ANN ARBOR—If everything went as planned for 11th ranked Michigan Saturday afternoon against Akron, Devin Gardner would’ve quickly lead the Wolverines to several scores, eventually handing things over to true freshman Shane Morris to close it out, all the while getting added reps for the reserve running backs and underclassmen.
Needless to say, things didn’t quite work out that way.
Gardner struggled to find a rhythm one week after leading Michigan to a 41-30 win over Notre Dame. Three interceptions, including one Akron was able to return for a touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter, as well as a first half fumble kept the Zips in the ball game in the final minutes.
It looked like Michigan was going to be able to close the door on Akron with a surge in the fourth quarter that gave the Wolverines a 21-10 lead, but Akron kept fighting, eventually taking a 24-21 lead with 4:10 remaining in the game.
The biggest positive from Saturday had to be the resolve and focus Gardner showed on the ensuring drive after the Zips took the lead late. Gardner lead Michigan 70-yards down the field in four plays, taking up just over one minute of game clock, culminating in Fitzgerald Toussaint’s two yard touchdown scamper.
Michigan would take the lead, 28-24, and never look back despite a late Akron drive deep into Wolverine territory, as they improve to 3-0 in this young season.
What did Akron teach us about this Michigan team? A lot.
My quick thoughts below:
· Ball security needs to be priority one, two and three for Devin Gardner -- and he knows it, coerced into forcing the football into tight spots on several occasions Saturday. Even more concerning for Michigan? Gardner is turning the ball over when he has time, too, disrupting the flow (if any) the offense might’ve had. Under pressure, Gardner still can’t break the habit of running backwards or lofting the football in the air for anyone to grab. That must be corrected.
· No, it’s not just Gardner. Failing to jump-start the run game, specifically with the running backs, yet again, is extremely concerning, particularly against a MAC opponent. What’s going to happen in Big Ten play when Michigan travels to East Lansing or welcomes Ohio State into the big house? The offensive line plays a major part in this, unable to get a push up front and create enough holes for the tail backs. Without the threat of the run, Gardner’s superior ability to attack the defense with play action becomes limited.
· Where is the vertical threat? Jeremy Gallon was fantastic in Michigan’s win over Notre Dame but is not seen as a real threat to stretch the field vertically in the Wolverines passing attack. Devin Funchess’ catch and scintillating run for a touchdown in the first quarter was nice for the Wolverines, as was Jehu Chesson’s 33-yard scamper through traffic for his first career catch and touchdown. Those two may just need to be targeted more often down the field to back the defense off the line of scrimmage and get the opposing safeties thinking a little bit more.
· Defensively, Michigan’s lack of consistent pass rush with four down linemen can’t be overlooked. In most third down passing situations Saturday against the Zips, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison dialed up blitz packages, hoping to confuse and create match-up problems for the offensive line. Sometimes, even the blitzes didn’t get home. Do the Wolverines miss Jake Ryan’s disruptive nature in the backfield this much? We’ll find out in October.
· On a positive note, despite letting Akron drive all the way down the field in the final minutes, the Michigan defense did stop the Zips on four straight downs inside the five yard line to end the game. For Michigan, always better to be 3-0 than 2-1 with a loss to a MAC team.
Look for post game reaction from Brady Hoke and several Michigan players, including video, shortly.