Preview: Outback Bowl

Submitted by Brian on December 31st, 2012 at 1:05 PM


WHAT Michigan vs South Carolina
WHERE Everybody Loves Raymond Stadium
Tampa Bay, FL
WHEN 1:00 PM Eastern
January 1st, 2013
THE LINE South Carolina –5.5
WEATHER partly cloudy, mid-70s, minimal chance of rain

Again this preview assumes that Denard Robinson is basically a wildcat guy when he lines up at quarterback now. Hoke just reiterated that Gardner will start and Robinson will play "some quarterback," and by "some quarterback" he means "wildcat guy."

Run Offense vs South Carolina


happy thoughts

This was two things against Ohio State: Denard Robinson and disaster. Stripped of the one back with any credentials to his name by a gruesome injury to Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan all but abandoned any thought of running the ball with the men misnomered "running backs" in the first half, and then proved the wisdom of that decision—if not the wisdom of their second-half playcalling—by getting stuffed almost literally every time they touched the ball after halftime.

The results were grim. Vincent Smith and Thomas Rawls had ten carries between them for a total of 14  yards. Rawls gained a total of two yards on five carries while turning in this career lowlight:

That is likely the point at which we remember Rawls hype deflating entirely as he's relegated to Kevin Grady duty for the rest of his career.

It's not like Rawls is alone in that department. Toussaint followed up a breakout 2011 (1041 yards on 187) by dropping almost two yards from his per-attempt average, going from 5.6 a pop to 3.9. Vincent Smith managed 2.8; Rawls is actually at the top of the heap with 4.2 thanks to a couple of garbage time runs against Purdue and Illinois. When Rawls was forced into the lineup in earnest this November, the results were ugly: 32 carries, 57 yards, less than two yards an attempt. I'd be more receptive to the argument that Rawls saw a lot of short yardage carries that artificially depressed his YPC if he wasn't a major reason he saw so many of those carries by failing to get any YAC on the goal line.

Anyway. The failure of the Michigan running game is comprehensive. The interior line can't block, the tight ends are too young, the tailbacks miserable. Except…

In this context Denard Robinson's season is nothing short of miraculous. His historic season has been obscured by injury and interceptions, but here it is: 1166 yards on 154 carries, an average of 7.6 per despite missing games against Minnesota and Northwestern. That will be a record dating back to at least 1948 (100 carry minimum) if he keeps it above Ty Wheatley's 7.3.

Meanwhile no other player on the roster can grind out half of that outside of garbage time. It is time to shake our fists at the fickle whims of injury and Rich Rodriguez's offensive line recruiting, with a bonus shake at the motley collection of tailbacks on the roster.

keep shaking

ok one more

Ok. Now, the opponent.

South Carolina's got shiny numbers that are a bit distorted by their rampant sackage. They're 16th nationally, giving up 119 yards a game. Removed 40(!) sacks for 253 yards and opponents do get up to 4.0 yards a pop. This is a good run defense, yeah, but it's not on the same level as Alabama, Notre Dame, MSU, or OSU (when OSU isn't giving up 70-yard touchdowns). The defensive tackles are not pocket-crushers, the safeties like to shoulder-block people down after they get first downs and stand over them like idiots, which might be an asset when Denard breaks into the secondary if any of them have the chutzpah to try that against 16.

Is it going to matter? Probably not. In the game of "can Michigan run a football with Not Denard," bet on "no." Can Michigan effectively integrate Denard into a 20-carry presence if he's not playing quarterback? Well…

Key Matchup: I wonder if two months is enough time for Borges to figure out how to put Denard and Devin on the field at the same time. Denard's great; he can't beat out 10 guys going for him on the snap; just Percy Harvin the guy already and stop holding up a huge sign that says RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN when Denard is at QB. Also you can probably run Gardner some since it's the last game of the year.


Pass Offense vs South Carolina


Clowney is basically Brandon Graham

The headline here is of course the battle between Taylor Lewan and Jadaveon Clowney, both likely top-ten draft picks. If I was South Carolina I might shift that battle to the other side of the line, but as detailed earlier it's pick your poison with the Gamecocks and their 3.3 sacks a game plus bonus bloody decaptitations that happen a split second after the ball is gone. USC defensive ends have more significantly more sacks than Michigan's entire team—Clowney is not a one man show.

Michigan does seem relatively well-prepared for withstanding the South Carolina pass rush since their offense since the Denard Robinson injury has been one long series of unconvincing max-protect play-action passes to Jeremy Gallon. Borges seems to figure that Gallon is too quick for many folks to cover effectively no matter how many guys are in coverage against guys not going downfield, and this has been a relatively good bet. While it's somewhat limited, it's better than risking the above. At the very least Michigan should be planning to line up a tight end next to Schofield to help.

