Michigan Wolverines: Deveon Smith

Spring game recap: Michigan

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
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Spring (practice) has officially sprung for Michigan, which became the first Big Ten team to hold its spring game on Saturday at the Big House.

An estimated crowd of 15,000 took in the festivities, which included a non-scoring scrimmage. You can find coverage of the game here, here and here. And here's a brief recap:

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Devin Gardner threw two interceptions and completed just two passes in the Wolverines' spring game.
Star of the game: Cornerback Jourdan Lewis had two interceptions on the day, though he was also whistled for two pass interference penalties.

How it went down: It was just a spring game, and as most teams are wont to do, the Wolverines kept things very vanilla for their first public practice session of the year.

Still, fans had hoped to see some inklings of progress, especially from the new offense led by coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who was hired away from Alabama in the winter. Players had talked about making more big plays in practice in Nussmeier's scheme.

There wasn't much evidence of that on Saturday. On the very first snap of the scrimmage, Devin Gardner was intercepted by Lewis in his own territory. Gardner -- still not 100 percent on his healing foot -- would finish just 2-for-10 for 53 yards, though he's in no danger of losing the job. Backup Shane Morris went 5-for-11 for 73 yards, and his final throw was also picked off by Lewis, who started at corner and made a nice impression in that competition. (He'll need to keep doing that this summer, since Jabrill Peppers is on the way).

"I definitely think we're going to be tighter on offenses this year," Lewis said afterward. "We are playing more man-to-man and we'll be closer to those guys to break it up or intercept it."

The one big play was a 44-yard strike from Gardner to Freddy Canteen, the early enrollee who has been the talk of the spring in Ann Arbor. He looks like the real deal and will likely earn a starting job at receiver.

The running game produced mixed results. De'Veon Smith got the most reps with the first unit, running nine times for 21 yards. Derrick Green added 16 yards on six carries, while Justice Hayes had six attempts for 33 yards. The offensive line, which included early enrollee Mason Cole as the first-team left tackle, struggled to open up holes and get a push up front. The defense registered five sacks, including one each from defensive linemen Frank Clark, Brennen Beyer and Willie Henry.

"Inconsistent" is how coach Brady Hoke described the offensive performance.

"I think there were a couple good runs in there that they did a pretty good job with," he said. "We needed to be a little more consistent in the protection game. Through the course of the 15 practices, I think there has been some real improvements made."

Hoke has maintained all along that a team depending on many freshmen and sophomores will need some time to come together. On Saturday, they showed that in several key areas.

"There's no question," Hoke said, "we need a lot of improvement."
The first Big Ten spring game of 2014 arrives on Saturday at the Big House. Here's a quick preview of what to expect from Michigan's spring fling.

When: Saturday, 2 p.m. ET

Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Admission: Free, though fans are encouraged to make donations to Mott Children's Hospital. Michigan Stadium gates open at 11 a.m., with an alumni flag football game scheduled to begin at noon. The men's lacrosse team will play Fairfield at 5 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network (live)

Weather forecast: Partly sunny, with a high near 47. Winds 13 to 17 mph, with gusts as high as 28 mph.

What to watch for: Coach Brady Hoke said the Wolverines will hold about a 45- to 50-minute scrimmage after "a lot of individual grind work." Hoke said his team, which has only 12 seniors, still needs to work on its fundamentals in its 15th and final practice.

One position full of youth that will have a lot of eyeballs on it Saturday is the offensive line. It's a group full of freshmen and sophomores, but Hoke said he has seen improvement there. An encouraging performance by that unit in the spring game, even with as little as that means, could scale back some of the intense scrutiny and criticism.

Receiver is another spot with a lot of new faces, as Devin Funchess is the only proven returning player. True freshman Freddy Canteen has turned a lot of heads this spring in the slot, and fans will get their first look at him in a Michigan uniform. Fans will be curious to see the offense in general under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Hoke said about 80 to 85 percent of Nussmeier's offense has been installed this spring, and he said there were a lot of explosive plays in last weekend's scrimmage. The offense should include much more north-south running, and a slimmed-down Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith should lead the way.

On defense, the public gets its first view of the new linebacker arrangement, with Jake Ryan moving into the middle and James Ross III at the strongside spot. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has talked about a more aggressive approach that will feature more blitzing, but don't expect to see much more than the usual vanilla spring schemes.

Devin Gardner seems to have answered any questions about whether he'd retain the starting quarterback job by going through the spring on a foot that isn't 100 percent healed from the Ohio State game. Shane Morris and Wilton Speight should get plenty of reps on Saturday as well.
There’s quite a bit we’ve already learned about Michigan through this 2014 spring season, and the April 5 scrimmage will reveal even more. However, this spring really only matters because it’s a launching point for what happens next season, and it’s important to keep that in mind with everything that’s talked about this spring. So, to look forward to the fall, here are five predictions for Michigan football in 2014.

No. 1: Michigan will win handily at Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan quarterback Devin Gardner should find some areas to attack in his last shot at Notre Dame.
Why: It will be Sept. 6, just the second week of the season, but Michigan will be looking to make a statement … and where better than in the final scheduled matchup between these old rivals? A victory over Appalachian State in the opener would ease the minds of many Michigan fans, but a solid and convincing win in South Bend, Ind., is what the Wolverines will need early in the season to help people start getting over the disappointments of 2013.

That kind of emotion would be huge for a team that will have a lot of veterans (who have experienced a lot of ups and downs) in 2014. Quarterback Devin Gardner will be leading the way and, as he showed last season, you can expect him to put up a good performance in a rivalry game. For the most part, with the exception of the Michigan State game in 2013, he has exceeded expectations in rivalry games.

Stats to know: This could be all about the matchups. This early in the season, the offenses should be further along than the defenses, and when you look at the areas in which Michigan is replacing players and the areas in which Notre Dame is replacing players, that’s a very good thing for the Wolverines.

To start, Notre Dame's weaknesses are aligned pretty closely with Michigan’s strengths. The Fighting Irish are thin on the defensive line and at linebacker. With the Wolverines returning running backs Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, the young duo should be able to find holes in a struggling Notre Dame defense and Gardner, who passed for 294 yards and rushed for 82 yards in 2013, can be expected to be even better prepared for the matchup this season. And considering he won’t be running at Stephon Tuitt, this could be a 100-yard rushing game for Gardner.

The Fighting Irish allowed 168 rushing yards per game and 4.2 yards per rush last season. Between Green, Smith and Gardner returning and the Fighting Irish losing talent on the first two levels of their defense, Michigan should be able to account for more than 200 rushing yards and at least 4.5 yards per rush.

Another weakness in Notre Dame -- and it’s a weakness in experience, not talent -- is at wide receiver. The Michigan secondary certainly isn’t a brick wall of any sorts, but against young talent early in the season, the scale will tip toward a Blake Countess-led secondary.

