- File Photo/Daily
By Alejandro Zúñiga, Managing Sports Editor
Published August 27, 2014
It’s no secret Michigan’s offensive line earned much of the criticism it received last fall.
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The Wolverines allowed 113 tackles for loss in 2013, the worst mark in the nation. They rushed for minus-48 yards against Michigan State, the worst mark in the program’s 135-year history.
But against Appalachian State on Saturday, the offensive line shouldn’t struggle to protect quarterback Devin Gardner or open holes for Michigan’s talented running backs.
On paper, the Wolverines are more talented than the Mountaineers across the board.
Michigan pass offense vs. Appalachian State pass defense
Let’s put it this way: Junior Devin Funchess is 6-foot-5 and one of the Big Ten’s most talented wide receivers. His size alone gives him at least three inches on all of the Mountaineers’ cornerbacks and safeties listed on their two-deep roster.
Junior Dennis Norfleet is a playmaking threat in the slot, and the Wolverines will start sophomore Jehu Chesson, who possesses size himself at 6-foot-3, opposite Funchess.
As Michigan fans know all too well, pressure on the quarterback can bring the offense to a standstill. But Appalachian State managed just eight sacks last year in more than 300 pass attempts.
Barring a major improvement from the Mountaineers (or a legitimately appalling offensive line), Gardner should have enough time to scan his receivers from the pocket. If he does, the Wolverines will move the chains with ease.
Michigan rush offense vs. Appalachian State rush defense
Flash back to Aug. 31, 2013. The Wolverines beat Central Michigan, 59-9, marking their highest-scoring season opener in more than a century. That afternoon, Michigan rushed for 242 yards at more than five yards per attempt.
Saturday, Michigan will face a Mountaineers team that yielded 220 yards per game last year. Appalachian State’s front four returns with a year more experience, but in all likelihood, Derrick Green and Co. will find open space. If not, they’ll be big enough to create it.
A dominant performance doesn’t mean the Wolverines’ offensive line is good, but it would certainly be a welcome start and helpful for confidence.
Appalachian State pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
The Mountaineers boast a talented backfield in quarterback Kameron Bryant and running back Marcus Cox.
They also return a veteran offensive line that protected Bryant — who took over the starting job midway through last season — despite a slew of injuries.
But that was in FCS, not FBS. Against Georgia last year, the Mountaineers ended the game with 10 consecutive scoreless drives.
In 2013, Appalachian State operated with quick passes out of the shotgun, helping Bryant to the highest completion percentage in program history. Expect a similar approach Saturday.
Michigan has the talent, like cornerback Blake Countess or safety Jarrod Wilson, to snuff out long drives.
Appalachian State rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
See above. Cox is talented, but the Mountaineers’ offensive line faces a stiff challenge in the Wolverines’ fierce defensive line and talented linebacker corps.
Appalachian State will be able to move the ball, but expect big plays from Michigan’s defense.
Michigan has Jabrill Peppers and Dennis Norfleet returning punts and kickoffs, respectively, a placekicker with experience in Matt Wile and a weapon in former Big Ten Punter of the Year Will Hagerup.
Appalachian State has plenty of talent of its own in Bentlee Critcher, who ranked fifth among all collegiate kickers by averaging 45.9 yards per punt last season. He added weight in the offseason and should help the Mountaineers force Michigan into long drives.
After losing the job midway through 2013, Drew Stewart is expected to assume kicking duties for Appalachian State. He connected on 60 percent of his attempts last year.
But Michigan has Peppers, and the Mountaineers don’t.
The Mountaineers have pulled it off before, and they’ll know they belong on the same field as the Wolverines come Saturday.
Meanwhile, Michigan has little to gain and almost everything to lose from this game. If it’s close in the second half, the response from an already-beleaguered fanbase could be overwhelmingly negative.
Edge: Appalachian State
Prediction: Michigan 41, Appalachian State 13