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September 14, 2012The Wolverines enter The Big House Saturday with vulnerabilities along both lines and with question marks at running back and linebacker. Massachusetts should be the cure for what ails the Maize and Blue, but we've said that before only to watch Michigan struggle.
Massachusetts is one of the newest programs attempting to make the jump from I-AA (FCS) to I-A (FBS), joining University of Texas-San Antonio, South Alabama and Texas State in becoming the 121st, 122nd, 123rd and 124th Division I teams.
"It's been a conversation talked about at UMass for a long time," beat writer Matt Vautour said. "When the basketball program was doing really well in the 1990s, there was discussion then, and there have been committees and study groups looking at it for awhile.
"Having a conference that was interested [the Mid-American Conference] and a stadium [Gillette in Foxboro] they could play in made it something where a real opportunity was suddenly there."
UMass' players are relishing this opportunity to be part of history.
"To be part of the first class to go I-A ... I've been looking forward to it for a few years now," senior linebacker Perry McIntyre said. "We know as seniors that this is our legacy, this season, and we can put Massachusetts on the map if we do some good things."
For redshirt freshman quarterback Mike Wegzyn, going I-A was the plan all along, and why he chose to go to school in Amherst, Mass.
"I was recruited with the understanding that we were going Division I because I had a lot of other offers, but I wanted to start a new tradition at UMass," he said. "I look at my four years, and it would really be great to play a big role in shaping the future of this program.
"If I'm lucky enough to be the quarterback for all four years, a lot of responsibility is on my shoulders, and my goal is to lead Massachusetts to conference championships and really open the doors for this program."
That will be easier said than done, especially in Year One. The Minutemen have lost their first two games by a combined score of 82-6. They're 45.5-point underdogs to Michigan, and while that number seems high, U-M should cover. Appalachian State this Massachusetts team is not.
In fact, first-year head coach Charley Molnar is looking at this week's game more as a learning opportunity than as a legitimate chance for his team to compete.
"If you want to be one of the best teams in the land, you have to know what a great program looks like," Molnar said. "And going to Michigan will really open our players' eyes to say, 'This is what a great team looks like, how a great program does their business, how hard they play. This is what their athletes look like. This is what we aspire to be.'"
Kickoff: 3:42 p.m.
Radio-TV: The Big Ten Network will carry the broadcast live. The game can be heard on the Michigan Sports Network (950 AM in the Detroit area, SiriusXM channel 203) with long-time partners Frank Beckmann and Jim Brandstatter, and sideline reporter Doug Karsch.
Coaches: Michigan: Brady Hoke (12-3, second season). UMass: Charley Molnar (0-2, first season).
By The Numbers
0.9 - Yards per carry Michigan's running backs averaged against Air Force, exceeding a low (since 2000) of 1.0 yards per carry in a 34-9 loss to Iowa in 2002.
1 - Wolverines in school history, junior Devin Gardner, to catch a touchdown pass in each of his first two games at the receiver position; only Anthony Carter (1979), Mercury Hayes (1992), Amani Toomer (1992), David Terrell (1998) and Mario Manningham (2005) have caught a TD in one of their first two games at receiver.
2 - True freshman linebackers, among 28 that have seen the field for U-M since 1972, to record double-digit tackles in a game: Desmond Morgan (twice) in 2011 and now Joe Bolden (10 stops) this season against Air Force.
8 - Career games in which quarterback Denard Robinson has accounted for four or more touchdowns after rushing for two and passing for two in the win over Air Force; among QBs, Rick Leach ranks second with six, followed by Steve Smith (five), John Navarre (four) and Chad Henne (four).
45.5 - Points Michigan is favored by against Massachusetts, marking the largest spread in U-M history.
TheWolverine.com Game Week Poll Results
Of these early true freshman contributors - TE Devin Funchess, TE A.J. Williams, LB James Ross, LB Joe Bolden, FS Jarrod Wilson and DT Ondre Pipkins - how many should start against Massachusetts?
None - 5 percent
One - 5 percent
Two - 17 percent
Three - 30 percent
Four - 21 percent
Five - 13 percent
Six - 9 percent
When Massachusetts has the Ball
A familiar face will carry the football for the Minutemen this weekend when former Wolverine (2008-11) Michael Cox stands in as UMass' No. 1 tailback. The 6-1, 214-pounder registered team highs in attempts (15) and yards (36), with a long of 17, in last week's loss to Indiana.
That his yardage tally was a team high should tell you where this program is in its development of a ground game. The Minutemen have rushed for 81 yards on 60 carries (1.4-yard average), including a three-yard output on 24 attempts in a season-opening loss to Connecticut, lacking the hogmollies up front to clear holes against this level of competition, the passing game to keep defenses off-balance and the talent in the backfield to get the job done.
