For the fourth time, Central Michigan will travel to Ann Arbor to take on the Michigan Wolverines. These two teams last met in 2006, and Michigan has won all three games in the series. The game is set for 3:30 on Saturday and is set to ari on the Big Ten Network.
To help us get an idea of what to look for from Michigan this week and this season, I traded questions with Zach of the Michigan blog, Maize n Brew.
1. Michigan was much more efficient on offense last season with Devin Gardner starting at QB, how excited are Michigan fans to have him playing full time, and how good can the Wolverines offense be with him under center?
Zach: I think Michigan looked a lot more efficient, but there were still some substantial problems. The running game stagnated without Denard Robinson involved in the offense (and even occasionally with him involved in an ancillary role), but the passing game picked up quite a bit. Gardner has the kind of skills that could be very effective in this offense. He has shown an ability to throw the ball deep, and he is elusive enough to pick up yards on the ground when the play breaks down. If Al Borges can continue to work in spread wrinkles to take advantage of Gardner's legs, the sky is the limit.
Ultimately though, Michigan's offense is going to depend on balance, and that is what fans are looking for. Gardner delivered the pro-style passing game a year ago when he took over the starting job, but Michigan is still missing the effective pro-style ground attack to compliment it. The interior of the offensive line will be young this year, but if it can do a good job run blocking for Fitzgerald Toussaint, that will give Gardner an effective play action threat. If Michigan has a solid run game to pair with Devin Gardner, this offense could be very good because of the many ways in which it can attack. Fans are excited to see it develop to that point, although there will be speed bumps along the way, especially early this year as some of the young, inexperienced pieces on offense get acclimated to starting.
2. Michigan was devastated by the injury to Jake Ryan during the off-season, who steps up to replace him, and who are some of the names to watch on the defensive side of the ball?
Zach: The Jake Ryan injury was a big blow to Michigan's defense in one very big respect: he has been the most disruptive player on a not-so-disruptive defense the last couple years. Ryan proved to be Michigan's most effective pass rusher a year ago and led the team in TFLs. The Wolverine defense has bounced back in a big way in its time under Greg Mattison, but it has yet to establish a consistent pass rush. Ryan was the closest thing Michigan had.
His contributions were big all over the field, but Michigan has a couple of solid players that could fill in nicely for him. Cam Gordon is a fifth-year senior linebacker that has been getting some positive practice mention for the last couple years, but couldn't break through to much playing time because of injuries and the coaches' desire to keep Ryan on the field. Brennan Beyer moved over from WDE and could provide a solid run-stuffing option at the spot. Also, the rest of the linebacking corp looks to be very good as Desmond Morgan will now be starting in the middle and not the weakside - a position more suited for his skills - and James Ross will be working full time at the Will spot where he has flashed a lot of potential in his short time on campus. Michigan may also be able to get its pass rush from WDE Frank Clark, who is a junior and may have finally put it all together this off season.
3. Are there any freshmen, or under the radar players for Michigan who people should be keeping an eye on during Saturday's game?
Zach: On defense there is a pair of true freshmen to watch: DE Taco Charlton and S/NB Dymonte Thomas. Both enrolled early and carved out roles in the spring. Michigan will most likely look to use both in the defensive rotations, and I would imagine that unless things get close, Michigan will give these two a lot of snaps to get them ready to contribute the next week when the stakes are raised against Notre Dame.
Offensively, Michigan could work in a pair of freshmen running backs that hold a lot of potential. Derrick Green is the five-star that has everyone salivating at his powerful running style, but DeVeon Smith is a compact, powerful back in the mold of Mike Hart (but fast) that just might be as good as Green. If Michigan plans on using either or both this season (a good chance of at least one playing) then both should get a fair amount of snaps. Also, if things get out of hand, Michigan will likely bring in freshman Shane Morris, who is the backup quarterback despite having gotten to campus a few weeks ago. He will need a lot of experience before being really reliable as a backup.
4. Are there any weaknesses on this years Michigan team that CMU might be able to exploit during Saturday's matchup?
Zach: The two weaknesses are the interior offensive line and the safeties. If the CMU defense has the kind of interior presence that can make life hard on Michigan's guards and center, it could slow down the run game and put everything on Gardner's shoulders to win through the air. He has been known to throw some ill-advised interceptions at times, so this could present some good opportunities for Central to swing momentum. And when Central has the ball, it should try and mix up Michigan's safeties with play action and misdirection. Gone is Jordan Kovacs, and Michigan has struggled thus far to adequately replace him in practice. Michigan could be susceptible to big plays because of the youth deep.
5. For CMU fans making the trip to Ann Arbor who have never been, what are some of the "Must Do's" that Chippewa fans need to see and experience while in town?
Zach: Tailgating is good all over, whether it be at the golf course or in the student neighborhoods to the north and east. I would say to show up early for the game so you can see the band preform. After the game there is plenty to eat and drink on Main St. or State St., so take some time to bar hop, have a meal, and watch some other games on TV. Also, stopping by Zingerman's is always a good idea.
6. What makes this a successful opening week for the Wolverines, and your prediction for a final score?
Zach: A successful week will be one that ends in a comfortable win and doesn't sound any alarm bells over the iffy aspects of this team. By that I mean, Michigan wants to run the ball well to set up the pass, Gardner needs to cut down on his bad reads, and the receivers need to have a solid game with very few drops. On defense Michigan's run defense needs to once again set the tone for the game, and the secondary should avoid breakdowns that lead to long plays. Frank Clark going HAM would also be a good sign.
I think Michigan ends up winning something like 35-10 after a slow second quarter that makes it seem closer than it is at half.
A big thank you to Zach for taking the time to answer my questions about the Wolverines. Look for a link to the questions he had for me later on this week. You can follow Zach on twitter here. Or follow Maize n Brew on twitter here.