Michigan is a bit of an enigma right now: They're undefeated, but only barely, having narrowly avoided defeat at the hands of terrible Akron and UConn teams. They're a dynamic offense, that's averaging nearly 40 points per game, but they've turned it over more times than anyone in the Big Ten. And they're playing a Penn State team that just got blown out at Indiana, but somehow find themselves just 3 point favorites. So this week, we really needed the help of Maize n Brew's Zach Travis, who answered our most pressing questions about Michigan. Not only should you read Maize n Brew all season long to keep up to tabs with our conference rival, but check out the questions I answered for Zach, about Christian Hackenberg's development, Penn State's run game, and what it'll take for the Lions to win.
On to the questions!
Black Shoe Diaries: What went wrong as Michigan had to luck out victories against the likes of Akron and UConn?
Maize n Brew: The better question is, "what didn't go wrong." Michigan saw its offense fall apart as the run blocking struggled to keep Michigan from negative yardage plays that put it behind the chains. This inability to move the ball on the ground put more pressure on Devin Gardner to make throws on intermediate and long passing downs, and as he continued to try and make plays he slowly let his mechanics break down. He reverted to a lot of bad habits instead of playing within the offense, and that really killed his confidence and focus. The result was an offense that moved in fits and starts. Michigan would rattle off long touchdown drives but those were in between twice as many three-and-outs and turnover-ending drives.
The issue with all of this is that when you play down to a team that you're expected to beat handily, it changes the tenor of the game and invigorates the underdog. So instead of quickly putting both teams to sleep, Michigan's offensive miscues kept both UConn and Akron around long enough that those teams got some positive momentum. If Michigan doesn't have a disastrous second quarter against Akron that includes three turnovers, the Wolverines probably go into halftime up three touchdowns and with breathing room. Same thing against UConn.
On top of that, there was just a lot of bad luck. UConn got a gift wrapped defensive touchdown on a third down sneak that ended in a fluky fumble. Akron had a defender perfectly undercut a route by Fitz Toussaint for a pick-six. Michigan had multiple giveaways that either came in prime scoring position or set the other team up with an easy score. It was two games in which Michigan's miscues created a perfect storm. The Wolverines did everything you don't want to do against a heavy underdog: turn the ball over, don't control the line of scrimmage, and get behind the chains on early downs. This turned easy wins into nail-biters. It is a credit to Michigan's defense that the Wolverines were able to eek both games out. The defense really only gave up three legit touchdowns in the two games, while the Michigan offense gave up two scores on turnovers and the punt coverage team set UConn up for an easy score from the nine-yard line.
BSD: On the flip side, what went right last week, as Michigan pulled away from Minnesota in the second half?
MNB: Michigan got back to the basics. The Wolverines made a switch on the offensive line over the bye week that allowed Michigan to focus more on power running instead of the zone stretch that rarely worked in the first four games. Michigan went heavily to the ground, didn't lose yardage on early downs, and consistently moved the ball in small chunks. This set Devin Gardner up with easier throws and less long conversions, and he was able to regain some of his confidence while focusing on making plays within the offense.
Overall, Michigan started to establish an identity that it didn't have in the first few weeks of the season — something that hurt against UConn and Akron when things went wrong and Michigan had nothing to turn to. It wasn't an exciting game, but it was a step in the right direction, and another game in which the defense played largely lights out outside of one long Minnesota drive.
BSD: Jake Ryan is the biggest name on the Wolverine defense, and after being out the first month of the season, he's questionable for Saturday. What does he bring to the D, and who would have to step up in his absence?
MNB: I doubt that Ryan makes it back for the Penn State game, although his recovery from this April's ACL injury has already proven to be incredibly fast. Still, I think he stays on the bench until the November stretch run when Michigan really needs him. The rest of the defense is much like the last two years of Michigan defense. The Wolverines play a fundamentally sound 4-3 under with plenty of nickel package looks on passing downs. The defensive line is young but full of potential this year, and Michigan has a very good group of linebackers. The secondary has been effective at limiting big plays and not giving up a lot of YAC.
