On the road again. Just can’t wait to get on the road again.
That’s where Michigan will be this weekend. And here are five things to keep an eye on when the Wolverines take the field at Beaver Stadium (5 p.m. ET, ESPN).
1. Road woes, see how that goes: Coaches and players have spoken about the struggles of playing at Penn State, where the fans are nearly on top of the players and crowd noise makes any kind of team communication difficult. Quarterback Devin Gardner has been practicing with a whisper snap count during practice to try and simulate how the offensive line would be able to hear him in Beaver Stadium -- not exactly the test you want to give a recently revamped position group. And defensively, Greg Mattison said that he worries about the struggles of making sure play calls get from him to every member of his defense in a timely fashion when a stadium is that loud. And with a defensive line that rotates so much and a faster Penn State offense, that creates another worry. Expect a few issues to crop up, as they seem to on the road. But we’ll see how Michigan handles it. It could be UConn Round 2, or the Wolverines could pull it together.
2. Gardner keeping his cool: Gardner showed a better pocket presence against Minnesota than he did against UConn and didn't look frazzled. The Wolverines started the game with a handful of runs to get Gardner in a groove and then they let him pass -- but only 17 times. And he took off running, but just seven times (matching a season low). It put Gardner in a safer situation and the offense, because of that, was more efficient. “We wanted to take pressure off the quarterback without taking the ball totally out of his hands,” offensive coordinator Al Borges said. “He can be a very dynamic playmaker, and when he uses good judgment, he can be as good as anybody.” Gardner’s leash might be a bit looser this Saturday because everyone seems to have more confidence in the offense, but don’t expect anything too crazy. They’re still building the offense back up.
3. Christian Hackenberg taking care of business: Penn State’s wunderkind has been throwing the ball incredibly well considering he’s just in his first season. He typically gets better as the game goes on, so the Michigan pass rush is going to have to get to him early to get him rattled. Penn State uses maximum protection schemes for Hackenberg quite a bit, so the Wolverines are going to look to “change the math,” as Mattison explained, by sending different kinds of rushes to try to get favorable numbers.
4. A blueprint for the passing game: The Nittany Lions defense has given up an average of 214 passing yards per game, but just five total passing touchdowns. When Indiana took care of business against Penn State last Saturday, they aired it out -- throwing for 336 yards. Kevin Wilson and the Hoosiers have given the Wolverines a basic game plan of how to be effective; now we’ll see if Michigan can move their players into those same situations. This will be an opportunity for Gardner to get a bit of confidence back in the passing game, as well as finding ways to get Devin Funchess, Jeremy Gallon, Jehu Chesson and Drew Dileo more involved. Expect Gardner to spread the ball around, and look for a few big plays from these playmakers.
5. Big runs, big fun: The Michigan coaches had been hoping to get Derrick Green involved, but they just didn’t believe Green was ready until last weekend. And while the freshman had a lot of negative or no-gain yardage, he had a solid 14-yard run, too. As time passes, he and the offensive line are going to gain chemistry. Couple that with Fitzgerald Toussaint being a reliable featured back and the Wolverines could be creating a pretty dynamic run game. Michigan will probably have a similar game plan (at least to start the game) this Saturday as it did last, so look for Toussaint and Green to pick up some yards to open things up for the passing game later.