Michigan Breakdown: Who Are The Key Players?
Penn State and Michigan will meet for the second straight season this Saturday under the lights in the Big House, continuing the annual rivalry after a brief hiatus between 2010 to 2013. But what initially looked like an exciting matchup between two top-notch Big Ten opponents in the preseason has lost its luster following Michigan’s unbelievably poor start to the season.
For the first time in the 135-year history of Michigan football, the Wolverines have three losses in the month of October, sitting at the bottom of the Big Ten standings at 2-4. Yet, remarkably, the team’s poor performance on the field hasn’t been nearly as noteworthy as the headlines generated by team brass off the field.
To recap: Head coach Brady Hoke left quarterback Shane Morris in a game against Minnesota with clear signs of a concussion after suffering a big hit to the head, as the sophomore quarterback wobbled and struggled to stand up straight while receiving plays from the sideline before eventually leaving the stadium in a cart. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon apologized for the mistake in a 12:52 a.m. press release, citing a “serious lack of communication” among staff members that led to leaving Morris in the game. Growing unrest among the Michigan student body reached a fever pitch in wake of the announced mistake, as students stood on the front lawn of university president Mark Schlissel’s on-campus house and demanded that Brandon be fired.
An online petition to fire Brandon has received more than 10,000 signatures, and commentaters on the popular Michigan football wesbite MGoBlog.com are pleading for students to boycott the opening kickoff against Penn State.
While Michigan tries to get its house in order, there is a still a football game to be played between the Nittany Lions and Wolverines. Penn State will be looking to rebound after a dismal performance in a 29-6 loss to Northwestern on Homecoming, and will be well-rested after not playing last weekend during a bye week.
For Penn State to leave Ann Arbor with its fifth win, the Lions must keep Michigan’s playmakers in check.
Devin Gardner, QB — After donning the retired No. 98 jersey as a way to honor former Michigan star and Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon, long considered one of the best players to ever wear the maize and blue, Gardner has been anything but. He started the 2013 season 5-0 wearing the new number, including four touchdown passes in a 41-30 win over Notre Dame. Since then, Michigan has lost 10 of its last 13 games with Gardner at the helm, leaving one ESPN writer to ask if Michigan and Gardner have been cursed by the ill-fated jersey switch. Oh, and the man who decided to un-retire the jersey? Dave Brandon. Life is funny sometimes.
Anyway, back to football. To say Gardner has looked sluggish this year is an understatement, as the senior QB has only five touchdown passes to seven interceptions to start the season. His 911 passing yards rank 85th among FBS quarterbacks, and he’s averaging less than eight yards per pass attempt. His completion percentage is up slightly at 62.5 percent compared to 60.3 percent in 2013, but he’s throwing interceptions on 5.8 percent of his dropbacks, one of the worst marks in the country.
Where Gardner has been effective, especially against Penn State, is running the football. The Detroit native has only 131 yards rushing this season, but 63 of those yards came in the last two games, including two rushing touchdowns in the loss against Rutgers. In the classic four overtime game against Penn State last season, Gardner rushed 24 times for 121 yards, by far and away the most rushing yards and attempts in a single game throughout his career.
The Penn State defense, led by Anthony Zettel, Deion Barnes, and C.J. Olanyian, ranks second in the country against the run, but still has room for improvement from the perspective of defensive line coach Sean Spencer.
“I think areas of improvement would be consistency in our pad level and gap control,” Spencer told PennLive.com. “Sometimes we try to make plays, but sometimes we get out of our gap when we are trying to make the plays. We have to continue doing things within the framework of the defense.”
With the announcement that Michigan’s starting running back Derrick Green will miss the remainder of the season with a broken clavicle, the running game falls on the shoulders of Gardner and sophomore tailback De’Veon Smith. If Gardner struggles to find his receivers, he’ll no doubt be looking for open running lanes behind the offensive line to pick up yards. For Penn State to emerge victorious, the defensive line needs to maintain its gaps and keep the veteran dual-threat quarterback contained in the pocket to prevent big gains on the ground.
Devin Funchess, WR — Funchess is unquestionably Michigan’s biggest offensive threat, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound former tight end who now lines up at wide receiver wearing the famous No. 1 jersey — the first to do since Braylon Edwards in 2004.
As a sophomore in 2013, Funchess was the team’s second leading receiver, catching 49 passes for 748 yards and six touchdowns en route to being named the Big Ten Tight End of the Year. And like Gardner, Funchess did some hefty damage against Penn State’s defense. In last year’s contest, he caught four passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns, including a career-long 59-yard touchdown reception.
He started this season with a bang, hauling in seven passes for 95 yards and three scores against Appalachian State. However, he injured his right leg midway through the fourth quarter the following week in a 31-0 loss to Notre Dame, and sat out the following game against Miami (OH). Before catching four passes in a loss to Minnesota, he told the Detroit Free Press that he’s “going to be in pain for the rest of the season.”
Even playing with pain, Funchess remains Michigan’s most potent weapon. Despite missing an entire game to nurse his injured leg, he leads the team in receptions (29), yards (392), and touchdowns (three) with more catches than the next two leading receivers combined.
Similar to how Northwestern’s biggest target Dan Vitale sliced through the middle of Penn State’s defense for seven catches and 113 yards, Funchess could prove to be difficult to defend on Saturday.
Frank Clark, DE — Clark earned All-Big Ten second team honors from coaches in 2013, as well as the Richard Katcher Award given annually to Michigan’s top defensive lineman, recording 43 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and two fumble recoveries.
This season, Clark is 10th in the nation and 39th nationally with 6.5 tackles for loss through games, including six tackles, a sack, and 2.5 tackles for loss against Utah.
Like both names mentioned above, Clark had a field day last year against Penn State. He sacked Christian Hackenberg twice and ran back a Zach Zwinak fumble at the start of the second half to pull Michigan within four points of the lead.
The Michigan front four hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire this season with an average of only two sacks per game, the 65th best mark in the country. But against Penn State’s brutal offensive line, it’s possible Clark, Michigan’s best pure pass rusher, could have a field day and make life miserable for Hackenberg and the Penn State running backs.
Jake Ryan, LB — Ryan made the switch from defensive lineman to middle linebacker this season following an injury-shortened 2013 campaign due to an ACL tear. After being named second team All-Big Ten at defensive end by the coaches in 2012, Ryan’s production has not dwindled at linebacker. Playing in his new role, Ryan is second on the team in total tackles (46) and tackles for loss (6), and leads the team in quarterback hurries (3) with one sack.
The fifth year senior has registered a tackle for loss in 29 of his last 37 games, and ranks 15th on Michigan’s career tackles for loss list with 37.5. He was named to the preseason watchlists for the Bronco Nagurski, Butkus, Lombardi, and Bednarik awards, given annually to the nation’s top defenders.
Although he no longer lines up with his hand in the dirt, Ryan is a playmaking linebacker with the ability to stop the run and get after the quarterback. Look for Ryan to be used heavily in blitz packages to try and increase pressure on Hackenberg.