Then, looking at the Fighting Irish’s strengths, they also happen to line up well with Michigan strengths. Notre Dame should be good at quarterback with Everett Golson, and look for sophomore running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant to break out, but unlike Michigan’s young running backs and talented quarterback, Notre Dame’s group will have to run against one of the stoutest linebacker groups in the conference, as well as Frank Clark on the defensive line.

The Wolverines allowed 140.2 rushing yards per game as well as 3.8 yards per rush, but with much of the front seven returning and the shift in defensive coaching, those numbers are expected to improve.

One place to watch will be the secondary, where Notre Dame returns talent. Michigan lost its top receiver in Jeremy Gallon, and though Devin Funchess should be able to create some mismatches against Irish linebackers or smaller defensive backs, he won’t be able to do it alone. However, if Smith, Gardner and Green can open up the passing lanes by stuffing the ball down Notre Dame’s throat, some good things could happen and Notre Dame secondary’s advantage might not be quite as obvious.

Other fall predictions:
There’s quite a bit we’ve already learned about Michigan through this 2014 spring season and the scrimmage will reveal even more. However, this spring really only matters because it’s a launching point for what happens next season.. So, to look forward to next fall, here are five predictions for Michigan football in 2014.

No. 4: Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith will account for at least 150 yards in eight games in 2014.

Why: Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier believes in a running back by committee game plan, which was a huge change from the featured back days of Al Borges.

Nussmeier said that he likes to spread the carries around so that it’s not just one guy taking the pounding on every down, which means he intends for his running backs to run. That wasn’t always the case last season. Likely, the two backs carrying the most load will be Green and Smith.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhDerrick Green is expected to share the rushing load with De'Veon Smith this season.
Both showed promise last season and with another year under their belts of training and conditioning, they should be able to come into the fall more prepared for the daily grind. Green had 83 carries for 270 yards (3.3 yards) while Smith had 26 carries for 117 yards (4.5 yards).

What’s impressive about those numbers is how little negative yardage the two had as freshmen. Green accounted for a loss of 20 yards, which means he accounted for one loss of a yard for every 13.5 yards he gained. Smith accounted for a loss of 2 yards, which means he accounted for a loss for every 58.5 yards gained. Fitzgerald Toussaint, the Wolverines’ featured back last season, accounted for a loss of 78 yards while gaining just 648 yards meaning he accounted for one yard of loss for every 8.3 yards he gained.

Toussaint carried the ball so much more frequently than either Green or Smith. But it does show that when given the opportunity, both Green and Smith were more productive -- in limited action -- than Toussaint.

But, like last season, that won’t matter quite as much as the offensive line. If 2013 taught Michigan fans anything it was that a subpar O-line can railroad a team that has weapons. The Wolverines had two great tackles, but the interior of the line was in constant state of change and because of that the offensive didn’t really get going until November.

Because of injuries, there’s a decent chance the Wolverines won’t actually be able to put their best five offensive linemen on the field together until fall camp. But even if they manage to do that, they’ll be ahead of where they were last year. If and when the O-line pulls it together, Green and Smith can get to work.

Stats to know: Looking at how many rushing yards opponents allowed is a good gauge, but it’s all on a sliding scale. If a team allowed 250 passing yards a game then teams might not have rushed against them as much because there was little reason. However, a team might’ve been stout in the secondary and porous on the defensive line.

So with that in mind, here are the rushing yards per game as well as the yards per rush (which give a better idea of exactly how well teams defended the run). But again, since opponents differ, Miami (Ohio) giving up 5.1 yards per rush last year -- mostly to MAC teams -- is quite different that Indiana giving up 5.4 yards per rush mostly in the Big Ten.

  • Appalachian State: 220 rushing yards per game | 4.9 yards per rush
  • Notre Dame: 168 rushing yards per game | 4.2 yards per rush
  • Miami (Ohio): 223 rushing yards per game | 5.1 yards per rush
  • Utah: 130 rushing yards per game | 3.5 yards per rush
  • Minnesota: 158 rushing yards per game | 4.5 yards per rush
  • Rutgers: 101 rushing yards per game | 3.1 yards per rush
  • Penn State: 144 rushing yards per game | 3.9 yards per rush
  • Michigan State: 86 rushing yards per game | 2.8 yards per rush
  • Indiana: 238 rushing yards per game | 5.4 yards per rush
  • Northwestern: 167 rushing yards per game | 4.2 yards per rush
  • Maryland: 149 rushing yards per game | 3.7 yards per rush
  • Ohio State: 109 rushing yards per game | 3.3 yards per rush
Just by looking at those numbers, it’s pretty obvious that Smith and Green will have a harder time against Utah, Michigan State and Ohio State. There’s a greater chance that the duo won’t hit 150 in those games and since they are young, it’s likely that there’ll be another game where they miss that mark as well .

Another important number to consider when looking at rushing stats is how many times defenses held offenses to no gain or negative rushes. Again, no surprise here that Michigan State leads the Wolverines’ 2014 opponents in that category.

In 2013, the Spartans stopped opposing offenses at the line of scrimmage, or behind it, 131 times. What some people might find surprising is that Maryland did the same. The Terrapin defense accounted for 131 stops like that. Teams like Indiana (101), Northwestern (106) and Notre Dame (107) weren’t as strong in that category.

By looking at yards per rush as well as how often defenses stopped offenses at the line of scrimmage, there’s a pretty good indicator of the games when Smith and Green could go off for major yardage -- Indiana, Miami (Ohio), Northwestern.

The countdown:
No league has more longstanding historic rivalries than the Big Ten, but several of these series are becoming one-sided of late. We're taking a closer look at these games and whether things will change or remain the same in 2014.

We've already looked at the two Paul Bunyan trophy games: Wisconsin-Minnesota and Michigan-Michigan State. Has anyone seen the Little Brown Jug? It has been in Michigan's possession for quite a while.

Series: First meeting in 1892. Michigan leads 73-34-3. Little Brown Jug was introduced in 1909.

Last meeting: Michigan thumped Minnesota 42-13 on Oct. 5, 2013, at Michigan Stadium.

The streak: Michigan has won six consecutive matchups, 22 of the past 23 and 38 of the past 41. Minnesota's last win came in 2005 at Michigan Stadium.

Next meeting: Sept. 27 at Michigan Stadium

SportsNation

Will Minnesota beat Michigan this season?

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Discuss (Total votes: 3,535)

The skinny: The history always will be there with this series, but the rivalry factor has waned as Minnesota's struggles against Michigan coincide with its lengthy Big Ten title drought (no Big Ten titles since 1967, only three wins against Michigan). Minnesota had excellent opportunities to beat Michigan in 2008 and 2012 but fell short both times. The Gophers now will try to end the streak at the Big House, where they've dropped their past three meetings by a combined score of 134-23.

