When Michigan and Michigan State meet Saturday in East Lansing, Mich., it'll be an intriguing matchup in one of the most basic facets: the Wolverines' offense against Michigan State's defense.
Michigan has averaged 446.4 yards of offense in its first seven games - it certainly got a boost after it finished with 751 yards in a 63-47 win over Indiana two weeks ago. While UM quarterback Devin Gardner has exhibited daredevil tendencies during the season, he's second in the Big Ten in passing average (254.1 yards).
But the Wolverines and their offense face the Spartans, a team that is the No. 1 defensive unit in the nation and has allowed less than 55 yards a game rushing (and a consistent run game has been an issue for the Wolverines this season).
"One can argue that it's the best group because of the way it's played as a unit, in all of college football," ESPN analyst Todd McShay said this week on a conference call. "I've been really impressed with how stout they've been versus the run, how they seem to answer the bell consistently when their backs are against the wall, and how long they've been on the field and how many bad situations they've been put in."
Why does McShay think that Saturday's game is must-see-TV?
"Michigan has more playmakers on the offensive side," McShay said. "It sets up to be intriguing, with Michigan's offense against Michigan State's defense. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better unit-versus-unit matchup in college football any week, but certainly this week in this game."
ANN ARBOR - Taylor Lewan said he was playing a video game - Nintendo's Super Smash Brothers, to be exact - when he and teammates Mike Schofield and Russell Bellomy heard a crash from outside their State Street house last Wednesday.
"The power went out and I was winning, too, which made me heated," said Lewan, Michigan's left tackle. "We heard a loud noise and we walked outside and there was smoke, and a telephone wire going all over the place. We ran out and there's this guy in a car, and he was unconscious."
A car crashed on State Street, yards away from the house that Lewan lives in. Lewan, Bellomy and Schofield reached in and pulled the driver involved in the single-car accident out of his car which, according to AnnArbor.com, struck a utility pole on State Street, across from Michigan's football complex.
"We pulled him out of the car, got his keys," Lewan said. "He hit a house and there was gas near the house and the car was going, and the key was jammed in."
Mike Schofield's dad posted a tweet about the incident:
Nice job by Taylor, Michael and Russ jumping into action after a car slammed into the neighbors house Proud of you guys— Mike Schofield (@72_75) October 23, 2013
... but Schofield and Lewan elaborated a bit more on the situation.
"All the sudden the power went out, and we heard a loud bang," Schofield said. "We look outside and we saw a car in a building, so we just ran down there. Luckily there was a guy there who was a 14-year military vet and an athletic trainer somewhere, so he pretty much took over. We were kind of there for assistance, I guess."
"Really, all we did was take him out of the car, but it was a little different," Lewan said. "It was a different day. It was a bye week. We didn't have practice, so we had something else to do."
Little did they think it would involve some Good Samaritan-ship.
ANN ARBOR - Michigan's record-setting offensive output in its 63-47 win over Indiana may be seen as an aberration. However, this is how Michigan's offense needs to operate - and not just out of the urgency that comes with playing in a defense-optional game against a defense-optional team. It's also out of necessity.
Jeremy Gallon had a school- and Big Ten-record of 369 receiving yards in a single game, and is second in the NCAA record books behind Louisiana Tech receiver Troy Edwards, who set the single-game record of 405 yards in 1998. Devin Gardner set a school record with 584 yards of offense in a single game (including 503 yards passing), besting a record set by a likely Michigan icon and a former teammate, Denard Robinson.
The numbers are gaudy, yes. Against Indiana, it's a unique situation. Indiana's defense is its offense, and that's what it forces its opponents to do, turn to the offensive. Michigan had to make the most of that. A week after an anemic team rushing performance at Penn State, Fitzgerald Toussaint had a season-high 151 yards and four touchdowns. Gardner and Gallon found a certain groove - while only six players had rushing and receiving contributions, there was no reason to break the chemistry Gardner and Gallon had yesterday.
Now, Michigan needs to continue a certain offensive pace, and it needs its defense, which Indiana rendered non-existent Saturday night, to rediscover itself. The Big Ten is bringing a bad rap upon itself this season - Ohio State is likely cursing Northwestern after its 20-17 loss to Minnesota on Saturday - and each team has to truly pull its weight if the conference wants to retain its credibility. Finding that rhythm will be key in Michigan's final five games of the season. That's where we'll see the Wolverines' mettle, if it has any hopes of playing for the Big Ten title.
