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.
Conneticut at Michigan
|Conneticut (2009 Results)
(W) at Ohio 23-16
(L) North Carolina 12-10
(W) at Baylor 30-22
(W) Rhode Island 52-10
(L) at Pittsburgh 24-21
(W) Louisville 38-25
(L) at West Virginia 28-24
(L) Rutgers 28-24
(L) at Cincinnati 47-45
(W) at Notre Dame 33-30 (2 OT)
(W) Syracuse 56-31
(W) South Florida 29-27
(W) South Carolina 20-7
|Michigan (2009 Results)
(W) Western Michigan 31-7
(W) Notre Dame 38-34
(W) Eastern Michigan 45-17
(W) Indiana 36-33
(L) at Michigan State 26-20 OT
(L) at Iowa 30-28
(W) Delaware State 63-6
(L) Penn State 35-10
(L) at Illinois 38-13
(L) Purdue 38-36
(L) at Wisconsin 45-24
(L) Ohio State 21-10
UCONN Players to Watch:
How this game got Scheduled
The Wolverines were looking for a BCS opponent to open the 2010 regular season but more importantly to find a team worthy to rededicate Michigan Stadium. On August 18th, 2009, the University of Michigan announced that the opponent would be the University of Connecticut.
Many Michigan fans were outraged. Comments on websites and talk radio couldn't believe that lowly UCONN, a basketball school, who became a Division One FBS school in 2002, was the climatic answer to the highly anticipated match-up. Even further, Michigan would face further indignity by having to make a return trip to Storrs and play not in a stadium, but Rentschler Field, whose average attendance would be less than 39,000 in 2009.
What a difference a year makes.
UCONN comes in as a slight underdog but has a higher pre-season ranking than the Wolverines. The Huskies finished the 2009 season going to a Bowl game, and winning it ending with a four game winning streak. They have an offense that wants to play up-tempo but also to run down hill with a returning 1000 yard rusher. The defense is geared to stop the run with an Achilles heel that Michigan may not be able to exploit. Some highly credible journalists predict that Connecticut will win the Big East.
What a difference a year makes? This game went from embarrassing to becoming very worthwhile despite having only 57 wins as a full-fledged Division One team.
Connecticut's '09 Season
When a team loses all five games by a total of 15 points, some fans call that a tragedy. Don't use that logic around a Husky. It's offensive hyperbole. The team experienced a real tragedy just hours after beating Louisville on Homecoming. Starting cornerback Jasper Howard was stabbed to death during an altercation after a fire alarm was pulled at an on-campus dance held at the Student Union. Two teammates tried to do what they could to save Howard's life before paramedics arrived.
Kashif Moore holds up fallen teammate Jasper Howard's jersey
Understandably, his presence was missed very much on and off the field.
On the field, the following week, the Huskies were looking for their first win in the school's history over West Virginia. However, Noel Divine's 56 yard TD run with 2:10 remaining in the game proved that life isn't always fair. It got worse, on the field, the following week.
After UCONN's touchdown run with 38 seconds remaining in the game had the home team and the home crowd in a frenzy, Rutgers Wide Receiver Tim Brown burned the Huskies secondary for an 81 yard touchdown on the Scarlet Knights first play from scrimmage. Making it ironic was that Brown and Howard were good friends growing up together in Miami. UCONN's two point loss at undefeated Cincinnati the next week, wasn't as dramatic, but underscored all near misses for a team that needed to be uplifted. That relief and liberation came in South Bend. After forcing Overtime by kicking a late field goal, UCONN would prevail by scoring a touchdown in the second overtime to beat the Irish 33-30.
It was the beginning of a four game winning streak that culminated with a Bowl win over South Carolina.