Both teams are looking for more on offense, and both want to base their identity around the power game. Minnesota achieved it to a degree in 2013 and should have plenty of options at running back, including Berkley Edwards, the younger brother of former Michigan star wide receiver Braylon Edwards. Michigan finished 102nd nationally in rushing last year and looks for a spark with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and sophomore backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith. Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner has had two strong performances against Minnesota, connecting with tight end Devin Funchess for 151 yards and a touchdown last year. A Gophers defense led by Damien Wilson, Eric Murray and Theiren Cockran must contain the Devins.

The (very early) prediction: Minnesota will keep it closer than its last three games at Michigan Stadium, but the Wolverines have more offensive firepower and home field on their side. Gardner has been at his best against the Gophers and fires two touchdown passes in a seven-point win.
Derrick Green's quest to do bigger things on the field for Michigan required the running back to get smaller away from the gridiron.

Even during spring break.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMichigan tailback Derrick Green says he has "a lot more energy and stamina" after trimming down.
Green showed up for spring football in late February at 227 pounds, a vast improvement from his check-in weight at 2013 preseason camp -- approximately 240 pounds -- but still heavier than he wanted to be. Michigan went through two limited-contact practices before players embarked on spring break the first week of March.

College students do a lot of things on spring break. Losing weight, at least voluntarily, isn't one of them. But Green went home to Virginia and shed seven pounds before returning to Michigan for practice this week.

"I have a personal trainer at home, so I was working out twice a day," Green told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "Obviously [I was] on a strict diet and watching what I ate. I feel great at this weight, better than I ever felt before."

It's a good sign for Green, who headlined Michigan's decorated 2013 recruiting class but never fully got on track last season. He showed up significantly overweight and then suffered an ankle injury in camp that slowed his development. Green, who ranked as the nation's No. 5 running back in the 2013 class, recorded 270 yards and two touchdowns on 83 carries for the Wolverines.

Michigan's run game fell well short of expectations, finishing 102nd nationally (125.7 ypg). The Wolverines averaged less than 100 rush yards in Big Ten games (only Purdue produced less).

Green had some moments later in the season, including a 79-yard performance in an overtime win at Northwestern, and made his first start in The Game, rushing for 47 yards on 12 carries. But his impact was marginal.

"It was an OK season," Green said. "I could have done a lot better."

Michigan hired offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to, among other things, shape up a rushing attack that hasn't consistently met coach Brady Hoke's vision. Hoke wants Michigan to overpower teams between the tackles, like it used to, but the Wolverines' rushing production has dropped in each of the past two seasons.

This spring, Green and the other backs are learning Nussmeier's system, which thus far has them focusing less on carrying the ball.

"With this offense, it's real fundamental with the pass protection," Green said. "Last year, it wasn't as strict. They're trying to have pass protection first and run the ball second."

It makes sense after Michigan allowed 36 sacks in 13 games, tying for 105th nationally. The Wolverines recorded the worst net rush total in team history (minus-48) in a loss at Michigan State, and the following week at minus-21 against Nebraska. The offensive line received most of the blame, but the coaches are demanding more from the running backs to keep Devin Gardner, Shane Morris and the other quarterbacks upright this fall.

Green also noted that Nussmeier wants a "1-2 punch" at running back, a departure from his predecessor, Al Borges, who preferred one featured back. After Michigan's poor showing in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Kansas State, Green said that he and fellow back De'Veon Smith would return this year and "get it done."

Before the spring, Hoke called Smith and Green, who had 26 carries last season, "two guys we're excited about." Although several other backs are competing, the two sophomores with similar builds and running styles could have the inside track to top the depth chart this fall.

"On and off the field, we're brothers," Green said.

Green might be a leaner runner these days, but his objective hasn't changed. He still wants to be the guy who bulldozed his way to 41 touchdowns during his final two high school seasons.

"The power ain't going nowhere," he said with a laugh. "I definitely have a lot more energy and stamina. Faster, stronger, more explosive, I just feel great."

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
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Spring practice is off and running in the Big Ten, as Michigan took the field Tuesday and Northwestern followed on Wednesday. We're taking snapshots of where each team stands at each position group.

We've already discussed the quarterbacks -- and will have much more on the way -- so the series begins with the running backs.

Illinois: The Illini are in a bit better shape here than they were the past two springs, as veterans Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both return. Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry and added 50 receptions for 535 yards as the primary playmaker for Illinois' revamped offense. Young added 376 yards on 93 carries. The Illini are looking for others behind the top two, and Dami Ayoola is back with the team after being dismissed in September for a rules violation.

Indiana: Tevin Coleman quietly put together a superb sophomore season and leads the Hoosiers' running backs in 2014. Coleman provides big-play ability after averaging 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns on only 131 attempts in 2013. Indiana loses Stephen Houston but brings back veteran D'Angelo Roberts, who will play behind Coleman. Younger players such as sophomore Laray Smith could get a look here.

Iowa: Not only did the Hawkeyes toss AIRBHG to the side and get through the season without any major injurie, but they bring back everyone for 2014. Senior Mark Weisman leads the contingent after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Jordan Canzeri came on strong late in the season and is showing no effects from his ACL tear in 2012. Veteran Damon Bullock also returns to the mix, and Iowa has talented younger backs such as LeShun Daniels Jr. at its disposal. Good situation here.

Maryland: The Terrapins wide receivers tend to get more attention, but the team also returns its top three running backs from 2013 in Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. Maryland also regains the services of Wes Brown, who finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2012 before being suspended for all of last season. Joe Riddle is back in the fold as well. The group brings different strengths, from power (Brown) to speed (Veii) to a mixture of both (Ross, Reid).

Michigan: Sophomore Derrick Green enters the spring as the frontrunner to be Michigan's lead back, although coach Brady Hoke wants to ramp up competition everywhere. The Wolverines struggled to consistently run between the tackles, but the 240-pound Green could change things. Hoke also is excited about another sophomore, De'Veon Smith. Michigan moved Ross Douglas from cornerback to running back, and Justice Hayes and Wyatt Shallman also are in the mix. "We've got more depth," Hoke said.

Michigan State: Things look much more promising than they did last spring, when the Spartans ended the session with a linebacker (Riley Bullough) as their top back. Jeremy Langford emerged as a very solid option during the season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's back as the clear-cut starter, and Nick Hill also returns. It will be interesting to see if Gerald Holmes makes a push, or whether Delton Williams remains on offense.

Minnesota: Here's another team that finds itself in very good shape at running back entering the spring. David Cobb leads the group after rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Veterans Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. are still around, and highly touted redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards will take the field after missing last fall because of knee and ankle injuries. Perhaps the best news will come in the summer as decorated recruit Jeff Jones arrives.

