Thanks to Drew Hallett, our visiting writer this week who covers Michigan football for Maize n Brew, SB Nation's fine hub for everything Wolverines. Drew went especially above and beyond with expansive, detailed answers to all we wanted to know. It's been a sordid, busy year for Brady Hoke's program, and Drew covers it as well as anybody. He's a good follow on Twitter for the weekend.
Let's get to it, with a note: This is as thorough and explanatory a Q&A as we've gotten back in years of doing this. Plaudits to Drew for bringing us pretty close to up to speed on the state of the Michigan football program, from up close.
TT: What's been the most disappointing thing about Michigan football this year?
Am I limited to only one thing? I ask because almost everything related to Michigan football has been disappointing this season.
Just look at what's happened on the field alone. No one expected Michigan to win the Big Ten championship -- no one -- but most believed this team would tally eight to nine victories. And, after how the Wolverines completely collapsed to close out last season, dropping five of their final six games, what really mattered most to the Michigan faithful was that, entering the fourth year of the Brady Hoke era, this program was still headed in the right direction. The fans wanted to see progress on the field. They wanted to see signs that the blue-chip prospects Hoke recruited in 2012 and 2013 were developing into the caliber of players they were projected to be. If this was happening, along with Michigan winning games, fans would have been satisfied with this season's outcome, knowing full well that the 2015 season, when the Wolverines would have a talented and experienced roster, balanced depth, and a favorable schedule, could be special.
Instead, what fans have seen is further regression. Though the defense has mostly been stout, particularly against the run, the offense is in total shambles yet again even after Doug Nussmeier replaced Al Borges as the offensive coordinator. The play-calling has been questionable. The quarterback play has been abysmal as Devin Gardner is a shell of his former self and former five-star recruit Shane Morris is miles away from fulfilling his potential. The running backs either are slow or miss open lanes repeatedly, or both. The only wide receiver that can create separation is Devin Funchess, but he's been hampered by an ankle injury all season. It also doesn't help that Funchess seems to have been disinterested for the past month, probably focusing on the upcoming NFL Draft instead. And the offensive line, while no longer arguably the worst unit in the nation like last season, is still young and very much a work in progress.
Accordingly, the Wolverines are fighting tooth and nail just to become bowl-eligible. They have only five wins; those wins are against an Appalachian State team in its first season in the FBS, a Miami (OH) program that was in the midst of a 21-game losing streak, a Penn State roster that's been ravaged by NCAA sanctions related to the Jerry Sandusky scandal, an Indiana offense that's down to its fifth-string, true freshman quarterback in Zander Diamont, and a six-loss Northwestern squad in what was one of the worst college football games I have ever had the displeasure of watching. The Wolverines' five losses? They weren't competitive in four of them, losing to Notre Dame, Utah, Minnesota, and Michigan State by a combined 87 points, with the fifth coming against Rutgers, which recently suffered a three-game losing streak during which they were outscored by 94 points. Even if Michigan wins one of its next two games to become bowl-eligible -- and, let's be honest, it'd have to be this weekend because there's no chance this team will beat Ohio State in Columbus -- there's very little evidence, if any, to suggest that Michigan football will be a championship-contending football program anytime soon.
And, yet, that hasn't even been the most disappointing thing about Michigan football this season. That dishonor belongs to Michigan football's propensity to be mired in off-the-field drama and controversy. There was the promotion that offered two tickets to the game against Minnesota for free with the purchase of two Coca-Cola products, which angered the season-ticket holders and students that paid premium dollar in the preseason. There was Hoke and his staff's gross negligence in allowing a clearly concussed Morris to reenter the game against Minnesota. There was former athletic director Dave Brandon's complete mishandling of Morris' concussion diagnosis, which he seemed to want to hide from the public before releasing a statement at 12:52 a.m. two days after Morris was diagnosed. There was the pregame incident against Michigan State, during which Joe Bolden planted a stake in the grass at Spartan Stadium. There was the leak of some of Brandon's emails to fans, telling them to "find a new team" and "have a happy life." There was Brandon's resignation soon after. There was Frank Clark's dismissal from the team earlier this week after he was arrested for domestic violence. And there may be a few other incidents that have transpired I have forgotten because there's just been too many to track.
It's one thing to have an underwhelming season on the field. It's another to routinely embarrass yourself off of it.
TT: What's been the biggest bright spot for the team?