Players and Match-ups
Offensive Coordinator Joe Moorhead, now in his second year, made some changes in his pro-style offense by going more up-tempo and introducing some no-huddle snaps. Whether this move was made to really benefit the offense or for his own defense to be more prepared for the likes of West Virginia or Cincinnati is unclear. Last season, this team's balance of run and throw was most similar to Penn State with slightly more passing yards than rushing yards. UCONN had two 1,000 yard rushers and a receiver with nearly 900 yards. This season they will need to find a capable receiver to replace Marcus Easley and one of the backs, Andre Dixon. The Huskies however, return nearly everyone on the offensive line, that some think are the best in the Big East, and Zach Frazer at QB, who optimists feel is the reason why UCONN was able to finish the year with a four game winning streak.
Frazer split time last season due to a lengthy injury. Though he completed only 53% of his passes and had thrown for only one more touchdown than picks (10 & 9), in the four game winning streak, he threw six touchdowns and two picks. Frazer didn't regress in the spring practice and runs only when he has to. With back-up Cody Endres on suspension, Frazer isn't looking behind him.
Frazer has the skill set of your classic quarterback at Michigan between the years of 1990-2007. In fact, Frazer took an official visit to Michigan during a game, and it came down to the Wolverines and Irish in his recruitment. He chose the Irish, but transferred after still finding himself down deep in the depth chart after Brady Quinn's departure.
Frazer, who has already returned to South Bend and won, is looking to do so in Ann Arbor.
The good news for Michigan is there isn't a known serious receiving threat to their secondary. Their top two receivers are gone and they don't have a Braylon Edwards waiting in the wings. They do have receivers with experience, but none has been a go-to guy in the past.
This probably won't stop Head Coach Randy Edsall from testing Michigan's secondary. He tested his own when Frazer threw a 70 yard TD pass to Kashif Moore (Jr. #82) on the opening play of their Spring Game. Moore is only 5'9" but runs good routes, mostly from the inside. Isiah Moore (Jr. #83) will line-up on the outside. Michigan's defenders will need to be fundamentally sound if they find themselves playing in single coverage and avoid YAC yards. If the receivers can't do the job, they won't be afraid to use Ryan Griffin (So. #94). Griffin had 23 catches for 272 yards last season. This should only be a warm-up for Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph next weekend in South Bend.
While the offense may show more spread and continue to play up tempo, UCONN's bread and butter is still the power running game. Junior Jordan Todman returns with nearly 1,200 yards rushing as a sophomore. Don't confuse him with John Clay out of Wisconsin or Illinois's Mikel Leshoure; Todman isn't a heavyweight, but what he lacks in size, he makes up for it in speed. Todman is the guy that Michigan fans hope out of Vincent Smith, a thousand yard back who can catch out of the backfield. Todman had 185 receiving yards in'09.
Backing him up is USC transfer D.J. Shoemate (Jr. #24). Shoemate transferred this summer and won't have to sit out a year after the NCAA's ruling on the Trojan football program. He was a top rated athlete coming out of high school, but didn't play much as he was listed as a fullback in the Trojan offense. Shoemate could be a soft cushion for the offense after losing Andre Dixon and the nearly 1,100 yards rushing he had last season.
Two 1st Team Big East players represent the offensive line in Center Moe Petrus and 6'7''RG Zach Hurd. The right side of the line averages 329 lbs. That's not what they bench. It's what they weigh. In all, four starters return leaving the important left tackle position as the place to fill. Pre-season publications list this line as the best in the Big East if not the heaviest. Imagine now this beefy line going up against a three man front in Michigan. As good as Mike Martin (Jr. #68) is at nose tackle, two returning All Big East lineman doubling him off the snap will be quite a challenge.
Hopefully the axiom "speed kills" holds true up front in the trenches. The game of chess here involves the right calls from the Michigan defense to stop what should be a good ground game while not jeopardizing the vulnerability of the secondary. Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson may be the underrated hero if Michigan can keep UCONN in the 20's.
One last thing to note, there has been a mass assumption that Connecticut's two back, north-south rushing offense is going to dominate time of possession and potentially wear out Michigan's defense. While it's true that Michigan statistically is towards the bottom in TOP, regardless of the opponent, Connecticut was 79th last season, well less than 30 minutes per ball game.