Nebraska: Notice a theme here? Nebraska is yet another Big Ten squad that can feel very good about its running backs entering the spring. Ameer Abdullah elected to bypass the NFL draft for one final season at Nebraska, where he led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards on 281 carries as a junior. Abdullah will contend for national awards in the fall. Imani Cross, who rushed for 10 touchdowns last year, is one of the nation's top backups. Terrell Newby and others add depth behind the top two.

Northwestern: Top back Venric Mark (ankle) will miss spring practice following surgery, and reserve Stephen Buckley (knee) also is rehabbing, but Northwestern has no reason to panic. Treyvon Green, who filled in well for Mark last season with 736 rushing yards, will get much of the work. Warren Long also is in the mix after appearing in seven games as a true freshman. Northwestern also loaded up at running back in recruiting to solidify the position for years to come.

Ohio State: This will be a position to watch in the spring as Ohio State must replace Carlos Hyde, who was nearly unstoppable during Big Ten play last fall. Veteran Jordan Hall also departs, and Rod Smith will be the veteran of the group despite only 83 career carries. The Buckeyes have some talented young backs, from Dontre Wilson, who saw significant playing time last fall, to Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Keep an eye on Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry in limited work last season but could emerge this spring.

Penn State: If it feels like Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been competing for carries forever at Penn State, it's because they have. Zwinak and Belton have been part of Penn State's running back rotation for the past two seasons and enter another competition this spring with talented sophomore Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 358 yards on only 60 carries last season. It will be interesting to see how much Lynch can push Zwinak and Belton in the team's first spring under a new coaching staff. Penn State has depth issues at several positions, but running back isn't one of them.

Purdue: The Boilers finished 122nd nationally in rushing offense last season, so the fact all of their running backs return might not spark mass celebration. Senior Akeem Hunt leads the group after recording 123 of the team's 319 rushing attempts in 2013. Other veteransBrandon Cottom and Raheem Mostert also are back, along with younger ball-carries such as Dayln Dawkins and three backs -- Keyante Green, David Yancey and Keith Byars II -- who redshirted last fall and could have much bigger roles.

Rutgers: Here's yet another team that returns basically its entire stable of running backs for spring ball. Paul James is the name to watch, as he rushed for 573 yards in the first four games last season before suffering a leg injury. James' health is a concern for Rutgers, which could also turn to Justin Goodwin, who showed some flashes following James' injury. Savon Huggins, who entered last season as the starter before losing ground, is in the mix as he looks to re-establish himself on the depth chart.

Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.
Spring football starts Tuesday for the Wolverines, so the competition for positions officially begins under the watchful eyes of Brady Hoke and his staff. This week, we’re counting down the five position battles you should also keep an eye on during the next month.

No. 4: Running back

Who’s in the mix: Derrick Green, De'Veon Smith

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioDerrick Green could provide Michigan the big, powerful runner Fitzgerald Toussaint could not because of his size.
What to watch: Green has kind of overshadowed Smith since the two arrived on campus together. Green came in as the highest-rated recruit in Michigan's 2013 class, but when he got to campus, he wasn’t in shape. So he was that much further behind Fitzgerald Toussaint. Now, Toussaint is gone and the running back spot is open. The Wolverines only recorded 65 rushing yards in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, but Smith received the most chances and carried the ball four times (for 7 yards) while Green only carried it once (for 5 yards). On the season, Green averaged 3.3 yards per carry (270 yards and two TDs on 83 carries) and Smith averaged 4.5 yards per carry (117 yards and zero TDs on 26 carries).

Obviously, last season is only going to play into this spring so much. The offensive line should start to jell this spring as it finds its starting five (which the Wolverines didn’t do last season until November), and the faster the offensive line is figured out, the faster the Michigan run game can get going. Smith showed bursts and Green displayed the ability to barrel over people and fall forward on nearly every carry (something Toussaint was just never able to do because of his size). With Green and Smith, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will really have a chance to decide who will be the better featured back in the Michigan offense. And even though Green was the front-runner early, Smith definitely has played himself into the equation.

Previous posts:
In Doug Nussmeier’s introductory news conference as the offensive coordinator at Michigan, some of the first words out of his mouth were no surprise to anyone who knows the Wolverines' traditional identity.

“Tough, physical, explosive is what we want to be,” Nussmeier said. “We want to be able to run the football. We want to be able to put points on the board. We want to force the defense to defend all different elements of the game.”

The tough, physical, explosive talk is exactly what's expected from an offensive coordinator at Michigan, a school that prides itself on being strong in the trenches and physical with in the running game.

However, the running game was one of the Wolverines’ biggest issues last season. The Wolverines had an FBS-worst 174 rushes for no gain/negative yards, which means that 35 percent of the time Michigan rushed, it went nowhere or backward. And Michigan’s average of 3.28 yards per rush wasn’t much better: No. 113 in the nation. Considering how poor both of those stats were, Michigan still managed to score 27 rushing touchdowns, which ranked 42nd in the country.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsGetting Derrick Green and the Michigan rushing offense going will be one of Doug Nussmeier's priorities.
So there seems to be some hope in the run game, but it lacks consistency. That’s where Nussmeier intends to start his focus.

“As long as the ball is moving forward and we’re ending every series in a kick, we’ll have a chance,” Nussmeier said. “That’s where we want to start from, but that’ll be the key point of emphasis to start.”

Nussmeier has an impressive track record in nurturing a running game. In his past six seasons as an offensive coordinator, he has produced six 1,000-yard rushers.

Last season at Alabama, Crimson Tide rushers finished in the top 20 nationally for yards per rush (No. 8 at 5.8 yards), rushes gaining 10 or more yards (No. 18 at 89) and percentage of rushes gaining five or more yards (No. 7 at 47 percent).

With Derrick Green -- a name he mentioned as a player he had recruited for Alabama -- as well as De’Veon Smith, he is going to focus on bringing a tough, strong running game back to Michigan.

Before the Wolverines can produce a run game, he’ll have to address the issues on the offensive line, which struggled all season and must replace All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan and three-year starter Mike Schofield.

The Michigan offensive line allowed 36 sacks this season, 109th in the country.

“We need to run the football, and just briefly, looking at statistically where we’re at, we need to eliminate the sacks. You can’t have lost-yardage plays. We’ve got to go eliminate that. We can’t have undisciplined penalties, pre-snap penalties,” Nussmeier said. “Any time you’re trying to find consistency on offense, you have to start from the basis of, ‘We’re not going to go backwards. We’re not going to have lost-yardage runs. We’re not going to take sacks. We’re not going to have penalties.’ ”

Those aren’t exactly tiny issues to fix, but Nussmeier is confident that even though Michigan will have a lot of young players getting major minutes next season, the group will show improvement.

A big focus will be working on the day-to-day expectations for the players and making sure that they get better on a daily basis. If the team can manage to do that, he believes the offense will be in a good place at this time next year.

