Michigan Wolverines: Fitzgerald Toussaint

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Tony DingBraxton Miller was fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a sophomore in 2012 and was ninth in 2013.
Braxton Miller has a chance to make Big Ten history this season by winning his third straight conference player-of-the-year award and by earning Heisman votes for the third consecutive season.

Of course, he’s not the only Big Ten player to ever enter his senior year with big expectations. In the past 20 years, six other conference players earned Heisman votes before their final seasons and were preseason candidates a season later. (Thirteen non-seniors in all earned votes, but seven left early for the NFL draft. Another, Northwestern's Damien Anderson, played in just eight games the season after and isn't listed below.)

Although it’s still anyone’s guess exactly how Miller will fare this season, here’s a look at players who found themselves in similar positions and how they performed in the season after receiving Heisman votes:




Wisconsin RB Montee Ball, 2011, junior

Heisman votes as a junior: 22 first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards (6.3 yards per carry) and also finished with an NCAA-best 33 rushing TDs.

How he fared the next year: Without quarterback Russell Wilson, some experts predicted Ball would struggle to equal the numbers from his junior campaign. Sure enough, with a rotating quarterback carousel, that’s exactly what happened. The Badgers threw just 289 times that season and Ball finished with a career-high 356 carries. Ball’s importance and talent were still undeniable but, as defenses zeroed in against him, he watched his yards-per-carry average fall by more than a yard.

How the team fared: Wisconsin leaned on Ball heavily -- just take a look at this box score against Utah State -- and fared well when it counted. The Badgers won the Big Ten championship, embarrassing Nebraska in a 70-31 blowout, and earned a spot in the Rose Bowl. They finished 8-6.




Michigan QB Denard Robinson, 2010, sophomore

Heisman votes as a sophomore: Six first-place votes; finished sixth overall. Went 182-of-291 passing (62.5 percent) for 2,570 yards, 18 TDs and 11 INTs; rushed for 1,702 yards (6.6 ypc) and 14 TDs.

How he fared the next year: Speculation swirled on whether Robinson would transfer before the season because the firing of Rich Rodriguez meant he had to deal a new coaching staff and some offensive changes. But Robinson stayed and performed well – even if his numbers decreased across the board. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was able to take some pressure off Robinson, and the change in statistics wasn’t dramatic. After all, Robinson still rushed for more than 1,000 yards and passed for more than 2,000. It wasn’t as impressive as 2010, but Robinson was still named team MVP and earned a spot on the All-Big Ten second team.

How the team fared: Michigan fans were just fine with Robinson’s drop-off because the team soared in Brady Hoke’s first season. Robinson guided the Wolverines to an 11-2 finish -- their best record in five years -- and helped Michigan win the Sugar Bowl.




Michigan RB Mike Hart, 2006, junior

Heisman votes as a junior: Five first-place votes; finished fifth overall. Finished second in the B1G with 1,562 yards (4.9 ypc) and had 14 rushing TDs

How he fared the next year: Hart became a team captain and turned in an even stronger performance. If it wasn’t for an ankle injury that sidelined him for three full games, Hart likely would’ve been in the Heisman race again. Through nine Michigan games, he led all BCS runners with 154 yards a game – and he was still a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and a consensus pick as first-team All-Big Ten. Overall, his importance was pretty difficult to ignore. After opening the season with two losses, Hart helped to shift the tone by guaranteeing a win against Notre Dame – Michigan won 38-0 –and then winning eight straight. He finished the year with 5.1 ypc and matched his 14-touchdown total despite carrying the ball 53 fewer times.

How the team fared: The Wolverines put an early end to their national title hopes by losing to Appalachian State in the opener. Michigan failed to repeat its Rose Bowl berth but rebounded after a slow start to go 9-4 and win the Capital One Bowl.




Purdue QB Drew Brees, 1999, junior

Heisman votes as a junior: Three first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the conference in every major passing category: passing yards (3,909), passing TDs (25), pass attempts (554) and pass completions (337) and threw 12 interceptions.

How he fared the next year: Brees’ consistency was pretty darn impressive, as all of his numbers were nearly identical even though Purdue didn't have much of a running game. He again led the Big Ten in those same statistical categories and improved his standing in the Heisman race -- he finished third as a senior with 69 first-place votes. Plus, he won the Maxwell Award and was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Brees’ success is pretty well documented, but something fans might have forgotten: He rushed for 521 yards and 5.5 yards per carry as a senior. Brees really could do it all.

How the team fared: The Boilermakers shared the Big Ten title and improved their victory total from the year before, from 7-5 to 8-4. They earned a berth in the Rose Bowl.




Northwestern RB Darnell Autry, 1995, sophomore

Heisman votes as a sophomore: 87 first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the NCAA with 387 rushing attempts and had 1,785 yards (4.6 ypc) and 17 TDs; caught 27 passes for 168 yards and one score.

