Michigan Wolverines: Michigan Wolverines
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said in a news conference on Monday he doesn't expect to talk to his bosses about his job until the end of the season. That could pose a problem for recruiting as prospects are left wondering what the future holds for the Wolverines now sitting with a 3-5 record on the season.
Sophomore RB De’Veon Smith: Smith’s final stat line (11 carries for 39 yards) leaves a bit to be desired, but he did lead Michigan’s running attack and added a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. That score was Michigan’s first against the Spartans since the fourth quarter of their 2011 meeting. It also snapped a streak of 10 consecutive games in which the Wolverines scored fewer points against Michigan State than the previous year.
Senior DE Frank Clark: Smith’s touchdown was set up by Clark’s fumble recovery on the Michigan State 33-yard line. Clark has been Michigan’s most productive pass-rusher this season. He added a quarterback hurry and a tackle for loss to his total against the Spartans while helping to hold Connor Cook in check for a good portion of the game.
Senior LB Jake Ryan: Twelve tackles Saturday gives Ryan 68 stops so far this season. He is the only Big Ten linebacker to make the 15-man semifinalist list for the Butkus Award released Monday morning. He tied Joe Bolden in total tackles against the Spartans, but gets the nod over his teammate in helmet stickers because the only things he drove into the Spartan Stadium turf Saturday were opposing ball carriers.
A win against in-state rival Michigan State would bring the Wolverines to 4-4 on the season and perhaps turn the tide of negativity surrounding Hoke and his program. A performance like last year’s, when the Spartans held Michigan to minus-48 yards rushing, might prove to be a Rubicon crossing for Hoke’s chances to keep his job. Here are a few players that can play key roles in avoiding a repeat in East Lansing.
Junior WR Devin Funchess: During its bye week, Michigan went back to the drawing board to try to find ways to create more explosive plays. Quarterback Devin Gardner hasn’t been shy about feeding Funchess whenever possible. They connected for a 43-yard touchdown pass -- the team’s longest completion of the season -- in Michigan’s recent win over Penn State. The Spartans defense has been susceptible to big plays this season, and Michigan will need a few of them to keep pace with the country’s third-best scoring offense.
Junior RB Justice Hayes: Michigan’s running backs had 19 carries in the win over Penn State, and nine of those came in the fourth quarter. The Wolverines aren’t likely to find any more consistency in the run game against a fast and physical Michigan State front seven.
Hayes, though, can play a crucial role in the passing game. He’s the Wolverines’ best pass-protection back and can help buy time against Michigan State’s pass rush (which is averaging 3.71 sacks per game). He can also keep the blitzing Spartan linebackers honest by slipping into the passing attack as a receiver at times. The Wolverines gave up seven sacks a year ago in this rivalry. They won’t survive with a similar showing on Saturday.
Junior S Jarrod Wilson: Michigan State’s offense has found ways to pick apart just about every defense its played this season. Whether it’s Big Ten-leading receiver Tony Lippett, emerging tight end Josiah Price or one of the Spartans’ talented running backs, Wilson has a chance to slow down Michigan State’s weapon du jour. The junior made eight tackles in the win over Penn State. He’ll need to have a big day against quarterback Connor Cook to keep the score manageable for Michigan’s offense.
That’s not quite as cliché as it may sound.
Sure, Wile’s fellow Wolverines told him not to worry when he missed three of four kicks from that dastardly right hash to start the season. They had his back after he went 0-for-2 in a shutout loss to Notre Dame in the metaphorical way good teammates should. They told him he was still their guy and he’d get the next one, and certainly that steadied the senior’s shaken confidence. What really helped, though, was when they got behind him in a more literal sense.
Michigan’s field goal practice this season has included a chorus of hecklers who stand a few feet behind Wile every time he lines up for a kick. They do their best to distract him, chirping the type of things they hope will make the buzz of 100,000 screaming fans fade in comparison. Dennis Norfleet, the team’s top punt returner/on-field break dancer, is usually the ring leader.
“Norfleet likes to be pretty loud,” Wile said. “They only ever succeed if they can make me laugh. ... They talk about my nonexistent hamster. I apparently have a hamster. I don’t know where that came from.”