Alright, let's talk football.
Undoubtedly, the brightest spot on this Michigan team has been its run defense. The Wolverines are seventh in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game (103.2) and third in rushing yards allowed per carry (2.82). And they're coming off their best performance of the season against Northwestern, during which I ran for nine more yards than the Wildcats just by sitting on my couch. Of course, some of these numbers can be attributed to sacks -- I'll never understand why the NCAA continues to count yards lost due to sacks as rushing yards rather than passing yards -- but even S&P+, a ratings system derived from play-by-play data at Football Outsiders, deems Michigan's rush defense to be the third-best in the nation.
Michigan's success against the run has been a group effort, but much of the credit belongs to defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow, Clark, and middle linebacker Jake Ryan. Glasgow is a walk-on, but don't let that fool you. Sure, he'll never be a player that has the strength or ability to collapse a pocket by himself, but he's excelled at holding up against the run and shedding blockers to fill gaps. On the other hand, Clark is much more of a playmaker as a disruptive force off the edge, while Ryan, who seems to finally have made the adjustment from a SAM in a 4-3 Under to a MIKE in a 4-3 Over, has been a monster in recent weeks, racking up 52 tackles and nine tackles-for-loss in his past five games. It's because of them that Michigan's made this run at a bowl invite, winning three of the last four games.
Of course, after Clark's dismissal, we'll see if Michigan's run defense can sustain this success.
TT: From afar, it seems like Brady Hoke is as good as gone after the season. Is this a fair assessment, and what are the Wolverines looking to accomplish in their last two games?
Yes, it's a fair assessment, although those with connections behind the scenes stress that a final decision on Hoke's future has yet to be made. They claim Hoke still has a slight chance to save his job, needing to beat Maryland before pulling off what would possibly be the biggest upset in the history of Michigan's storied rivalry with Ohio State, on the road no less. The odds of that happening are slim to none, and, even if Michigan miraculously finished this regular season with two more wins, I still think Hoke would need to go. But there's little reason for me to list my arguments as to why I believe this because such a scenario will not occur and Hoke will be fired after the season.
Nonetheless, there are still four things the Wolverines are looking to accomplish in the their last two games: (1) becoming bowl-eligible, which would provide the underclassmen with 15 additional practices and a bowl game to learn and refine technique and gather much-needed experience; (2) sending the few seniors on this team out on a positive note, so they can hold their chins high; (3) playing with pride and representing the University of Michigan and its supporters well; and (4) ruining Ohio State's bid for a spot in the College Football Playoff, no matter how unlikely the occurrence of such an upset may be.
TT: Michigan defensive end Frank Clark got kicked off the team this week for an off-field incident. What do the Wolverines lose in him?
I've already touched on this a bit, so I'll make my response to this question brief. With Clark's dismissal, which needed to be done for the record, Michigan loses its most disruptive defensive lineman. Michigan's other defensive linemen have demonstrated solid technique and fundamentals throughout the season, but none of them have displayed the combination of strength and speed that Clark possesses, except for maybe nose tackle Willie Henry at times. Accordingly, Clark was Michigan's most threatening pass rusher because he was the only one that could consistently use a speed rush or quick move to beat a blocker and put pressure on the quarterback. No, Clark didn't lead Michigan in sacks before his dismissal -- Brennen Beyer does with 5.5 -- but that's only because Clark was a split-second away from adding another four or five sacks to his total this season. With Clark no longer on the team, I think Michigan's run defense will still remain strong, but I believe that the Wolverines will not be able to pressure the quarterback unless they use exotic stunts or blitz.
TT: Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner hasn't played up to the billing he had as a recruit. What kind of quarterback will Maryland see on Saturday, and how effective do you think he'll be?
Witnessing Gardner's decline this season has been one of the most disheartening things I've watched. Last year, Gardner had one of the best statistical seasons ever for a Michigan quarterback, totaling 3,443 yards and 32 touchdowns in 12 games, behind arguably the worst offensive line in the nation. With the offensive line in complete disarray and the running backs stuck in neutral, he essentially shouldered the entire load for Michigan's offense while endlessly taking vicious hits from opposing defenses. Sure, Gardner had his issues with turnovers and ball security, but, given the circumstances, his performance last season was nothing short of spectacular.