How he fared the next year: Autry fared a bit better in 1996, as Northwestern’s passing attack improved and defenses could no longer key on him. In 1995, he literally accounted for half of the offense’s total yards (1,953 of 3,916). In 1996, he carried the ball 107 fewer times – his 280 attempts were still the fourth-highest in the conference -- but he matched his 17 rushing TDs from the previous season and increased his average by more than a half-yard, up to 5.2 yards per carry. He dropped a bit in the Heisman voting, but that was mostly because his rushing yards dropped with a smaller workload. Autry still dominated.

How the team fared: Northwestern shared the Big Ten title and improved its record to 9-3 – but lost in the Citrus Bowl. Autry’s Wildcats shocked the B1G that October when they overcame a 16-0 deficit against Michigan by rallying in the fourth quarter.
The Michigan football team held its annual banquet on Monday night. There were laughs, shots fired and awards given out. Here’s a recap of the evening.
    THE OFFICIAL AWARDS
Schembechler MVP: WR Jeremy Gallon
2012 winner: S Jordan Kovacs

Hugh H. Rader O-lineman Award: Taylor Lewan
2012 winner: Lewan

Dick Katcher D-lineman Award: Frank Clark
2012 winner: Craig Roh

Zatkoff Linebacker Award: Jake Ryan
2012 winner: Ryan

Ufer Spirit Award: LB Cam Gordon, WR Drew Dileo, WR Joe Reynolds
2012 winner: Kovacs

Dr. Arthur D. Robinson Scholarship Award (Academics): Reynolds
2012 winner: OL Patrick Omameh
    THE UNOFFICIAL AWARDS
Best dressed: RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. The senior’s coat stole the day, even getting a comment from Brady Hoke (“I was going to wear that coat”). Basically, it was a dark blue suit coat with a gold metallic design laid over it -- very lovely in the light. But he paired that with a gold dress shirt, blue vest and a blue tie with gold dots.

Biggest surprise: Devin Gardner entered on crutches. There wasn’t any availability following the event, but Hoke said that Gardner had turf toe last Monday and was wearing a walking boot following the Ohio State game.

Most honored: Jon Falk, the team manager of 40 years. From guest speaker Brian Griese to Hoke to nearly every senior who spoke, everyone had something to say about Falk. He was also honored with the distinguished alumni award.

Most touching moment: DL Quinton Washington getting a standing ovation. Washington began his speech talking about how his father underwent triple bypass surgery last July but still made it to every game (a 13-hour drive from their home in South Carolina). However, in the middle of his speech he began to open up about his stuttering problem that he came to Michigan with -- one that prevented him from making phone calls or ordering food at restaurants. He thanked Dr. David Daly, who helped him get over his stuttering problem, saying that Daly “gave [him] a voice.” Washington wasn’t 100 percent comfortable in front of the room, but for a kid who once couldn’t even introduce himself, it was a tremendous accomplishment worthy of the ovation.

Most surprising stat: Gordon has had seven position coaches during his time at Michigan (counting the coaching changes as well as several position changes). He came in as a wide receiver and was moved to strong safety before he settled in at SAM linebacker this season.

Quote of the night: Lewan, talking about his freshman year of high school: “I was fat, out of shape. I was kind of the awkward skinny fat with the skinny arms and the belly, like Mike from Monsters Inc.”

It should come as no surprise that Lewan had the best quote. He has so much personality that many thought (and hoped) he might go much longer than his five minutes. He started his speech by admitting that he didn’t plan it or write it down and then thanking his mother “who has been the loudest woman here all night.” But it was a nice speech, touching on the fact that he was glad to be back and wouldn’t change anything for the world.
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.

Five Things: Michigan-Iowa

November, 23, 2013
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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.

Planning for success: Michigan

November, 21, 2013
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Michigan has struggled with consistency this season. And it hasn’t just been from game to game. It has been from one series to the next, sometimes even from one down to the next. All in all, it hasn’t seemed as though the Wolverines have been able to put together 60 minutes of good football in all facets.

However, last weekend against Northwestern might’ve been the most complete the team has looked, especially in conference play.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsMichigan was able to get freshman RBs Derrick Green (pictured) and De'Veon Smith going against Northwestern.
The Michigan run game appeared, the offensive line looked cohesive and the defense looked solid as a unit. Those three facets obviously don’t create a perfect game for the Wolverines, but Michigan will attempt build on that performance and maintain that consistency as it travels to Iowa City on Saturday.

“There’s no doubt in the consistency you want to play with and the carryover you want from one week to the next,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “The belief that [the players] have in each other and how they persevere and all those things. You want to build off that and build off the momentum of that.”

A lot of the offensive momentum the Wolverines created against the Wildcats was in the run game.

The Michigan offensive line was physical at the line of scrimmage and Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith averaged 4.4 yards per carry. However, this week the position battle has been open and Hoke said that the carries in practice have been pretty equally split between those two tailbacks and senior Fitzgerald Toussaint.

No matter who is running the ball, the offensive line hopes to be able to spring him through for another solid game. One place the O-line must look to improve from last week, though, is in its protection. It did allow five sacks and keeping quarterback Devin Gardner safe will continue to be of premium importance.

Also of importance will be building on last weekend’s defensive performance. Hoke said earlier this week that it was the defense that kept Michigan in the Northwestern game, and the defense will certainly have to contain Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock and the Iowa run game if it wants to be in this game, as well.

