The whole nation watched as Devin Gardner became a star last Saturday. What were you most impressed with about his performance against Notre Dame, and what do you expect from him this week against a terrible defense?
Gardner had shown flashes of this ability over the tail end of last season and in the CMU game in week one, but his performance against Notre Dame was the kind of dominant game on a national stage that he needed to really show everyone that he was, in fact, for real and not just a collection of off season hype floating like clouds above Ann Arbor.
The most impressive part was the way he handled heavy pressure from Notre Dame's defense. Bob Diaco loves to blitz at every single opportunity, and Gardner dealt with a constant stream of pressure from every gap. He responded like a savvy veteran (except for that one time. We won't talk about that one time). He checked down and hit his tight ends over the middle in zones vacated by the blitz while taking shots from blitzing linebackers. He was really good at escaping pressure and extending plays to catch the Notre Dame defense out of position. Finally, he showed an ability to throw a number of passes very well into small windows against a defense that was all over him. It was a virtuoso performance in a huge game and he delivered both through the air (21/32, 294 yards, 4 TDs) and on the ground (82 yards, 1 TD).
This week I would expect Gardner's role to be small. Michigan has a lot of work to do to get its between-the-tackles ground game functioning at a solid level, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a 60/40 run/pass split. If Michigan goes up big in the first half, my guess is that Shane Morris gets extended time. The Wolverines don't have an experienced backup quarterback, and the true freshman Morris needs all the time he can get to settle in as a viable backup.
With your next opponent being stumbling UConn, is there any chance the Wolverines get caught looking ahead a little bit? Maybe looking ahead isn't the right term, but do you think Michigan will be overlooking a team like Akron at all?
I doubt it. Michigan has been very good at preparing for every opponent, and the coaches aren't the type to get cocky. If anything, I think they are looking at this game as a good chance to work out some of the kinks in the run game and get some young guys playing time. I have been very impressed with the way Michigan has prepared for games against lesser opponents under Hoke, and they nearly always play solid games. It helps that UConn is also a dumpster fire right now and doesn't require too much looking ahead.
The key to stopping an upset is to put your foot on the gas early and not let up. Michigan led Central Michigan 14-3 after the first quarter and were up 35-6 at half. How important is getting a good start and having an effective first quarter against the Zips?
I would say it is important but not a deal breaker. Against Central, Michigan's offense looked uneven for the first quarter or so before really catching fire. I would say the biggest key to avoiding an upset is to limit big plays (something Michigan could be vulnerable to in the passing game) and special teams mistakes. The one down side of Notre Dame was that the great special teams play of the first game looked like an aberration. Michigan was lucky to recover a muffed punt, and Matt Wile - normally pretty consistent - shanked a punt badly at a costly time in the game. Michigan also continues to stick to the pro style punt formation despite getting nearly gashed every time there isn't a fair catch.
If Michigan has a couple small errors that lead to big plays, it will change the tenor of the game and could give Akron enough of a point boost to keep the score close later, at which point anything is possible.
Do you see any value in playing MAC teams like Akron or Central Michigan, or do you wish that the Big Ten in general would collectively beef up their non-conference schedules? Going to a nine-game conference slate should help with that, I would think.
I would like to see the Big Ten do a better job scheduling interesting games, but I think there is value in playing MAC teams - especially when you consider the alternative is to play FCS schools, and I can tell you from experience that that is a no-win situation. Michigan has been getting better at scheduling interesting non conference games against opponents with a pulse, but the nature of the beast precludes almost everyone from scheduling three or four interesting games. There is a lot of money in selling 110,000+ tickets, and Michigan isn't going to want to give up the home games necessary to facilitate home and home agreements with other BCS conference teams.
The value isn't all money. Most of these games are against solid opponents that a team like Michigan should be able to beat, and having games against a lower quality team is good in an early season matchup that lets a good team work out some kinks. All in all, games against MAC schools are in many ways the lesser of two evils, and a financial necessity. I can live with one or two a year.
For any Akron fans travelling to Ann Arbor on Saturday, what are some spots to check out before/after the game? Zips supporters may need a few beers after this one.
Definitely get to town early enough to tailgate. If you want to set up on your own you can either go to the golf course south of the stadium or Pioneer High School. Both provide big tailgate atmospheres. If you just want to walk around and experience things, you can always find parking in yards in the neighborhoods around the stadiums. I would recommend going to Zingerman's Deli if you want a kick ass sandwich. After the game hitting the bar scene on Main Street will be a nice reprieve from the student population which mainly hangs out on the campus bars up and down South University. Two personal recommendations if you do wander down to campus are Ashley's, one of the best places to find a wide selection of beer that I've been to, and The Brown Jug, which is a really great college bar and one of my favorite places to hang out and drink after games. If you're looking for food after the bar, be sure to grab a burrito from BTB (formerly Big Ten Burrito). You will be glad you did.
What are your impressions of how the game will go? Do you think any starters will still be playing beyond halftime? The line seems to be around +37, does Michigan cover the spread?
I don't think Akron is very good, and I think Michigan should be able to cruise to a pretty solid lead early. I think the defense will do a good job forcing punts and the offense should get behind the run game for some long, clock killing drives. I would imagine if things go according to plan the starters will get the first series after halftime and then you'll see a lot of the bench players come in. It is likely that there will be a lot of substitution on defense during the first half anyway, as Greg Mattison has shown a desire to rely heavily on his two deep.
Final predictions, I think Michigan probably covers. I didn't think they would against Central Michigan and that turned out to be a very wrong prediction. This time around should be a bit easier as Michigan runs up around 45-55 points and holds Akron to a field goal or two.