Judging South Carolina's secondary is difficult since it's hard to tell which parts of the pass efficiency numbers are good coverage and which parts are quarterbacks flinging the ball willy-nilly to avoid death by Clowney. On the one hand, Tyler Bray put up 368 yards and 4 TDs. On the other, Aaron Murray struggled to 109 yards and an INT on 31 attempts. On the whole, South Carolina finished 35th in pass efficiency D—good, but not great when you consider the bonus a fierce pass rush usually provides the defense. They can be had… if you can keep your quarterback from coughing up blood. That's easier said than done.

As for Michigan, Devin Gardner's stellar run to kick off a career at quarterback came to something of a thudding halt against the Buckeyes. He read long-to-short effectively on a 75-yard touchdown to Roy Roundtree, but if we are being bracingly honest with ourselves that shirt doesn't fit anymore and that play was more Ohio State busting huge than Michigan doing anything great. If CJ Barnett doesn't go durrr, that's a 15 yards play. Outside of that, 19 Gardner attempts went for 96 yards and an interception.

That shouldn't erase some excellent work turned in during the previous three games. After a shaky start against Minnesota, Gardner dissected Northwestern and Iowa, displaying uncanny deep accuracy and an innate sense for when to scramble. He should continue to get more comfortable rapidly as he transitions back from wide receiver and presents a difficult problem for defenses if Michigan deigns to run the guy, like, on purpose.

Michigan's receivers versus South Carolina cornerbacks look to be a push. Neither has a true star; neither is truly bad, though with Michigan I may be judging by comparison to the RB corps.

Key Matchup: Obviously this is Michigan Blocky Guys versus A Deluge Of Terror.

Run Defense vs South Carolina


the NFL will never do this

If you haven't seen the Gamecocks play in a while, you might be surprised to find out that they are essentially an RR spread 'n' shred. While neither of South Carolina's quarterbacks will be confused for Denard any time soon, they get plenty of attempts—between them a total of 118. This is a typical example; Spurrier especially loves to pull the ball on short yardage:

That's Dylan Thompson, who got his first start against Clemson. He got sacked four times for 35 yards of damage, and rushed for 73 yards—on purpose!—on 10 other attempts. He was by far the Gamecocks' most effective weapon on the ground in that game. Other Gamecock rushers combined for 96 yards on 31 carries, with one 26-yard inside zone read handoff the only significant gain on the day.

That has been a trend for a while. When Kenny Miles entered after the gruesome Lattimore injury he ground out 3.4 YPC, and even that guy could only crack 100 yards against Vandy, Georgia, and something that purports to be an SEC team named Kentucky. The South Carolina OL is a question mark at best, and Michigan can expect do do something in-between the total obliteration offered up by LSU and Florida and the grinding three-yards-and-cloud-of-dust stuff the Cocks managed against bad defenses post-Lattimore.

Key Matchup: Unblocked defensive ends keeping contain. Michigan's had a few issues with it, and Spurrier has been surprisingly adept at getting those QBs loose on 20-yard keepers.

Pass Defense vs South Carolina


Well, at least Michigan doesn't have to worry about whether JT Floyd will get burned deep in this one. This is because JT Floyd is not playing. In his stead it's likely Courtney Avery moves over from nickel once again. When Michigan goes nickel—something they figure to do relatively infrequently—true freshman Terry Richardson will likely get the call with Delonte Hollowell and Dennis Norfleet waiting in the wings. Collectively, Michigan's secondary now sports one guy over 5'9", and two guys who are basically oompa-loompas in Hollowell and Norfleet.

The good news for Michigan is that South Carolina goes toe to toe with anyone in the country for Oompa-Loompas. Virtually every throw you see tomorrow will be at either a tight end or a 5'9" waterbug. Here's that compilation of every Gamecock passing attempt against Missouri again:

South Carolina throws a ton of short stuff looking for YAC and endeavors to keep their QBs both clean—the South Carolina OL gives up almost as many sacks as Clowney and company acquire—and sane. It works pretty well overall, as the Gamecocks approach the top 20 in passer efficiency, but Michigan's concerns here are more about tackling guys in front of them than worrying about getting burned over the top.

That's going to be hard down Floyd and getting paper thin at corner, especially given that the nickelback is necessarily going to be capital-t Tiny. Ace Sanders is legit.


There's nothing Michigan can do to prevent him from getting matched up on a fresh face at nickel or a linebacker, neither of which is an appealing prospect. Thompson does tend to sit in the pocket a long, long time to get those thing developing, so Mattison may be able to confuse that guy into some bad decisions, but if South Carolina is just chucking screens at the guy I can see that going poorly in four-wide sets where he's to the boundary. In those situations Jake Ryan will split to the field and then it's either Raymon Taylor moving over to play boundary or a leetle guy trying to fend off a block.

