I was fortunate enough to get together with Justin Potts of the excellent Michigan website Maize and Go Blue for a quick tete-a-tete regarding the upcoming Outback Bowl. I gave him a quick rundown on some of my thoughts on the game here. One of his co-writers also has a great story on Carolina's only two past matchups against the Wolverines here. Below, you'll find Justin's answers to a few questions I posed to him. He provides a great deal of insight into Michigan that I'm sure those of you who are curious about this opponent will appreciate.
1. Fill us in on the status of Denard Robinson. How is his injury looking for the game? What will his role be, and what will the role of Devin Gardner be? How would you expect play-calling to differ when one or the other player is taking the snap?
I would expect Denard to be fully healthy or very close. Brady Hoke is certainly playing coy about Denard's status, which means no one outside of Schembechler Hall will truly know until game time. As for his role and the play-calling, I think we will see a gameplan very similar to what was utilized against Iowa, which was using Denard in a variety of spots on the field (tailback, split wide, slot), but expanded upon. Bowl games have the unique aspect of giving teams four or five weeks of prep time for their opponent. It's always interesting to see how some teams come out looking like a completely different team (see Michigan's win over Florida in the 2008 Capital One Bowl), while others come in flat (see Michigan's 2007 Rose Bowl loss to USC). I think in this instance, with the situation Michigan is in, it favors the Wolverines because the offense evolved late in the season in Denard's absence, and having him back fully healthy adds a wrinkle that will be very hard for South Carolina to prepare for.
What doomed Michigan against Ohio State was how predictable the offense became in the second half. OSU's defensive coordinator said after the game that they knew every time Denard was under center it was a run and every time Devin Gardner was behind center it was a pass. I think Al Borges was thrilled to have a halftime lead and adjusted the gameplan to be more conservative in the second half to preserve the lead, rather than keep the foot on the gas pedal like it was in the first. Part of the problem was the lack of practice time week-to-week he had to work Denard in to different packages, so there was some limitation on the number of ways he could be used.
With five weeks to gameplan for the Outback Bowl and practice using Denard in various spots, I think we will see a much more diverse offense that includes giving Denard the ability to throw. No, he's not the best passer and never will be, but giving him the ability to throw, which he hasn't done in a game since his injury in Week 8, will keep the defense from being able to do what Ohio State's did in the second half of that game. In order for Michigan to win, that has to be the gameplan, because simply dropping Gardner back to pass would just be "Clowney-ing" around.
2. I've read it repeated several times that Michigan has a questionable pass defense despite having one of the best pass defenses statistically in the country. Could you extrapolate on that a little bit?
Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison and Secondary Coach Curt Mallory have done wonders for the Michigan defense and especially the secondary since taking in the past two years. That's especially evident this season after the best cornerback on the team who had a breakout freshman campaign in 2011, Blake Countess, was lost for the year in the season opener.
The success of the pass defense (#2 nationally) is somewhat perplexing when you consider how infrequently Michigan gets to the quarterback (19 sacks) or even puts pressure on him. The defensive line has been okay, but severely lacks a good rush end like Clowney. Despite the improvement in technique of the secondary and the better coaching they have received, the high pass defense ranking is more of a product of not facing many good passing teams. Look at the pass offenses and where they rank nationally: #54 Purdue, #76 Notre Dame, #77 Michigan State, #84 Alabama, #89 Nebraska, #99 Iowa, #101 Ohio State, #105 Minnesota, #106 Illinois, #108 Northwestern, #118 Air Force. All but Purdue rank behind South Carolina in pass offense.
The secondary took another hit last week when senior cornerback J.T. Floyd was suspended, leaving Courtney Avery to fill his shoes and necessitating moving freshman running back/kick returner Dennis Norfleet to corner to provide depth and speed. Avery hasn't proven he can be a starter, which is why he was passed over on the depth chart by Countess last year and Raymon Taylor this year. Taylor has done well and could be very good in a couple of years, but SC should be able to pick on Avery often.