Lost in all of this? With six wins, the Wolverines are now bowl-eligible.
ANN ARBOR - Instead of being ranked among the top 25 in this week's Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today college coaches polls, the Wolverines are ranked No. 2 in this week's "Misery Index," compiled weekly by USA Today.
The Wolverines are ahead of Georgia, but behind Oklahoma. And you think your team has problems ...
Read it. Laugh at it. Whatever you do, don't take the weekly "Misery Index" as the gospel. But it's a great gimmick, and something that offers college football fans this much perspective: this is a bad week, but it could be worse. Or it could get worse.
Even USA Today attaches its own disclaimer to the weekly feature:
This isn't a ranking of worst teams, worst losses or coaches whose jobs are in the most jeopardy. This is simply a measurement of a fan base's knee-jerk reaction to what they last saw. The way in which a team won or lost, expectations vis-à-vis program trajectory and traditional inferiority complex of fan base all factor into this ranking.
So when your team gets lumped in USA Today's weekly top ten, don't panic. With a win Saturday against Indiana, the Wolverines will likely fall out of the category. And if they lose? Well, I'll let you use your imagination with that idea.
It could be worse - you could be like my husband, who is a Kansas fan. Now that's miserable.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - You know this place is hard-core on a fall Saturday when it takes you an hour to get to the stadium for a football game.
This is Atherton Ave., the main thoroughfare to get into State College on a game day - and this is nearly five hours before today's Michigan-Penn State at Beaver Stadium. If you're stuck in the crawl, you can see Penn State's Beaver Stadium from a distance - that's the goal. Make it to Beaver Stadium and you're okay.
Good thing I got here early, right?
Along the way - and I took a circuitous route - I saw a few of Penn State's sights.
Like these guys. They're ready for the white-out.
And the sea of tailgaters. Nittanyville?
Penn State, inside Beaver Stadium, even brags about the tailgating.
Here's the view from inside Beaver Stadium.
And inside Beaver Stadium.
And the exterior of Beaver Stadium.
ANN ARBOR - Earlier this week, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he received a late-night text message from offensive tackle Taylor Lewan - no, not that kind of text message.
Instead, Lewan, ever the dutiful captain, informed Hoke that the Wolverines would have to prepare for the aural challenge that comes with playing at Penn State - likely one of the more boisterous crowds in the Big Ten.
To prepare for the crowd noise, quarterback Devin Gardner has been whispering snap counts to the offense during practice this week. Gentlemen, strain your ears.
“We’ll do a little more to prepare for the crowd noise," Hoke said this week. "You’ve got to really send a message about how significant paying attention and being into the game is. You’re on the sideline making adjustments. You’re out on the field, believe me, some guys do get distracted. That’s not a good thing.”
Video may not fully replicate the noise at Penn State's Beaver Stadium, but YouTube has a few minutes of footage:
And the noted "We are ..." stadium-wide chant:
ANN ARBOR - Michigan coach Brady Hoke said linebacker Jake Ryan practiced Tuesday and planned to practice today, but his status for Saturday’s game at Penn State will come later this week.
"We've got another big day [Wednesday]," Hoke said. "We'll see where he's at."
Ryan, who wore an orange non-contact jersey during Tuesday’s practice, has missed Michigan’s first five games and is recovering from spring surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee.
“He’s traveled every game,” Hoke said. “I could make [a decision] Saturday. Possibly. I could make it [Wednesday night].”
So, was he going to reveal it at all?
"Oh, I don't know," Hoke said.
Then, he planted his tongue firmly in cheek.
"I'll probably call you and let you know," Hoke said. "Yeah, I'll tweet it. I'll tweet it, alright."
(This was a guy who shocked the media earlier this week with the revelation that he knew how to text, explaining that he responded to Taylor Lewan's text message about the crowd noise at Penn State.)
"We're going to play whoever shows up, obviously," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. "But he's a very good player and we'll have to know where he is if he does play, that's for sure."
Hoke said earlier this week that doctors have cleared Ryan to play this season, yet that Hoke himself has his own hesitations about Ryan's return.
“I know the doctors have cleared him, but it’s how that holds up,” Hoke said Monday. “He plays pretty fast. I’m probably more worried about it than anything.”
My opinion: If Ryan is to play this weekend at Penn State, it would likely be in a role that will have reservations. He's returning from ACL surgery, not from a sprained ankle.
