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Breakdown: Wolverines and ‘Cocks tangle in Outback Bowl

Erin Kirkland/Daily
Redshirt junior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan is tasked with blocking Jadeveon Clowney, one of the best pash rushers in the nation. Buy this photo

By Stephen J. Nesbit, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 31, 2012

TAMPA, Fla — The No. 19 Michigan football team will ring in 2013 on Tuesday by squaring off against No. 11 South Carolina in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Outback Bowl (1 p.m., ESPN) will be the third meeting in program history, with the Gamecocks upsetting the Wolverines in Ann Arbor in 1980 and Michigan returning the favor five years later.

Michigan pass offense vs. South Carolina pass defense

Well, it’s about time we mention Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney, South Carolina’s dynamo sophomore defensive end will line up across from redshirt junior left guard Taylor Lewan in a battle of All Americans.

Perhaps more than anything Michigan quarterbacks Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson do, the Lewan-Clowney matchup could dictate the success Michigan has in the passing game.

Clowney, a high-motor 6-foot-6, 256-pound end from Rock Hill, S.C., registered 13 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss this season, including a 4.5-sack outing against Clemson in the season finale on Nov. 24. He can be quite the handful.

The Gamecocks (6-2 SEC, 10-2 overall) rank 12th nationally in total defense, allowing just 17.4 points per game and have proven effective against the passing game, thanks in large part to the pressure applied by Clowney and a defensive front that tallied 40 sacks this season. (The Michigan defense had just 19 sacks.)

Behind Lewan and the offensive line, Gardner, a sophomore making just his fifth career start at quarterback, will have little time to get comfortable in the pocket. Michigan (6-2 Big Ten, 8-4) allowed just 15 sacks all season, thanks in large part to the elusiveness of its quarterbacks, but allowed four of those sacks in its last game, a 26-21 loss to Ohio State.

The Wolverines’ passing game barely cracks the top-100 — averaging 198.1 yards per game, but having thrown more interceptions (18) than touchdowns (17) — but after Gardner took the reins following an elbow injury that sidelined Robinson, he has averaged 251.2 yards per game. Gardner has thrown eight touchdowns and four interceptions.

Fifth-year senior receiver Roy Roundtree and redshirt junior receiver Jeremy Gallon have benefitted greatly with Gardner — who spent the first eight games of the season as Robinson’s No. 1 receiver — at quarterback. The receivers have connected with Gardner to combine for more than 136 receiving yards in each of his starts.

Robinson hasn’t thrown a pass since his injury against Nebraska on Oct. 27, more than two months from the Outback Bowl, though Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he is fit to pass in the bowl game if need be.

Edge: South Carolina

Michigan rush offense vs. South Carolina rush defense

Michigan’s running game this fall was defined by a rather rigid dichotomy: the “Denard running game” and the “non-Denard running game,” as Michigan coach Brady Hoke put it.

Robinson continued to turn broken plays into positive yards and pick his way through traffic to find every sliver in the defense. Despite missing nearly three games, he finished with 1,166 on 154 carries for the best yards-per-carry average of his career. Eight other players ran the ball this season, including five running backs, but Robinson still accumulated more rushing yards than the rest of the team combined (1,082).

With Robinson back in the fold playing a hybrid quarterback-tailback-receiver, the Wolverines have their running game back. With redshirt junior Fitzgerald Toussaint out with a leg injury sustained on senior day in Ann Arbor and no other running back proving effective thus far, Robinson should get the ball plenty.

But he’s got a mighty challenge awaiting him in the form of a Gamecocks front seven that ranked sixteenth nationally with just 119 rushing yards allowed per game.