Michigan Football heads into a prime time showdown with No. 2 ranked Penn State on Saturday with a 5-1 record and a lot of question marks. There has been one area of Michigan’s team that has been outstanding all season, but other areas aren’t looking as good.
That area of the team that has been outstanding should be obvious, Michigan’s defense is really good. They lead the NCAA in total defense, third down defense and pass efficiency defense. They also lead the Big Ten in seven defensive categories and are second in another two categories.
Michigan is sixth nationally in sacks (3.33 avg.) and 18th in the NCAA in tackles for loss with an average of 7.7 per game. The Wolverines have recorded six or more TFLs in every game this season: Florida (11), Cincinnati (7), Air Force (9) Purdue (7), Michigan State (6) and Indiana (7).
Michigan’s defense has forced an average of 7.8 three-and-outs per game this season, which leads the country. The defense also gets stronger as the game goes on. Don Brown’s crew has allowed just 31 second half points this season and last week Indiana became the first team this season to score against the Wolverines in the fourth quarter. Perhaps the most impressive stat is that Michigan has forced 31 three-and-outs in 46 second half possessions this season (67.4 pct.).
Chase Winovich and Devin Bush are in the top four in the Big Ten in sacks and rank among the top 30 players in the NCAA in sacks. Rashan Gary and Maurice Hurst have been disruptive forces and Michigan’s cornerbacks, Lavert Hill and David Long, aren’t getting the credit they deserve for playing lockdown defense.
“They’re doing things that are really remarkable, eye-catching,” Harbaugh said about the defense on Monday. “The most three-and-outs or right up there at the top. We’ve had the most opposing punts against us. To limit teams to 280 yards or less in the first six ball games, that’s been done like 10 times in the last 17 years. Just a demanding, punishing pace. And you see improvement daily.”
Michigan’s offense ranks 109th nationally in passing efficiency. They rank 112th in tackles for loss allowed and 101st in sacks allowed. Michigan’s receivers have underwhelmed, especially after Tarik Black suffered a season-ending injury. In the Michigan State game, Eddie McDoom dropped a pass in crunch time that hit him right in the chest. This came on Michigan’s final desperation drive and would have provided the team with a much better shot at the endzone than the hail mary they had to resort to.
Michigan’s offensive line has been a mess, particularly at right tackle where Juwann Bushell-Beatty has taken over for Nolan Ulizio. The good news is that the line has started to establish itself as a good run blocking team. Michigan ranks fourth in the Big Ten in rushing offense and the Wolverines racked up 278 yards on the ground in their win over Indiana.
Michigan’s offense ranks 10th or worse in the Big Ten in eight different categories; passing offense (11), pass efficiency (12), sacks allowed (10), tackles for loss allowed (12), first downs (10), completion percentage (10), third down conversion (13), fumbles lost (11).
“It’s the whole 11,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “I know we can be better and I want to get there. We have to challenge everybody. We need more people open. That’s got to occur. There’s challenges on the receivers, challenges on the quarterback when they are (open). But I’d also like to have more opportunities where our quarterback is standing back there with an open receiver (to throw to).”
Michigan’s quarterback play has been a disaster. Before his injury in the Purdue game, Wilton Speight had completed 54.3% of his passes this season with three touchdowns and two interceptions. John O’Korn looked great in the second half of the Purdue game, but has unraveled since. Against the Spartans, O’Korn completed 16 of 35 passes for 198 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions. This past weekend, he completed just 10 of 20 passes for 58 yards. That adds up to a 47% completion rate for 256 yards with three interceptions, in two games.
“I need to pick it up,” O’Korn said on Monday. “It’s as simple as that, and there’s no way around it. I’m definitely not up to my own goals and aspirations. I need to hit guys when they’re open — there were a few plays on Saturday where we had guys open, and I just need to find them.”
O’Korn has been locking in on his first option which has caused him to not see that his second or third option is often running wide open down the field. That tendency has caused him to throw into tight coverage, resulting in incomplete passes and missed opportunities.
On Michigan’s first drive at Indiana, O’Korn misfired on a deep ball to Donovan Peoples-Jones, who had several steps on Indiana safety Chase Dutra. DPJ would have cruised untouched into the endzone if that ball had been on target.
There are other issues, like taking a delay of game penalty that nullified a shovel pass to Khalid Hill, one that the Wolverines had been setting up all day.
O’Korn has done some things well. For example, his ability to extend plays has bailed out the offensive line on several occasions. However, he has to get better. He needs to go through his progressions and find the open receivers, they are out there.
What it all means
Michigan has a national championship caliber defense. If the offense can rise to the level of at least serviceable, this team could do some damage in the second half of the season. The Wolverines are 10 point underdogs this week and figure to also be underdogs at Wisconsin and at home against Ohio State.
“What an opportunity for us to show ourselves, especially after two kind of tough games, losing to MSU and having that overtime win over Indiana,” Maurice Hurst said about the game at Penn State. “Having that opportunity to redeem ourselves and keep ourselves in the playoff and Big Ten championship (hunt).”
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