“This is going to be a definite challenge,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “They’re a very, very good offense. They don’t do a lot of things, but what they do, they do really, really well.”

But what the Wolverines did really well against Northwestern was creating big plays and coming up clutch for its offense in the red zone and in overtime, which defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said has been a focus for this team.

“That’s a huge emphasis,” Mattison said. “We go a two-minute [drill] every Thursday against our offense. Sometimes we do some really good things and don’t finish. ... We all know that to be the defense we need to be here, and it’s expected at Michigan, you have to finish.”

And Michigan is looking to finish this season with 10 wins, which means its next task is beating Iowa on the road. And certainly, a huge part of that will be creating a consistency that has been absent all season.

What we learned: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
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Here are three things we learned about the Wolverines in their triple OT win over Northwestern:

1. The offensive is still in a bad place. With an emotional win and some big plays made down the stretch, the knee-jerk reaction to the game might be something along the lines of content and happiness. However, quarterback Devin Gardner was 24-of-43 and five or six of those incompletions could have been intercepted. And then, he was sacked five times, which yes, is an improvement for the offensive line from the previous two weeks in which he was sacked seven times each game, but it is still too high of a number. Michigan was 3-of-17 on third-down conversions and couldn't even get into the end zone after Northwestern's punter gave the Wolverines a gift of a eight-yard punt from his own end zone. Michigan needed to go 10 yards to get into the end zone and it ended up settling for a field goal. This offense -- even with this win -- is in a bad place right now.

2. "Put me in, Coach, I'm ready to play." The Wolverines played two true freshmen at running back and gained 120 yards on the ground between them, which was way more effective than anything Fitzgerald Toussaint has done of late. True freshman tight end Jake Butt caught his first TD pass of the season (and the Wolverines' only touchdown of the game) in a game in which Jeremy Gallon had his fair share of drops. The Michigan coaching staff has been very loyal to its upperclassmen but there is definitely some talent in the young guys on this team and throughout the season it has emerged more and more. It'll be interesting to see how much attention these younger players get over the next few weeks.

3. The defense showed the improvements Greg Mattison has been talking about. The Michigan defense has been talking about playing a complete game, about the difference between almost making a play and making a play, about the defense they want to be -- and for the most part, that's what it produced against Northwestern. The Wolverines recorded two sacks, including a huge 14-yard sack in triple overtime from Jibreel Black. That sack led to Michigan's one interception, a play made by Thomas Gordon. And the Wolverines accounted for six tackles for losses. It wasn't a perfect game, but it was far closer to what Mattison has been preaching than anything we've seen recently.

Planning for success: Michigan

November, 14, 2013
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Michigan is heading into a game against a winless Big Ten team as an underdog. That’s where the Wolverines are right now. Offensively, Michigan is jumbled without any cohesion up front, the running game has suffered mightily, and Devin Gardner has gotten to know opposing defensive linemen like family.

Michigan’s defense has also struggled at points, especially against the option last weekend versus Nebraska. This weekend, they’ll face more of that. If Michigan wants to reverse its downward trend, here’s what needs to happen on both sides of the ball:

[+] EnlargeZaire Anderson
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan's offensive line needs to prevent Devin Gardner from getting beaten up like he has been in the last two games.
OFFENSE:

On Tuesday, offensive coordinator Al Borges said that the Wolverines two biggest struggles right now are pass protection and running the ball. That’s kind of a two-step guide to what not to struggle at in football. And it’s what killed the Wolverines against Michigan State and Nebraska.

Michigan will stick with its offensive front, hoping to continue building chemistry and investing in its youth. But it needs to do a better job protecting Gardner because he can’t take any more seven-sack games.

At this point, Michigan will stick with its current five starting offensive linemen because looking back isn’t really an option at this point of the season.

“If we just keep changing, then you have new guys making new mistakes,” Borges said. “You can change everybody, but it’s a recipe for disaster. We’ve done enough of that. We have to allow our football team to grow. With that, some growing pains. That’s just the way it is.”

That doesn’t mean that other guys such as Kyle Kalis won’t see the field, but the starting five will stay the same.

And so will the running back situation.

On Wednesday, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said that he still considers Fitzgerald Toussaint the Wolverines’ featured back and doesn’t see freshman Derrick Green surpassing Toussaint's number of carries.

With that, the Wolverines need to find a way to get Toussaint yards. With the Iowa linebackers and Ohio State's defense on the horizon, NOrthwestern's defense might be the easiest defense for Toussaint to find yardage against. Whether that means the offensive line actually gets push and opens holes in the middle or him going off tackle, Michigan needs to find a way to get a rushing attack going.

DEFENSE:

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is of the opinion that his defense will be good enough when it finds a way to win each game.

This weekend against Northwestern, that’ll be asking a lot because Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter possess a threat much like Nebraska posed last weekend with the option, leaving Mattison to decide how to pressure.

“I’m trying to pressure, thinking we can get home, and they check to option,” Mattison said. “That’s the fine line where you decide if you’re going to be a pressure team in passing situations, or are they going to change their game plan and check to a running play? There were a number of times when we came out of it okay, and a couple times we didn’t.”

