Devin Funchess has 23 catches for 492 yards and four TD. (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)
East Lansing — The past three seasons, few teams defended Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson as well as Michigan State.
A player who was a threat to break off a long run at any moment had little success against the Spartans, managing one victory in his career, last year’s 12-10 decision where the Wolverines were kept out of the end zone.
But things are changing with the Michigan offense, and in the process, how Michigan State defends it.
The spread has been phased out, for the most part, and junior Devin Gardner has taken over under center. The Wolverines are scoring more than 40 points and average 446.4 yards on offense.
And Gardner has been impressive, leading the Big Ten with 328.4 yards of offense (16th in the nation), and has thrown for 1,779 yards and 13 touchdowns and ran for 520 yards and nine scores.
“Devin Gardner can make a lot of plays in space, obviously,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said ahead of today’s matchups between his No. 24 Spartans and the No. 23 Wolverines. “He’s a bigger guy. I think he runs through tackles a little bit more effectively maybe. They do a lot of different things with him that they didn’t do with Denard, probably because the offenses conceptually are different. I think it’s a little bit more power game with Michigan right now than it was maybe prior to.
“I think it’ll be a key component of the game that we be able to control his running ability, and then obviously throwing the football to (Devin) Funchess, (Jeremy) Gallon and the rest.”
Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough has noticed a distinct difference with Gardner.
“He’s able to stay in the pocket and make some throws,” Bullough said. “Denard was more of a … shake-and-move-you-about and do all that kind of stuff to try to make you miss, but Devin is more of a downhill, more of a (Nebraska quarterback) Taylor Martinez-type guy. He’s not going to do a bunch of shake-and-bake at the line, but once he gets moving you know he’s hard to catch.”
He was hard to catch in Michigan’s victory over Indiana when he threw for 503 yards (two touchdowns) and ran for 81 (three touchdowns). His 584 yards established a Big Ten record.
While he has put up some impressive numbers, some have been not so impressive. Gardner has thrown 10 interceptions, has fumbled seven times, losing four, and has made some poor decisions at crucial moments.
It’s a formula that could play into Michigan State’s hands. The Spartans defense has nine interceptions and six fumble recoveries and have scored five defensive touchdowns.
“I think turnovers matter,” Dantonio said. “Turnovers win and lose football games for you. I think turnovers are the things that can hurt you the quickest. It’s tough to overcome when you’re minus-2 in the turnover margin.”
Those turnovers were big in slowing Robinson. He threw five interceptions in his career against Michigan State and Isaiah Lewis returned one for a touchdown in 2011.
This year’s secondary is hoping to take the same type of advantage against Gardner.
“He has a lot of faith in his receivers, and we’ve got a lot of opportunities to make plays on the ball back there,” cornerback Darqueze Dennard said. “I know me and the rest of the guys in the secondary and the defense, we’re just ready to make plays.”
When Michigan’s offense is rolling, it’s not just Gardner. He has weapons, including Funchess and Gallon.
Against Indiana, Gallon had 14 catches for 369 yards and two touchdowns, establishing a Big Ten record and accounting for the second-most receiving yards in a game in FBS history.
“He’s a quick guy,” Dennard said. “He’s fast, runs good routes, gets in and out, as well. He’s a good receiver.”
Funchess, 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, has been split out more this season, creating a matchup problem for most teams. He has 23 catches for 492 yards and four touchdowns and has gone over 100 yards in a game twice.
“He’s a great mismatch tight end,” Dantonio said. “When you’ve got a mismatch tight end, you can move him around in different positions, which they do.”
But Dennard doesn’t believe Funchess will be a mismatch for the Spartans.
“Trey (Waynes) and I have been on the outside, we know what we can do,” he said. “We know our capabilities. We’ve played against big receivers. He’s just a bigger body, just like a bigger receiver which we have played. He’s probably stronger than other receivers, but he’s a lot slower than the other receivers, as well.”
And even though the Michigan offense has plenty of firepower, Michigan State still is the No. 1 defense in the nation.
It’s something Bullough believes is just as important today as the gaudy stats the Wolverines have posted.
“I think we’ve proven ourselves no matter what anybody says in terms of who we’ve played,” he said. “We’re proud of what we’ve done. So I don’t think we have anything to prove to anybody else except ourselves, and we’ve been tested. We’ve seen good offenses, whether they have the best record or not, we’ve seen and played and dominated, quite frankly, good offenses this year.”