Fictional hamsters aside, the wheels inside Wile’s head are now spinning at the right pace when he lines up for a kick. He's made seven of his eight attempts since losing to the Irish. He said the biggest adjustment during that stretch has been not psyching himself out. His only miss in the last five games was a 56-yard attempt that Rutgers freshman Kemoko Turay needed moonshoes to block.
“The guy from Rutgers made a great play,” Wile said. “I definitely would’ve liked to see how that turned out otherwise. I thought I hit it pretty well.”
In his last outing, an 18-13 win over Penn State, Wile made all three of his field goals, including a 42-yarder to tie the game in the third quarter and a 37-yarder to take the lead for good in the fourth. The game-tying kick was the closest Wile came to the right hash -- his mental sticking point earlier in the season -- against the Nittany Lions.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he starts the special-teams portion of practice by sending Wile down the right hash attempting kicks at different lengths. He didn’t claim to be Sigmund Freud in straightening out Wile's approach but said he’s made it a point to get the kicker to stop pressing if he starts to struggle in practice.
“If he misses a couple in a row, I’ll just tell him don’t overthink it,” Hoke said. “Sometimes he just flat-out overthinks it instead of just going up there and swinging your leg. I don’t know if you want to call that psychology.”
Wile does use a few tricks to keep himself mentally centered. If he feels doubt creeping in on the sideline, he visualizes the referee raising his arms after a successful kick. While he’s lining up, he’ll crunch his upper body into an awkward stance to remind himself to stay compact when he strikes the ball.
He has worked with a kicking specialist back in his hometown of San Diego to remove some kinks from his form. Most importantly, he says, he knows he has his teammates standing behind him.
“Now I don’t care where I kick from,” Wile said. “If I’m on the field, in my mind I’m going to make the kick.”
The atmosphere at the Big House has been lacking excitement this season, but Michigan can still put on a good show in primetime. The Wolverines are now 3-0 when they play at night on their home field. Here are some of the players who shined brightest under the lights:
PK Matt Wile: A week after having a game-winning attempt blocked at Rutgers, Michigan’s Matt Wile connected in the fourth quarter on a field goal that wound up clinching the victory. Wile was 3 for 3 on Saturday, splitting the uprights from 45, 42 and 37 yards out. He buoyed a struggling offense by providing 10 of the team’s 18 points. The senior has made seven of his last eight kicks since missing two against Notre Dame. The only unsuccessful attempt in that stretch was the 56-yarder that Rutgers blocked a week ago.
DE Brennen Beyer: Two of Michigan’s six sacks came from Beyer, who had a dominant day against the Penn State tackles. He finished with four total stops. Beyer’s biggest contribution came late in the third quarter when he and fellow end Frank Clark pinned Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg in the pocket on a third-down play. Hackenberg panicked under pressure and tossed an interception across his body to cornerback Jourdan Lewis. Michigan tied the game with a field goal four plays later.
An offense that struggled throughout September produced three touchdowns and remained perfect in the red zone. The defensive front kept Rutgers under 50 rushing yards and remains a team strength. The leaders of those efforts win our helmet stickers for this week's performance at the midway point of the regular season.
QB Devin Gardner: Head coach Brady Hoke hoped that a week on the sideline would help his veteran quarterback get a new perspective on the mistakes that were holding him back. Gardner returned to the starting lineup Saturday, and while he wasn’t his best self, showed definite signs of improvement. He scrambled for two rushing touchdowns and completed 13 of his 22 passes for 178 yards. The offense demonstrated signs of life that it hadn’t in two previous losses.
LB Joe Bolden : The junior led Michigan with 10 tackles Saturday night, his third double-digit total of the season. Bolden emotionally defended his coaches after losing to Minnesota at home a week earlier. He put the blame on himself and his teammates for failing to execute. He executed well in New Jersey, helping to hold Rutgers to 2.5 yards per carry on the ground.
P Will Hagerup: Specials teams took its lumps against Rutgers with a costly blocked field goal from 56 yards out late in the game. Hagerup did his job well, though. He averaged 47.5 yards on his four punts and kept Rutgers from returning any of them. His 61-yard boot in the second quarter flipped field position and Michigan took advantage on the next possession to take a 17-12 lead, its last of the day.
