Michigan looking for answers as Big Ten play looms
Sep. 23, 2014
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Michigan coach Brady Hoke and his players maintain that their major goal — the program's first Big Ten championship since 2004 — is still attainable.
But after the Wolverines dropped two nonconference games by more than two touchdowns for the first time since the 1915 season (a 31-0 loss at Notre Dame and last weekend's 26-10 home loss to Utah), they're looking for answers before Big Ten play begins Saturday when Minnesota visits Ann Arbor.
Michigan ranks No. 81 nationally in total offense, averaging 404.3 yards per game and has reached the opponent's red zone just 10 times in four games, fewer than all but 13 teams in the country. The offense has allowed more tackles for loss (25) than it has produced plays of 20-plus yards (19). The Wolverines have failed to score an offensive touchdown in either of their two losses this year.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner ranks No. 65 nationally in passer rating (132.4), with more interceptions (six) than touchdowns (five) in four starts. After his second interception against the Utes, Hoke pulled him in favor of sophomore Shane Morris, who finished 4-of-13 passing for 42 yards and had an interception and a fumble.
Hoke has maintained since spring that this was Gardner's team. On Monday, he said no decision has been made about which quarterback will get the nod against the Gophers.
"We'll make that decision tomorrow," Hoke said. "They both know what they need to do better, and they will. They both competed and made good decisions, also."
While there may be a change at quarterback, it's not the only position the coaches will be taking a closer look at this week. Hoke gave no specifics about other possible changes to the starting lineup, but did say, "You look at everybody and see what combination of that starting 11 gives you the best chance to win."
After Michigan's loss at Notre Dame in week two, many questioned why Hoke and first-year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier opted not to try Morris in the second half. The situation was different against Utah when Morris entered the game midway through the fourth quarter with a 16-point deficit, Nussmeier said.
"It was important for Devin to take a step back at that time after the interception and get a view from the sideline of what was going on," Nussmeier said. "Sometimes it's better when you can sit back for a minute and see from the sideline what is going on and how the game is developing. For a quarterback, when things aren't going well and you're being challenged for every yard, things seem to speed up and the picture's not real clear."
Morris has completed just 35 percent of his passes this season, with two picks and no touchdowns.
"Shane is a very talented guy," Nussmeier said. "He has a lot of arm strength. He's a young player, and learning. They both are similar in a lot of their style. Both can make plays with their feet. Both have really good arms. We feel good about either of those guys."
If Gardner is on the bench, the offense loses its only senior starter on that side of the ball.
"He's a leader and leadership is hard sometimes," Hoke said. "He will handle it like a leader does, whatever happens. He is as resilient as any young man you could be around, because of what people put out there."
There are still some positives to build on from the first four games.
The Wolverine defense ranks eighth nationally, surrendering just 261 yards a game, including just 80.3 rushing yards per game. Even so, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison says his unit must continue to improve — and there is no frustration from his players about the current offensive concerns.
"This offense is going to be good. Doug does a great job," Mattison said. "The guys on offense come in every day to do their job and to improve, and that is going to happen. There will never be any of that on our side of the ball. Until you can show me our film and show me a defense that plays perfect on every snap, there's nothing to talk about. It's a team all the way."