady Hoke has been assembling the last couple of years. This is a young group that could become special down the line.
In Borges' ideal offense, Gardner (or Morris) would turn often to a strong ground game to open up the passing attack. That could be an issue in 2013. Senior Fitzgerald Toussaint exploded as a sophomore in 2011, earning honorable mention all-Big Ten honors by rushing for 1,041 yards. Toussaint wasn't the same back in 2012 as he was suspended for the season opener, then suffered a broken leg in mid-November against Iowa. In between, he rushed for only 514 yards in ten games. How healthy will the 5'10" 200 pound Toussaint be in 2013, and can he put up numbers like he did in 2011? If Toussaint isn't ready to go, Michigan may turn to junior Thomas Rawls, who rushed for 246 yards and four touchdowns in eight games last season. The 5'10" 217 pounder saw more action after Toussaint's injury, though not as much as Robinson did. Both Toussaint and Rawls probably will have to fight off true freshman Derrick Green, another five-star recruit that arrives in Ann Arbor this month. The 5'11" 220 pound has both size and speed, and frankly, I suspect that by the time Nebraska arrives in Ann Arbor, Green will be the heralded new star of the Michigan offense.
One of the reasons why Gardner was moved to wide receiver was a lack of depth, and that situation frankly hasn't improved much. Senior Jeremy Gallon caught 49 passes last season for 829 yards and four touchdowns. More importantly, he caught 31 of those passes in the five games that Gardner started at quarterback. Extrapolate that over a full season, and the 5'8" 187 pound Gallon should put up even bigger numbers in 2013. Senior Drew Dileo (5'10" 180 pounds) will see more playing time without having to compete with Gardner or the departed Roy Roundtree. Look for Michigan to involve their impressive group of tight ends even more in 2013. Sophomore Devin Funchess caught 15 passes for 234 yards and five touchdowns last season. He's hit the weights this offseason and is up to 229 pounds on his 6'5" frame. He'll be joined by a couple of true freshmen who should impress immediately. With a name like Jake Butt, you have to expect him to be a great blocker at 6'6" and 235 pounds, but he's also got some speed to create mismatches with defenses. 6'2" 230 pound Khalid Hill also has great hands who could help make some clutch possessions.
The offensive line only returns two starters, but when one of them is senior all-American left tackle Taylor Lewan (6'8" 308 pounds), that probably counts for much, much more protecting Gardner's blind side. Senior Michael Schofield (6'7" 303 pounds) is a three year starter on the offensive line and will start at right tackle. Redshirt freshmen Ben Braden (6'6" 314 pounds) and Kyle Kalis (6'5" 297 pounds) will take over at left and right guard, while sophomore Jack Miller (6'4" 291 pounds) will start at center after playing in six games last season.
The one certainty up front with the Michigan defense is junior weakside defensive end Frank Clark (6'2" 277 pounds). Clark only started four games, but came up with a big game against Ohio State with a big sack and a fumble recovery. Senior nose tackle Quinton Washington (6'4" 305 pounds) started ten games last season, and will have to fight off sophomore Ondre Pipkins (6'3" 308 pounds) who played in every game last season. Senior defensive tackle Jibreel Black (6'2" 276 pounds) seems likely to start at the other tackle spot, while it's probably anybody's guess who'll emerge to replace Craig Roh at the strongside end spot. Phil Steele suggests true freshman Taco Charlton (6'6" 265 pounds), Lindy's suggests redshirt freshman Chris Wormley (6'4" 290 pounds), while CFN and Maize and Brew both suggest redshirt sophomore Keith Heitzman (6'3" 277 pounds). No matter who it is, there can't help but be a dropoff from Roe, who was a second team all-Big Ten honoree last season.
At the end of last season, Michigan's linebacker corps looked absolutely loaded, even with Kenny Demens departure. Then junior Jake Ryan (6'3" 241 pounds) tore his ACL this spring, and while Ryan is on track to return to the field by midseason, it's not likely that he'll return at second-team all-Big Ten level. Last season, Ryan lead the Michigan defense with 88 tackles, including 16 for loss. Repacing Demens at middle linebacker will be junior Desmond Morgan (6'1" 227 pounds), who racked up 63 and 81 tackles the last two seasons starting at weakside linebacker. That creates an opening for sophomore James Ross (6'1" 223 pounds), who impressed in limited action last spring.
In the secondary, Michigan has to find replacements for three-time honorable mention all-Big Ten honorees J.T. Floyd at cornerback and Jordan Kovacs at free safety. Senior Thomas Gordon (5'11" 207 pounds) will slide over from strong safety this season; in 2012, Gordon tied for third on the team with 81 tackles. Junior Raymon Taylor (5'10" 186 pounds) returns at cornerback after totaling 45 tackles and two interceptions last season. At the other corner position, junior Blake Countess (5'10" 181 pounds) is set to return after tearing his ACL in last year's season opener. As a freshman, he started six games and totaled 44 tackles. Replacing Gordon at strong safety will be sophomore Jarrod Wilson (6'2" 196 pounds), who impressed this spring after seeing only limited action in 2012.
With Michigan sliding over from the West to the East division in 2014, this is the last time Nebraska will see the Wolverines in the regular season until at least 2018. Many pundits give Michigan the edge in this game since the game is in Ann Arbor. I suspect that this game comes down to how well Nebraska's new defensive front seven can handle the Michigan ground attack with either a healthy Fitzgerald Toussaint or Derrick Green at running back. Since both positions are question marks going into the season, this is a matchup to take a second look as 2013 unfolds.