***FUNCHESS HONORED: Michigan tight end Devin Funchess was named the John Mackey Award tight end of the week. The sophomore had seven catches for 151 yards and a touchdown in Saturday’s 42-13 win over Minnesota.
So we're all in agreement here - Michigan isn't as good as advertised, despite its 4-0 record as it prepares to open its Big Ten schedule Saturday against Minnesota.
Earlier this week, Michigan coach Brady Hoke was asked if his team had defined itself in preparation for the start of the Big Ten schedule.
“We didn’t expect to have some to the up and downs and inconsistencies we have," Hoke said. "It starts with us [as coaches] messaging how we need to play.”
At least one team isn't buying into any hype around Michigan - Minnesota. Maybe it's just bulletin-board material, or maybe the Gophers are that confident. From Wednesday's Minneapolis Star Tribune:
“Just the fact they almost lost to Akron, they’re human,” Gophers defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman said. “You know what I mean? Everybody praises them to be elite, and I just feel like they’re a regular football team. You just have to come with your A-game, but that’s how you approach every game.”
Is the criticism of Michigan warranted and deserved? Tom Dienhart, a Big Ten Network analyst and a longtime college football scribe, says so. Consider the opponents - despite what the Wolverines have said about the idea of the media "downplaying" opponents.
"Connecticut got beaten handily by Towson, an FCS program, and when Akron played Michigan, they'd beat an FCS team [James Madison] for their one win," Dienhart said. "Connecticut has fallen off signficantly, and Akron, a team that came out of the blue, they should have lost that game. That was a big surprise."
Akron's near-upset came a week after Michigan registered a 41-30 win over Notre Dame, which hasn't found its spark this season. Furthermore, Dienhart believes the hype may have already evaded Michigan in the wake of that Saturday night prime-time game - which seems like a such a long time ago.
Winning - and a 4-0 record - should be the bottom line, right?
"Style points shouldn’t matter but style points do," Dienhart said. When you’re a team that matters, Michigan is supposed to dominate Akron. Perception does matter."
What's going to help the perception of the Wolverines? Beating Minnesota. Handily.
ANN ARBOR - The week off likely meant a week to refocus for the Michigan football team.
It also might mean some reshuffling, even for a team that's 4-0. During his weekly press conference today at Michigan, head coach Brady Hoke said some consideration was being given to shaking up the offensive line, particularly at the interior positions - left guard, right guard and center.
“We wouldn’t have a problem making a change, if that’s what we deem we ought to do,” Hoke said.
If changes are to come to Michigan’s offensive line for Saturday's Big Ten Conference opener against Minnesota, they’ll come when Michigan’s coaching staff believes the unit is ready for change. Hoke, however, gave away this much:“We need a little better play from the center, whether it’s Jack [Miller] or Graham [Glasgow],” he said.
That decision, Hoke said, could come before the end of the week, but definitely after Tuesday.
I watched two seasons of "Breaking Bad," ran a 5K race in Toledo and covered an auto race during the bye weekend. What did the Wolverines do?
“Most of the guys I know took the week off, rested, caught up on their sleep, watched some games over the weekend, which is always nice to do," offensive tackle Mike Schofield said. "It was good time off.”
Did the week away from football give the Wolverines a mental break?
“I think it’s good for everybody,” Hoke said. “We had guys who went and saw their high school football teams play. That had to be kind of neat. It was give them time to get away.”
Hoke wouldn’t elaborate on his weekend activities.“I guarantee I watched football,’ Hoke said.
Nine days after Connecticut lost 24-21 to Michigan, the school announced this morning it had fired football coach Paul Pasqualoni. Offensive coordinator T.J. Weist will replace Pasqualoni on an interim basis - Weist, a Michigan native, was a graduate assistant with the Wolverines for four seasons, from 1990 to 1993.
"I am making this change in our football coaching staff now as we approach the conference season to see an improved performance from our football program," Connecticut athletic director Warde Manuel said in a statement.
It's another mark in the tailspin of the Huskies, who earned a bid to a BCS bowl in 2010 but haven't been able to capitalize on that benchmark because of several factors, including the departure of a coach who brought the program the bulk of its FBS success, uncertainty in recruiting and the changing landscape of college football because of conference realignment.
The Huskies are 0-4 this season after Saturday's 41-12 loss to Buffalo, and Pasqualoni was 10-18 in 3 1/2 seasons at Connecticut.