Michigan will try to get pressure up front, and with this being Brennen Beyer's second game back on the defensive line, the gained chemistry from practice could show as Mattison works up different schemes and blitzes.

But Mattison said that the scout team offense had actually given the first-team defense a good look of what Northwestern will run Saturday.

“That’s a huge thing, especially as the season goes on, when your numbers go down a bit,” Mattison said. “You’ve got to do a good job to make sure you get a great look.”

What we learned: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
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Michigan dropped its first win in the Big House under Brady Hoke, and the Wolverines dropped further in the Legends Division. This team is still a pretty big mystery, but here are three things we learned about Michigan on Saturday.

1. They're in trouble. Coming into the Nebraska game, I had said that 2-2 in November would be a probable outcome for the Wolverines. After seeing how this group played, 1-3 wouldn't be a bad guess either. The offense still doesn't have an identity and couldn't find momentum at all. There's a good chance the Wolverines split their road games at Northwestern and Iowa, and even though we always say records don't matter for The Game, play does. And the Wolverines are not playing at a level that's going to be competitive against the Buckeyes. This team realistically could finish the regular season 7-5.

2. The defense is more clutch than the offense. In past years, late in a game with a win on the line, it would've made sense to put your money on the offense. Denard Robinson was a playmaker, and while he wasn't the most consistent guy in the world, he often created something out of nothing. That clearly isn't true about the offense this year. The defense gave up a late 75-yard drive to the Cornhuskers, but even so, it consistently is the more clutch group on the field. And if there's a game that comes down to either Michigan's offense in the red zone or its defense, the D might be the better choice.

3. There are too many issues on offense. With football there isn't usually a simple answer when teams are struggling, but with the Wolverines there are just too many issues. The offensive line is a place to start -- it lacks chemistry, and the interior linemen aren't getting enough push. This was the second game in a row that Graham Glasgow has snapped a ball completely over Devin Gardner's head. Which brings us to Gardner. He doesn't have the same pocket presence he appeared to have early in the season. Gardner has looked disjointed and is clearly struggling, but part of that can be blamed on the fact that the Wolverines don't have a run game. Fitzgerald Toussaint or Derrick Green need to take the pressure off Gardner, but they haven't. There's that O-line again. The wide receivers and tight ends have been good this season, and Jake Butt is a bright spot showing growth in an offense that has appeared stagnant. But overall, there's a lot to fix and not much time to do it.

What we learned: Week 10

November, 3, 2013
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Well, that happened last night. The Spartans bullied Michigan even though Taylor Lewan said it wouldn't happen. Spartan Stadium chanted "little sister, little sister" just six years after Mike Hart called MSU a "little brother." And the Wolverines racked up a wildly impressive -48 rushing yards.

So Paul Bunyan will return to East Lansing for the next year. But here are a few things we learned in Michigan's 23-point loss to the Spartans.

1. There's still so much we don't know. By Week 10, a team should have some kind of an identity. The Wolverines haven't found that identity yet. And that should be incredibly troubling to anyone associated with the program. The Wolverines' chances of a Big Ten title all but slipped away in the loss (really, the wheels would have to completely fall off for multiple programs just for the Wolverines to have a chance). And here's the laundry list of issues for U-M:
  • Is this really the best five for the offensive line?
  • Will the run game ever get started?
  • What's up with Devin Gardner?
  • Can Michigan get a consistent pass rush?
  • What's going on in the secondary?
  • How much is the road affecting Michigan?
2. It is in fact possible for the rushing game to be worse than it was against Penn State. Remember when people thought Fitzgerald Toussaint's one yard per rush average against the Nittany Lions was bad? Try Michigan averaging that as a team against Michigan State (1.2 yards per rush when sacks are taken out). Gardner accounted for -46 yards, but without his sacks his average was an abysmal .3 yards per rush and Toussaint rushed a slightly better 2.5 yards per rush. Yes, the Spartans defense lived up to its billing of a stout front seven.

3. The next month could be rough. The Wolverines host Nebraska, travel to Iowa and Northwestern and then face Ohio State into Ann Arbor. Three losses aren't completely out of the question, especially considering the lows that we've seen out of the Wolverines. For a season that started (as every season under Brady Hoke does) with hopes of a Big Ten championship, this one could end up being the least successful yet of Hoke's tenure.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Barrel crosses. Corner sharks. Will cats.

Left tackle Taylor Lewan can name them all. He could guess when these specific blitzes were coming and he tried his best to do so. After all, it was a lot of what the Wolverines saw out of Michigan State in 2011.

And, like in 2011, Michigan couldn’t stop the blitzes, couldn’t stop Michigan State. And, as in 2011, the Wolverines walked out of Spartan Stadium after being beaten up and bullied. This time 29-6 on Saturday.

“I think a lot of this game absolutely falls on the offensive line,” Lewan said.

And he’s right.

It’s a team sport, yes. But the Wolverines’ offensive line didn’t give the offense a chance to get started. Brady Hoke wants his team’s game to start in the trenches, so shouldn’t the blame and responsibility start there, too?