“The biggest thing for us, as we sit down as a staff to evaluate where we are, where we want to go, set a clear path every day for these young men in how we’re going to get better and the things we want to achieve on a day-to-day basis,” Nussmeier said. “And as we grow daily, then the end product will evolve.”

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

January, 8, 2014
Jan 8
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Hey, everybody, I'm back in my usual Wednesday slot now that the holidays are over. Answering your emails always feels like a holiday, however. Let's get to it:

Pat from Iowa writes: With the new playoff system in place next year, will it help or hurt the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: It's a good question, and I suppose it depends on how you look at things. The BCS was actually pretty good to the Big Ten as far as getting teams into the major bowls. The league had two BCS teams this year as it did for most of the BCS era, thanks in large part to the schools' massive fan bases and attractiveness to bowls.

We're about to experience a sea change, no doubt. I believe that every other game outside of the four-team playoff will lose relevance, with the possible exception of the Rose Bowl. But even the Rose won't be quite as special as it has been to the Big Ten. Say the College Football Playoff were in place this year, the Rose wasn't a semifinal and you were a Michigan State fan. Would you have been as excited to go to Pasadena, knowing your team got squeezed out of playing for the national title? I don't think so.

The flip side of that coin is the playoff will help the Big Ten have a better chance to compete for a national championship, something the league has not done since the 2007 season. The Spartans would have had a great shot at making the four-team field this season, and undefeated or highly-ranked Big Ten champions will always be right in the mix. It's really up to the conference to make sure it consistently places teams in the Playoff, and then to perform well once there. Ridicule will await any of the five major conferences that repeatedly miss out on the four-team event.

Alex from Cincinnati writes: Hey, Bennett, thanks for your good work. Orange Bowl: from what I saw the game could have ended either way, but Clemson happened to be up when the clock expired. Now the B1G narrative for the next 9 months will be vastly different than if Ohio State had pulled out the victory. Do you agree that we're often too quick to either anoint or admonish certain teams and conferences, when in reality there is quite a lot of parity at the top?

Brian Bennett: Thanks for the kind words, Alex, and I agree with you that the margin between winning and losing at the very top level is very small. Just ask Auburn. The Big Ten, save for Michigan, was highly competitive in most of its bowls this year and came close to winning six of the seven.

But for the second straight year, the Big Ten finished 2-5 in bowls. A few teams, like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio State, actually entered their games as favorites but failed to deliver. Ultimately, they keep score for a reason, and it has become a trend for the league to end up on the short end of the scoreboard in recent postseasons. I really don't think the gap between the Big Ten and other leagues like the SEC is that large, as shown by the three Jan. 1 bowls in Florida. But it's a tougher argument to make without using victories as evidence.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyQuarterback Braxton Miller, who was banged up with shoulder and rib injuries, and the Buckeyes lost their final two games of the season.
Tom from DC writes: Hey, Brian! Can you explain why Braxton Miller was still in the game? The guy was injured to the point that his play was compromised. During those last few series, I kept yelling at the TV for Kenny Guiton. Miller is great, but he clearly wasn't firing on all cylinders. Despite that, he was still given designed runs and big throws ... WHY? I cringed every time. Despite all the mistakes, the biggest one, I think, was letting a severely injured QB play, while a stellar backup was fresh and ready to roll. Miller is a team player -- he would have understood if he was benched for Guiton due to injuries.

Brian Bennett: That's a fair and understandable question, Tom. I can tell you that offensive coordinator Tom Herman was asked if he ever considered putting Guiton in, and he quickly responded no. Asked if there was ever a conversation about it, Herman said the conversation went like this: If Miller can walk, he can play. So that shows you that Ohio State was firmly tying its sail to Miller just about under any circumstance. It makes sense, as Miller is the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year and a guy who has proven throughout his career that he makes big plays in the clutch.

But I also agree with you that Miller's passing was compromised by his shoulder and rib injuries, and that all those hits might have contributed to the final interception. And I think Ohio State relied too much on Miller in the final two games while forgetting about Carlos Hyde in the fourth quarter.

Josh in an empty office building writes: Hey B-ri, do you think the Spartans will struggle with complacency next year? They no longer have to prove themselves, and may be over-confident going into next year's Big Ten schedule.

Brian Bennett: If Michigan State is complacent, then it will be in for a long day in Week 3 at Oregon. I'd be more worried about the offseason practices and whether the Spartans rest on their laurels a bit. But the good thing is this program has always played with a bit of a chip on its shoulders under Mark Dantonio, and the staff has been around these players so long that it should be able to spot and eliminate any complacency right away. It also helps that several jobs will be open on defense, and competition usually fosters intensity. You always wonder how a team will handle a new level of success, but the fact that several players and coaches have already mentioned competing for a national title next year indicates that they are still striving upward.

Nathan from San Antonio, Texas, writes: Can you give us one final rundown of the new bowl tie-ins for the Big Ten next year? I know there were talks to add the Music City Bowl and Car Care Bowl, were those made official and are there still some bowls that could be a Big Ten tie-in next year?

Brian Bennett: Sure thing, Nathan. Let's start at the top. The Rose Bowl remains the main tie-in for the Big Ten, but the Rose will be a semifinal game next year. So unless a Big Ten team makes it to the Playoff, the conference may not have a team in the Rose in 2014. The league also shares a spot in the Orange Bowl with the SEC and Notre Dame; if the 2014 Big Ten champ fails to make the four-team playoff, it could wind up in Miami.

The rest of the lineup goes like this:

Capital One
Outback
Holiday
Music City/Gator*
Kraft Fight Hunger
Pinstripe
Detroit
Heart of Dallas/Armed Forces*

*- Rotating.

Remember, too, that the selection process will be based on tiers of teams, with heavy input from the Big Ten office in order to create fresh and attractive matchups.

Indra from San Antonio, writes: Hey, Brian, even though it's in the past now and what's done is done me and the handful of other UM fans down here in S.A. are really curious why Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith didn't get any carries in the Wings Bowl. I still doubt the outcome would have been different but it would have given them some much needed playing time/experience as it did for Shane Morris. Why do you think Coach Hoke opted to not utilize them?

Brian Bennett: I admit I was a bit baffled by that game plan, Indra. I thought Green had established himself as Michigan's best running option late in the season, and yet he received one carry -- one! -- for five yards against Kansas State. Smith saw four carries for seven yards. I get that the Wolverines' offensive line was a mess and that their best chance might have been to throw the ball more. But given that it was Morris' first start and that Justice Hayes came out of virtually nowhere to get four touches, I can't say that I have any idea what was going on with Al Borges' plan. It's safe to say that plan needs a thorough review and reworking this offseason.

Dave from Iowa writes: Does Jake Rudock get the starting nod for Iowa? Or would he get a leg up in a QB competition? Seems like C.J. Beathard has a stronger arm. Will Beathard get a shot?

