|WHAT|| Michigan (8-4) vs
South Carolina (8-4)
Tampa Bay, FL
January 1, 2018
|THE LINE|| Vegas: M –7.5
S&P+: M –8.3
|TICKETS||can be had|
|WEATHER||overcast, mid-50s, slight chance of rain|
MGoBlog: gleefully partaking in Australian stereotypes since 2004
Michigan's January 1st outing against South Carolina takes on a bizarre new importance since the Big Ten is currently 7-0 in bowl games and Michigan is the last of their conference's teams to play. I don't know what's more shocking: the 7-0 or the fact that Michigan is the only Big Ten team playing on New Year's Day. Remember when, like, 7-5 Northwestern teams played on NYD? I'm confused.
The good news for both Michigan and the league is that this matchup looked like one of the more lopsided bowl matchups of the year even before the conference chaingunned all comers. South Carolina has an even hollower 8-4 than Michigan does and has generally played like a 6-6 team, per S&P+. If Michigan's passing game is at all functional they should run away and hide.
About that, though.
Run Offense vs South Carolina
Skai Moore could play for Don Brown
South Carolina is one of those YOU WILL NOT RUN ON US teams, and they've been fairly successful in that department (24th). They rely on their DL to make plays in the backfield and generally read-and-react their linebackers; All-SEC performer Skai Moore is a viper-ish sort (220 pounds) who excels at diagnosing and attacking. His 15 run stuffs leads the team by a wide margin.
The Gamecocks are still skating along with middling talent and making sacrifices in the passing game to prop their run defense up, though, and that comes through in the stats. Most prominently: they're one of the worst teams in the country(123rd) at stopping short yardage. They do a fairly good job as a team; they keep gains down and don't get gashed on the regular, but other than Moore they're just a bunch of guys. Ace:
The front four did a solid job of holding their ground given Clemson's excellent run-blocking. They're a big group with Stallworth at 305 pounds and the nose tackles, Javon Kinlaw and Ulric Jones, both checking in well north of 300. Clemson still had success running between the tackles, however, for a couple reasons. First, there were a number of one-guy-blows-it plays when an SC lineman would try to shoot a gap and get sealed off. Second, the non-Moore linebackers didn't make many plays and frequently got caught up in the wash.
TJ Brunson, the middle linebacker, looked like the linebacker most often unable to get to the ballcarrier. There were a number of plays that Moore had to pursue from behind and hold down to keep from breaking into the secondary.
Notable that this game was out of hand in a flash and Clemson probably put away any wrinkles since they had the ACC championship game the next weekend. A Michigan team that doesn't have a game for eight months will probably have a number of things they'll use to get the opposition chasing the wrong guy or filling the wrong gap for just long enough.
Michigan's approach here is unlikely to change from their second-half mash party, but some of the faces might. Ben Bredeson and Juwann Bushell-Beatty did not participate in the open seconds of some bowl practices and eagle-eyed observers caught a practice video featuring Mike Onwenu at left guard. Your bowl OL might read Cole-Onwenu-Kugler-Ruiz-Some Guy, with Jon Runyan Jr. the likeliest Some Guy. This is unlikely to make much impact since Bredeson played no better than Onwenu and the right tackle has been a rotating disaster zone all year. Something to keep an eye on, in case the switches and absences do exacerbate an already unstable situation. That's more likely in pass protection than on the ground, though Runyan does project as a downgrade from the forceful Bushell-Beatty.
Also in injury issues: neither Ty Isaac or Kareem Walker is expected to play, so Higdon and Evans should get the vast majority of the carries. O'Maury Samuels is the only other back on the roster who is available and not redshirting.
It's worth noting that Michigan's very, very quietly a top-ten rush offense in S&P+ at #9, and that their performance went almost directly upwards after a mid-season switch to a more power-based mashing style. With South Carolina's mediocre stuff rate and line yards allowed plus their short yardage issues, grinding seems like a strong possibility.
KEY MATCHUP: JON RUNYAN JR vs WHOEVER. Runyan was presumably on the bench for a reason. He's got a shot now, probably, and if he can cope on the ground he could be another bullet in the chamber at tackle.
[Hit THE JUMP for... dink dink dink, on both sides.]
Pass Offense vs South Carolina
DJ Wonnum sack the quarterback sorry sorry i'm trying to delete it
This is a bend but don't break unit that likes to rush four and play a lot of quarter-quarter-half with the field cornerback in off coverage. The results: excellent containment (11th at preventing explosive plays) and very poor down-to-down success (97th in success rate allowed).
I have no idea what this means for Michigan's pass offense, which is likely to reprise its role from the brief pre-concussion Brandon Peters era. They were largely avoided and then dragged out to throw the ball to keep the opposition honest. Against a team that 1) plays heavy run defense, 2) doesn't do a lot of blitzing and 3) runs a scheme that lets you have a lot of underneath completions, it seems like Michigan will have to do more than use the passing game as a side hustle if they're going to be maximally efficient. The yards will be there if Michigan can execute well enough to get some dinking and dunking of their own in. This can be a thing Michigan also does:
I mean. Right? Please?
