How UConn can beat Michigan: A film preview

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

So you're telling me there's a chance....

The chance is there and it is real.

Sure, it’s the kind of probability that would tickle Lloyd Christmas and Lloyd Christmas alone.

And perhaps this shot solely exists because sports bequeath the opportunity to win upon every team that takes the field against another.

But, UConn can beat Michigan tomorrow night.

Now, before they even daydream about blocking or tackling anyone in maize and blue, the Huskies will first have to fix their own offensive and defensive troubles. Next, they’ll have to recite more Hail Marys before bed than you’ll hear over a day spent strolling through The Vatican. Then, and only then, can they get to work on attacking the all-time winningest program in division-1 college football history.

Yet oddly enough, those Wolverines currently find themselves in a similar position, stressing a strong focus on self-improvement after their infamous near-loss to Akron (minus of course the Hail Marys). Although given Michigan’s superior talent, if the Wolverines simply play their game and take care of their own business Saturday night, we’ll be hailing tomorrow’s victors and waving good-bye to them as they bus over back to Bradley International at midnight.

The Huskies, of course, have to do something more in order to change that script.

So, after a long look at Michigan film, here’s a comprehensive breakdown of the team inspiring the most sought ever ticket in UConn football history, and three-point gameplans for how to beat them.

MICHIGAN OFFENSE

Scheme

The Wolverines run a very multiple offense that showcases a variety of formations, backfields and attacking styles. They’ve run roughly the same amount of plays from shotgun, pistol and under center so far this season. But for all the presnap, window dressing, you can essentially boil the Michigan playbook down to three distinct chunks.

First, as they have for decades (excluding that horrible Rich Rodriguez experiemnt), Michigan will deploy a two-back running game. Their favorite run play this season is tied between traditional Power-O and an outside zone stretch. Senior Fitzgerland Touissant receives the most carries in this offense, though he so far hasn’t made the most of them. More on him later.

The next most common Wolvierine offensive set is a two-tight end package that at some point Saturday should showcase the athletic receiving ability of Devin Funchess. From these sets, Michigan can still call for a lot of power running and play-action, which UConn must be able to differentiate.

Finally, their multiple tight end formations provide a good balance and change-up to the Wolverine spread sets that employ three or more receivers. With quarterback Devin Gardner in the shotgun, they like to attack downfield. However, they’ll also occasionally hit defenses with a read-option play to keep them on edge.

Personnel

A lot has been made this week about the turnovers Gardner coughed up last week against Akron. The more important truth is that Gardner is an excellent quarterback. In fact, he’s the biggest individual reason UConn is expected to lose this game.

While there’s zero doubt he forced throws against the Zips, and overall played a poorer game, Gardner was a true dark horse Heisman contender this season. The Michigan signal caller can rifle the ball to any area of the field, create plays with his legs and has the accuracy to hit a receiver’s correct shoulder against tight coverage.

He’s also very dangerous when running, both by design and as a scrambler. There’s a reason Gardner is the team’s leading rusher through three games.

Next is Touissant, who sits 38 yards behind Gardner on the stat sheet. Touissant is a talented runner who’s recently struggled with his vision and produced a paltry 3.6 yards per carry average as a result. The fifth-year player missed numerous holes against Akron, but shouldn’t continue to do so much longer. Expect a heavy dose of Touissant tomorrow. Behind the Ohio native is freshman Derrick Green. Green has picked up over 60 yards on 13 carries this season.

Out wide is star receiver Jeremy Gallon, who’s recorded a reception in 29 consecutive games. Gallon is far and away Gardner’s favorite target because of his superb speed, agility and route running ability. He’s hauled in four touchdowns this year, and was the Big Ten’s offensive player of the week two Saturdays ago following his remarkable 184-yard performance versus Notre Dame.

No other Wolverine wideout has more than 65 yards on the season, though slot receiver Drew Dileo could give the Huskies some issues. The aforementioned Funchess is Gardner’s second favorite target, while his back-up, freshman Jake Butt, has five catches. The injured 6’ 6" starter at tight end, A.J. Williams, could return to action this weekend.

Yet, neither Gardner, nor Gallon or Funchess is Michigan’s top offensive player. That title belongs to left tackle Taylor Lewan, who will be a top-ten pick in next year’s NFL Draft. Lewan is the rare tackle that plays as a powerful mauler in the run game, and a strong, nimble blocker in pass protection. Expect any Husky pass rusher going against him to more or less be nullified.

The other bookend to Michigan’s line is right tackle Michael Schofield, who will be making his 27th straight start tomorrow. Inside, the Wolverines are young at both guard spots and center. This youth it has shown a handful of times already this season with missed assignments. Left guard Graham Glasgow enjoyed a very good game against Akron, though the same could not be said for center Jack Miller. Miller was beaten constantly and right guard Kyle Kalis fell somewhere in between.

Probable gameplan

Lots and lots of outside runs with Gardner and Touissant. The Huskies’ outside run contain has yet to show it can stop big plays on a regular basis, and the Wolverines love to go behind Lewan.

A deep play-action shot to Gallon early. The best thing for Michigan would be to get out to a fast start, and control the game from there. They’ve already shown willingness to go deep early in games this season, and Gallon off play-action is their best chance.

Running core plays. This team should be able to move the ball solely on their talent, and the coaching staff has stressed getting back to fundamentals this week in practice. The Wolverines ought to do this by keeping things simple against UConn, shrinking their playbook and running their best stuff.

