College Football

Michigan v. South Carolina: A hot matchup in a hot state

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This story was researched, compiled, written and edited by fall 2012 University of Connecticut sports writing students, Daniel White, Matthew Tierno, and David Hjerpe, with information from SECdigitalnetwork.com, ESPN.com, the Detroit Free Press, the College Football AP, mgoblue.com, gamecocksonline.com and outbackbowl.com.

South Carolina and Michigan are putting their bowl-game win streaks on the line Jan. 1 at the Outback Bowl at 1 p.m. (ESPN) in Tampa after both teams won BCS bowls last year.

The defensive-minded Gamecocks (10-2, 6-2 SEC), whose defense ranked 12th in the nation this year, will face another defensive power in Michigan (8-4, 6-2 Big 10), whose 2nd-ranked defense in the BIG 10 led them to their 10th bowl game in the last 12 years.

Both teams ended last season with wins:Michigan with a 23-20 overtime victory against Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and South Carolina with a 30-13 humbling of Nebraska in the Capitol One Bowl. Both games were in Florida.

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South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, who passed Rex Enright this season to become the Gamecocks’ all-time winningest head coach with 65, has never faced Michigan in his 34 years coaching. Spurrier admits the matchup will be more of a test than facing what was the Outback Bowl’s other potential BIG 10 team, Northwestern.

“If you beat or you get beat by Northwestern, you don’t achieve as much as playing Michigan with their stature, tradition and reputation. It’s something special,” said Spurrier at the Outback Bowl press conference after the bowl teams were announced.. “I have tremendous admiration for Michigan, Michigan football and the players that have played there.”

For the Wolverines, the Outback Bowl will be a chance for their storied university to get some payback against a conference that has troubled them in recent years.

Michigan has not won a game against an SEC opponent since defeating Vanderbilt in their opening game of the 2006 season. The losing streak has since stretched to five games, including a 41-14 drubbing by the No. 2-nationally ranked Alabama at the beginning of this season.

However, despite their recent misfortune against the SEC, which has produced the last six national champions, the Wolverines are confident their potent offense and strong defense can match up against that of South Carolina.

“The SEC is an excellent conference and we look forward to the challenge of facing them,” said Michigan Head Coach Brady Hoke, according to the College Football AP website. “But I think we have a quality football team and we’ve showed it all year long, so it should be a great game.”

Hoke, (19-6 in his two seasons in Ann Arbor) last year led the university to their first win in a BCS bowl since Lloyd Carr’s team beat Alabama in the 2000 Orange Bowl.

“Any time you get the chance to play in a New Year’s Day bowl you know you’ve had a fantastic season,” said Hoke, according to the University of Michigan football website. “While we would have loved to be in a bigger bowl, for our players to be in this position two years in a row is a fantastic achievement on their part, and they’ve earned their right to be here.”

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Michigan and South Carolina are dead even in head-to-head matchups. The two teams are 1-1 in two games and in both cases, the away team won. However, their last meeting was in 1985 and both teams are very different than they were back then.

In order for this Michigan to top the Gamecocks, they are going to need to rely on their two offensive stars, quarterbacks Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson.

Robinson has been the face of Michigan football ever since becoming their starting quarterback as a sophomore in the fall of 2010. Since then, Robinson has gone on to smash almost every school offensive record there is.

As of right now, Robinson has nine of the top 10 performances in Michigan history for single game total offense, and is in first and second place in total yards in a single season. In the Big 10, Robinson ranks first, second and third among the all-time single-game rushing leaders for a quarterback.

He has etched his name among the all-time greats at the University of Michigan, but for this game, he will most likely not start as he returns to his home state of Florida for his last game in Michigan blue.

Instead, it will be Gardner, a former wide receiver who took over the starting job after Robinson injured his ulnar nerve in his throwing elbow when he was stepped on by a Nebraska player 5 weeks ago.

“It’s the coach’s decision on whoever gets to start,” said Robinson, who is Michigan’s passing leader with 1,319 yards and 9 TD’s, to the Detroit Free Press. “Whether it’s me or Devin who starts, I will definitely be out there and looking to make plays in whatever way I can.”

While Robinson, who was a candidate for the Heisman Trophy, has not thrown much since his injury, he has cycled between quarterback, wide receiver and running back in his last two games and performed quite well – rushing for a team high 98 yards vs. Iowa and 124 yards in the first half against Big 10 rival Ohio State.

