Aug 31, 2013; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines running back Thomas Rawls (38) quarterback Shane Morris (7) and fullback Sione Houma (39) celebrate a touchdown by Rawls second half against the Central Michigan Chippewas t Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Michigan opened the season last week against Central Michigan University (CMU). The game was dominated by the Wolverines from start to finish as Michigan defeated CMU 59-9. Michigan’s offense and defense clicked on all cylinders with the offense outgaining CMU 463 – 210. Let’s take a look at what the tape revealed about each unit of Michigan’s offense and determine what Notre Dame’s defense can expect next week.
In 2012 QB Devon Gardner started Michigan’s last five games after Denard Robinson went down with an injury. In those starts Gardner threw for 1,219 yards with 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions according to statistics at ESPN.com. Gardner continued that momentum in the team’s season opener as he threw for an efficient 10/15 for 162 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for 52 yards on 7 carries and two touchdowns (22 yards and 4 yards). Gardner spent most of the day in the shotgun or pistol formation which offensive coordinator Al Borges has determined as the most effective way to maximize Gardner’s skills. Gardner’s elusiveness and improv ability were on full display as CMU failed to keep him in the pocket and he scampered around the field to make plays.
On the downside, Gardner threw two interceptions in the game, one of them inside Michigan’s 10 yard line, and he missed several open receivers during the early stages of the game. At times the offense seemed sporadic and a bit out of sync, but Gardner running ability normally bailed the team out of any potential negative plays.
During the Denard Robinson era, Michigan leaned on the speedy quarterback to carry the load in the running game. While Gardner proved he can run as well, the opener against CMU showed that Michigan has healthy stable of horses in the backfield who are prepared to support Gardner and once again turn the Wolverines into a power running team. Michigan rushed for 242 yards on 47 carries with Fitz Touissant, the senior returning starter, chipping in 57 yards, most of it coming on a 20 yard carry early in the game.
With the game well in hand in the 2nd half, Michigan shuffled Derrick Green, De’Veon Smith, Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes through the backfield. During one of Michigan’s touchdown drives, Smith and Green carried the ball on all 10 plays of 55 yard scoring drive with Green breaking off a long 20 yard run. This group of young running backs seems poised to make a big impact for the Wolverines this season.
Going into 2013, Michigan fans expected returning starters WR Jeremy Gallon and TE Devin Funchess to provide safe outlets for Gardner as the younger receivers on the roster continued to develop. Gallon and Funchess performed to expectations against CMU catching a combined 6 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown (Gallon). Kick return specialist Dennis Norfleet slid into the slot receiver role and caught two passes. The receiver corps will continue to lean on Gallon and Funchess as Gardner develops into a better passer.
In Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield Michigan may have the best tandem of tackles in the country. Lewan was Big Ten Offensive Linemen of the Year in 2012 and an all-Big Ten selection. Ryan McCrystal at DraftFace.com tweeted that Lewan “might have been the best LT in the 2013 class” had he come out of college early, but he decided to stay. Lewan and Schofield’s leadership will be essential as the team trots out three new starters at right guard, center and left guard. The line struggled a bit during the opener, but Gardner’s elusiveness slowed down any pass rush from CMU and hid the deficiencies in the interior of that line.
When attempting to analyze the strengths/weaknesses of Michigan’s offense the season opener against CMU seems a bit ineffective because Michigan’s talent on offense and defense simply overwhelmed CMU. (Moreover Gardner and most of the starters were pulled midway through the 3rd quarter.) However, the game proved one avoidable fact: Michigan will go as far as Devon Gardner takes them. Gardner’s ability to make plays with his feet and his arm make him a dangerous combination especially in the B1G conference. Gardner’s pocket passing needs to improve for Michigan to reach the next level, but I expect Brady Hoke and Co to continue their emphasis on throwing downfield and using Gardner’s arm and legs to confuse defenses and win games.
After Notre Dame struggled to stop the scrambling of Temple’s young quarterback, the last thing Irish fans want to hear about is the running ability of Devon Gardner. But all is not lost. Notre Dame can dominate the young interior of Michigan’s offensive line which will limit the rushing game and keep Gardner in the pocket. Michigan’s receivers, although experienced, may have difficulty separating against Notre Dame’s cornerbacks which could provide the defensive front with enough to time to pressure Gardner. Expect Bob Diaco to call a conservative game that uses a simple, straight-forward pass rush, mixed with a zone coverage. If Notre Dame can contain Gardner in the pocket and force him into bad reads, they could stall Michigan’s offense and turn the game in Irish’s favor.