Q&A: Previewing the Wolverines with The Big House Report

It's rivalry week, y'all. Throw almost anything out the window when it comes to the MSU-UM game, because anything can happen.
What makes this game even more special is the fans knowledge — both fan bases know plenty about the opposing school's team in the current season.
To take it a little bit deeper, I got in touch with Joshua Henschke, who founded and writes for The Big House Report — and does a great job covering all things UM football.
So, I asked him five questions — and he asked me five — and he helped give myself and all of you some better insight into the Wolverines. Here is what he had to say:
1. How has the development of Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess impacted the Michigan offense?

I think Devin Funchess has had the most significant impact on the Michigan offense. Granted, both positions were of need coming into this year, it was unknown how some of the returning kids would respond with greater roles. Gardner hasn't exactly "WOW'ed" the fans so far this year. But, this doesn't mean he's a slouch, either. Gardner is showing his natural athleticism and abilities by adapting to a position where he isn't very familiar with. He's validated the position switch with some pretty good plays and a few touchdowns.

I've always been a huge Funchess fan before he signed his LOI with Michigan. He's an absolute freak out on the field. With size, athleticism, and great hands, he is proving he can and will be a valuable piece down the road for Michigan. I think the coaching staff knew exactly what they were getting when they recruited him, so it's not a huge surprise he's excelling at the tight end position thus far.

In terms of both of them together impacting the offense, I think they've provided Denard Robinson two tall receivers down field. Michigan has needed some size since Brady Hoke has come to town (as they are still playing with what is left over from the Rodriguez era) in the wide receiver and tight end positions. Though Funchess doesn't add the weight to be a pure blocking tight end, they're offensive contributions have justified their playing time. I'm excited to see what's in store for the future.

2. The Wolverines pass defense ranks second in the nation…who has stepped up after Blake Countess was lost for the season?

Before I get into the defensive backs, a lot of the credit for the amazing pass defense numbers goes to Jake Ryan and his linebacking core. Mattison loves to let them loose and blitz, and it has become very effective. Giving the legacy jersey numbers to Jake Ryan (47) and Desmond Morgan (48) wasn't on a whim. They are legitimate ball players that are very deserving of that honor.

I think senior J.T. Floyd has done what he has had to do in order to secure the top defensive back position. He has done a great job shutting down his man and hasn't been giving up much of the deep ball (which has been a problem in the past) lately. Another surprising kid to emerge is Sophomore Raymon Taylor. He has done a great job to fill very big shoes left by the injury to Countess. Taylor has already secured two picks and hasn't made any costly mistakes. The combination of Countess and Taylor is going to be great in the future years.

When you mention the defensive backs, you can't forget about Senior Jordan Kovacs. No matter how highly touted Countess is, Kovacs is the heart-and-soul of the defensive backs. He is their leader, and proves it with his play on the field. Kovacs has done a fine job as well. He will be sorely missed.

3. Michigan State has bottled up Denard Robinson in previous meetings, what do you think Al Borges might have up his sleeve? How do you expect Michigan to attack the MSU defense, which is solid against the run?

I don't think now is the time to be "cute" against Michigan State. Just play smash mouth football. Of course, knowing Borges, you never know what he's about to pull from the booth. So I'd definitely expect a trick play or two. Considering his trick plays pathetically failed against Notre Dame, I'm hoping he stays away from it.

I think Denard needs to keep doing what he has been against Purdue and Illinois. Make smart throws and don't force anything down field. Denard is going to get his touches, it's going to be important to be patient and try not to force the run. Another factor is the inept play of Fitzgerald Toussaint as of late. He hasn't exactly grasped the starting running back position as he did last season. With that being said, I'd expect to see a lot of sophomore Thomas Rawls out there Saturday. Rawls is a very physical back who loves to run through you. The combination of the two seem to be effective. Let's see if it can last another week.

4. In your mind, what does this game mean to Michigan now? As the rivalry seems to have grown of late, is there a bigger meaning for the Wolverines?

I don't think this game has changed in terms of importance, considering it's part of the "big three" in rivalry games (Ohio State and Notre Dame being the other two). We're in-state rivals, it's always going to be important. I think the mindset around Ann Arbor is pretty simple: finish them. It's time to get the "monkey off their backs", so to speak. Four years has been quite some time to lose the Paul Bunyan Trophy, I think they're getting desperate to get it back. I think that's the biggest meaning or storyline for Michigan. Is the game on Saturday a must win? I say yes, simply because Michigan State is just another Big Ten opponent at the end of the day. If they want to make it to Indianapolis they must win these conference games.
5. What do you think is the x-factor in the matchup this weekend?

I think the biggest storyline is how the defense can respond to shutting down La'veon Bell, and how Denard will perform against the Spartans. It's not a secret, Bell is really, really good. There's no other way you can look at it. If the defense can shut down Bell, this makes the game change completely, as Michigan State will have to rely on Maxwell's arm to make plays. Can Maxwell get it done? We'll find out Saturday.

In order to top off the "Legend of Denard Robinson", he needs a victory against Michigan State and a Big Ten Championship. Let's focus on what's infront of us first. Denard has played poorly against Michigan State during his career, I'm not going to sugar coat it, he sucked last year. If Robinson can play like he did against Ohio State last year (arguably the best overall performance of his career) then he pretty much cements himself as a Michigan legend. But, he needs to step up. He can't play like the Robinson Michigan fans saw against Notre Dame, the MSU defense will destroy him.

I think both storylines are important, and will make for a very entertaining game this Saturday in Ann Arbor.

Thanks to Joshua for taking the time to help preview the Wolverines heading into this weekend's showdown for the Paul Bunyan Trophy. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshuaHenschke. The Big House Report is also on Twitter @TBHReport.