Three weeks into the season, there are questions surrounding the No. 17 Michigan football team, there’s no denying that. Both lines have been less than Big-Ten worthy, the running backs have hardly shown up at all and the offense still relies all but exclusively on senior quarterback Denard Robinson.
Just don’t expect the Wolverines (1-1) to find any real answers against FBS newcomer Massachusetts.
The spread will be in the mid-40s, and for good reason: Massachusetts (0-2) lost by a combined 76 points in its first two games to Connecticut and Indiana. Of course, this is football, and Connecticut and Indiana aren’t particularly good at football, so that’s pretty miserable. And come to think of it, losing by a combined 76 points in basketball wouldn’t be too good either.
But Wolverines beware. Massachusetts was an onside kick away from a shocking upset at Michigan Stadium two years ago when these teams last met. Michigan survived 42-37, but anything that close this year will be a stunner.
Michigan pass offense vs. Massachusetts pass defense
The most pleasant surprise for Michigan in its close win against Air Force last week was the performance of Robinson in the pocket. Robinson was 14-for-25 for 208 yards and two touchdowns, and his one interception was on a tipped ball.
Freshman tight end Devin Funchess exploded into relevance playing in place of injured tight end Brandon Moore, a fifth-year senior. In his routes, Funchess showed polish and athleticism, and Robinson found him often for a total of 106 yards and a touchdown. At wide out, junior Devin Gardner continues to develop in his transition from quarterback, which has been a boon for Robinson considering fifth-year senior receiver Roy
Roundtree has been ineffective this year.
The Minutemen struggled in pass defense in their first two games. Well, let’s be honest, they struggled in most facets in their first two games, including allowing a combined 488 yards through the air. And remember that Indiana and Connecticut had little incentive to pass for most of the game.
The pass rush, led by defensive end Ryan Delaire, has generated just one sack this year, so Massachusetts needs to blitz to pressure Robinson. Yet that leaves the defense vulnerable to scrambles, so they could alternatively play it conservatively. Either way, Michigan will thrive in the passing game.
Michigan rush offense vs. Massachusetts rush defense
Consider the game a failure if Michigan fails to establish a running game, regardless of the final score. Redshirt junior tackle Taylor Lewan called the 36 rushing yards from the running backs against Alabama “almost embarrassing” for the offensive line. The next week was even worse — Lewan described the line’s performance as “awful” after redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint gained just seven yards against Air Force.
Lewan backed off from those comments this week after considering Robinson’s 218 rushing yards against the Falcons, but the message remains the same: Michigan must establish a running game outside of Robinson.
The Minutemen have had mixed results against the run so far this year. They held Connecticut to just 3.4 yards per carry in week one, then surrendered 6.2 yards per carry (333 total yards) to Indiana. Linebacker Perry McIntyre is a legitimate force at linebacker and could disrupt the Wolverines’ running attack for a third straight week.
Then again, all discussion about the dismal performances by the line ignores Robinson’s game-changing potential. Last week, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges exploited an Air Force secondary that simply could not compare athletically to Robinson on the second level. It will be more of the same against Massachusetts.
Massachusetts pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
The last time Michigan played Massachusetts coach Charley Molnar was in a certain night game at Michigan Stadium last year, and the Wolverines struggled against the Notre Dame offense when Molnar was the Irish’s offensive coordinator. At Massachusetts, Molnar favors a hurry-up offense that will try to spread the field.
In game one, the result was disastrous to the tune of 56 total yards, three first downs and zero points. Against Indiana, though, quarterback Mike Wegzyn looked more comfortable — the talented redshirt freshman completed 18 of 26 passes.
His options are severely limited, though. The Minutemen lost nearly all of their top receivers from 2011. Wegzyn won’t find many open receivers downfield.
Massachusetts rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
Welcome back, Mike Cox. Cox, who totaled 169 yards and two touchdowns for Michigan, returns as Massachusetts’ feature back.
He’ll be running in front of an offensive line that could give Michigan trouble. The Minutemen front features three seniors and two more 300-pounders.
After Cox, who has 32 yards this season, Massachusetts’ next best option may be Wegzyn, who has shown an ability to run, though at sub-Robinson levels.
The Michigan front seven has much to prove after two straight poor performances to start the season. Alabama gashed Michigan for 247 yards, then Air Force followed with a 290-yard performance on the ground.
The Wolverines should win this matchup, but don’t be surprised if the Minutemen find room to run.
The special teams have been Michigan’s most impressive unit this year, and it’s not even that close.
On kick returns, freshman Dennis Norfleet has been explosive. And when he actually fields the punt, redshirt junior Jeremy Gallon has big-play potential.
For the first time in a long time, the kicking game is a strength. Redshirt junior Brendan Gibbons has been an able place kicker in limited action this year, sophomore Matt Wile has kicked off nine times for six touchbacks, and junior Will Hagerup averages 49 yards per punt.
Compare that to the Massachusetts kicker Blake Lucas. Lucas is 0-1 on field goal attempts. And extra-point attempts. Enough said.
That sound you hear? That’s the entire Michigan football team looking past Massachusetts to the Notre Dame game looming next week. Granted, that probably wouldn’t make a sound, but the point stands.
It’s hard to find motivation in a game expected to be a 45-point blowout. And if Massachusetts could hang with Michigan as a FCS team, logic would say it could at least keep it entertaining as a FBS team. And who are we to argue with logic.
Plus, they’re the Minutemen. America.
FINAL SCORE: Michigan 41, Massachusetts 7