Also, we have little information on how Thompson affects the pass game. Initial indications are Spurrier is more comfortable letting him chuck it downfield. Thompson had a much more OBC QB line than anything Shaw's turned in this year, hitting 23 of 41 for 310 yards, 3 TDs, and an INT. That's still not quite there, but it's not bad for a first start.

Michigan's safeties have been a no touchdown zone for most of the year and should remain that way; I suspect that dink and dunk is going to be effective enough to move the ball despite what projects to be a deficient South Carolina rushing attack.

Key Matchup: Greg Mattison versus confusing Dylan Thompson. Kid is new, and figures to be in some passing downs. Hello okie.

Special Teams

As mentioned above, Ace Sanders is scary. He's averaging almost 15 yards a punt return and has a touchdown to go with the ridiculous Missouri jukefest embedded above.

FEI has the Gamecocks' punt return game in the top 25; South Carolina also has an excellent kicker.

The rest of their special teams are terrible. For some reason they don't use Sanders on kick returns, which rank 118th. Punting is meh, and they are poor at kickoffs.

Michigan does not have Will Hagerup, he of the infinite strikes. In his place they'll deploy sophomore Matt Wile, who was perfectly fine in about five games last year, averaging 42 yards a kick without incident. This year his numbers are seriously deflated because he's been deployed as a pooch punter exclusively. He won't match Hagerup's distance (who does?) but given that the punt coverage has given back all of that advantage already—70th in net punting—the absence won't be felt much.

The rest of Michigan's special teams is as per usual: excellent kicking, nonexistent punt return game featuring Jeremy Gallon making too many bad decisions, inability to block anyone on kickoffs. Denard may pop up on those latter items, though.

Key Matchup: Brendan Gibbons versus lack of hair. If he goes 0/3 in this game after giving up the Keith Stone look we'll all know why.




Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • Lewan cannot keep Clowney at bay.
  • Michigan's gameplan is on par with their Sugar Bowl plan.
  • Denard continues to line up at quarterback despite all eleven players moving to the LOS when he does.

Cackle with knowing glee if...

  • Devin + Denard == most of the offense.
  • Jake Ryan on the edge is death to the short stuff.
  • Devin's deep accuracy returns.

Fear/Paranoia Level: 8 (Baseline 5; +1 for CLOWNEY SMASH, +1 for Give Michigan A Month To Prepare And You Get… The Sugar Bowl Or Alabama Gameplan?, +1 for Shallow Secondary, –1 for Opponent Musical Chair At QB Too, –1 for No Lattimore And OL Issues, +1 for Kind Of Road Game, +1 for They S'posed To Be SEC)

Desperate need to win level: 4 (Baseline 5; +1 for Denard's Last Rodeo, +1 for Keep SEC Dominance Going, –1 for Inherently Meaningless Exhibition, –1 for In Half-Full Stadium, –1 for In Stupid Uniforms, –1 for That Has Essentially No Bearing On Anything, +1 for But I Am Going, –1 for Why Am I Going?, +1 for Oh Right Denard)

Loss will cause me to... execute searing self-examination about why I thought this would be a good idea at all.

Win will cause me to... high-five self for decision to go over and over.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

I don't really have much hope Borges can think his way out of the conundrum he faces tomorrow. The second half against Ohio State has drained most of my hope that Michigan was capable of integrating the two-QB system they're running in any but the literally most-predictable way possible. It was a bad flashback to DeBord days of yore. Maybe we'll get the Citrus Bowl "WHERE WAS THAT MY ENTIRE LIFE" bittersweet page-flip… but I'll have to see it to believe it after the last two years in which it seems like more time has meant worse preparation.

The offense will sputter; Denard will probably rip off a big play or two and Michigan will get to test those safeties more than they are used to with all the max-pro and Lewan hanging around; still hard to see M getting much above 20, and every handoff to a tailback is setting a down on fire.

South Carolina's offense isn't particularly talented but they have a coherent system of short passes and zone reads that keep them afloat when they are annihilating themselves like they did against Florida. I don't expect they'll be able to run much, and they'll bog down, too. Special teams and short fields figure to play a prominent role in a knock-down, drag-out slugfest. In that case, bet on the massive pass rush instead of the mediocre one.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:

  • Denard throws! It's incomplete.
  • Devin runs! On purpose! Once.
  • Neither team cracks 300 yards.
  • South Carolina, 20-16



December 31st, 2012 at 10:22 PM ^

The game is close enough to selling out that I decided to buy a ticket instead of finding one on the street.  There aren't a lot available, especially on the Michigan side of the field.  This will be one of the fuller stadiums for a non-major bowl.  

I'm a bit surprised that South Caroilina isn't going to "travel" better this year.  They are half as far away as Michigan and they are favored to win the game.  It's quite impressive that more tickets are gone on the Michigan side of the field than the SC side.  They really should have invaded and made this game a sellout.

I'm glad they didn't, though.  It won't seem like a road game this time around.