Michigan vs. South Carolina Primer

Going to the game…a tailgate… maybe just the day with watching with friends on TV? Don't be caught off guard with what happens on the field in today's Outback Bowl. Know your opponent with the Michigan vs South Carolina primer.

Each week we scout Michigan's opponent. We'll start with the basics, and then explore some relevant match-ups. For those that want to know more, we'll sprinkle in a mixture of history, reflection, and philosophy for a comprehensive look.

#18 Michigan (8-4) vs. #10 South Carolina (10-2)

Michigan Schedule
(L) Alabama (in Dallas Tx) 41-14
(W) Air Force 31-25
(W) UMASS 63-13
(L) at Notre Dame 13-6
(W) at Purdue 44-13
(W) Illinois 45-0
(W) Michigan State 12-10
(L) at Nebraska 23-9
(W) at Minnesota 35-13
(W) Northwestern 38-31 OT
(W) Iowa 42-17 
(L) at Ohio State 26-21

South Carolina Schedule
(W) at Vanderbilt 17-13
(W) East Carolina 48-10
(W) UAB 49-6
(W) Missouri 31-10
(W) at Kentucky 38-17
(W) Georgia 35-7
(L) at LSU 23-21
(L) at Florida 44-11
(W) Tennessee 38-35
(W) Arkansas 38-20
(W) Wofford 24-7
(W) at Clemson 27-17

South Carolina Players to Watch:
QB Connor Shaw (Jr. #14) Better runner than thrower but is 13th in NCAA passing efficiency at 156.9; 15 TD’s, 7 Int’s, and 1,732 yds passing; 339 yds rushing.

WR/KR Ace Sanders (Jr. #1) Dangerous kick returner averaging 14.5 ypp, #3 in the nation.

DE Jadeveon Clowney (So. #7) The SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year; Ted Hendricks National Defensive End of the Year Award winner.

What a win means for Michigan:  Back-to-back bowl wins for the first time since 99-’00; first win over a top ten team since beating #9 Wisconsin in ’08;

What a win means for South Carolina:  First ever back-to-back eleven-win seasons; Head oach Steve Spurrier becomes school’s winningest bowl coach with three.

What South Carolina Brags About: One Heisman Trophy winner (George Rodgers 1980); two national championship coaches (Spurrier in 1996, Lou Holtz in 1987); six NFL first round draft picks since 2000; South Carolina is also the home of Dan Reeves and Sterling Sharpe.

Marcus Lattimore: The face of the program had his right knee rotated in a gruesome injury against Tennessee. Lattimore, who came off ligament surgery to his left knee after a season ending injury in 2011, declared for the NFL draft in December. Lattimore could miss his rookie season rehabbing.

The Last Time They Met
Coming off the worst season in nearly two decades Michigan went to Columbia to face a Gamecock team coming off their best season ever. Though the Wolverines weren’t expected to win, they thoroughly dominated, winning 34-3 in Michigan’s second game of the season.

Their Season So Far
Best Win: Georgia 35-7
There isn’t a long resume of Gamecock wins in big games, but this certainly qualified. Junior quarterback Connor Shaw threw the ball only ten times, but two were for touchdowns. The defense shutdown one of the best offenses in football holding them scoreless for the first 58 minutes and just 224 yards of total offense. Many were eager to point out that the former fun’n’gun Steve Spurrier was coaching a top ten team that now ran the ball like Big Ten team in November.   The signature win and breakthrough had the SEC abuzz as the favorite to represent the SEC East and a belief that this team was capable of winning it all. Until…

Worst Loss: Florida 44-11
Losing back-to-back games on the road in the following two weeks. Shaw fumbled on the game’s first snap and Florida, who at that time struggled to move the football, scored a touchdown before the first minute elapsed. Back-to-back fumbles on returns late in the first half gave Florida gifts of a short field where they capitalized for two more touchdowns. Shaw was benched and Spurrier called the game ‘embarrassing’, twice. Two weeks after fans allowed themselves to realistically talk championships, South Carolina found themselves out of the running for the division.

The South Carolina Offense vs. Michigan’s Defense
Like Michigan, the Gamecocks are keeping it a mystery as to who will be taking the majority of the snaps at quarterback. The simple breakdown in the difference between the two qb’s is that Connor Shaw (Jr. #14) is the runner and Dylan Thompson (So. #17) is the passer.

Shaw has started ten games, has fast feet and is the team’s third leading rusher. Shaw has better numbers passing than you’d expect for a guy whose game is often criticized. He has better than a 2:1 TD ratio, and his passing efficiency of 156.9 is good for 13th in the nation. However, he’s been dealing with a high ankle sprain for most of the season and aggravated it enough to miss the regular season finale against Clemson.

Thompson, has passed for over 300 yards in each of the two games he started this year including the 27-17 road win at Clemson. Spurrier has praised both quarterbacks enough to give mixed messages about their future at quarterback. A few weeks back, Spurrier named Shaw the starter. This past week he said he’s holding to it, but wouldn’t promise who would be playing beyond the team’s first possession.

Statistically, Michigan is better against the pass than the run. However, the #2 team pass defense will be without its best corner J.T. Floyd because of suspension. With Courtney Avery (Jr. #5) moving from nickel to starting corner and Dennis Norfleet (Fr. #26) moving from offense to defense and being told he will get PT, it gives Spurrier a great temptation to hand the reigns over to Thompson.