While Michigan looks to power through South Carolina’s defense, No. 10 South Carolina will have to slow down Heisman candidate Denard Robinson to secure a victory and a second consecutive 11-win season for the first time in school history.

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“He’s a Heisman candidate. He’s a great player. I like the way he plays the game. He’s fast and we have to do a good job of containing him,” said South Carolina senior linebacker Shaq Wilson about Robinson.

In his absence, however, Gardner has played well under center. He is 3-1 as the Wolverines starter, totaling 1,005 yards and 8 touchdowns with a 63.5 completion percentage, despite throwing one interception in each of his four games.

Led by Robinson and Gardner, the Michigan offense has averaged just over 30 points per game, a figure that has gotten the Wolverines to this point in the season.

“Both me and Denard just go out there and try to make plays whenever we can,” Gardner told the Detroit Free Press. “We both bring a lot to this game and when we’re both out on the field we can be a tough offense to stop.”

Standing in their way, however, will be South Carolina’s defense, which is ranked 12th in the nation allowing only 312 yards per game.

The team is anchored by their two All-American defensive ends: Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney.

“I know they have a really good front and from a defensive perspective they gave up 17 points per game – very athletic,” said Hoke on the Michigan football website. “Their two ends are very tough and we’re all going to need to be in sync to move the ball on them.”

While the South Carolina defense could pose some problems for Michigan, Michigan’s 11th-ranked defense could boost the Wolverines in this game.

The Michigan defense has allowed 311 yards per game and allowed only 23 touchdowns, less than two TDS a game, throughout the entire season.

“We’ve seen everything, we’re ready for everything, we’ve played everything,” said Michigan Senior Defensive Lineman William Campbell on the Michigan football website. “So we’re just going to come out on (January) first and play Michigan football.”

Whether you look at this game from an offensive or defensive perspective, it is clear that this battle of top-20 teams will be a tightly contested game from the opening kickoff to the final seconds.

The Gamecocks were on a roll to end the regular season, winning four straight. In the final game, they beat no. 11 Clemson on the road 27-17. The win made Head Coach Steve Spurrier the winningest head coach in South Carolina Football History, with a 65-37 career record.

This is South Carolina’s fourth trip to the Outback Bowl, putting up a 2-1 record. Their last appearance was in 2009, where they suffered an ugly 31- 10 loss to Iowa.

“Four years ago when we went down there, we had a 7-5 record and had just been clobbered by Clemson,” said Spurrier. “We were sort of in disarray. At that time, 7-5 got us in the Outback Bowl. We stunk it up and didn’t play well. Hopefully, we’re a different team … than we were four years ago.”

Robinson and the rest of Michigan’s offense will have their hands full coping with the combination of pressure, discipline and speed that are the marks of South Carolina’s star-studded defense.

South Carolina has proven themselves by playing well in the SEC, the most powerful conference in college football. The conference is sending nine teams to bowl games this season.

Gamecock sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year. Clowney, who set school records this with 13 sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss, had another school record 4.5 sacks in a single game last week against Clemson. Linebacker Shaq Wilson, an NFL prospect, had almost an equally impressive season recording 77 tackles, 2 sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions.

On the offensive side of the ball, quarterback Conner Shaw, who missed the Gamecocks’ final regular-season game with a foot injury, is expected to play in the Outback Bowl, according to ESPN.

Shaw is battle tested, having faced some of the nation’s best defenses this year. Shaw threw for 1732 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, limiting his interceptions to 7.

While Shaw is a pocket presence, he is not strictly a pocket passer. He has a set of wheels and is mobile when he has to be. This season he rushed for 339 yards and 3 touchdowns.

If Shaw is not ready to go, the Gamecocks are confident that backup quarterback Dylan Thompson can lead them to victory. Thompson proved himself last week against a tough Clemson defense, throwing for 310 yards and 3 touchdowns.

The Gamecocks will be without star running back Marcus Lattimore, who broke his leg on Oct. 27 against Tennessee.  The Gamecocks run game has not flourished this year and without Lattimore in the lineup, expect Carolina to air it out early and often.

South Carolina also has a dangerous special teams squad with SEC Special Teams Player of the Year Ace Sanders returning punts. Sanders recorded 10 punt returns over 30 yards this season, including a 70-yard return for a touchdown.

Wilson says South Carolina is excited and hungry.

“Most of us are ready to get back to practice right now and start going back at it and having fun. Especially a lot of our seniors, it will be our last collegiate game,” said Wilson. “Down in Florida there will be great weather, a great atmosphere at the Outback Bowl.”