Since 1986, Minnesota has beaten Michigan once. The Gophers come to Ann Arbor with one of the top rushers in the nation in David Cobb and the second-most takeaways among FBS teams. Michigan remains a double-digit favorite, but Saturday might be Minnesota’s best chance to upset a reeling Wolverines team since its victory in 2005. Here are a few players who could play a big role in making sure that Michigan retains possession of the little brown jug Saturday:
LB Jake Ryan: The fifth-year senior is settling into his role in the middle of the defense after playing outside linebacker earlier in his career. He made a team-high 13 tackles in a 26-10 loss to Utah last week. He’ll get another chance to shine against a one-dimensional Gophers offense and a workhorse back like Cobb. Another double-digit tackle performance from Ryan could turn him into an all-conference candidate on a team that hasn't had many bright spots so far this season.
TE Jake Butt: Michigan coach Brady Hoke promised changes were coming to a dismal offense this week. One possible new direction could include a bigger role for his sophomore tight end. Butt is still climbing back toward full health after offseason ACL surgery. Hoke said he wants to use the big, versatile pass-catcher as much as his healing knee will allow. After three catches and a touchdown in a win over Miami (Ohio), Butt didn’t see much action last week. He should be getting closer to playing a full role and opening up some options for whoever winds up starting at quarterback.
WR Dennis Norfleet: Michigan’s return specialist and speedster in the passing game gave a passionate defense of his head coach earlier in the week. He has emerged as one of the team leaders in his junior year. Norfleet’s emotion, if he can translate it to the field, could help provide a big special-teams play to spark a Michigan team that will take points any way it can get them.
Here are a few players who could make a difference with breakout performances:
WR Amara Darboh: The sophomore made his first career start in a 34-10 win over Miami(Ohio) last week after missing all of last season with a foot injury. He caught six passes for 88 yards and his first career touchdown against an overmatched RedHawks' defense. Michigan will probably have to take to the air at some point to hang with the high-tempo Utah offense. If senior Devin Funchess (leg injury) can’t play again this week, Darboh becomes a primary target in the passing game.
LT Mason Cole: True freshmen starters on the offensive line are a rare species. At left tackle, they are almost unheard of. Cole has impressed teammates and coaches with his poise so far this season, but he’ll face the stiffest test of his career this weekend. His respect in the locker room will take a big leap if he can hold off Utah defensive ends Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick. That duo has upheld Utah's recent history in the defensive trenches by picking up 2.5 sacks each through two games, an impressive stat line even if two of them came against a woefully inept Fresno State offensive live.
Michigan’s secondary: The Wolverines' defense heads into the weekend tied for dead last among FBS teams (with Utah and a dozen other schools) with only one takeaway. That’s been an emphasis for defensive coordinator Greg Mattison all week in practice.
“Coach Mattison keeps pounding it in our head that we need to create turnovers,” said sophomore safety Jeremy Clark. “I think if we keep playing hard and keep hustling to the ball, we’ll get our turnovers.”
Clark, a first-year starter, and true freshman Jabrill Peppers, who played an expanded role at cornerback last weekend, continue the theme of young players who can make a difference against the Utes. Both have the athletic ability to be playmakers in the secondary if they get themselves in the right spots. Eventually, Michigan’s turnover rate has to progress toward the mean. This could be a good week to start.
- RB Derrick Green: The sophomore powered Michigan’s rushing attack with 137 yards and two touchdowns against Miami (Ohio). He averaged 6.2 yards per carry, but his best run of the day picked up only two yards. He sidestepped one would-be tackler in the backfield and dragged another past the first down marker on a 3rd-and-1 in the fourth quarter. That second effort helped Green finish the day without getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage.
- LB Joe Bolden: The Ohio native made seven stops against the RedHawks, increasing his team-leading total to 22 tackles this season. Bolden also dove to deflect a third-down pass for his highlight-reel moment, which killed Miami’s first drive of the second half when the game was still in question.
- TE Jake Butt: In his first fully active appearance since tearing his ACL in February, Butt caught three passes for 59 yards and a touchdown. Two plays after yanking a potential interception away from a Miami linebacker for his first catch of the season, Butt slipped into a wide-open field on a fake screen play and hauled in a much-needed, 29-yard scoring play. "Things weren’t going exactly how we wanted them that game," he said. "[I] went in there and took the ball out of the defender’s hands and scored the touchdown. It kind of provided a good spark for our team."
