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Utah Football 2014 Opponent Preview: Michigan Offense

Michigan often struggled to move the ball last season, but with a new offensive coordinator, will the offense improve this season?

Leon Halip

With new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier calling the plays now, he wants to reestablish the power running that Michigan has been known for rather than running a spread or multiple style offense (as Michigan has been running since 2008). Michigan's offense is filled with four and five star recruits at pretty much every position, but the offense underachieved last year (373.8 yards per game, 83rd in the nation, right behind Utah), especially in the running game (126.1 yards per game rushing 101st in the nation). Last year's leading rusher, Fitzgerald Toussaint, is gone, but replacing his 3.5 yards per carry average from last season should not be difficult. It is the hope that with more production out of the ground game, quarterback Devin Gardner will not have as much pressure to make throws and win games with his arm.

Gardner has the ability to be a great quarterback. He has great arm strength and can be very accurate, but he struggles mightily with consistency. This season, Gardner has been up and down. He looked sharp against Appalachian State, completing 13 of 14 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns in a little over two quarters of play. Against Notre Dame, Gardner had five turnovers (three interceptions and two fumbles). He finished the game 19 of 32 for 189 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions. He rebounded against Miami (OH), going 13 of 20 for 184 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Gardner, especially when pressured, will throw into coverage, creating opportunities for turnovers. Utah will need to get pressure on Gardner consistently to force errors. On the other hand, Utah has to worry about his running. Gardner has great mobility and escape-ability – Utah cannot give him a lane to escape especially when blitzing –, which is something Utah has often struggled against. Keeping a spy on Gardner to limit big plays in the running game/scrambles from him will be key.

The Michigan offensive line often struggled to pick up Notre Dame's NFL-style zone blitzes. Utah's defensive linemen and linebackers on blitzes versus Michigan's offensive line is a matchup Utah can win, and needs to win if they want to win the game in Ann Arbor. Notre Dame's blitzes caused havoc for Michigan.

Michigan has talent in the wide receiving corps for the Michigan offense to make big gains. The group is highlighted by former tight end turned receiver Devin Funchess. He is a big target at 6-5, 230. He is the definition of a match up nightmare, and Michigan will move him all over the field. I think Utah is going to need to make someone beside Funchess beat them. Double covering Funchess with a defensive back and a safety over the top will be key, since his size will present problems for Utah corners like Justin Thomas and Dominique Hatfield (who are 5-8 and 5-10 respectively). Against Notre Dame, Funchess was mainly used underneath and across the middle. He only had one longer catch, but it was a jump ball on a defender Funchess was eight inches taller than, so he easily made the catch. Funchess was out with an injury against Miami (OH), but I would expect he will be back for the Utah game. After Funchess, the receivers to know are Amara Darboh (another big receiver) and Jehu Chesson, but neither have the impact that Funchess does. Utah's defensive backs will need to get their head around quickly since Michigan throws a lot of short, quick passes.

Running backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith are both power backs with decent speed. The offensive line does not get a great push in the running game against good front sevens (like Notre Dame's). In games against weak opponents Appalachian State and Miami (OH), Michigan averaged 313 yards per game rushing (7.7 yards per carry); against the much tougher Notre Dame front, Michigan only had 100 yards rushing (2.9 yards per carry). Green and Smith are currently both averaging over 5 yards per carry, so the Utes front seven will have their hands full.

Nussmeier wants to establish the power running game for Michigan. If Utah is going to win, the key to shutting down Michigan's offense is to stop the run and force Gardner to win the game passing the ball.