TAMPA, Fla. — Need a New Year’s resolution? Here’s one idea: Learn everything you can about the Michigan football team.
We’ll even make it easy for you. On New Year’s Day, the Wolverines (5-4 Big Ten, 8-4 overall) will take the field for the final time this season. Ahead of Monday’s matchup with South Carolina (5-3 SEC, 8-4 overall), the Daily breaks down the most important storylines for the 2018 Outback Bowl:
What to Watch For
Solving pass protection issues: Michigan’s offensive line has certainly had difficulty keeping its quarterback upright. Brandon Peters is set to return from a nasty concussion suffered against Wisconsin. It’s imperative the Wolverines keep him clean in the pocket if they hope to establish the pass against South Carolina.
For Michigan, its struggles in pass protection don’t boil down to one single issue. There have been missed assignments. There are stunts that aren’t picked up. And sometimes, the Wolverines are simply beat physically on the outside, lacking the agility to keep up with quick pass-rushers.
The Gamecocks feature one such player on the defensive line in D.J. Wonnum. On the year, the weakside defensive end has 52 tackles and a team-best 13 tackles for loss and six sacks. Wonnum has a wide array of pass-rushing moves. He can line up as a rush linebacker and penetrate the backfield. He can line up across either tackle and beat his man. He uses his hands effectively and is quick, using that to his advantage against bigger, slower linemen.
South Carolina isn’t afraid to move Wonnum around the line. Because of that, it’s likely the Gamecocks run him loose against Michigan’s right tackle, rather than against senior left tackle Mason Cole, a mostly dependable pass blocker making his 51st career start. The Wolverines have struggled immensely on that side of the line. Keeping Wonnum in check could be a tall task.
Higdon has a shot at history: Perhaps lost among Brandon Peters’ return under center and Chase Winovich’s impending NFL Draft decision is the fact that junior running back Karan Higdon will have an opportunity to become Michigan’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2011 when the Wolverines kick off at Raymond James Stadium on Monday. Higdon has rushed for 929 yards this season and 11 touchdowns.
And if Higdon can reach the milestone, it’d be even more special coming against the Gamecocks.
As he revealed in early December, Higdon has some coincidental ties to South Carolina’s program. He visited Columbia a handful of times — hopeful that he would receive an offer from then-head coach Steve Spurrier. The offer never came, but Higdon didn’t hesitate in saying he would be on the other side of this matchup if it had.
The ties to South Carolina didn’t end there, though. Higdon met Marcus Lattimore on his visits to campus, and after the former Gamecock running back spent time with the San Francisco 49ers during Jim Harbaugh’s tenure, he played a part in convincing Higdon to flip his commitment from Iowa to Michigan.
This all goes to say Higdon has some unexpected history with South Carolina. And he has a chance to make some, too.
Cocks’ defense: South Carolina’s season hasn’t been all that much different than Michigan’s. Both teams went 8-4 and failed to upset any programs that were notably superior to them. Both offenses had issues, and just as the case was for Michigan, the Gamecocks’ defense led the way most of the year.
South Carolina’s best defensive player is linebacker Skai Moore. Moore earned first-team defense All-SEC and has caused chaos for opposing offenses this season. Moore led the team with 88 tackles and three interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
Along with Moore, Wonnum will also be a major threat to Michigan’s pass protection.
The Wolverines closed out the regular season as the nation’s third-best defensive unit, in large part due to a secondary that finished first in the country in pass defense. Michigan did, however, see a drop off in their run defense after finishing 20th in the country — something defensive coordinator Don Brown was emphatic in saying wasn’t good enough Friday afternoon.
Still, the Wolverines’ strength will lie on the defensive side of the ball, as it has all season. Here’s a look at three weapons the Gamecocks have that could challenge Michigan’s vaunted defensive unit:
Jake Bentley: The sophomore quarterback had a successful year, throwing for 2,555 yards with 16 touchdowns and a 62.4 completion percentage. The one hitch is that he also threw 11 interceptions. Michigan may be able to turn him over, but Bentley has enough weapons out wide to test the Wolverines if they fall asleep at the wheel. Which brings us to…
Hayden Hurst: Tight ends have caused trouble for Michigan’s pass defense this season, and South Carolina’s 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end Hayden Hurst could be just as dangerous. Michigan’s pass defense is elite, and there’s no denying that, but it is a bit undersized.
Teams like Penn State and Ohio State capitalized on that opportunity, and used their taller tight ends for major positive yards against the Wolverines. Hurst was a first-team All-SEC recipient, and finished the season with three total touchdowns — two in the air and one from rushing.
Bryan Edwards: Make no doubt about it, Edwards is South Carolina’s top receiver. He finished the regular season with 59 catches — a mark that tops Hurst by 18 — for 705 yards with four touchdowns. At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, he poses another physical challenge for Michigan’s secondary.
Ted: The one battle that might be most decisive this game is South Carolina’s pass offense against Michigan’s pass defense. Bentley’s 11 interceptions are hard to ignore, and Michigan’s top-ranked pass defense will be at full strength with cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long and safeties Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus. Those four will make it very difficult for Bentley to find his receivers, and once they are shut down, the Gamecocks won’t have too many other weapons to use.
Michigan 24, South Carolina 10
Orion: If you think Michigan’s offense has looked stale this year, just wait until you see how South Carolina looks Monday afternoon. The Gamecocks don’t have a dependable rushing attack, and the Wolverines’ secondary — defensive coordinator Don Brown said Friday that Hill and Long are perhaps the most improved players on defense — will shut down South Carolina’s passing game. It might be ugly for a while, but Michigan’s defense should give it the advantage in a field-position battle and give Brandon Peters and the offense short fields to work with.
Michigan 26, South Carolina 13
Kevin: Ted copied my prediction, check The Daily Gamecock for proof. I’ll echo the point that I think the Gamecocks’ offense is too dependent on the passing game, and Michigan’s secondary has proved capable of taking that away from teams. On a different note, though, I think everyone knows what this game means for Brandon Peters — including himself. I won’t say that he is going to light it up, because Chris Evans and Karan Higdon are still the pillars of this offense. But after a month of preparation as the unquestionable starting quarterback, I do think we may see him take a step forward from what he showed during the regular season. If he does that, this offense may show a little spark, and the defense will go about its business as usual.
Michigan 24, South Carolina 10