Massachusetts runs a spread offense with the read-option elements that allowed Wegzyn to score on a 16-yard run, but his ability to diagnose his and his backs' opportunities is still in its infant stages. The 6-5, 220-pounder is more athletic than his frame would suggest but he's more Nick Sheridan than Air Force's Connor Dietz.
Michigan's front seven struggled a week ago getting off blocks and avoiding the cut blocks that are the trademark of Air Force football. The Wolverines won't have to worry about their legs being taken out this week, but they still have to show they can disengage from an offensive lineman and make a play.
A week ago, the coaching staff benched fifth-year senior middle linebacker Kenny Demens in the second half in favor of true freshman Joe Bolden. We also saw Bolden's classmate, James Ross III, considerably in the second half, as a sub for sophomore WILL Desmond Morgan.
We will continue to see both, but this weekend's game is actually a huge opportunity for Demens. He will be facing off with inferior opponents and has a chance to regain his confidence, but first he has to prove capable of making plays by getting off and avoiding the blockers that have nullified him the first two weeks.
UMass will run three-wide and sometimes four-wide often Saturday, which should give us a good long look at Michigan's defensive backs. Operating on islands, can sophomore Raymon Taylor, junior Courtney Avery or maybe even freshman Terry Richardson show they have what it takes to be Blake Countess' replacement at cornerback?
When Michigan has the Ball
Massachusetts runs a pretty standard 4-3 defense and has decent size up front, with three starters and one reserve tipping the scales at over 275 pounds (they're not BCS Conference-caliber big but for a program in transition to I-A, it's not bad) and even with the defensive line's struggles the first two weeks, the Minutemen should be buoyed by the fact that Michigan's offensive line has been overpowered and outquicked in consecutive weekends by Alabama and Air Force.
The former is understandable, but the latter is unacceptable. The line did do a good job blocking for quarterback Denard Robinson, but on redshirt junior tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint's eight carries the linemen were slow to the point of attack and were put onto their heels by an undersized AFA front. That simply cannot happen this weekend as the unit looks to glean confidence heading into Notre Dame.
While Robinson could rush for 200 yards with 10-15 carries this weekend, chances are he won't get more than 5-8 as U-M looks to limit his touches and opportunity to suffer an injury before a rivalry game while also placing a greater emphasis on getting the running backs going.
We should see Robinson's impact more greatly through the air where he'll look to connect with his two favorite targets - junior receiver Devin Gardner and freshman tight end Devin Funchess - who both possess tremendous physical advantages over the defenders that will be tasked with covering them.
Look for U-M to try to get fifth-year senior Roy Roundtree more involved also. Roundtree only has three receptions this year for 17 yards and his big-game experience is too critical for him to fade into oblivion this season.
McIntyre is UMass' best defender and tackler, and he has the size of a Division I 'backer at 6-1, 240, but he centers a unit that is high on athleticism but short on everything else, and has shown serious deficiencies in the tackling department. Both Robinson's and Toussaint's ability to make a defender miss could lead to some monstrously big plays Saturday.
Three Minutemen Players to Watch
Sophomore wide receiver Marken Michel: After appearing in 11 games in 2011, making three catches, the 5-10, 185-pounder has emerged this fall as Wegzyn's top target with eight grabs for 82 yards (10.2-yard average). Though only in his second year, Michel is very much a veteran among the receiving corps - his 11 career receptions on his resume the most of any current Minuteman.
Senior safety Darren Thellen: The fifth-year senior ranks as one of the veterans to have previously played Michigan, recording eight tackles in a 2010 loss. This year the 6-2, 207-pounder lists second among the Minutemen with 16 tackles and three pass breakups. He was named the UMass Athlete of the Week Sept. 10 after notching a team-high 11 stops, a pass breakup and an interception in Massachusetts' week-two loss to Indiana.
Redshirt junior linebacker Tom Brandt: One of four brothers that have played college football, Brandt has a unique situation at UMass, competing with playing time at outside linebacker with his twin brother, Tim. Both listed at 6-0, 215 pounds, the Brandt brothers have combined for 15 tackles, three pass breakups and an interception this season. Tom has started both games and has 12 of those stops, and will likely start against U-M.
We've all looked at an opponent like this before and underestimated them only to be surprised by a closer score than predicted. It happened two years ago with Massachusetts, but this is not a good team. No, it's an awful team, much more likely to suffer a devastating blowout than to make a game of it. Michigan will approach 600 yards of offense and should hold the Minutemen to fewer than 200.
Score: Michigan 52, Massachusetts 10.
Against the Spread (21): U-M will not cover.
Over/Under (54): Over.
Michael Spath's record this year: Score: 1-1; Against the Spread 1-1; Over/Under 1-1.