Finally, the Wolverines can talk about facing Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl and drop (sort've) the subject of coach Rich Rodriguez and his future employment.
Since Michigan got thumped 37-7 by rival Ohio State to end the season, the buzz over Rodriguez and whether or not he will be fired has escalated into a constant roar.
After consecutive losing seasons, Rodriguez put together a 7-5 campaign that has Michigan in its first bowl game since the 2007 season. The 21st-ranked Bulldogs (8-4) won't make an easy resume enhancement for Rodriguez, but they do present him with the opportunity for such.
The Bulldogs work behind second-year head coach Dan Mullen, who did an extensive apprenticeship under Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. While at Florida, Mullen had the opportunity to recruit Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.
"I know Denard Robinson is one of the most explosive, if not the most explosive player in the country," Mullen said in a conference call discussing the bowl matchup with the Wolverines. "As the season went on, he got wore down a little bit, but now coming into a bowl game, we're going to get 100 percent of him."
Robinson is the heart of the Michigan spread offense, and the Big Ten offensive player of the year for the 2010 season. Despite being hobbled by shoulder, knee and finger injuries, he became the first quarterback in NCAA history to rush and pass for more than 1,500 yards each in a season. His blend of speed and elusiveness make Robinson a blur in the open field.
"I recruited Denard out of high school, and I knew he was a special player," Mullen said. "I knew he was fast and he was explosive. He certainly hasn't taken a step back from those days to the player he's become. He can throw the ball, he can hurt you with his legs. ... He's going to be the most dynamic football player we've faced."
The Wolverines likely will need every bit of the 500 yards of offense per game that Robinson led them to this season, since Mississippi State is likely to feast on the troubled Michigan defense in the first-ever meeting between the two schools.
The Bulldogs favor the run, and they ranked 16th nationally in rushing this season by averaging 215.8 yards per game. The Michigan defense resides at the other end of the spectrum, ranking 108th nationally in total defense and 94th against the run by allowing an average 187.67 rushing yards per game.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--QB Denard Robinson has had a hand in everything the Wolverines did on offense this season, when he became the first quarterback in NCAA history to rush and pass for more than 1,500 yards each in a season. Robinson has what is arguably the quickest first step in football, and he can reach fifth gear in the blink of an eye. He was clocked at 6.81 seconds in the 60-meter dash earlier this year.
--DT Mike Martin was slowed by ankle injuries as the season came to a close, but with a full month to get healthy, he should be a critical element in the Michigan plan to slow down Mississippi State's potent running game. Martin draws double-teams and is strong enough to force teams to tweak a game plan to avoid him.
--WR Roy Roundtree could be Michigan's most important offensive player in the bowl game, outside of QB Denard Robinson. Since Mississippi State will have a month to prepare for slowing Robinson, the Wolverines will need Roundtree to make the Bulldogs pay for every time they overextend their defense to account for Robinson.
--In the coaching matchup, Rich Rodriguez is definitely the more experienced boss involved in this bowl game, but his job security issues could prove to be a significant distraction. Mississippi State's Dan Mullen is in just his second season as a head coach, but he's a veteran of six years in the SEC wars and is wise beyond his years. Rodriguez is fighting to retain his job, while Mullen could use a win here to make the move up the ladder in the coaching ranks.
BOWL HISTORY: The Wolverines are 19-20 overall in bowl games, with their most recent outing being the January 2007 Capital One Bowl, where they defeated Florida 41-35. In the Gator Bowl, Michigan is 1-1, losing to North Carolina by a 17-15 count in 1976, then defeating Mississippi 35-3 on Jan. 1, 1991. The Wolverines have lost four of their last five bowl games, including three Rose Bowls.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Mississippi State is a great team and has been consistently ranked among the Top 25 this season. Dan Mullen and his staff have done an outstanding job. It should be a great matchup, and we look forward to playing them on New Year's Day." -- Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, looking ahead to the Gator Bowl.
Scouting the running game: It all starts with QB Denard Robinson for Michigan. The speedy sophomore had more than 1,600 yards rushing this season, averaging nearly 7 yards per carry. Robinson rushed for nearly 140 yards per game. He works behind a veteran line with a good push, and he became the first quarterback in NCAA history to both rush and pass for more than 1,500 yards in a single season.
Mississippi State put up more than 215 rushing yards per game this season and ranked in the top 20 nationally. The Bulldogs had 409 rushing yards in a win over Houston this season. RB Vick Ballard is the workhorse for the Bulldogs, averaging 81.1 yards per game with 14 rushing touchdowns.
Scouting the passing game: While his speed and running ability got most of the headlines, Robinson demonstrated that he has worked very hard at becoming a more accurate passer. He threw for 2,300 yards with 16 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. Sophomore WR Roy Roundtree is the prime target, as he had 63 receptions and six touchdowns.
The Bulldogs threw the ball for just over 2,100 yards this season and had 15 passing touchdowns with a dozen interceptions. WR Chad Bumphis was the top target for QB Chris Relf, with Bumphis catching 44 passes for 634 yards and five scores.
Scouting the run defense: Michigan allowed the opposition about 187 rushing yards per game this season while surrendering almost 450 yards of offense per outing. To slow the Mississippi State run game down, Michigan needs a big game from its best defenders -- DT Mike Martin, LB Jonas Mouton and S Jordan Kovacs.
Mississippi State has a much-improved defensive unit after ranking near the bottom of the SEC in total defense a year ago. The Bulldogs allowed just 120 rushing yards per game, and they were 26th nationally against the run.
Scouting the pass defense: When Michigan manages to put on a pass rush, it is usually junior DE Ryan Van Bergen leading the charge. The Wolverines have been hit hard in the secondary by injuries and allowed better than 260 passing yards per game this season. Kovacs is a big hitter who totaled 17 tackles in the Ohio State game.
Mississippi State has been adept at forcing turnovers and keeping the opposition out of the end zone. The Bulldogs have a dozen interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries. Mississippi State allowed 17 passing touchdowns in 12 games, and it boasts the nation's 25th-best scoring defense, and the third best in the SEC, allowing 20 points per game.
Scouting the special teams: The Wolverines were severely handicapped in their season finale against Ohio State when freshman P Will Hagerup got suspended for violating team rules, throwing the duties on freshman Seth Broekhuizen. Coach Rich Rodriguez has displayed little faith in his kickers, who have gone just 4-for-13 on field-goal tries this season.
The Bulldogs use Bumphis as their primary punt returner, while KR Leon Berry has about a 27-yard average on kick returns, with one going 97 yards for a touchdown. P Heath Hutchins has handled all 57 punts for Mississippi State this season, and he has knocked 24 of them inside the 20-yard line.
Intangibles: The edge here has to go to Mississippi State, since the Bulldogs are not dealing with the constant distraction Michigan faces, as the buzz over coach Rich Rodriguez and his future in Ann Arbor just won't go away. Coach Dan Mullen appears to have the Bulldogs trending upward and poised to make a statement in the bowl game.
--Junior WR Junior Hemingway missed the Ohio State game as he continued to be bothered by a concussion-type headache.
--Freshman P Will Hagerup did not make the trip to Ohio State because of a violation of team rules, but he is expected to be back for the bowl game.
--QB Denard Robinson missed most of the second half of the Ohio State game after dislocating two fingers on his left, non-throwing, hand in the first half. He is expected to be healed and back at practice well in advance of the bowl game.
--WR Martavious Odoms suffered a broken foot in the midseason loss to Michigan State and missed the remainder of the regular season, but he might be available for the bowl game.
The Monday TSX Files: Michigan/Miss State
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