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Michigan Wolverines: The Tides are Turning in Ann Arbor

Big Ten football title contention

It has taken four years, but the Wolverine faithful finally have something to be excited about in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh and company got a monkey off their back getting a huge road win verse a ranked opponent for the first time since 2006 and dominating an in-state rival that has had their number for the past 10 years. The reality of competing for a Big Ten title and a shot at the College Football Playoff becomes more real each week. Still, a lot of work to do heading into a crucial home game against a very talented Penn State team after a bye week, but there is no denying the overall improvement week-to-week on both sides of the football in Ann Arbor.

Strengths on offense

The biggest question heading into Saturday’s game against MSU was: Could Michigan run the football against a top-tier run defense and not be forced to become one dimensional? Though they didn’t light up the stat sheet on the ground, they had a relentless, never-quit toughness that Harbaugh has instilled in them. Michigan ran the football a whopping 53 times, for 183 yards, averaging 3.5 yards a carry. The offensive line wore down the Spartan defense with methodical, down-hill, smash mouth football. Power, counter, sweep and inside zone read were the four-run plays Michigan clang to in order to establish a strong running game presence against MSU. The guard/center combination blocks obliterated the interior of MSU’s defense for a good chunk of the game.

Big Ten football title contention
Image courtesy of iFOOH

Michigan is now 10-0 when their workhorse, Karan Higdon, gets over the century mark on the ground over the course of his career. Higdon had 33 touches for 144 yards in multi-weather environment game in East Lansing. He is undersized for his position, but the way he runs the football does showcase that. He is the perfect mix of power and speed. His toughness, ironically, is his biggest downfall as a running back. He will run so hard that he does not allow blocks to develop as much as they could if he would pump the brakes a little bit.

Shea Patterson is the best quarterback Harbaugh has had under his tenure at Michigan. The deep ball to Donavon Peoples-Jones, against the wind, was an elite caliber throw. He is the quarterback that can lead Michigan to a Big Ten title birth and a shot at the College Football Playoff. With that said, Patterson has still not had his best game as a Wolverine.

Weaknesses on offense

Third and seven-plus is a tough place to be to convert for a first down. But with Penn State, a gritty team in Indiana and Ohio State remaining on the schedule, being tied for dead last in the country on 3rd and seven-plus conversions has to change if they want to compete for a Big Ten title and a national championship. They don’t have to even be in the top 50, but better statistically than where they are.

Digs in between linebacker windows in zone, drags underneath in man or zone to allow their athletes to run in space, flooding zones to expand a team vertically and horizontally and motioning wide receivers to get them natural separation on certain routes in man-to-man coverage could be beneficial for the Wolverines on 3rd and long.

Big Ten football title contention
Image courtesy of Sporting News

Patterson does a lot of things well at the quarterback position, but he also has a lot of bad habits from his time at Ole Miss University. He is still stuck in this “do it all” approach when he extends plays sometimes. He forces throws that should not be thrown instead of running or throwing the ball away and living to see another down. There were two batted balls in the air that should have been picked throughout the game, but Nico Collins and Zach Gentry were just in the right place at the right time to bail him out. His decision making on the run as well as in the pocket with hanging on to the football too long will need to improve down the stretch to not put his offense in bad situations.

Bad weather happens in football games. Ball security becomes even more crucial in games like that. Two hands on the ball through contact and high and tight is the rule no matter what the elements are.

Strengths on defense

Big Ten football title contention
Image courtesy of clickondetroit.com

For back-to-back weeks, Coach Don Brown, his defensive staff and players have choked the life out of their opponents on defense. Their ability to get penetration by using their explosive take-offs and violent hand strikes and overall technique is what separates them from many college football teams around the country. Senior, Chase Winovich, is a prime time example of fundamentally sound football: he hardly gets reached and forces the ball back inside, he closes down when tackles down block and blows up any pullers that try and kick him out and constricts the C gap when out blocked. He can play both defensive end spots and not miss a beat, which shows his versatility. There are not many times on tape when he is out of position.

The linebackers did a great job of filling gaps, running sideline-to-sideline and making windows small for Lewerke to throw to his tight ends and running backs for most of the game. Devin Bush Jr will be a first-round NFL draft pick when he leaves Michigan.

Michigan’s secondary played lights out, too. No pass interference calls and did a stellar job of being in the hip pocket of MSU’s receivers creating little to no window to throw the football in.

Weaknesses on Defense

Giving up only 5 completions in the secondary is hard to argue against, but this secondary has still not been truly tested yet. Brian Lewerke has plummeted as MSU’s quarterback. He has zero confidence in his ability right now, and the play-calling hasn’t helped them much either. There would have been more of a passing game if MSU had a healthy Cody White, Darrell Stewart Jr and Felton Davis not going down with a torn Achilles during the game.

Big Ten football title contention
Image courtesy of Alamy

Michigan fans will find out in two-weeks how good this secondary actually is when they go against arguably the best quarterback in the Big Ten, Trace McSorley, and their strong offense. If they can contain Penn State’s passing game, the secondary for Michigan will be the real deal.

Stupid penalties is also a cause of concern for Michigan. Everyone understands it was a rival game, that does not excuse getting roughing the passer penalties, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and late hits because of the intensity of the game. If Michigan plays that undisciplined against Penn State, Indiana or Ohio State, it will haunt them down the stretch. Too much on the line to take selfish, bully penalties.

Special Teams

Quinn Nordin needs to go back to the basics. Nordin has zero confidence in his ability to kick a football. Not having a kicking game in these next few games in the red zone could end up being a reason why Michigan could lose a game. Michigan’s punter, Will Hart, on the other hand though, is so much part of the success of the Michigan defense. His ability to pin teams inside the 20 and flip field position by bombing 50 to 60-yard points is something that not many college programs have the luxury of having that at their disposal

 

Featured image courtesy of slate.com

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