Brian Bennett: Beathard said after the game that it was his understanding that he'll be given a shot to compete for the starting job in the spring. But Rudock is still the guy who beat out Beathard last offseason and started all 13 games for the Hawkeyes this season. Was Rudock great? No, but I thought he played very well at times. He's got a huge experience edge. Beathard will probably have to really outplay Rudock this offseason to actually unseat him, as Kirk Ferentz is not exactly known for making drastic changes.

Drew from Lincoln writes: Love the Big Ten blog, but I'm kind of confused about something. Can we finally put an end to the infatuation with Ohio State and Michigan? I'm not talking about publicity. A large fan base ensures publicity. I get that. I'm talking about the hype. Ohio State let down a lot of people in their last two games, and Michigan habitually underachieves and is way too inconsistent. Yet, Michigan State just finished the most successful season in the Big Ten since 2002, and it seems Wisconsin and Nebraska are just as competitive every year. Despite that, I'm sure Michigan and Ohio State will clean up recruiting again this offseason, and the hype will begin anew.

Brian Bennett: I get where you're coming from Drew, though I think there was less hype from Adam and me about Michigan and Ohio State's supposed "dominance" than there was from other corners. I didn't pick Michigan to win the Legends Division in 2013, for example. It's also true that Ohio State and Michigan remain the Big Ten's two most recognizable brands, for historic, financial and a whole host of other reasons. Because of that, those two teams are always going to receive a lot of attention, and if you're someone who really gets into recruiting -- in other words, someone very unlike me -- then you'll understand all the accolades those two teams will get around signing day.

The "hype," as you put it, is still very much deserved for Ohio State. Sure, the Buckeyes lost their final two games this year, but they went 24-0 before that and are still the gold standard for this conference for what they've done over the years. Michigan is the program that has vastly disappointed and has in many ways hurt the entire Big Ten by not living up to its own expectations. We're always going to talk and write a lot about these two teams because of their importance to the league. That said, if in 2014 you ever catch me writing that those two schools are going to pull away from the rest of the Big Ten, you have permission to flog me.

Jordan M. from Greenville, S.C., writes: I thought you said Ohio State was gonna win the Orange Bowl? Look how that turned out. Go Tigers!

Brian Bennett: Boy, I got a lot of grief from Clemson fans over my "Ten reasons Ohio State will win the Orange Bowl" post. To clarify, I was assigned to write that post, as every blogger was assigned to write one for BCS bowl teams in his or her conference. I tried to have a little fun with it and jabbed the ACC and Clemson a little. What good is sports without a little trash talk? I also said Woody Hayes would reach down from the afterlife and trip a Tigers player, so that tells you how serious I was. Let me remind Clemson fans that I visited your town in November and wrote nice things about you. Met a lot of friendly folks down there. And my official prediction was Clemson 38, Ohio State 35. I'd say that worked out pretty well for me.
It was far from an exciting game. But the Wolverines' 31-14 loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl showed a lot about this team. Here are three things we learned about Michigan in its loss.

1. The young guys are the bright spot for this team. Freshman quarterback Shane Morris stepped in for an injured Devin Gardner and exceeded nearly everyone's expectations. He finished the game 24-of-38 passing for 196 yards and rushed for a team-high 43 yards on four carries (one of those carries was a season-long 40 yarder for the Wolverines). On top of that, tight end Jake Butt finished out his surprising season with three catches for 33 yards. Freshman running back De'Veon Smith got the most carries of the day, though he produced only seven yards off four carries. The surprise was Derrick Green's lack of carries, but still he has a definite future at Michigan. It definitely wasn't the kind of outcome the Wolverines wanted, but the experience for these young players on a stage like this will be valuable in their futures. If they continue to grow, this offense could be quite good.

2. The chemistry between Gardner and Jeremy Gallon was key this year. Gallon accounted for 89 yards on nine catches. Gallon is certainly a talented receiver but this game showed how much of a difference the QB-WR chemistry factor makes for a talented wide receiver. Whether it was an awareness of where Gallon was on the field or knowing exactly how Gallon wanted the ball and at what speed, Gardner had an ability to find the senior. Morris was able to get Gallon the ball, but not at the same kind of level that Gardner generally did. The chemistry between Gallon and Gardner came from years of throwing to one another, so it's not a huge surprise that Gardner's absence affected Gallon. This wasn't Gallon's best game from a statistical perspective, but it does show how much of a difference those long hours in the summer and after practice really make.

3. The defense's performance against OSU wasn't an aberration. The defense that allowed 526 yards against Ohio State and gave up big play after big play made another appearance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Wolverines choked up 420 yards to the Wildcats. Kansas State tallied 11 plays of 10 or more yards, including four plays of 20 or more. And it was a pretty balanced attack in those big plays, showing that there were breakdowns all over the field. Of those 11 plays, six were passing and five were rushing. Michigan had a true freshman quarterback making his first start -- that was supposed to be the area where Michigan would struggle most. But the Michigan D stepped up and took that honor by giving the OSU game an encore.
By Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s standards, this season was a failure.

However, Michigan’s participation in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 28 can be interpreted as a huge victory for the team, and specifically its youth.

Obviously, beating Kansas State will be put at a premium. But the coaching staff won’t overlook the fact that they’ll get extra practice time with the young players on this team.

There aren’t any special bowl-prep practice rules. Michigan can practice for the bowl as they did during the regular season -- 20 hours a week with a maximum of four hours a day.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingA bowl game gives Brady Hoke and his staff more time to work with underclassmen.
“The great thing about bowl games is that you get a chance to get so many more practices,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “In our case, we’re a very young football team and it gets our young guys another 15 or 12 practices to get better and to improve on the mistakes that they’ve made. That’s where the real plus in this bowl game is.”

And while Michigan isn’t going to scrap its depth chart and only work with the scout team over the next few weeks, it will be a huge opportunity for players who are lower on the depth chart or only played sporadically this season to get more repetitions.

Obviously, the offensive line had a bit of that throughout the season. Six freshmen and sophomores started at least one game this season, and while that created a lot of confusion and growing pains, left tackle Taylor Lewan preached about how much that would help the team in the next few seasons.

So during the next two-and-a-half weeks, young players such as Kyle Kalis, Erik Magnuson and Kyle Bosch will continue that growth. But it will be even more helpful as offensive line coach Darrell Funk is able to work with reserve player such as Ben Braden and Blake Bars or players who redshirted this season such as David Dawson and Patrick Kugler.

It’s the same story for the defense. Freshmen defensive backs Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling, linebacker Ben Gedeon and defensive lineman Taco Charlton each played this season, but during that time they were targeted by opposing teams from time to time specifically because they were freshmen.

