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Breakdown: Michigan at Connecticut

Todd Needle/Daily
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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 19, 2013

Only in college football can a win feel so empty. The Michigan football team was expected to blow out lowly Akron. Instead, the Zips came within yards of one of the biggest upsets in Michigan history.

The week leading up to the Wolverines’ trip to Connecticut has felt different than last week, though. Players spoke of embarrassment and redemption. They said this week has been more intense. The team feels like it has something to prove.

What’s waiting at the end of the long week is a UConn team just marginally better than Akron. This is another game Michigan should dominate.

Either way, the Wolverines will learn a lot about themselves. Was the Akron game an aberration? Or maybe Notre Dame just wasn’t as good as it seemed. To convince the skeptics, they must not only win this week but win big. If they do, here’s how:

Michigan pass offense vs. Connecticut pass defense

This matchup, as will be the case the entire year, depends on the play of redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner. If he protects the ball, Michigan will have no problem passing over the Huskies’ secondary.

That has been an issue for him this year, though. So far, he has thrown six interceptions in three games and added a fumble last week against Akron.

The good news for Michigan is UConn’s fearsome 2012 defense has been defanged in 2013. That unit, which ranked ninth in the nation in yards allowed, returns less than half of its starters.

Last year, defensive coordinator Don Brown was masterful at creating pressure. He left for Boston College and took the pass rush with him. This year? The Huskies have zero sacks through two games. That’s somehow even worse than Michigan’s pass rush.

UConn’s cornerbacks are solid but unspectacular. Byron Jones is a converted safety. Obi Melifonwu is young — he’s just a redshirt freshman, filling in for an injured starter. Gardner should be able to target his side of the field.

Gardner usually isn’t bothered by pressure, but he was against Akron. That may have just been a one-game abnormality. If he doesn’t rebound against this team, then it’s time to worry.

Players to Watch: CB Obi Melifonwu

Edge: Michigan

Michigan rush offense vs. Connecticut rush defense

In the ground game, a highly moveable object meets a so-far stoppable force.

Through two games, UConn’s rush defense has been abysmal. The Huskies have allowed an average of 212.50 yards per game, good for 104th in the FBS. That figure looks even worse when considering the opponents: Towson — an FCS team — and lowly Maryland. UConn lost both games by double digits.

In the middle, the Huskies are actually rather stout. Middle linebacker Yawin Smallwood is the defense’s best player and a professional prospect. He already has 30 tackles in three games.

Defensive tackles Julian Campenni and Shamar Stephen both started games in 2012, and they weigh a combined 611 pounds.

Michigan’s young interior line has struggled so far in the season, which could give it trouble. So much so that Michigan coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges both left open the possibility of shaking up the starters.

The Wolverines should find room to the outside. But the lack of an inside running game has hurt Michigan this year, and that’s where the battle will be again.

Players to Watch: MLB Yawin Smallwood, DT Julian Campenni, DT Shamar Stephen

Edge: Push

Connecticut pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense

UConn quarterback Chandler Whitmer is proficient at completing passes. He has a 61-percent completion rate this season.

Problem is, he’s proficient at completing passes to the other team, too. Last year, Whitmer threw 16 interceptions — one off the highest totals in the country.

Though he is mistake-prone, he is an able passer. On the outside, Shak Phillips is a physical receiver who has some speed and could give the Michigan secondary trouble. Akron beat Michigan on multiple well-executed fly routes. If Michigan doesn’t force turnovers, UConn could do the same.

Whitmer can absorb contact well, which is a good thing because the Huskies have allowed 10 sacks through two games this year, good for 116th in the country. This game could be the spark for Michigan’s non-existent pass rush.

Players to Watch: WB Chandler Whitmer, WR Shak Phillips

Edge: Michigan

Connecticut rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense

UConn’s rush offense ranks among the worst in the FBS — a trend for a significant portion of the Huskies’ offensive and defensive units.

The state of the ground game is especially dire. Through two games, UConn has rushed for a total of just 115 yards. That’s second-to-last in the nation.

Lyle McCombs is the Huskies’ leading rusher and was a workhorse for the offense in 2012. He is an adequate rusher, but lacks overwhelming size, speed or athleticism.

Michigan should be able to dominate here.

Players to Watch: RB Lyle McCombs

Edge: Michigan

Special Teams

Last year, with punter Will Hagerup, Michigan was one of the better punting teams in the country. Then Hagerup was suspended for the third time and was forced to sit out the 2013 season. Michigan’s punting game has suffered.

Junior punter Matt Wile has been inconsistent this year as a replacement. His average of 34.6 yards per punt is third last in the nation. Against Akron, the shanks gave the Zips good field position while the offense struggled to find its rhythm.

UConn, though, isn’t much better, averaging 37.5 yards per punt. It also lacks much athleticism in the return game.

Kicker Chad Christen is experienced and has gone 3-for-3 on field-goal tries this year for the Huskies. Last year he was a middling 14-for-21. Despite the punting woes, Michigan should have the edge.

Players to Watch: Chad Christen

Edge: Michigan

Intangibles

Michigan has struggled on the road, and this one should be rowdy. The people who make these types of decisions for some reason decided to make this one a primetime game. It will be the biggest game ever at Rentschler Field.

That’s both in terms of opponent and capacity. UConn has added 2,300 temporary seats and expects its largest crowd ever.

Edge: Connecticut

FINAL SCORE: Michigan 31, Connecticut 10


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