Thursday, July 25, 2013
Early look at the Michigan Wolverines
By Josh Moyer
Every weekday over the next two weeks, NittanyNation will take a closer look at a different game this season and how the matchup stacks up for PSU. Up today: Michigan.
In some ways, Michigan and Penn State are pretty similar. For every question mark, there's a twinge of optimism the answer will wind up involving good news.
Subpar 2012 season for the tailbacks? No problem; true freshman Derrick Green will have an instant impact. Jake Ryan out until November? Plenty of quality depth at linebacker. Jordan Kovacs gone? Well, the secondary boasts more athleticism now. Different defensive line? No worries; it'll be just as good as last season.
There's no certainty the Wolverines will finish within the top two of the Big Ten, but that's what's often being projected -- and there's one big reason for that. OK, two. Brady Hoke and Devin Gardner.
Hoke has historically beefed up the passing game, which is why San Diego State finished with more than 7,000 passing yards in the two seasons Hoke was at the helm. It was more of the same at Ball State and, many believe, Michigan will follow suit with its new pro-style offense.
The Wolverines' success will likely reflect Gardner's performance, and Gardner seems poised to meet high expectations.
When: 5 p.m. on Oct. 12 at Beaver Stadium (ESPN or ESPN2)
Last season: Michigan (8-5, 6-2 Big Ten); lost Outback Bowl vs. South Carolina, 33-28
Series history: Michigan 10-6-0
Penn State will have to keep Jeremy Gallon and Devin Gardner under wraps if it hopes to hang with the Wolverines.
Biggest question marks: For an offense led by a darkhorse Heisman candidate, there sure are a lot of question marks here. Jeremy Gallon is the top receiver of this group, but there are question marks behind him at that position.
Outside of slot receiver Drew Dileo, Michigan's wideouts combined for less than 15 career catches. It almost sounds a bit like PSU coming into last season. The receivers are incredibly unproven, and size isn't a strength. (Gallon is 5-foot-8; Dileo is 5-10.)
The interior of the offensive line has three new starters, and tailback is far from a lock as well. Fitzgerald Toussaint is coming off a broken leg last season and averaged just four yards a carry prior to the late injury. His main competition includes the true freshmen, Green and Deveon Smith, who could both see considerable time this season.
On defense, the line sees just one returner in Quinton Washington. This group is also unproven, but the last group wasn't exactly lighting it up either. Michigan struggled sacking the quarterback, and this unit can't be worse in that department than 2012.
Biggest strengths: Besides Gardner? Defense and depth.
CB Blake Countess is back this year after an ACL injury, and he should be a boost to the defense. He and Raymon Taylor should continue the Wolverines' penchant for terrific pass defense, which posted the fifth-best numbers in the country last season (169 pass yards per game). That's not good news for opposing fresh-faced quarterbacks such as PSU's Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg.
There are several other primary strengths, too. Despite Ryan's injury, the depth at linebacker is spectacular. The offensive tackles are among the best in the country. And Gardner adds another dimension to this offense. Michigan's the type of program that when one man leaves, another is almost always ready to step up.
Who to watch: Gardner. Was there really any doubt? He's a true dual threat, and he might be the biggest test of the season for Penn State's defense. If he struggles, PSU has a chance at the upset. If he doesn't? Well, there's always next year.
What you might not know: There was a bit of good-natured controversy back in May when one of Michigan's players posted a surprising photo on Instagram.
See, quite a few footballs happen to be made in Ada, Ohio, which is home to the Wilson Football Factory. And, well, Michigan obviously wanted to make it clear it wasn't contributing to the economy of the Buckeye State. Of course, former OSU coach Woody Hayes might have fired the first volley years ago; he refused to fill up his car with gas from Michigan because of that very fact.
Early prediction: Michigan 21-13. PSU's offense sputters in the beginning, and Gardner frustrates the defense with a few big plays.