3. You've probably read a little bit about our QB situation: both Dylan Thompson and Connor Shaw will play, and the two have different styles, with Thompson being more of a traditional Spurrier-style drop-back passer, while Shaw is more mobile. Which type of QB has had more success against Michigan this year?
Michigan has faced several mobile quarterbacks this season and had success stopping them. Mattison certainly isn't the Michigan defensive coordinator of the early 2000s that had no answer for quarterbacks that can run. For SC to be most successful on offense, I think Dylan Thompson would be the better choice. More traditional quarterbacks - Northwestern's Trevor Siemien, Notre Dame's Tommy Rees, Iowa's James Vandenberg - had success throwing against Michigan. As for Mobile QBs, Michigan held Miller to 2.9 yards per carry, Kain Colter to 3.4ypc, and Taylor Martinez to 58 yards. Ellington, Sanders, and co. could present problems for Michigan if Spurrier chooses to air it out with either one of them, but if Thompson is a better drop-back passer, I'd give him the edge to pick apart Michigan's now-makeshift secondary.
Aside from Clowney and Lattimore, who I would take in a heartbeat, I don't see much of a difference between the two rosters that would prompt me to want to take a South Carolina player over a Michigan one. But if I had to choose, I'd take Ace Sanders for his abilities in the return game. He ranks fourth nationally in punt returns, averaging 14.5 yards per return. Michigan's main returnman, Jeremy Gallon, averages just 5.5 and has been a point of frustration all season because he tends to let the ball come down if it's not kicked right to him, which usually results in a nice roll for the punter and worse field position than if he had merely come up and fair caught it. He has only retuned 12 punts all season on 55 punts, compared to 25 returns by Sanders. If we could add nine yards to Michigan's average starting field position, that's essentially one less first down the offense has to pick up, in addition to Sanders' ability to take it to the house on any given return.
5. What does this game mean to Michigan and its football program? What would a loss mean? What about a win?
I don't think this game will have a huge impact on Michigan's football program either way. A win would be Michigan's 24th in 32 all-time games against SEC teams. A loss would be Michigan's third straight loss to SEC teams. A 9-4 record certainly sounds a lot better than 8-5, and a win would send Michigan into the offseason on a high note with a win over a Top 10 team. I think Hoke needs the win to shed the perception that he can't win away from the Big House. Many discount last year's Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech because Michigan was "lucky" to pull it out, and while he's 14-0 at home as Michigan's head coach, he's just 5-6 away from Ann Arbor.
But I think where the biggest importance comes into play is for Denard's legacy. Hoke would never buy into this kind of talk, and Denard wouldn't ever admit it either, but he needs to go out with a big game. He has meant so much to this program, both with his highlight reel plays and gaudy stats on the field and for being the face of the program as it emerges from the Rich Rod years. Even with a loss, he will be remembered as one of the all-time greats to wear the maize and blue, but if he leads Michigan to a win, it will mean that much more.
6. Give us a prediction. Who wins, and how does it go down?
I think it will be close regardless of who wins. I don't see either team pulling away by more than a touchdown or so. Carolina has the more dominant defense and I think it will all depend on which Michigan offense shows up. If it's the one of the first half against Ohio State, Michigan can win. If it's the one of the second half, there's no way Michigan wins.
South Carolina should come out passing, looking to pick on Courtney Avery early and often. On defense, if they can stop Michigan's running game, forcing that one-dimensional offense we saw in the second half of Ohio State, Clowney will have a field day. For Michigan to win, it needs to keep the SC defense off balance with a variety of packages designed to get Denard the ball in space and also use him as a decoy to open up others. If Michigan tries to run right at SC or rely on a drop-back passing game, there's no hope.
I hope I'm wrong, but I think it's somewhere in between and SC wins by three or four with the score somewhere in the low 20s. I don't have an official score prediction at the time of writing this, but check out my game preview for a more in depth breakdown and score prediction on Monday.