We're about 24 or so hours from when Nebraska arrives at Michigan Stadium to take on the Wolverines in front of another six-figure crowd in Ann Arbor.
Earlier this week, we gave Maize n Brew, the Michigan SBNation community our takes on their questions. So, naturally of course, we had questions about the Wolverines too.
For that, I inquired some things to Zack Travis, manager of the MnB site. I would like to thank him for his help, and of course invite you to head over there for their insight on Saturday and Sunday as well.
1. So, honestly, at 6-2 also, it seems like Michigan folks are not as frustrated as Nebraska folks have been in their season’s results. However, with the close calls to Akron and UConn, along with the Penn St and Michigan St losses, what’s the mood of the fanbase and team? Certainly the season isn’t lost yet, but is there some massive frustration?
I guess you haven't been hanging around too many UM message boards lately. The mood is dark. Scoring six points on 168 yards of offense against your once-downtrodden in-state rival for a fifth loss in six years has a way of sending everyone off the deep end. While the severity of Michigan's loss was in some ways predictable, that doesn't comfort the masses.
Right now probably half the fan base wants to see Michigan fire its offensive coordinator, Al Borges, at the end of the season. This year isn't the first in which Michigan has struggled to build a consistent, coherent offensive attack. It also isn't the first year in which Michigan has had to deal with a quarterback that is turnover prone and an offensive line that is either too shallow or too young (or both) to effectively run and pass block.
Michigan was pegged as an 8-4/9-3 team by just about everyone who wasn't completely delusional coming into the season, and that looks like it will probably hold. If Michigan plays well over the next three weeks the Wolverines end with nine wins. It wouldn't be out of the question for Michigan to drop two games over the next three weeks, but the rest of the Legends division foes all have fairly substantial issues to work through as well. This falls right in line with what most of us expected, and while the two losses were both different kinds of heartbreaking, there isn't anything about Michigan that we've seen which is a complete surprise.
Brady Hoke still largely has the fan base, but Michigan fans are notoriously fickle and prone to meltdowns, so anything short of winning out and beating Ohio State is probably going to have a portion of the fan base heading over to Ann Arbor Torch and Pitchfork in the offseason to prepare for next season.
Gardner has had a weird season. He has been prone to turnovers, but that has eased up the last few weeks. His games against Notre Dame and Indiana were some of the all-time great games by a Michigan quarterback while games against Akron, UConn, and Michigan State were all-time bad. He has even done all of the above in the course of one game, throwing two early picks against Penn State but rebounding to give Michigan a lead late in the fourth quarter.
Gardner's biggest problem has been sustaining success. He tends to not have the short memory required of a quarterback. He will make mistakes and then let those mistakes crop up later on. His footwork and defensive reads start to struggle and he forces plays that lead to turnovers. When he is on he is really effective and can be an explosive play maker capable of throwing down field much better than Denard Robinson ever could. However, when he gets into a rut it isn't easy for him to bounce back.
He actually fits fairly well within the passing constraints of Borges's offense as long as he is mindful of his mechanics. He isn't always perfect, but his ability to extend plays and create something out of nothing makes it worth it most of the time. When Borges decides to run Gardner it is usually Michigan's most effective run threat, and Gardner is a better scrambler than Robinson was. If Gardner can keep his turnovers in check, he is capable of doing a lot of damage against most defenses.
The defense gets a bad rap, but Michigan's D has actually been above average all year and the undisputed strength of the team. The problem is, you just don't see it unless you really look.
It all starts with the run defense. Michigan has been one of the better teams in the country at stopping the run. The Wolverines currently sit 11th in yards/carry allowed at 3.2, and Michigan has only given up three runs of 20+ yards all season. This is the key to Michigan's defense, as the Wolverines are able to limit teams from ripping off big plays and force opponents to put together long drives to score. Michigan is giving up a lot of yards/game passing (255, 98th nationally) but doing so at a better than average rate on a per play basis (6.8 yards/attempt, t-41st nationally).
Indiana gave Michigan some issues, but a lot of that was based on the breakneck pace of the Hoosier offense. The Penn State score of 43 points came on 15 drives in regulation. Two of Penn State's four touchdowns came directly after UM turnovers that set PSU up in the red zone. A third was PSU's last minute drive in which Allen Robinson was Allen Robinson. Michigan forced four three-and-outs, three field goal attempts, three turnovers, and a turnover on downs on those other drives. The defense biffed the final drive, but it put Michigan's offense in a position to win.
Against MSU, Michigan's defense kept the game within ten points despite playing way behind in field position all afternoon. The defense even set Michigan's offense up with an opportunity to score a touchdown on a short field late in the game and pull it within three points, but the offense squandered that, which gave way to two late touchdowns by Michigan State's defense after the game was already well in hand.
Michigan's defense isn't a great unit, but it is good enough to force opposing teams to beat it with consistent execution all the way down the field, and in doing so, Michigan's defense has been very good at putting the Wolverines in a position to win games. Unfortunately, the defense isn't yet good enough to go out an win games itself, which would be a real asset with this offense.
Patience is running low, but I don't think Hoke is in any real trouble. He helped fix the abomination that was the defense, turned recruiting around quite a bit, and has brought a great deal of stability to a program that had almost none left in the final days of Rich Rodriguez. If anyone is feeling the heat it is offensive coordinator Al Borges, but I would be shocked if anything was done after this year. He will almost certainly get one more year to run this offense.
Michigan mostly needs to level out this year. If the Wolverines can go 9-3 — a very real possibility — that would be some slight positive momentum after an up and down season. Next year the defense returns almost totally in tact, the offensive line will be a year older for the most part, Gardner will be back for one more year, and he should be surrounded by a lot of promising young skill position talent. The schedule gets harder next year, but anything less than a serious run at the Big Ten title game would begin stage two in the crumbling of support for Hoke.
6. Are there any players that Nebraska fans should watch that you haven’t mentioned yet? To be honest, Devin Funchess scares the hell out of me, because if Minnesota’s bunch can make Nebraska’s LB core look bad.... /wails.
Funchess would be a good one to watch out for, but he is basically a really big WR at this point since he can't really block on the line effectively. If you see him with his handin the dirt it is most likely a pass. The other player on offense that you might want to keep an eye out for is Jehu Chesson, a RS Fr. wide receiver who has been slowly improving this year. Last week he caught a 58-yard pass against MSU against double coverage, and he has speed to burn as well as lots of size to get over top (6'3). Gallon and Funchess are the big names, but he has the size and athleticism to be a big play threat if given the chance.
On defense, you already know SAM linebacker Jake Ryan, but one of the keys to Michigan's great run defese has been the play of Michigan's inside linebackers, Desmond Morgan and James Ross III. Morgan is a western Michigan kid that has started pretty much since he stepped on campus and slid over to MLB this season. He is a heady, hard hitting linebacker that has a great knack for beating blocks and getting to the ball carrier. Ross III is a sophomore and is in his first year as a regular starter. He has lightning quick instincts and flows quickly to the ball from the WLB spot. These two have been all over opponents rush lanes and that has helped Michigan run out such an effective per play rush defense.
7. Prediction time. Tell us how you see the game playing out, and a final score prediction.