The Gamecocks are likely to let their front four do the rushing. Muschamp's linebackers do not cross the line of scrimmage with frequency, registering just a 2.2% havoc rate this year. (Michigan more than doubled that, FWIW.) They've gotten just two LB sacks from regulars, both from Moore. Normally I'd say that's a relief to Michigan's beleaguered pass protection, but whenever I say that they give up 8 sacks to Purdue or whatever. So... whether that's good or bad is an open question.
It'll be good if Michigan can contain WDE DJ Wonnum, one of those 250-pound hybrid sorts who was the only Gamecock to finish the year with more than three sacks. He had six and did some work against Clemson. Ace:
The other player to stick out was BUCK (hybrid DE/OLB) DJ Wonnum, who batted down a couple passes and, on a day that SC could generate little pressure, was the player most often threatening the backfield. He finished second to Moore in run stops (12) and first on the team in sacks (six) this season. While mostly a pass-rusher, Wonnum is athletic enough to drop into coverage and surprisingly quick in pursuit for a 250-pounder.
The general lack of blitzing should give Michigan a chance to chip or double him. Also a potential aid: South Carolina has a couple of space eaters on the interior, no Hursts in the bunch. Maybe they'll get to the QB with another blizzard of stunts Michigan can't pick up, but please see the begging-the-universe section above.
Ace spotted a fair share of poor tackling and weak coverage from the South Carolina secondary, which doesn't really have a star worth putting in bold here. Not much pass rush, off coverage against a spotty secondary, a month's worth of practices in which Michigan's very young offense gets better... could be good? Or at least passable?
KEY MATCHUP: MICHIGAN'S OFFENSIVE LINE vs LEAVING JOHN O'KORN ON THE BENCH. For everyone's sake, really.
Run Defense vs South Carolina
ugh, john cena
South Carolina's approach here is somewhat in doubt after offensive coordinator Kurt Roper was fired in the aftermath of the regular season, but they've got the guys they've got so they can only change so much even with a bunch of bowl practices in the rear view.
Statistically, the South Carolina rushing offense is bleah—67th—and that per-carry rate doesn't quite encapsulate the state of their ground game, because they run pretty infrequently. They're 94th in standard down run rate; none of their three backs has cracked 100 carries on the season. Against defenses in the same ballpark as Michigan they barely try: just 14 RB carries against Georgia; just 16 against Clemson.
This may be an artifact of effectiveness, not approach. Seth noted that they had a 2:1 run:pass ratio on first down versus Clemson, but the offense shifted to almost all passes once those runs met an ignominious demise. In other "Hello, Al" news, South Carolina runs a lot of stuff poorly:
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? A Borgesian mix that isn’t good at either zone or pulling. The super-eery Borges thing was they ran things like zone read and inverted veer but blocked the end you’re supposed to read. One of these was obviously an RPO and it’s possible they have one in the playbook that is a quick smoke route to Edwards, but I think they were trying to read a strongside linebacker into wrongsiding himself. Anyway it didn’t work and trying to figure out why brings up arguments that don’t need rehashing. I don’t think they’ll miss the old coordinator.
Dollars to donuts that South Carolina spent the bowl practices focusing on whatever they think they do best and will have an opening package that attempts to emphasize their strengths, possibly with some success. This is the way of bowl games, especially when there's a job to possibly earn.
South Carolina is down one of their three main RBs, with Rico Dowdle out. That probably won't have a big impact. He was their least productive guy on paper, and everyone's a sophomore because Steve Spurrier handed WIll Muschamp a Late Brady Hoke Recruiting present. AJ Taylor and superflously apostrophe'd Ty'son Williams. There's also a guy named Mon Denson, which I just wanted you to know. QB Jake Bentley does have a smattering of keep-em-honest carries that go for about six yards a pop.
Collectively these guys are fairly good at getting small chunks of yardage but poor at breaking off big chunks (85th), avoiding stuffs, and converting short yardage.
Michigan's rush defense needs little introduction; while they've been prone to late breakdowns in games where the offense can't stay on the field they finished the regular season 10th in S&P+. They'd be in the top five except for a single, major issue: they are 121st in preventing explosive rushes. If you can clear the front seven there's a big gap back to the safeties, and the front seven does occasionally wander off in search of pudding or an issue of Tiger Beat.
South Carolina may be the beneficiary of a missed run fit or two—or they may blow it with Derrick Green disease that Seth noted. But the combination of these two units should result in a lot of first down stuffs, a couple opportunities to break off chunks South Carolina might spurn, 30 easy yards for Bentley, and a lot of second and third down long yardage.
KEY MATCHUP: AUBREY SOLOMON and MICHAEL DWUMFOUR vs NEXT YEAR'S EXPECTATIONS. I imagine we'll get a lot more DL rotation as Michigan prepares for life after Hurst (and tries not to run him into the ground before he's a first round pick), and this will provide some insight into what's next.
