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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. Clowney and the defensive ends bring the burst from the edges, often drawing a double team, which leaves the linebackers to cover the gaps and get a clean read on the quarterback and tailback.

The Wolverines played four teams ranked higher in rushing defense than South Carolina and fell well beneath their season average of 187.3 rushing yards each time: Alabama (69 yards), Notre Dame (161), Michigan State (163) and Ohio State (108).

Robinson’s legacy is cemented in Michigan history, but before his swan song, he is just 83 yards shy of former West Virginia quarterback Pat White’s mark of 4,480 rushing yards. With a strong performance against South Carolina, Robinson will likely overtake White and capture the NCAA all-time quarterback rushing record.

Edge: Push

South Carolina pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier confirmed Monday that he plans to start junior quarterback Connor Shaw and will give him the majority of snaps, but he will also cycle redshirt sophomore quarterback Dylan Thompson into the rotation in the Outback Bowl.

Shaw led the Gamecock offense, which averages 31.4 points per game, for most of the season before a foot injury sidelined him for the finale against Clemson. Shaw put up good numbers, including a 67.3-percent completion rate, a 15-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 1,029 rushing yards to boot.

The Michigan secondary led the nation in pass defense for much of the season before dropping to No. 2 behind Nebraska after the loss to the Buckeyes. The Wolverines, anchored by fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs, allow just 155.2 passing yards per game.

Michigan will be without fifth-year senior cornerback J.T. Floyd, who was suspended alongside junior punter Will Hagerup and fifth-year senior linebacker Brandin Hawthorne for a violation of team rules earlier this month. The loss of Floyd, coupled with the season-ending injury to standout sophomore cornerback Blake Countess in the season opener, leaves the Wolverines thin in at cornerback. Sophomore Raymon Taylor and junior Courtney Avery are expected to lead the cornerbacks, with freshman Dennis Norfleet moving from running back to cornerback to add depth.

Against South Carolina’s run-heavy offense, Michigan has to keep an eye out for breakaway receiver Ace Sanders, but despite the lack of depth, the Wolverines should remain strong in the secondary.

Edge: Push

South Carolina rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense

The Gamecocks are without their star running back, Marcus Lattimore, who missed the last three games of the season after a horrifying right-knee injury in October. Lattimore is set to enter the NFL draft in the spring and forego his senior season, leaving senior Kenny Miles and freshman Mike Davis as the running back threats for South Carolina.

The true remaining backfield threat, though, is Shaw, who has more carried than the two running backs combined. His 2.8 yards-per-carry average is rather unimpressive, but he has scrambled effectively.

Michigan will get a heavy dose of run from the South Carolina offense, Spurrier admitted earlier in the week. Even since Lattimore’s injury, the Gamecocks registered over 40 rushing attempts in each of the final four games of the season, with rushing totals varying only slightly between 104 yards on 41 carries against Arkansas to 147 yards on 46 carries against Tennessee.

The Michigan defense had moderate success against the run this fall, allowing 156.0 yards per game and just nine rushing touchdowns — good for sixth in the nation. But the Wolverines were gashed on four separate occasions for 200-plus yards.

The Wolverines can be run on, but without Lattimore, the South Carolina offense might not make it too far past Michigan’s space-eaters up the middle and steady linebacking corps.

This one’s going Michigan’s way, by a hair, but if the Gamecocks pound the ball nearly 50 times, they just need one or two of the runs to break open.

Edge: Michigan

Special Teams

With Hagerup, the Big Ten kicker of the year, suspended for the third time in his career, Michigan once again turns to backup sophomore kicker/punter Matt Wile, who will perform both the kickoff and punting duties in the Outback Bowl.

Wile will be kicking to Sanders, one of the most dangerous return men in the country, on punts and sophomore receiver Bruce Ellington on kickoffs. Norfleet will do the kick returns for Michigan, and Gallon the punt returns, though Hoke hinted Robinson could also be used to return kicks.

Redshirt junior kicker Brendan Gibbons proved his mettle for a second-consecutive season with another steady fall, making 14 of 16 attempts, including a long of 52 yards. Gibbons will be countered by Gamecock senior Adam Yates, who made 11 of 15 attempts this season.

With Hagerup out and South Carolina’s returners keeping Michigan wary, Gibbons just isn’t enough to give the Wolverines a leg up in this category.

Edge: South Carolina

Intangibles

Both teams are coming off a bowl victory in 2011 — Michigan in the Sugar Bowl, South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl — but the Gamecocks certainly have the hot hand today.

South Carolina has lost just twice, to top-10 teams Georgia and Florida, despite playing a relatively grueling SEC schedule. The Gamecocks did avoid Alabama, though, which Michigan had the pleasure of facing in the season opener. The Wolverines lost badly, 41-14, and lost three more times to ranked teams.

So the quality of competition is pretty even for these programs, if not tilted in Michigan’s favor. The problem is that the Wolveirnes didn’t win any of their tests, any of their statement games. South Carolina did, beating Georgia, decisively, in early October.

It shouldn’t be a rout. It could come down to a field goal. But the Gamecocks, riding a four-game winning streak, do claim a slight edge entering into the Outback Bowl.

Edge: South Carolina

FINAL SCORE: South Carolina 28, Michigan 24


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