Michigan zones in on third-down efficiency

Devin Gardner gave Michigan fans little to complain about during his first three and a half games as the team's quarterback.

After Gardner became the top signal-caller Nov. 3 at Minnesota, Michigan averaged 38.3 points and 440.3 yards during its next three games. The Wolverines converted 7 of 12 third downs against Minnesota, 7 of 10 against Northwestern and 9 of 12 against Iowa. The trends continued through the first 30 minutes in Columbus against archrival Ohio State, as Michigan piled up 21 points and 219 yards and converted 3 of 5 third-down attempts.

But then Michigan's offense disappeared, quite literally. After a six-play drive to start the second half, Michigan ran just 10 plays during its next four possessions.

The Big Ten's best third-down offense -- Michigan ranks sixth nationally at 51.3 percent -- went 1-for-3 on third-down attempts in the second half. Michigan ran a season-low 47 plays in the game, 23 fewer than Ohio State in a 26-21 Buckeyes win.

"There were a lot of plays I left on the sheet," offensive coordinator Al Borges told ESPN.com. "We played a poor half of football against Ohio. How about the first half, and the previous three games? Devin Gardner was player of the week in the conference two out of the four times he started. He played pretty well offensively, had pretty good numbers for really three and half [games].

"There's no excuse for what happened in the second half, but we had been very productive. Because of how we finished, a lot of people think we're in worse shape than we are."

Like many teams, Michigan has spent a portion of its early bowl practices getting younger players more reps than usual. But as the Wolverines prepare for their Outback Bowl matchup Jan. 1 against No. 10 South Carolina, they're focusing on reviving what has been a very efficient third-down offense.

"That's a high, high emphasis right now," Borges said. "Because when we keep the chains moving, everybody's generally happy. A lot of guys touch the ball, everybody gets a chance to make a play. If you don't get third downs, you don't get calls out. A lot gets left on your sheet.

"We're a 51 percent third-down conversion team, and that includes short yardage. It's been a strength. It certainly hasn't been a weakness. It was in the second half of [the Ohio State] game."

To get back on course, Michigan likely needs to get more rushing production outside of the quarterback position, which has been a struggle at times this season. Denard Robinson, the team's leading rusher as a quarterback (1,166 yards) who played some running back late in the season, can help there. Borges also wants to get Justice Hayes more involved, as well as Thomas Rawls.

It won't be easy against an "incredibly athletic" South Carolina defense ranked 15th nationally against the run (119 yards per game).

"Our running game, we finished with 187 [rushing yards a game], and that's nothing to sneeze at," Borges said, "but at times, I don't think we were as consistent as we could have been. That hurt us a little bit. We have to improve with our home-position running game, that's the biggest thing, giving the ball to the tailback and not having to run the quarterback all the time."

Although Gardner is clearly the team's future at quarterback and changed the offense a bit when he took the reins, Borges continues to "spoon-feed" players some of the pro-style elements that will be Michigan's hallmarks in the future. A strong performance against Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina could set up the Wolverines for bigger and better things in 2013.

"You do set the tone," Borges said. "It doesn't have a lot to do with what you do next year because you're playing with a significantly different team, but we need to finish the season on an up-beat. We need to do the things that make you happy in the offseason."