Nov. 15, 2013
Rested and recovered thanks to a week away from competition, the Wildcats are set for a matchup of significant consequence, one against the University of Michigan at 2:30 p.m. CT Saturday. Skip Myslenski's signature Friday post provides the final nuggets and items of consideration to count you down to kickoff:
GROUNDED: The 'Cats worked diligently on their vertical game last offseason and, in their first five games this fall, they reaped the fruits of their labor. Through that stretch, they completed 72.2 percent of their passing attempts; averaged 255.6 passing yards per-game; scored seven passing touchdowns and rolled up 16 passing plays that gained 20-or-more yards.
But, after their stare-down with Ohio State, all that changed, which the numbers starkly show. For over their last four games, they have completed just 50.8 percent of their passing attempts; have averaged just 154 passing yard per-game; have scored just four passing touchdown and managed just six passing plays that have gained 20-or-more yards.
"It starts really with the fundamentals, a lot of the basics that we haven't been doing well," said wideout Christian Jones, trying to explain this sudden power outage. "Getting separation, releases, different things like that that we've been harping on these last couple of weeks. In a game, you're going fast, you think you're open. But you watch on film, the guy's a lot more close than you think."
"I think it's basics all over the board," countered quarterback Kain Colter
when apprised of Jones's observation. "Getting protection, throwing, catching, things like that. We've got to be better all over the board. Definitely we want to throw the ball around more and improve the pass game ... (but) teams are heating us up. When they bring a lot of pressure, you're not going to have time to sit back there and let your receives get downfield. Of course, we do probably need to throw the ball up and let the receivers go out there and make plays. But at the same time we like to take short things, short little routes, when the defense is trying to heat us up and bringing a lot of blitzes. And ever since the Wisconsin game, teams are heating us up."
"Yeah. We've been in third-down situations that haven't been very good. So we've got to be more efficient on third down," concluded Pat Fitzgerald when apprised of Colter's observation. "To do that, we've got to be better on first and second down and make it third-and-manageable. If we can do that, we're usually pretty good. Then we've got to pick up pressure and we've got to throw the ball on time and the guy's got to catch the ball. It's not one thing that's been the issue. It's kind of breakdowns independently in all three phases."
ON THE OTHER SIDE: It is only appropriate to consider the vertical game here for Michigan visits Ryan Field on Saturday. "They're going to max protect and launch the football," said Fitzgerald, explaining why. That alone will put pressure on the `Cat defense, and there is more. The Wolverine launcher, quarterback Devin Gardner, is also an escape artist who has rushed for more yards than any of his team's running backs.
"Whenever we're blitzing, don't let him go. That's the biggest thing," 'Cats linebacker Collin Ellis said when asked the key to controlling him. "He's an extremely athletic guy. I remember last year, he shook me out of my shoes. So this year we've really prepared on going and getting him and not letting him get away from us. Whenever he gets away from you, he makes some amazing plays."
Does his ability to run hinder the `Cats ability to bring heat?
"It makes you more focused in the moment," said Ellis. "Like with (Ohio State quarterback) Braxton Miller, the same thing. Whenever you're blitzing, you've got to know he knows you're there. Good quarterbacks, especially these mobile guys, they're not going to stand there and let you hit them. So if anything it makes you have a heightened sense of awareness to know that he's going to flush."
DEJA BOO: The 'Cats were up three and just 13 seconds remained when Gardner launched a Hail Mary in their game last fall, and here 'Cats corner Daniel Jones tipped the pass and Wolverine receiver Roy Roundtree caught it, and now the Wolverines went on to tie this one up with a field goal and to win it in overtime.
"It was an aerial assault that we took last year and we didn't play very well back there," said Fitzgerald, thinking back. "We've got to perform much better. You know you're going to get double moves. You've got to win on those plays."
"We have to have great eyes," corner Nick VanHoose said when asked just how those plays can be won. "That means we have to be looking at the receiver's hips, know whether he's going to run a double move or not, and then react as quick as possible to it."
And the max protection that Michigan employs?
"It means you're on the job a long time," said VanHoose. "It's very difficult. You feel you have a lot of pressure on you. But as a DB, that's what we live for. It's you versus him, pretty much, unless we have over-the-top help or under help. But at the end of the day, it's me versus the receiver. I enjoy that challenge."
The Wolverines have not only lost three of their last four. They also finished with minus-48 rushing yards against Michigan State two weeks ago and minus-21 rushing yards last week against Nebraska. In those two games, they managed to score just one touchdown and put up only 19 total points.
The Wolverines are averaging a mere 135.3 rushing yards per-game, which ranks them only above Purdue in the Big Ten. But Gardner leads the league in total offense, averaging 291.9 yards-per-game.
Even though they often use maximum protection, the Wolverines have surrendered 26 sacks, ranking tenth in the conference.
'Cats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is a 1970 grad of Michigan, where he started as a tight end for its 1969 Big Ten champions.
The 'Cats 18 interceptions are tops in the nation (with Florida State and Houston) and just two shy of the school record, which was set in 1948 and matched in 2005. The Wolverines, in turn, have thrown a dozen interceptions, more than any team in the Big Ten.
'Cats linebacker Collin Ellis and Wolverine receiver Drew Dileo are long-time friends from down in Louisiana.
AND FINALLY: Ellis, on the uniforms the `Cats will wear Saturday in support of the Wounded Warrior Project, which have generated some controversy: "My opinion of the jerseys is they're great. I talked to one of my buddies overseas, he's in Japan, he sent me an e-mail saying he fully supports what we're doing. He's lost a few buddies since he's been over there, when he was Afghanistan. So he completely supports what they are, and that's my opinion. I'm extremely proud that we get to wear them."
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