Furthering that temptation is the health of his running backs. Lattimore is out and his replacement Kenny Miles (Sr. #31), has been limited in practice with a knee problem. He is healthy enough to play, but has missed out on a lot of the preparation. A freshman they may go to off the bench is Shon Carson (Fr. #7). Carson hasn’t played a down this season due to injury, but has been turning heads in practice leading up to the game. True freshman Mike Davis (#28) could also factor since he has 52 carries for 275 yards this season.

The word is that regardless who is in at running back the offensive line doesn’t pass the eye test. South Carolina averages 3.6 ypc and their total production is 10th in the conference. They’re also the worst team in the SEC in giving up sacks at nearly three per game. Center T.J. Johnson (Sr. #55) is their best lineman and should be making his 53rd start. He is only one of two offensive players to make the SEC’s all 2nd team. No one made the conference’s 1st team.

My colleague at WTKA, Ira Weintraub, made an astute observation to me about the wide receiver match-up against Michigan’s secondary. There isn’t a Junior Hemmingway out there to out leap and outreach defenders on the sideline. South Carolina’s go-to receivers are listed no taller than 5’9”. Bruce Ellington (So. #23) leads the team in catches (38) and yards (564). He’s also the starting point guard on the basketball team. Ace Sanders (Jr. #1) has 36 catches for 439 yards and leads the team with seven TD grabs. Sanders was named to the SEC’s 2nd team offense and is also one heck of a punt returner and there’s more on that later in this article. Seven Gamecock receivers have over 100 yards receiving. Their tight ends combine for 35 receptions, 551 yards and five touchdowns, so it’s safe to say they utilize their tight ends down field as opposed to being just a safety valve.

The South Carolina Defense vs. the Michigan Offense
With Lattimore hurt and gone, Jadeveon Clowney (So. #7) is the face of the program as much as Charles Woodson was to Michigan. Clowney, who has a school record 13 sacks this season, was the named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. He also won the Ted Hendricks award by the widest margin in the history of the award. Clowney was also a finalist for the Nagurski, Bednarik and Lombardi trophies. Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. says Clowney would be the #1 pick in this year’s NFL draft, but he isn’t eligible because he only just finished his second season in college. Clowney, who also has the school’s single season tackles-for-loss record (21.5), believes he can become a finalist for the Heisman and get invited to New York just like Notre Dame’s Manti T’eo.

"That's my next thing, New York," Clowney said in December. "Next season, I am going to come out and try to work harder than I did this season and try to get there."

Clowney finished sixth in the voting this season. In his last game he had 4.5 sacks against Clemson, another single-game record.

Any match-up featuring Clowney and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan (Jr. #77) will actually have more people than usual following the battle of wills in the scrum than following the ball. Clowney won’t be just lining up over the left tackle. He has free reign to line up all over the line of scrimmage meaning Michael Scholfield (Sr. #75) and even some of the interior guys will have to know where he is. Clowney may be disruptive, but he may not get to the finish line. Michigan was #1 in the Big Ten in allowing just a little over one sack per game.

If the Wolverines have to put two backs in the backfield, it will be an uphill battle to move downhill. It’s a sign that Michigan’s line isn’t holding up. It also usually means one less weapon on the outside and that will give South Carolina a chance to bring an extra defender in the box.

That extra defender may be safety D.J. Swearinger (Sr. #36). He’s labeled as the team’s biggest hitter and has two returns for touchdowns off an interception and a fumble recovery. He also appears to have quite a personality and some bravado that that has brought down a few yellow flags at his feet. Swearinger is the only other defender on the All-SEC teams with a second team nod by both the media and the coaches.

The Gamecocks defensive rankings are in the top 15 nationally, in scoring, rush, and total defense. It’s very unlikely that they will be beaten laterally. If they were, how many SEC conference opponents would be running jet sweeps to the boundary? Fake reverses to Denard Robinson (Sr. #16) might draw defenders away from the primary ball carrier once or twice. While we all waited for it against Ohio State, and we’re still waiting, this is Michigan’s last chance for quite some time to have a pair of players like Denard and Devin Gardner (Jr. #7) running and passing together.

Michigan had major issues with the last SEC team it played, and this South Carolina defense is a little more aggressive than the Alabama one that made the Wolverines' offense look horrendous in Arlington this year.

Special Teams
Normally to the dismay of some of my colleagues and to any football coach that reads this, special teams aren’t usually a big factor to write about. Last year’s Sugar Bowl is an obvious exception. Sanders is a very dangerous returner. He’s averaging 14.5 yards per punt return which means you hold your breath every time he catches a punt like you did with Alabama’s Freddie Milons in the 2000 Orange Bowl. That number is better than Steve Breaston’s best year of 13.8 as a freshman. Only three Wolverines, Desmond Howard, Terry Barr, and Tripp Welborne had a better season long average than Sanders.

It’s hard to predict whether Will Hagerup’s suspension exacerbates the problem. Matt Wile (So. #45) has punted nine times this season for an average of 31.9 yards, but seven of those punts went inside the 20 which can skew the average. Even if Wile’s kicks don’t match Hagerup in distance, a decent hang time should allow for Michigan’s coverage unit to prevent a big play and sometimes Hagerup’s booming kicks allow a returner to get a full head of steam before reaching the gunner or the first wave of tacklers. Regardless, Michigan must tackle well on punts in order to avoid a big gift of a short field where yards could be difficult to come by on these two defenses.

While most outside of Ann Arbor, doesn’t think Michigan has a chance to win, many of those people don’t know that South Carolina don’t play up to their capabilities in bowl games. Their bowl record is 5-12 and have lost four of their last six bowl games.


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