Pass Defense vs South Carolina
Hayden Hurst looks exactly like you expect him to
This is a dink and dunk outfit that struggles mightily to do much else—an inverse Wisconsin. When Michigan visited Madison, Wisconsin was a bad to middling passing offense that was inexplicably great at converting long yardage; South Carolina is a middling to decent early-down pass offense (46th) that falls off a cliff as soon as a passing down shows up (101st).
Pass protection is a large chunk of this. South Carolina's sack rate nearly doubles on a passing down, falling from 71st to 94th, and it would probably be worse if the Gamecocks weren't gameplanning around their offensive line. QB Jake Bentley has a haunted look all too familiar to Michigan fans:
The inaccuracies here are about 50% hearing footsteps that may or may not be coming, and just plain bad throwing. A typical play would see Bentley check a quick option route to Edwards, survey two covered receivers, then pick one to throw at because he’s out of time and there’s nowhere to scramble. The throw would be to Tacopants, but you can charitably imagine that Bentley was trying to put it where his receiver had a 5% chance to make a play and the defender had zero.
Another chunk of this is the available receiving talent. Top WR Bryan Edwards is a sophomore with 59 catches for 705 yards; tight end Hayden Hurst impressed Seth... and then their next three guys are two freshmen and a running back. All of these guys have catch rates above 60% and yards per catch under 15; South Carolina is around 100th in passing explosiveness. Dink, dink, dink, dink. Exacerbating the dink: deep-ish threat Deebo Samuel is out with a broken foot.
Michigan erases a swath of the South Carolina playbook by playing tight to the line of scrimmage but in doing so has a couple of potentially exploitable weak points: tunnel screens have been a bugaboo and freshman slot Shi Smith has been efficient on 26 catches this year; rub/OPI routes of all varieties have frequently seen Michigan's man to man coverage battered out of position on the kind of catch-and-run drags that it seems like South Carolina has a good shot at completing.
If the Gamecocks abandon their fruitless first down runs—or at least reduce their number—they could do some reasonable work here; they've put themselves behind the eight ball a lot this year and have still managed to look middling to the stats. A more balanced approach could give them another roll at a first down and mitigate Michigan's pass rush.
But as soon as the Gamecocks get off schedule it's open season, and likely the end of that particular drive.
KEY MATCHUP: DON BROWN vs SLOT STUFF. It's been an issue this season, whether it's fades to temporarily repurposed outside WRs or tunnel screens.
These are not a strength for South Carolina. Freshman kicker Parker White is 12 of 22 on the season; their backup option is 1/3. Collectively they're 110th at ahhhhhh putting the ball through the uprights. White is very good at putting the ball in the endzone on kickoffs, FWIW. Punter Joseph Charlton has been very good, averaging 45 yards a kick with little return yardage for the opposition. FEI has him 2nd nationally.
Return units have not done much of note. Punt returner Chris Lammons has a decent 8.6 YPR average but has two muffs; kickoffs have not yielded anything.
KEY MATCHUP: AHHH YOU PUT IT THROUGH THE UPRIGHTS AGAIN
- It doesn't matter that South Carolina is sending just four okay-ish pass rushers.
- Michigan's ground game isn't able to bleed the opposition down the field.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- South Carolina has a passing down.
- A 23 yard field goal clangs off the upright.
- Brandon Peters gets in a rhythm thanks to soft coverage.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 3 (Baseline 5; – 1 for S&P+ Hates This Team, –1 for They Are Going To Be In A Lot Of Passing Downs, –1 for BIG TEN RULEZ, +1 for Opponent Invariant Right Tackle Black Hole, -1 for Muschamp Interim OC Versus Don Brown, +1 for Punting Disadvantage, Seriously).
Desperate need to win level: 8 (Baseline 5; +1 for I'd Rather Win Than Lose, +1 for Let's Not Dent The Big Ten Gonna Be Lit Storyline, +1 for Less Annoying Offseason Takes, Program Edition, +1 for Less Annoying Offseason Takes, Conference Edition, –1 for It's A Bowl Game In Florida.)
Loss will cause me to... read a bunch of internet hot takes placing Michigan below Rutgers in next year's Big Ten East.
Win will cause me to... read a bunch of internet hot takes about how football games between teams aren't a good measure of how good teams are at football.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
This South Carolina offense is mostly good at stuff that Michigan takes away by pressing your pants off, and they're in post-OC-switch chaos. The one guy was real bad so they temporarily promoted the other Co-OC. Not inspiring stuff. Michigan should overrun this OL so badly that it looks like many Big Ten games this year. Michigan's been good for a few big plays against per game this year and ten points against teams like this.
On offense, the run game should be good enough to keep serious heat off Peters and the lack of pass rush and soft coverage should be a comfortable platform in which for him to operate. Michigan's awful, awful, awful pass protection isn't going to get fixed in a month, though, and that'll kill some drives. Big swing in this game is whether those drives get killed via punt or turnover. Probably punt? But maybe turnover.
A dully emphatic win is in the offing unless Michigan shoots itself in the foot a ton, which is an outside possibility.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Chris Evans catches five passes and breaks one big TD off one of them.
- Rashan Gary announces his 2018 All-America campaign with two emphatic sacks.
- Michigan, 29-10.