The Michigan State defense came in with that kind of a mindset -- go for the jugular, get pressure, get the win.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner, Denzel Drone, Marcus Rush
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsWolverines quarterback Devin Gardner is sacked by Spartans defensive end Denzel Drone (42) and defensive end Marcus Rush (44).
The Spartans knew if they could get to Devin Gardner, they could cause chaos. Gardner was key, and the only thing standing between the MSU defense and Gardner were five pesky Wolverines -- one All-American tackle, a three-year starter and three young interior linemen.

“When we came out, we came out ready to punch them in the mouth,” Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “That’s the type of defense we want to run, want to have. ... I feel like we were able to get back there and wreak havoc in the backfield. You could see as the game went on, he started to wear and tear.”

And the plan worked.

On the first drive of the game, Calhoun and linebacker Denicos Allen blew up Michigan’s offensive front and sacked Gardner for a loss of 10 yards. On the next Michigan drive, Gardner was met in the backfield by Calhoun again. Then once more on the next, which was only followed up on the following play with a sack by linebacker Ed Davis.

Four sacks on the first three drives -- quite the statement.

“I could see that he was realizing that we were there,” Calhoun said. “He understood that we were coming after him and we weren’t going to stop. We were going to be dominant from the first snap to the last.”

In total, the Spartans would record 11 tackles for losses, including seven sacks totaling minus-49 yards.

“That’s on us,” Lewan said. “That’s on the offensive line and the running back and protecting our guy. We had a lot of full protections that they just got through, a lot of seven-man protections, and they got through it. We have to do a better job protecting our quarterback.”

Maybe the spark of a run game could have forced the Spartans to not send as many as they did, but there was no spark, no flicker, not even a dull ember. As a whole -- including a botched snap that lost Michigan 20 yards -- the sacks and tackles for losses, the Wolverines accounted for minus-48 rushing yards.

Fitzgerald Toussaint rushed for just 20 yards on eight carries (2.5 yards per carry), but without his longest rush of 9 yards, his average was just 1.6 yards per carry -- nothing that put the Spartan defense on its heels.

And Gardner, upon whom the Wolverines have had to rely far too much to open up the run game, rushed for a total of 3 yards on 11 carries (when his sacks are taken out of his stats) for an average of 0.3 yards per carry.

And the pass protection wasn’t that much better, either.

Gardner finished the day 14-of-27 for 210 yards and one interception, but the Wolverines never found the end zone (through the air or ground).

He was 2-of-13 on the ever-critical third downs. The two conversions were on passing plays, and the other 11 plays included four incompletions, three QB rushes (totaling minus-2 yards) and four sacks.

Gardner left the game early a bit “beat up,” according to Hoke. But it wasn’t all his fault. If he could block and protect for himself, he surely would.

The Spartans came in with a blueprint and executed, making a confident and athletic quarterback look overwhelmed.

“Devin’s a great football player,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “We just got him on the ground.”

The driver's seat in the Legends division is up for grabs Saturday in East Lansing, and the Spartans have a bit of head start going in to that race. Here are five things to keep your eyes on as Michigan and Michigan State take the field in Spartan Stadium...

1. The offense's productivity. The Wolverines offense had a ridiculous showing against Indiana. And yes, that was Indiana, but it definitely got in a groove, and if it can keep up any of that momentum, it'll be a very good thing. The Spartans defense is giving up just 216 yards per game, so while the Wolverines most likely won't be able to put up 700-plus yards again, getting even one third of that total could tilt the scale in Michigan's favor. The main key here is going to be getting the attack started up front with a rushing attack. Whether that be via running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (what Michigan really wants) or quarterback Devin Gardner (less desired, but possibly more likely), the Wolverines need to make sure its rushing attack can open up the passing game.

2. Speaking of the Michigan passing game... That's also key. Basically every aspect of the offense and every player within the offense is key in order for Michigan to have a chance in this game. The Spartans have recorded nine interceptions in eight games and their secondary is led by senior Darqueze Dennard, who has two interceptions and seven pass breakups. Gardner is going to need to take his shots downfield and when called upon, Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess will need to rise to the occasion in order to make those shots count. Gardner has gone one game without an interception. If he can get through a second consecutive game --especially considering the second game is coming against the Spartans -- that would be a big, big deal.

3. The Spartans pass rush. It only makes sense that the first three things to watch about this game are in regard to the MSU defense because it's very, very good. If Michigan's offense is very good, then it'll be interesting to watch because of how well-played the game could be, but if Michigan's offense isn't good, then the Spartans defense will be making plays and providing highlights. But keep an eye on the pass rush because if Gardner throws an interception, it'll likely be because he gets forced out of the pocket because of the MSU pass rush. The Spartans have recorded 18 sacks this season, 13 of those coming from four defensive linemen -- Shilique Calhoun, Marcus Rush, Tyler Hoover and Denzel Drone.

4. Michigan defense's response. Enough talk of the MSU defense; let's discuss the Wolverines' defense -- which needs to make a big statement after the unimpressive performance against Indiana. The Michigan defensive line, which hasn't provided a consistent pass rush, will attempt to get MSU quarterback Connor Cook out of his comfort zone. But it'll need to be stout against the run too, as Jeremy Langford is really coming in to his own at running back.