Josh Moyer: Hmmm ... it's a bit tricky this week since only three of 14 games don't feature huge double-digit favorites (Rutgers-Washington State, UCF-Penn State, Wisconsin-LSU). Out of those three, though, I like Wisconsin the most as an upset pick. LSU has a new quarterback and running back and its run defense shows a few cracks. The Tigers ranked 94th in the nation last season in stopping ball carriers behind the line and were No. 35 in run defense. And you know what happens when Melvin Gordon finds room on the outside (hint: touchdown). Wisconsin has fared well against better run defenses, so they should be able to keep the ball moving Saturday. We'll see if that's enough.
@ESPNJoshMoyer upset alert week 1 in the big ten?— Matt Finnigan (@Finnarious) August 26, 2014
Josh Moyer: After a sub-par freshman campaign, it sure looks as if Derrick Green is on pace to be Michigan's feature back. Brady Hoke named him the starter, although he added that De'Veon Smith will be "1A." But if you look at how Doug Nussmeier and Brady Hoke have approached running backs since 2010, the top guy has always received at least twice as many carries as the backup. (One exception: Alabama's Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon split carries in 2012 but combined for 66.5 percent of team carries.) Green had 27 percent body fat last year and naturally looked sluggish; he's at 9 percent right now. He'll be better. As for Jabrill Peppers, count me among the believers. Devin Gardner said recently that Peppers and Devin Funchess are the best athletes on the team. That's big praise. So sure, Peppers has generated a lot of hype -- but I think he'll live up to it.
Josh Moyer: In our season predictions this morning, I was the only Big Ten reporter to pick Minnesota to win fewer than six games. Everyone else said six or seven. I'll admit I waffled slightly between choosing five and six wins, but the Minnesota passing game -- or lack thereof -- really concerns me. The Gophers ranked No. 105 in the nation last season in total offense and, without a playmaker like Ra'Shede Hageman on defense, I'm not yet sold on the defense being as good as last year. In some ways, last season's 8-5 record was a best-case scenario -- especially with surprising wins against Penn State and Nebraska, and close wins against Norhtwestern and Indiana. When I look at this season's schedule, I see seven losses: at TCU, at Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, and at Wisconsin. Northwestern was the toss-up for me but, as it stands, I see the Wildcats winning a close one.
@ESPNJoshMoyer why so down on the Gophers? 5-7 (2-6) seems low. Not saying they are winning 9+, but no bowl? Really?— Darren Michael (@HaloKitty343) August 27, 2014
Josh Moyer: It's the biggest question mark on the team, and I think it's going to be the determining factor in whether Penn State finds success. I picked the Nittany Lions to win seven games and, honestly, I think that's even slightly optimistic with this line. (Two players who were defensive tackles in February are now starting inside as offensive guards, and absent is basically any quality depth.) This offense has for which to be excited: Christian Hackenberg, two terrific running backs, my pick for B1G tight end of the year and a plethora of talented young wideouts. The only thing that's missing is a solid O-line -- and all the talent in the world doesn't mean anything if Hackenberg and Co. can't find time. If last season's O-line returned, I might even pick Penn State to win 10 games. The potential is there, but the offensive line is going to act as the cap.
@ESPNJoshMoyer How big of a concern is the Penn State O-line?— Sean Banks (@seanbanks3) August 27, 2014
Coaches are talking about the importance of taking it one game at a time while chasing a conference title. Players have busted out their finest suits and are raving about how difficult the offseason conditioning program was at their schools. And the media grabbed some free food between interviews.
There is one more day to go before the circus leaves Chicago, but before we get to that, the Big Ten blog is handing out some awards to put a bow on the opening day.
Best-dressed player: Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond. The honors could just as easily have gone to teammates Shilique Calhoun or Connor Cook, the former for his bow tie and the latter for his accessorizing with his enormous championship ring. But Drummond stole the show as the sharpest of the Spartans, who clearly looked the part of returning conference champs.
I think the Best Dressed award has been locked up today. Kurtis Drummond, folks. pic.twitter.com/XAnHXjJWKP— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Most fun-loving players: The bright spotlight and huge crowd around him might have kept Ohio State coach Urban Meyer a bit guarded, but his players certainly welcomed the attention and weren't afraid of being playful with the media. Tight end Jeff Heuerman loosened things up by locking quarterback Braxton Miller in a headlock, and after that, both decided to moonlight as media members by sneaking over to ask Meyer a few questions toward the end of a session -- a rare glimpse at the personalities off the field of two of the league's best talents on it.
Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman and Braxton Miller decided to join the media today and interview Urban Meyer. pic.twitter.com/scWhYDZRNs— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Biggest missed opportunity: The Wisconsin-LSU matchup to open the season is appealing enough at a neutral site. But the Badgers and Tigers could have taken the intrigue to another level by hosting those games at two of the loudest, most hostile stadiums in the country -- if only Gary Andersen had been around a couple of years earlier. The Badgers' coach said he "would have said yes" to a home-and-home series at Camp Randall and in Death Valley, a tantalizing what-might-have-been if the Tigers might have been as willing as Andersen.
Most appropriate Twitter handle: Nebraska’s Kenny Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80). The 6-foot-1 receiver was probably the easiest player to pick out of a crowd, as his puffy afro towered over opposing players. Bell’s play didn’t earn him an award last season -- he was honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team -- but we just couldn’t go one more day without recognizing that 'fro.
Best-dressed coach: Penn State’s James Franklin. Every day, the head coach spends 22 minutes to shave his head in every direction and trim that goatee ... so it seems slightly surprising that he is probably the coach who spends the most time on his head, considering he’s bald. But, hey, it takes time to pull that look off -- and he was also looking dapper with that Penn State lapel, blue tie and matching pocket square. Franklin often jokes that he doesn’t need to sleep, so maybe he uses some of that extra time to pick out the right clothes.
James Franklin and our Josh Moyer are sharing head shaving techniques. Seriously. pic.twitter.com/S7iVnnNvo9— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) July 28, 2014
Quote of the day: Penn State linebacker Mike Hull has learned under three head coaches -- Joe Paterno, Bill O'Brien and Franklin -- during his career, and their personalities really couldn’t have been any different. Hull laughed while providing their takes on social media as an example.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the whole evolution,” he said. “Joe didn’t know what Facebook was, O’Brien called Facebook ‘Spacebook’ and, now, Coach Franklin probably has every social media there is to have. It’s crazy.”
Most Big Ten quote: “How are you going to approach the Rose Bowl?” -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke, lamenting some aspects of the College Football Playoff in years, like this season, when the Granddaddy of Them All is to serve as a national semifinal game. Hoke suggested that some of the pageantry associated with the game -- for instance, the Beef Bowl team competition at Lawry’s, a prime rib restaurant in Beverly Hills -- will be eliminated because of the high stakes and need for a regular game-week regimen. Of the traditional Rose Bowl, Hoke added: “It’s the greatest experience in America for kids.”
Most Iowa quote (maybe ever): “Sometimes, old school is a good school.” -- Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz on his program’s resistance to some of the offensive innovation that has swept college football.
Best quote about a player not in attendance: “I don’t like standing too close to him because it seems like the wind is always blowing through his hair. When he smiles, this little thing comes off his tooth like in the toothpaste commercial.” -- Penn State coach James Franklin on sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Defensive end Keisean Lucier-South planned to trim his considerable list of scholarship offers to a final five schools in early August, but just like he is on the field, the nation's No. 28 prospect was quick off the line, announcing his top five on Monday.
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- Jeff Jones is not likely to play for Minnesota this season, even if he qualifies academically.
- Some highly rated prospects will be on Ohio State's campus tonight.
- A Q&A with Christian Hackenberg. Can Deion Barnes return to his freshman form for Penn State?
- It's now or never for Frank Clark on Michigan's defensive line. So Jabrill Peppers has apparently been working hard.
- Purdue defensive coordinator Greg Hudson is looking for better performance on first downs.
- Michigan State will be looking in-state to fill out many of its remaining recruiting needs. Lawrence Thomas will be a player to watch in Spartans camp.
- Why Maryland is favored for more early Big Ten success than Rutgers (there is a great expert quote in this story).
- Things could be looking up for Tim Beckman in 2015 -- if he survives 2014.
- Huskers legend Tom Osborne discussed a variety of topics in this interview.
- Iowa receiver Tevaun Smith looks to build on last season.
- Some possible breakout players in the Big Ten this season.
Recruiting Pitfall At Florida, Michigan
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
12:00 PM ET Northwestern Iowa 12:00 PM ET Maryland Penn State 12:00 PM ET Wisconsin Rutgers 3:30 PM ET Purdue 15 Nebraska 3:30 PM ET Indiana Michigan 8:00 PM ET Illinois 16 Ohio State