But, one year later, that Gardner is nowhere to be found. In eight games against Power 5 schools, Gardner has completed 113-of-193 (58.5 pct.) for only 1,200 yards (6.22 YPA), three touchdowns, and a ghastly 12 interceptions. His steep regression stems from that he's no longer comfortable in the pocket and no longer confident with his reads. Gardner seems to have developed a football form of PTSD as a result of the shots he took to the ribs last season. Most times when he drops back to pass, if his first read is not open, he will look down to monitor whether he's about to be sacked. He's not keeping his eyes down field, which has caused him to miss secondary reads that would have resulted in touchdowns. Plus, this is all happening while Gardner has tried to learn the new offense Nussmeier installed. However, Gardner seems to have struggled with this and has become hesitant with his decision-making, which a quarterback cannot afford to do. Oh, and due to what seems to be a somewhat serious leg injury, Gardner has had a minimal impact on the ground.
So what will Maryland see on Saturday? The Terrapins will see a quarterback that is a shell of his former self. There may be times when Gardner makes an awe-inducing throw that reminds us how he's performed in years past, but, mostly, his throws will be inaccurate, late, and thrown to the team with the white jerseys rather than the blue ones. If you're worried that Gardner will suddenly explode out of this season-long funk, you can stop. He's thrown for more than 200 yards in only one game, and that was against Indiana's notorious secondary. He'll continue to perform as he has all season, and, if anything, it'll be worse given the strength of Maryland's pass rush.
TT: The Terps' offense has been all kinds of inept lately. Where can C.J. Brown and company find room to work against the Wolverines?
Maryland had the misfortune of facing three top-15 defenses in Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan State in its past three games according to S&P+, which probably largely explains its recent offensive ineptitude. While Michigan's run defense should remain stout even after Clark's dismissal, Maryland should experience more success against the Wolverines because their secondary can be shredded. Michigan's 11th in the Big Ten in defensive passer rating (127.41) and has been torched by the likes of Notre Dame's Everett Golson, Michigan State's Connor Cook, and even Rutgers' Gary Nova. Heck, even Northwestern, which is 116th nationally in passer rating, started to move the football late against Michigan once they finally abandoned the run. So there's hope for Maryland's C.J. Brown.
Brown's best chance to exploit Michigan's defense is to target the middle of the field or the sideline opposite where Jourdan Lewis, a future All-Big Ten cornerback, is located. Although Michigan's linebackers have excelled against the run, they have had trouble making proper drops into coverage. This has allowed quarterbacks to spot large throwing windows and connect with receivers running drags, digs, slants, and posts for big chunks of yards. Also, cornerbacks not named Jourdan Lewis can be picked on. Boundary corner Raymon Taylor has had an up-and-down season, while former All-Big Ten first-team selection Blake Countess has been demoted to nickelback because he can't jam receivers at the line of scrimmage in Michigan's more aggressive press schemes. It doesn't help either that former five-star prospect Jabrill Peppers never had a chance to make an impact due to a knee injury that has sidelined him for the majority of the season.
And Maryland has the receivers that can inflict damage, even if both Stefon Diggs and Juwann Winfree are out for the game.
TT: What's your prediction for the result on Saturday at Michigan Stadium?
My prediction is that we all walk away on Saturday wishing Michigan and Maryland had played basketball instead.
The truth is that I don't have a feel for this game. I mean, I just spent most of this Q&A discussing all that's wrong with Michigan, which is a lot, and, yet, the Wolverines are a five-point favorite in Vegas currently, which surprises me because I thought it'd be more of a tossup. The key to a Michigan victory is De'Veon Smith and Drake Johnson, both of whom have topped 100 rushing yards in one of the past two games, running well against a Terrapins defensive front seven that's been so-so at best against the run. On the other hand, Michigan will shut down Maryland's ground game, so the Terrapins will need to stay committed to the pass and hope Brown can make plays with his arm and get the ball to his weapons in space. But, ultimately, both offenses will stumble, and this will be a lower-scoring affair.
Therefore, I'm picking Maryland to win in a close one because the Terrapins have a decisive advantage on special teams. Field position will be pivotal, and the dynamic Will Likely will swing that in Maryland's favor by exploiting Michigan's traditional punt formation, even possibly for a touchdown. And, while Michigan kicker Matt Wile has been very good from 45 yards or closer, he's no Brad Craddock. The edge in special teams will be enough to overcome Michigan's home-field advantage in a game that pretty much is a coin flip.
Maryland 20, Michigan 16