5. The environment. Spartan Stadium is going to be rocking. "Comments" are going to be flying between the two teams. And the Wolverines, who've looked far from consistent on the road this season, will be thrown right in the middle of it. Redshirt freshman Erik Magnuson and true freshman Kyle Bosch will likely be starting on the offensive line. Funchess, a sophomore, will be expected to make big plays. Freshman Derrick Green could be used to pick up some yardage. And freshmen Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis, who've been so close to making plays in the Wolverines secondary, could get picked apart if they aren't on their 'A' games. This will be a big moment on a huge stage, and anything less than perfect could spell disaster for Michigan.
Two weeks ago, I thought there was no way Texas would beat Oklahoma. Last week, I didn’t think FSU would take down Clemson. But, with certainty, I can say that Michigan will not win or lose this weekend. You can take that to the bank.

And since I’m on a roll with my assumptions and educated guesses. we should probably get a mailbag rolling.

We do this every Wednesday so send in your questions (jenningsESPN@gmail.com, @ChantelJennings).

Dave Conlon, Ann Arbor: Will anybody score a touchdown (offensively) at Spartan Stadium in two weeks?

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
AP Photo/Lon HorwedelJeremy Gallon will be one of the keys to Michigan finding the end zone against Michigan State on Nov. 2.
A: Yes. The Spartans haven’t had to scheme against an offense this season that has two receivers who are as different and as effective as Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess. If those two guys can make plays, and the offensive line can be good enough -- not perfect, but good enough -- I think the Wolverines will reach the end zone.

The key will be working their way down field. The Spartans are giving up less than 60 rushing yards per game so this might not be Fitzgerald Toussaint’s night, but with Devin Gardner as a running threat, I think MSU will still have numbers in the box. So the passing game could be a solid option, but they just need to find a way to get into the red zone. In seven games, opponents have only reached the red zone 13 times. In those instances, opponents scored six passing touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns and two field goals. So I think Michigan’s best option (best being an operative term) will be to attack the Spartans in the air by getting Funchess and Gallon involved and find that moment when the Spartans don’t have good coverage on both.

Sam, Minneapolis: I’m not liking the rest of the schedule. Is it possible Michigan goes 0-5?

A: First of all, anything is possible. The question is whether it’s probable or not. Michigan’s three toughest games the rest of this season will be at Michigan State and then against Nebraska and Ohio State at home. The Wolverines could go 0-3 in those three games. Michigan State has the nation’s best defense. Nebraska’s threat will depend on whether or not Taylor Martinez plays and which Michigan defense shows up. And Ohio State is one of the best teams in the country. The Wolverines will need to play their best football in those three games to get wins.

Iowa and Northwestern will be interesting because they are road games. Statistically, Michigan should win, but when the Wolverines travel away from Ann Arbor, things seem to go poorly. I’ve been told over and over again that Iowa is one of the toughest places to play because the fans are basically on top of the teams. And the Hawkeyes could likely be playing for bowl eligibility in that game. I’m not sure Iowa will knock of Wisconsin or Northwestern, but it seems likely that it will take down Purdue for its fifth win and follow that up with a game against Michigan. It could be the Hawkeyes’ best chance for that elusive sixth win, and that’s dangerous. Northwestern is another interesting team because I don’t think anyone expected the Wildcats to start the conference season 0-3. But, it’s another road game and if Venric Mark is actually healthy by then, it definitely changes their attack.

So, is it possible? I suppose. The wheels could fall off here. But it’s also possible the Wolverines run the table and close out 5-0 if they play their best football. That’s the best/worst part of the Big Ten. Each team’s highs are high and their lows are low, and we’ve seen the best and worst of each team already this season. So now, it’s just a matter of which versions show up for which games.

Matt DePoint, Minneapolis: Who will grow the most creative facial hair for Movember? Taylor Lewan is a good guess but who is a dark-horse candidate?

A: This is a fantastic question. First of all, for those who don’t know, Movember is a month-long (yes, November, clever) campaign to grow awareness for men’s health issues, specifically prostate cancer. Men grow mustaches to raise money and awareness. It’s a fantastic cause and one that I’m a fan of, especially since there are important people in my life who’ve been affected by prostate cancer.

Now, as far as the players, I think it’s smart to go with an offensive lineman. Last spring they were considering growing facial hair as a unit, and while that didn’t amount to much, I think they’ll come back strong for Movember. Lewan is a good guess (I mean, he has the mustache tattoo all year long, which probably takes the cake), but I’m going to pick Joey Burzynski here. Yes, he just suffered a season-ending ACL tear, but I think his time rehabbing will give him extra motivation to inspire the team. Also, since he can’t play, he won’t have to hide that beautiful ‘stache under a helmet anymore.

Big Ten picks rewind: Week 8

October, 22, 2013
10/22/13
1:00
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Not much went according to plan in Week 8, a slate of likely blowouts that turned out to be surprisingly captivating, especially in both Ann Arbor and Columbus. Brian Bennett and I had the same set of winners, so there was no opportunity to gain ground.

