What went right, and what went wrong, along the way to 8-4 for Michigan
ANN ARBOR -- For a program such as Michigan to go 8-4, enough things have to go right.
But something has to go wrong, too.
And the No. 19 Wolverines experienced both polars en route to finishing 8-4 and earning a bid to face No. 11 South Carolina (10-2) in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl.
A look at three things that went right and three things that went wrong for Michigan this season:
What went right
1. Devin Gardner blossoms at QB
Michigan's quarterback position was solidified entering the season with record-setting senior Denard Robinson, but his proclivity for injury remained a concern, especially with former backup Devin Gardner playing receiver.
And those fears were realized against Nebraska, when Robinson damaged a nerve in his throwing elbow and redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy floundered in his place. He misfired on his first 10 passes, offering a terrifying look into Michigan's future should Robinson miss extended time.
Gardner, though, proved to be a savior.
The junior switched back to quarterback the following week, and swiftly became one of the season's most pleasant surprises as he proved to be the accurate, downfield passer Michigan has eagerly sought.
He became the primary signal-caller for the season's final four games, completing 57-of-90 passes for 1,005 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. He accounted for 15 touchdowns overall in four games, and would have been the nation's most efficient passer had he qualified.
Michigan was expected to face great uncertainty this offseason as it searched for Robinson's successor. Gardner has essentially ended those talks before they began.
2. Taylor Lewan becomes All-American
Lewan had started 15 consecutive games at left tackle entering the season, and was expected to be the anchor of Michigan's revamped line. And that's exactly what he was.
The junior was a pillar on the left side, protecting the blindside of Robinson and Gardner nearly without error. He allowed a sack against Ohio State, but otherwise improved as the season progressed despite a litany of nagging injuries.
Lewan did what he was supposed to, and then some, and has received first-team All-America honors from the Associated Press, Walter Camp Foundation and others. He was Michigan's best player of the season, despite the struggles alongside him.
3. Raymon Taylor shores up secondary
Michigan returned its secondary intact from last season, a purported strength. But the loss of starter Blake Countess (ACL) in the first quarter of the season immediately introduced adversity.
After trying out Courtney Avery, the Wolverines settled on sophomore Raymon Taylor, a nickel back who had never started. After experiencing some lumps early, Taylor proved to be a reliable presence opposite senior J.T. Floyd and turned into something of a playmaker.
By the end of the season, teams seemed to favor targeting the third-year starter Floyd more than the first-year starter Taylor, a testament to the latter's play.
Jake Ryan was Michigan's best defender, a high point, but Taylor's emergence was integral to shoring up what could have been a weakness. Instead, Michigan finished No. 2 against the pass this year.
Taylor held his own and, paired with the return of Countess, gives Michigan an experienced combo for next season.
Linebacker Jake Ryan morphed into one of the Big Ten's best linebackers, and finishes among the league leaders in impact plays such as tackles for loss (fifth) and forced fumbles (first). Freshman Devin Funchess emerged as a weapon at tight end, hauling in a team-best five touchdowns. Kicker Brendan Gibbons made 14-of-16 field-goal attempts, an 87.5-percent clip that ranked eighth nationally.
What went wrong
1. Denard Robinson damages nerve
Offensive coordinator Al Borges spent two seasons figuring out how to mash up his preferred West Coast elements with Michigan's existing spread-option scheme. He did that to utilize Robinson's talents at quarterback.
Then, poof, Robinson was gone.
The senior was stepped on by a Nebraska player Oct. 27, damaging a nerve in his throwing elbow and forcing him from the game. Michigan trailed by just four points at the time and was driving inside the Cornhuskers' 10-yard line, but the offense flopped without him.
The Wolverines lost the game -- and, as it turned out, cost them a shot to play for the Big Ten title.
Gardner proved to be a capable replacement for Robinson -- and in some ways, he was superior -- but the injury was the biggest reason Michigan lost to Nebraska, and the biggest reason it was shut out of the league's title game.
2. Declining tailback production
Michigan was expected to be one of the nation's best running teams this season, with 1,000-yard rushers Robinson and tailback Fitz Toussaint returning. But while Robinson held up his end of the bargain (while healthy), Toussaint certainly did not.
He averaged just 4.0 yards per carry, and finished the season with 514. That's a 50.6 percent decline from last season, when he rushed for 1,041 yards.
Toussaint missed the opener due to a suspension stemming from his offseason drunken driving arrest, and missed the finale after sustaining a season-ending leg injury against Iowa.
The offensive line didn't hold up its end of the bargain, either, as it struggled to open holes all season. That was particularly true between the tackles.
The bottom line: Michigan's tailbacks averaged 78.3 yards per game, the fewest since the school began tracking the stat in 1936.
3. Missed opportunities against elites
Michigan was the only team in the country to play No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama. And it tossed in No. 3 Ohio State for good measure.
It played each away from home.
A schedule that seemed daunting in the preseason proved to be all that and more.
Thing is, Michigan had a shot in two of the three, but committed six turnovers in a 13-6 loss to Notre Dame and mustered only 60 yards of offense in the second half of a 26-21 loss to Ohio State.
It's fourth loss, against No. 23 Nebraska, was impacted by the loss of Robinson.
The Wolverines finished 8-4, a respectable mark against that kind of schedule. But turn two or even just one of those close calls into a win and they could be playing in a BCS game.
They missed those opportunities, though, and will settle for 8-4 and a bid to the Outback Bowl because of it. They're a good team, but one that consistently fell short against the best.
Starting cornerback Blake Countess suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the first quarter of the season -- while on special teams. After finishing 25th last year in turnover margin at plus-seven, Michigan finished 101st at minus-eight (and committed 16 turnovers in the four losses). The offensive playcalling was questionable in close losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State.
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