And then there are players such as running backs Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith and tight end Jake Butt, who made large contributions by the end of the season, but didn’t really get the full season of experience as a first or second-stringer.

This cluster of practices will be like an extra three game weeks.

“A lot of these young guys have earned a right to play, and it didn’t start out the first week,” Mattison said. “It has been throughout the season, so every chance they get to play another game and to have this practice time is tremendous for us.”

While the 7-5 season isn’t what the Wolverines had hoped for, they’ll be able to use this as a new season going forward, a chance to go 1-0.

The fact that so many freshmen and sophomores played this fall shows how confident Hoke and his staff are in the job they’ve done on the recruiting trail.

“We’re very, very excited about our football team and we feel very strongly that the young men that we’ve recruited in the two or three years that we’ve been here now are the right young men,” Mattison said. “Now, it’s getting that experience. … You can’t put a price tag on these 15 more practices where you can gain on individual drills and become a smarter football player.”
Auburn-Alabama kind of stole the spotlight from Michigan-Ohio State, but regardless, it was a really great game with a fantastic ending. With that, we decided to move the mailbag up to Monday to make sure we get to any lingering questions about the Wolverines and Buckeyes, as well as some others too.

Tobin, Tecumseh: Was the two-point conversion the right decision?

A: I think so. With how the Michigan defense was playing, I don’t know if it would’ve been able to stop the Buckeyes in overtime. But I think the Ohio State defense could’ve found a way to slow Michigan in OT, especially considering how apparent it became that Devin Gardner was nearing the end of his rope, injury-wise. So why go into a situation in which you have to weigh those odds against an opportunity to win the game right here, right now? It was a gutsy call but I think making it, especially with the backing of the seniors, was the right way to go about it.

Now, Ohio State cornerback coach Kerry Coombs said he knew what play was coming which is why the Buckeyes were able to so easily stifle it. So, if that’s true, perhaps a different play call should’ve been the answer. But, with how Gardner appeared (injury-wise) at that point in the game, Al Borges' playbook was likely limited.

James, Chicago: Why did Michigan not play this well offensively until this late in the season?

A: I think a lot of it has to do with the offensive line. The Wolverines finally put together a group that gave Gardner time in the pocket and gave the play calls time to develop on the field. It’s crazy how much of a different half a second makes, but with that kind of push, it just allows the offense to really live up to its potential. The O-line also created holes for the running backs to hit. I was impressed with Derrick Green, Fitzgerald Toussaint and De’Veon Smith, and I think the only mistake there is that Green and Smith should’ve picked up more carries earlier in the season.

Nathan Cole, Grand Rapids: Is there any realistic chance that Shane Morris is the starting QB next year and Devin Gardner goes back to WR?

A: I don’t know. I thought Gardner looked pretty solid against a good Ohio State defense. He threw for four touchdowns and 451 yards against the Buckeyes and played clutch, leading the Wolverines from down two touchdowns to a play in which Michigan had the chance to snag a win. This was really the first time in the conference season that the offensive line has put together a complete game and look what Gardner did with it. I’m not sure why people would still be calling for his head. Morris will compete for the job, as will early enrollee Wilton Speight. The best player will play but I see no reason why Gardner doesn't have the lead as of now (seriously, four touchdowns and 451 yards against Ohio State!). Plus, next season, Amara Darboh will be back from injury and the Wolverines will have receivers with experience in Jehu Chesson, Devin Funchess, Jake Butt and some talented freshmen.

Patrick, Nashville: How important has Jake Butt been this season?

A: I think it’s fair to say that the Wolverines wouldn’t have experienced the same level of success that they’ve had without Butt. If he hadn’t emerged as a player, there’s a pretty good chance Michigan would still have Funchess as a tight end. And because Funchess can move out to WR, that has helped the production of every other receiver because defenses have keyed in on him more. Butt becoming a usable player allowed the Wolverines to have a more well-rounded attack. And the more he comes out as a pass catcher, the more valuable he’ll become because that’ll forces defenses to be even more honest.
Rivalry week in the Big Ten left no doubt: The conference's top two teams will meet in the league championship.

Wisconsin's shocking home loss to Penn State ends the debate over whether the Badgers or Michigan State should be at No. 2 behind front-runner Ohio State. Although the Buckeyes and, to a lesser extent, the Spartans had some struggles Saturday, they found ways to win. The Badgers had their worst performance of the season, and it cost them a potential BCS at-large berth.

That doesn't take away from Penn State, which received big boosts from quarterback Christian Hackenberg and others.

Our big dilemma this week was what to do with the 6-8 spots. Penn State had by far its best showing of the season, and Michigan had its best showing in months, even in defeat, against archrival Ohio State. Nebraska didn't show up at home on Black Friday, however, the Huskers have road wins against both the Lions (six days before the Iowa clunker) and Michigan.

After some spirited debate, we ultimately went with body of work to determine the rundown, especially since these are the final regular-season rankings. We understand it devalues the Week 14 performances a bit.

Here's one last look at the Week 13 rankings.

Now for the new rundown, final regular-season version.

1. Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten: last week: 1): The Buckeyes lost their composure early and nearly lost their perfect season late. They were faced with adversity for the first time in six weeks, but they made enough plays on both sides of the ball to win. Running back Carlos Hyde (226 yards, one TD) and quarterback Braxton Miller (five total TDs) led a virtually unstoppable offense, which helped overcome some shoddy pass defense. The Buckeyes now await Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.

2. Michigan State (11-1, 8-0; last week: 3): There weren't many style points against Minnesota, but the Spartans came away with another double-digit Big Ten win. The defense kept Minnesota out of the end zone, as linebacker Denicos Allen led the way. Running back Jeremy Langford (134 rush yards, TD) had another big day as Michigan State moved closer to a BCS bowl berth, regardless of the result in Indianapolis.

3. Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2; last week: 2): It's only a one-spot drop for Wisconsin, but what a downer in Mad City. A team that had been so dominant since falling at Ohio State never showed up on Senior Day against a plucky Penn State team that took control from the onset. Quarterback Joel Stave threw three interceptions in the loss, and one of the Big Ten's better defenses allowed a slew of big plays as Penn State racked up 465 yards. It led to Wisconsin's most surprising home loss in recent memory.

4. Iowa (8-4, 5-3; last week: 4): Kirk Ferentz's crew entered the regular season as a popular pick to finish last in the Legends Division. The Hawkeyes emerged as one of the better teams not only in the division but the entire Big Ten. They've flipped their 2012 regular-season record behind a salty rush defense, led by an outstanding group of linebackers, and a functional offense. After two lackluster showings in the Heroes Game, Iowa outclassed Nebraska in Lincoln and should move up the bowl pecking order.