We both ended up missing on one contest. As for those score predictions ... not good.

Week 8/Season record

Adam Rittenberg: 4-1, 55-9
Brian Bennett: 4-1, 54-10

Here's one final look at the Week 8 predictions we made and those of guest forecaster Micah Tweeten from St. Paul, Minn.

Let's rewind the tape ...

Minnesota at Northwestern
  • Brian Bennett's pick: Northwestern 35, Minnesota 20
  • Adam Rittenberg's pick: Northwestern 34, Minnesota 21
  • Actual score: Minnesota 20, Northwestern 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: Bennett nailed the Gophers' score and I came close, but we both expected Northwestern's offense to show up. Wildcats QB Kain Colter never played, as I thought he would, and QB Philip Nelson provided the spark for Minnesota's offense, not Mitch Leidner.
Purdue at Michigan State
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan State 34, Purdue 6
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan State 31, Purdue 7
  • Actual score: Michigan State 14, Purdue 0
  • 20-20 hindsight: We expected more offense from both teams, especially Michigan State, which mustered only one offensive score in the game. Bennett's prediction of three Connor Cook touchdown passes fell short as Cook struggled, and while Jeremy Langford (131 rush yards) stepped up, neither he nor Delton Williams reached the end zone (I had them for three combined touchdowns). My prediction of a first-half defensive touchdown proved true as LB Denicos Allen had a scoop and score.
Indiana at Michigan
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan 38, Indiana 28
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan 35, Indiana 27
  • Actual score: Michigan 63, Indiana 47
  • 20-20 hindsight: We weren't too far off on Michigan's margin of victory, but both offenses certainly exceeded our forecasts on a record-setting day at the Big House. Indiana QBs Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson both led first-half scoring drives, as Bennett predicted, but Michigan QB Devin Gardner (team record 584 yards of offense) blew past Bennett's projection (350 yards). My prediction of two first-half rushing touchdowns for Michigan's Fitzgerald Toussaint came true, and Indiana WR Cody Latimer (96 receiving yards, TD) wasn't too far off my prediction (120 receiving yards, 2 TDs).
Iowa at Ohio State
  • Bennett's pick: Ohio State 37, Iowa 17
  • Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State 42, Iowa 20
  • Actual score: Ohio State 34, Iowa 24
  • 20-20 hindsight: This turned out to be one of our better score predictions, although we were still both off by 10 or more points. Buckeyes RB Carlos Hyde became the first player to rush for a touchdown against Iowa this season, as I thought he would, and exceeded my predicted rushing total (125 yards) by 24 yards. Ohio State QB Braxton Miller came one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown shy of Bennett's prediction. Iowa received a boost from a tight end, but it was Jake Duzey (six catches, 138 yards, TD), not C.J. Fiedorowicz.
Wisconsin at Illinois
  • Bennett's pick: Wisconsin 31, Illinois 14
  • Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin 34, Illinois 20
  • Actual score: Wisconsin 56, Illinois 32
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both expected Illinois to take an early lead, but the Badgers stormed out to a 21-0 advantage before the Illini steadied themselves a bit in the second quarter. Bennett nearly nailed Wisconsin's rushing total (he predicted 290 yards; the Badgers finished with 289), and Badgers RB James White finished two yards shy of my triple-digit prediction for both he and Melvin Gordon. TE Jacob Pedersen had three receptions, but none for touchdowns.

You've seen our picks. Now it's time to check on our guest picker, Micah.

Northwestern 31, Minnesota 17
Michigan State 34, Purdue 10
Ohio State 38, Iowa 24
Michigan 31, Indiana 21
Wisconsin 35, Illinois 18

Micah's picks mirrored ours, so he also went 4-1. He had similar score predictions, too, although he came closer on Ohio State-Iowa than we did, nailing the Hawkeyes' score on the dot. Like us, he expected much more offense from Michigan State and much more defense from Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. Not a bad result, though.

Interested in being this week's guest picker? Tell us why you should be the choice here and here (be brief and use "GUEST PICKS" in the message).

1. Michigan fans couldn’t get Rich Rodriguez out of town fast enough. But it’s worth noting that Brady Hoke’s best offensive players are fifth-year seniors recruited by Rodriguez. That includes Saturday’s record-setters, quarterback Devin Gardner (503 passing yards, 584 yards of total offense) and receiver Jeremy Gallon (369 receiving yards), as well as Fitzgerald Toussaint (four rushing scores Saturday) and starting tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. Then again, offense wasn’t RichRod’s problem at Michigan.

2. There’s the speculation at the top of the BCS standings, where No. 2 Florida State and No. 3 Oregon may leapfrog one another the next three weeks as their schedules ebb and flow. Then there’s the battle at the other end, where No. 17 Fresno State and No. 18 Northern Illinois are jockeying with one another and both trying to stay in front of No. 20 Louisville and No. 23 UCF from the AAC. If one of the former finishes ahead of one of the latter, that will guarantee a BCS bid. The BCS ratings always provide fodder.

