- Patrick Barron/Daily
By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 23, 2013
1. The offensive line is not nearly ready for the Big Ten.
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Saturday was the worst performance yet for Michigan’s scuffling offensive line. Lesser teams had dominated Connecticut in the trenches, yet on Saturday, UConn controlled the line of scrimmage.
Fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint had his best game of the year, and even with that performance, Michigan still rushed for fewer yards against UConn than Maryland or Towson — an FCS team. The Wolverines rushed for 173 yards. A Big Ten defense would’ve dominated the Michigan run game.
With an ineffective interior line, runs up the middle went nowhere, and offensive coordinator Al Borges had to increasingly rely on attacking the edge. That, along with the struggles of redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner, made the offense one dimensional.
Gardner couldn’t find a rhythm, but part of the blame goes to the lack of pass protection. At the end of the second quarter, sophomore tight end Devin Funchess whiffed on a block, which led to a Gardner scramble and a long sack. On the next play, fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan allowed a rusher to get free and sack Gardner again.
Gardner typically handles pressure well. But since the Akron game — maybe as far back as his interception in the end zone against Notre Dame — he has displayed a tendency to make bad decisions while escaping the pass rush.
The offensive line has shown major issues against the likes of Akron and UConn. Against a Big Ten team, the result could be even uglier.
2. The problem on first down isn’t just rushing.
At times, it seemed as if every other first-down play was a run to Toussaint for a loss. And there were quite a few of those plays. Excluding penalties, Michigan put itself in second-and-10 or longer 10 different times, more than a third of the second-down plays.
But the running woes aren’t as troublesome as they appeared. Michigan ran the ball 20 times on first down for a total of 98 yards. Of course, UConn’s defense had trouble containing the likes of Towson and Maryland.
And Michigan did have six rushes for either no gain or a loss. Still, an average of 4.9 yards per carry on first down is more than adequate.
But of bigger concern was Gardner’s inability to complete passes on first down. Borges called about three times as many first-down runs than passes. The running woes were more apparent because they were more numerous. But the passing game was far worse.
On seven passing plays, Michigan had just three positive plays. And of those three, none went for longer than three yards. The Wolverines averaged just one yard per attempt on first down.
Yes, Toussaint and the line were inconsistent on first down. But the defense didn’t have to respect the pass.
3. Gardner’s struggles go beyond turnovers.
What makes Michigan’s recent struggles so puzzling is that against Notre Dame, it was a dynamic and impressive football team. Akron could’ve just been a letdown, but that rarely happens two games in a row. Michigan has major holes, specifically on offense, but are the Wolverines really as bad as they’ve shown against two inferior opponents?
Probably not. Much of that has to do with turnovers: Michigan has 12, which is second only to Western Kentucky (15) for the most in the nation. Ten of those are attributable to Gardner, whose recent swoon is just as mysterious. Gardner leads the nation in turnovers with 10, and many have been the result of reckless decision-making. That wasn’t exactly the case against UConn.
Gardner should have been more careful with the ball on a quarterback sneak that resulted in a fumble. Still, the ball came loose after redshirt freshman lineman Erik Magnuson was pushed back into Gardner.
Gardner’s first interception was a result of a poor pass and a tipped ball. The read wasn’t careless, but the throw was off. The second pick came on an underthrown ball into single coverage on a streak. Redshirt freshman receiver Jehu Chesson didn’t help much to break up the interception. The execution was poor, but a deep shot into single coverage isn’t ill-advised.
On Saturday, though, Gardner missed an alarming number of passes due to inaccuracy. He finished 11-for-23 for 97 yards through the air.