UConn needs to…

Turnover the ball over. If Michigan doesn't turn the ball over at least twice, this game is over. Plain and simple.

Blitz occasionally from the secondary. The only players who are likely to be able to generate good pressure tomorrow are rushers that are either unexpected or unaccounted for. The Huskies have not put any exotic blitz schemes that are inside their playbook on tape yet in 2013. So, it’s time to pressure Gardner with corners and safeties who should also be able to better contain him than their defensive teammates, given their greater speed and athleticism.

Play heavy zone coverage to stop big plays. As was the case against Maryland, UConn’s best chance at victory is to play mistake-free football, keep the Wolverine playmakers in front of them and hope their opponent errs during long drives. This is best accomplished with heavy doses of deep zone coverage, which should also help contain Gardner scrambles.

MICHIGAN DEFENSE

Scheme

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s unit is another that can play multiple styles through a mixture of packages. In past years, the Wolverine defense utilized a lot of pre-snap disguise and pressure. Though this season, they’re very young and the playbook appears to have been simplified.

Michigan’s base defense is a 4-3 that will switch between over and under fronts, and stay on the field even against three and four-wide receiver sets. Other packages include a 4-2-5 nickel scheme and a 3-3-5 look that they use when opponents are in clear passing situations. Whenever the Wolverines go to a grouping with an extra defensive back, they take out their nose tackle Quinton Washington.

In critical situations, expect Mattison to go to an all-out blitz. Otherwise, Michigan has typically attempted to create pressure with only four linemen that constantly stunt, twist and slant.

Personnel

The defensive line has yet to settle on a clear rotation, though the two players you can count on to see are Washington in running situations and defensive tackle Jibreel Black on almost every snap.

Second-string defensive ends Mario Ojemudia and Matt Godin provided a solid pass rush against Akron, which could earn them more time against the Huskies. The men ahead of them on the depth chart are juniors Frank Clark and Keith Heitzman. Heitzman has seen declining minutes in the Wolverines’ past two games, as has back-up nose tackle Ondre Pipkins, who is lifted against pass-happy offenses. The sophomore Pipkins should see more snaps against UConn.

Michigan’s best pass rusher can often be seen with his hand in the ground, but on the team’s two-deep you’ll actually find him at linebacker. 6’ 3", 250 lb. outside ‘backer Brennen Beyer lines up at defensive end on passing downs, where he has collected two of the five Wolverine five sacks in 2013. The other primary linebackers are Desmond Morgan, Joe Bolden and James Ross.

Each struggled significantly in their pass coverage last weekend, which is an area you’d expect to be a strength of theirs, given none of them tip the scales at more than 230 pounds. However, Morgan was much better against Notre Dame. The junior is the squad’s top tackler, as he rotates with Bolden at the inside linebacker position. Meanwhile, Ross lines up on the weakside, and he is a surprisingly strong run defender.

Senior Courtney Avery may return to his starting spot at free safety tomorrow night, which has been manned by Jarrod Wilson. Wilson snatched a critical interception against Akron, and has otherwise teamed with strong safety Tommy Gordon to provide a stable, yet unremarkable back end.

Cornerback Raymon Taylor however, has been a recent headliner for all the wrong reasons. The junior was picked on incessantly over the Wolverines’ last two games and with rewarding success. He allowed throws of all kinds to the Zips, and gave away free yards on a pass interference call. On the opposite side is a much different story, where Blake Countess has been blanketing opposing wideouts. The redshirt sophomore has also reeled in three interceptions this season.

Nickelback position duties (or third corner spot) have thus far been split between freshman Jourdan Lewis or junior Delonte Holloway.

Probable gameplan

Pressure, pressure, pressure. Michigan allowed Akron to gain easy yards by playing off-coverage and ineffectively rushing just four at the quarterback. Expect these tactics to change and for the Wolverines to blitz the Huskies like Maryland did last Saturday.

Beyer over UConn’s right tackle. Every UConn opponent should be attacking this side of the line until Kevin Friend is completely healthy. Right now, the status of his high ankle sprain is uncertain, so it should be easy pickings.

Press coverage against the receivers. The Huskies can’t threaten Michigan deep, though they should certainly try at points during the game. Tight man-to-man cover is implied with heavy blitzing, but I’d expect the Wolverines to revert back to this kind of coverage frequently, regardless of the rush. Their defensive backs had great success with it two weeks ago against the Irish.

UConn needs to…

Complete short throws against press coverage. Geremy Davis and Shakim Phillips currently account for over 409 of the 664 UConn offensive yards this season. If they can’t separate from Countess and Taylor this game is over by the second quarter.

Gain good yardage on first down. The Huskies continually put themselves in a hole against the Terrapins by running on first down for less than two yards. They can’t afford to do this against Michigan. Third-and-long situations will play right into Mattison’s hands and must be avoided. Short throws, screens, counter runs, reverses, anything to move forward early in drives.

Throw the kitchen sink at them. What’s there to lose? If I had a headset on, I’d run multiple trick plays over both halves. You’re 0-2, on national television and playing against a superior defense. UConn has to keep the Wolverines on edge at least a little to move the chains consistently and create space. So, throw the freakin’ kitchen sink at them.

PREDICTION

Check back tomorrow morning in our gameday preview!

For the best UConn football analysis, film breakdown and up-to-the-minute news, follow Andrew on Twitter: @UConnFB_Andrew

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