5. Minnesota (8-4, 4-4; last week: 5): It doesn't take a doctor at the Mayo Clinic to diagnose what's wrong with Minnesota. The Gophers' defense keeps them in every game, and Saturday's matchup at Michigan State proved to be no exception. But the offense simply can't score or consistently pass the football. Minnesota failed to reach double digits for the third time this season despite multiple opportunities in Spartans territory. It's still a great season for Jerry Kill's team, but there's a lot of work to do on offense before a bowl appearance.

6. Nebraska (8-4, 5-3; last week: 6): No one would dispute Bo Pelini that this has been a difficult season in Husker Country. No one would argue with Nebraska's ability to keep fighting. But when the same problems (namely turnovers) surface year after year, the bigger picture of the program becomes more depressing. The Huskers and their head coach self-destructed for much of the Iowa game and fell for the third time on their home field. Fortunately for Pelini, it didn't cost him his job, and he should get another chance to compete for an elusive league title in 2014.

7. Penn State (7-5, 4-4; last week: 8): The Lions had a better team in Bill O'Brien's first season, but they didn't have a better win than Saturday's stunning upset of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. After losing their first three road games by a combined score of 131-48, Penn State dominated Wisconsin for much of the afternoon at a place where the Badgers rarely lose. Hackenberg ended his freshman season with a signature performance (339 pass yards, 4 TDs) as the offense repeatedly gashed Wisconsin. A much-maligned defense held the Badgers' run game in check as Penn State ended an up-and-down season on a very good note.

8. Michigan (7-5, 3-5; last week: 7): After plummeting to historic lows earlier in the month, Michigan's offense looked like a completely different unit against Ohio State. Quarterback Devin Gardner played brilliantly, coordinator Al Borges called a good game and several others -- Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and De'Veon Smith -- stepped up in a 603-yard effort. It wasn't enough, as Michigan fell by a point and the defense had no answers for Ohio State, but the Wolverines played their best game in months and can feel a bit better entering the postseason.

9. Indiana (5-7, 3-5; last week: 9): Oh, what might have been for Indiana. A team with such an explosive offense and eight home games should have made a bowl game, period, but the Hoosiers couldn't get it done. At least they reclaimed the Old Oaken Bucket as quarterback Tre Roberson (six TD passes, 273 pass yards, 154 rush yards) torched Purdue and received help from Stephen Houston, D'Angelo Roberts, Cody Latimer and others. It's clear the Hoosiers have to make upgrades on defense. They can't keep wasting such explosiveness on offense.

10. Northwestern (5-7, 1-7; last week: 11): A season to forget for Northwestern ended on a positive note, as Pat Fitzgerald's team avoided a winless Big Ten season and recorded another victory against its in-state rival. Quarterback Trevor Siemian enters the offseason with some confidence after passing for a career-high 414 yards and four touchdowns against Illinois. Wide receiver Christian Jones (13 catches, 182 yards, two TDs) also stepped up as Northwestern twice rallied from deficits against Illinois. Fitzgerald said afterward that Northwestern "will be back" in 2014. The work begins now.

11. Illinois (4-8, 1-7; last week 10): The wins total doubled from two to four, which is nothing to celebrate. But Illinois clearly improved in Year 2 under coach Tim Beckman, who should receive another season in Champaign. Illinois has fixed the offense, and while quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be tough to replace, several playmakers like Josh Ferguson return. A bigger issue is the defense, which had no answer for Northwestern's passing attack on Saturday and surrendered more than 40 points and more than 500 yards per game in Big Ten play.

12. Purdue (1-11, 0-8; last week: 12): The optimist sees a dynamic young quarterback in Danny Etling, who finished his freshman season with 485 pass yards and four touchdowns against Indiana, and a team that can only get better. The pessimist sees a Purdue squad that was the worst in recent Big Ten history and has much work to do on both sides of the ball to become competitive in coach Darrell Hazell's second season. A big offseason awaits Hazell and his staff as they can't go through another season like this one.

Five Things: Michigan-Iowa

November, 23, 2013
11/23/13
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Michigan has struggled, especially on the road. But the Wolverines are coming off a win at Northwestern, and they hope to keep up the road momentum as they travel to Iowa City to take on the Hawkeyes.

Here are five things to watch as the Wolverines look to pick up another win:

1. The veteran or the youth? This will be extremely interesting to watch. Fitzgerald Toussaint sat out against Northwestern after suffering a concussion and missing practice the week before. And what did Michigan get? Two freshmen who managed to get solid yardage in the run game. Derrick Green was the featured back, but De'Veon Smith wasn’t too shabby, either. Brady Hoke has been extremely loyal to his upperclassmen. However, the numbers don’t lie. The production Hoke got out of Green and Smith haven’t been seen from Toussaint in quite a while. If the Wolverines look to split carries this weekend, watch for Toussaint to be the back in on passing downs and Green to be the guy picking up the downhill runs.

2. Devin Gardner having a bit more time in the pocket. The Hawkeyes are who they are, and they aren’t a team that blitzes the quarterback a whole lot. They have the ability so it’s not completely off the table -- it’s just not going to be an MSU- or Nebraska-like sackfest, presumably. However, their front seven could stop the run (whether it be Toussaint, Green or Smith) and force Gardner into tough decisions.

3. The interior offensive line -- growth or gimmick? The three young interior O-linemen looked solid and opened holes against Northwestern. Hoke and left tackle Taylor Lewan praised the three earlier this week, but Saturday will prove whether that performance was actually the line making strides or if it was just a flash in the pan. And to go along with that good news, let’s throw in one thing to make you anxious/nervous/excited: Against Iowa -- even with the O-line’s production last weekend -- don’t completely rule out a personnel change. If redshirt freshman right guard Kyle Kalis isn’t seen in the starting group, don’t be too surprised to see him getting quality snaps.

4. Defense continuing to take steps forward. Last weekend, the Michigan defense looked about as complete as it has all season. The secondary was making plays, the D-line was getting some pus and the linebackers, well, they played like they have all season. But communication has been a problem on the road for this defense at times and while Iowa isn’t the flashiest of teams, the Hawkeyes are skilled enough to take advantage of a defensive breakdown.

5. Controlling the emotions. This is a must-win game for the Wolverines. But one thing they’ll need to do this weekend in Iowa City is make sure they keep it between the whistles. On the field, it’s going to be a hard-hitting, physical game. The Wolverines got outmuscled against Michigan State and they definitely don’t want that to happen again. And then, when the Wolverines are on the sidelines, with how Kinnick Stadium is built, the fans will be very close to the players, basically able to converse (if you want to call it that). The Hawkeyes fans will try to get in players' heads so they have to make sure they don’t let their emotions get the better of them (cough, Lewan, cough) and have them picking up silly penalties.

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Michigan Outlook: 2014
Brian Bennett discusses the outlook for the Michigan Wolverines' football program in 2014.Tags: Michigan Wolverines, Braxton MIller, Brian Bennett, Devin Gardner
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