Greg Mattison has largely been content to rush four and only bring pressure sparingly with extra blitzers. This year he has rolled out a lot of line stunts that have worked a moderate amount. Michigan doesn't have much of a pass rush (although PSU doesn't do a great job protecting the quarterback according to the stats, so I think there is room there for Michigan to get pressure on Hackenberg), but there is potential there. The main objective of Michigan's defense is to keep things inside and in front, and to make teams execute on long drives to score points. This has worked well all season, and Michigan's defense hasn't given up more than two touchdowns in a game this year. I think with Penn State's inability to consistently rush the football, Michigan should be able to limit the Nittany Lions' long scoring drives. The one thing that scares me are big plays from Allen Robinson. I'm not sure how Michigan's secondary deals with him as he is the best receiver this team has seen yet this year and Michigan's corners have been beat over the top a handful of times. Hopefully Michigan is able to get enough pressure on Hackenberg to shut these long pass plays down before they can develop.
BSD: While Penn State has struggled mightily on third downs this season, Michigan ranks tops in the Big Ten and has converted more than half, even as the rest of the offense has lagged. What's been the key to such efficiency?
MNB: Devin Gardner. You can say what you want about his decision-making and his tendency to break fundamentals, but he is such a dangerous weapon that it stretches opposing defenses thin. When he is in rhythm he has a better arm than Denard Robinson showed while at Michigan, and Gardner is also much better as a scrambling quarterback when plays break down. Between that and the threat of a Gardner run, Michigan has too many options for a defense to cover all of them, and Al Borges has done a solid job of putting his offense in a position to succeed this year. These numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Michigan was 3 of 10 against Akron and 7 of 17 against UConn.
BSD: It's still weird to me that a QB wears #98, but Devin Gardner has seemed to struggle with his accuracy, completing just 60% of his attempts with 8 interceptions. Has the lack of playmakers in the receiving corps beyond Jeremy Gallon hindered his passing numbers?
MNB: It is quite the opposite, really. Michigan has a lot of nice options to go to in the receiving game. Jeremy Gallon is one of the best receivers in the conference, and he has a great deal of chemistry with Gardner. Devin Funchess isn't much of an in-line blocker, but he is a versatile receiving weapon that just lit Minnesota's secondary on fire after splitting out wide despite being a tight end. Drew Dileo is a smart, quick slot receiver with a knack for operating in underneath zones and an ability to catch almost anything without fail. Jehu Chesson is the new guy, but he has loads of athletic ability.
Michigan's problems in the passing game have all been between Gardner's ears. Against Notre Dame he looked phenomenal as he calmly dealt with pressure and threw some absolutely perfect NFL-level passes. Against Akron and UConn he let his footwork break down and he began to break down in his progressions. If he is dialed in, Gardner has the ability to pick opposing defenses apart. If he hits some early struggles, he could unravel like a cheap sweater and put Penn State in a great position thanks to turnovers. I don't even know what to expect anymore.
BSD: How do you see this one shaping up? Do you feel like heading into a night game at Beaver Stadium will force Devin Gardner and co to struggle a bit?
MNB: Honestly, I think Michigan is the favorite in this one and should win barring a Devin Gardner meltdown. The Penn State run game has looked pedestrian, and I don't trust Christian Hackenberg to sustain 10-12 play drives entirely on his own without some positive contributions on the ground. This means that the Penn State offense will have to do most of its damage with big plays, and that looks limited to the Hackenberg-Robinson connection. Michigan will get burned at least once by Robinson, but I doubt he has the kind of 2-3 touchdown game that I think he really needs for Penn State to win this game.
That is, unless Michigan's offense collapses like it did against Akron and UConn. If Penn State's rush defense is as good as it looked against Syracuse (and EMU/Kent State) and Michigan struggles to find success on the ground, that will put more pressure on Gardner to carry the offense. I think he can do it, I'm just not sure that he will given how shaky he has looked in the last month. I think Michigan's offensive struggles keep this one close, but so far Michigan's defense has made enough plays when it mattered to keep the team 5-0, and I trust that to continue.
Thanks again, Zach, and remember to read Maize n Brew all season long.