Defensively, the Huskies have one glaring problem, the secondary. Last season Connecticut was #88 in pass defense, worst in the Big East, but slightly better than Illinois, Indiana and Michigan State for comparison purposes. One returning starter from this bleak backfield is on the 1st team depth chart released Monday. Another made the 2nd team. The only upper classman in the two-deep has never made a start. Considering how they lost games late last season, and how they appeared lost in general during their Spring Game, it's no wonder that Edsall decided to personally take on the safeties as their position coach. It just remains to be seen whether Michigan has the passing ability to take advantage of UCONN's biggest weakness.
Connecticut's biggest strength also features the biggest surprise this week. The linebackers featured two very solid returning starters in Lawrence Wilson and Scott Lutrus (Sr. #32). The surprise was the return of fellow starter Greg Lloyd. Declared to be lost for the season and to be redshirted on Aug 5th, after missing all of Spring Practice, Lloyd has shown incredible improvement in the last four weeks. If he actually starts and can play up to form from last season, not only would the Huskies have all their senior starters back at this position group, but all three have earned either 1st or 2nd Team Conference post-season honors in their careers. With Lloyd coming back and this allowing Lutrus to return to his natural position, this linebacker unit should now be considered as the best in the Big East.
This group may make it difficult for Michigan's ground and passing game to get past the 2nd level and into that inexperienced secondary. Michigan's inexperienced running backs need to be also prepared for pass protection against an experienced blitzing linebacker. Wilson led the Big East with 140 tackles finishing with 31 more than Cincinnati's Andre Revels. Lutrus is healthy this season after only starting six games in '09.
At defensive line, three of four return in '10. The glaring hole is at rush end where Lloyd was originally slated to play during this season. Back-up Marcus Campbell was lost for the season to an ACL injury. Whoever it is, no one will replace Lindsey Witten, who led UCONN and the Big East in sacks (11.5) in ‘09. While this group may be quick, they are undersized. It's a good thing for them that middle three are so strong.
How this will play out
Usually offenses struggle more than the defense in the season opener, but in this game, the offenses on paper in this game look much stronger. UCONN will struggle if the Michigan secondary starts well and the Husky wide receivers look at each other waiting to see who raises their hand to become the go-to guy. The Huskies can't afford to be one dimensional.
Michigan will need to be fundamentally sound especially in tackling. If UCONN can exploit someone on the defense who isn't sound or tackling well, then it will force Greg Robinson's play calls to become more conservative, as the defense has to keep covering and assisting those in trouble. As a result, this will lead to a "bend but don't break" situation and UCONN can accomplish its goal of wearing out the Michigan defense and keeping the Wolverine offense off the field. Sound fundamentals and tackling will allow Robinson to become a little more unpredictable with his calls, especially with the linebackers in what already coaches have said is a simplified offense.
For Michigan offensively, Denard Robinson (So. #16) deserves to start and probably will. He is the type of QB that gives fits to teams like UCONN. However, Robinson will have to prove he can throw the football. Even though it's well documented that Connecticut has never beaten West Virginia or Rich Rodriguez, this year's team is more equipped to face the read-option spread than ever before. With an all Big-East line up at linebacker, Michigan may have to have a quarterback who can test that secondary and keep their defense honest, and that's Tate Forcier (So. #5). If Michigan is behind in the fourth quarter don't be surprised to see Forcier come in to attempt to move the ball vertically.
Michigan may be behind in the 4th quarter, but don't be surprised to see some Wolverine opener heroics on par with the '99 Notre Dame game, and the '02 Washington game. What about Virginia '95? That's just too tough to beat. Michigan fans already have elevated heart and blood pressure rates. Besides, I thought Coach Rodriguez said on numerous occasions he was tired of the ‘drama'.
ENJOY THE GAME!