What to watch for: Michigan vs. Akron

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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 12, 2013

While you munch on glazed donuts at Saturday’s game, or fast for Yom Kippur while trying to ignore those munching on glazed donuts at Saturday’s game, here’s what to focus on:

Will the pass rush finally show up?

The depth of this year’s defensive linemen has allowed defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to use an unusually large rotation this season. That makes Michigan’s lack of a pass rush a bit more unsettling.

Mattison wants his front four to win one-on-ones, so that he can pressure quarterbacks without sending extra men. They haven’t so far.

The Wolverines have five sacks in the first two games. That’s a perfectly respectable number. The defensive line itself, though, has just one sack.

Against Notre Dame, Michigan only recorded one sack. Earlier this week, Michigan coach Brady Hoke explained that Notre Dame goes to great lengths to protect quarterback Tommy Rees, so the Wolverines were content to sit back in coverage.

That’s a sound strategy, and it accounts for the lack of pressure on Rees in the game. But it also shows that the defensive line was largely ineffective without extra help.

Most concerning of all is junior defensive end Frank Clark. Clark has had a solid, if unremarkable, first two games. He faced one of the better tackles he will see against Notre Dame. Michigan expects more than solid out of Clark, though.

In the spring and into the fall, coaches and players raved about their dynamic rush end. Clark himself said he set a goal of double-digit sacks for the season.

So far: zero sacks, two tackles and two hurries. He has erred little, but he hasn’t been the spark most expected.

If he can’t beat a porous Akron line, who can he beat?

Is the secondary for real?

It was against Notre Dame, but the statistics were hurt by a soft defensive scheme: the Irish had 314 yards passing.

Still, the secondary did nearly everything right within the game plan. It limited yards after the catch. It prevented the big play. It tackled very well — think Raymon Taylor on a key third-down screen.

The secondary appears to have no holes. It’s hard not to picture how effective this group will be with another year of experience and an infusion of talent from recruit Jabrill Peppers. But for now, the unit has still been very good.

Akron runs an up-tempo spread attack. Michigan shouldn’t have to play as soft as it did against Notre Dame. We should get a glimpse of how good the secondary can be.

Will the interior line show improvement?

Michigan’s three interior linemen struggled against Notre Dame’s talented front seven. Successful runs up the middle were rare. Fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, by most accounts, ran well. Still, he had just 71 yards on 22 attempts. At times, redshirt freshman guard Kyle Kalis looked like a turnstile.

Redshirt sophomore center Jack Miller was a bright spot, but he acknowledged Tuesday that the line still is searching for chemistry.

Expect a steady dose of runs for Michigan on Saturday. James Madison — yes, FCS James Madison — rushed for 188 yards against Akron last week. The Wolverines should have no trouble. If they do, there is cause for concern.

What will Gardner and Gallon do for an encore?

It speaks volumes about redshirt junior Devin Gardner’s performance that he made one of the worst mistakes you’ll ever see on a football field, and Sports Illustrated still moved him up to No. 16 on its mock NFL Draft board.

That’s because Gardner had one of the better performances by a Michigan quarterback in recent memory. He threw for 294 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for another 82 yards and a score. He looked like an NFL-caliber quarterback.

And fifth-year senior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon might have had an even better night. He had eight catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns — one of Michigan’s best receiving performances.

Gallon is nursing a hamstring injury he sustained on Saturday. And even healthy, it would be difficult to surpass the night he and Gardner had against Notre Dame. Can they top it against the Zips’ less-than-stellar defense?