3. Senior quarterback Clint Trickett left Florida State after spring ball when he realized that he wouldn’t beat out redshirt freshman Jameis Winston. On Saturday, Winston threw for 444 yards at Clemson and became a Heisman frontrunner. Trickett started at West Virginia and threw for 254 yards and a touchdown against Texas Tech. But the Red Raiders outscored the Mountaineers 21-0 in the last 20 minutes to win, 37-27. Over the last five possessions, Trickett completed 6 of 11 passes for 19 yards. The offense made one first down.
The Michigan football team has been under a bit of fire recently. Some are saying that its trying too hard to fit its personnel, which might be better fit for a spread offense, into a pro-style -- the old square-peg-round-hole dilemma.

But on Saturday, in a 63-47 win that showed an outpouring of 751 yards of total offense, the Wolverines opened up the playbook and its minds a bit. Of the 83 offensive plays, the breakdown between Michigan being in the shotgun formation (46 percent) versus under center (52 percent) was a bit more even and that left the Indiana defense in some tough positions. The result was a dynamic offensive performance.

So, since we have a bit more time to analyze Michigan’s offense than the IU defense did in game, here’s exactly what the Wolverines did.

[+] EnlargeFitzgerald Toussaint
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsFitzgerald Toussaint's touchdowns and longest runs came when Michigan was under center, but he had a higher yards-per-carry average out of the spread.
UNDER CENTER:
Run plays: 29 | Pass plays: 14

  • Michigan rushed the ball 29 times for 125 yards (4.3 yards per carry).
  • Five of the Wolverines’ seven rushing touchdowns came while quarterback Devin Gardner was under center.
  • All four of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint's touchdowns came while Gardner was under center, though his personal average per carry under center is nearly half of what it is when Michigan runs the shotgun.
  • Five of running back Derrick Green’s six carries came when Gardner was under center.
  • Gardner completed 9 of 14 passes when he was under center and averaged 35.7 yards per completion.
  • Michigan’s five longest passing plays started with Gardner under center -- Gallon had two 70-yard receptions, a 50-yard touchdown reception and a 33-yard reception while wide receiver Devin Funchess recorded a 38-yard catch. The longest passing play out of the shotgun was a 27-yard pass to Toussaint.
  • Wide receiver Jeremy Gallon was Gardner’s target of choice against the Hoosiers, catching 14 passes. Those passes were evenly split between under center and the gun, however his passes were far more productive when Gardner was under center -- 271 receiving yards when Gardner was under center, 98 receiving yards when Gardner was in the gun.
SHOTGUN:
Run plays: 23 | Pass plays: 15

  • Michigan rushed the ball 23 times for 118 yards (5.1 yards per carry).
  • Two of the Wolverines’ seven rushing touchdowns came out of the gun, though five of Toussaint’s seven longest rushes came out of the gun. His two longest, a 27-yard touchdown run and a 15-yard rush, were when Gardner was under center.
  • Gardner completed 12-of-15 passes out of the gun and averaged 15.2 yards per completion.
  • Gardner’s completion percent out of the gun against Indiana was 16 percent higher than it was when he was under center.
  • Gardner accounted for 10 carries when Michigan was in the shotgun formation. However two of those were for losses when he was sacked (minus-22 yards in total).
  • Two of Gardner’s three rushing touchdowns came when he was in the gun.
PISTOL:
Run plays: 2

  • Michigan only rushed the ball twice out of the pistol. Toussaint recorded a 4-yard rush and Gardner kept the ball once for a 1-yard gain.
  • The Wolverines’ first play out of halftime was in the pistol. That play was followed up with putting Gardner back under center.

The Wolverines have been working very hard to get its run game going. Last weekend against Penn State, the Wolverines couldn’t get any kind of leverage and as a result their run game (outside of Gardner) suffered miserably. Toussaint averaged one yard per carry and Green carried the ball three times for a net gain of 1 yard. Against Indiana, the Wolverines as a whole averaged 4.6 yards per carry -- a huge improvement from the previous weekend.

Gardner rushing:
Under center: four carries, 38 yards, 9.5 YPC, 1 TD
Shot gun: 10 carries, 42 yards, 4.2 YPC, 2 TD
Pistol: one carry, 1 yard

Toussaint rushing:
Under center: 19 carries, 73 yards, 3.8 YPC, 4 TD
Shot gun: 12 carries, 74 yards, 6.2 YPC
Pistol: one carry, 4 yards

Green rushing:
Under center: five carries, 19 yards, 3.8 YPC
Shot gun: one carry, two yards

Overall, the offensive performance was something the Wolverines can definitely be proud of and look to build on as it faces some tougher defenses on the horizon. Michigan State, who the Wolverines will see after the bye week, is the No. 1 defense in the nation, giving up just 228 yards of offense per game.

The Spartans’ rushing defense is giving up just 59.1 yards per game. The next best rushing defense in the country is Rutgers, which gives up 84 yards per game on the ground, more than 20 yards behind MSU, allowing 84 rushing yards per game.

So with a bye week, Michigan will have an opportunity to look at game film and see how exactly it will decide to attack the best defense in the nation. But if the 751 yards against IU has any kind of pull, it’s likely that the Wolverines will attempt to stay as versatile as they were on Saturday.

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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12