The meat of the season has officially arrived for the Michigan Wolverines. No more easy wins, no more inferior opponents, we are about to find out what this Michigan team is really made of. After a commanding win over Maryland on Saturday Michigan jumped to a 5-1 record. This week will be a tough test for the Wolverines as #15 Wisconsin comes to the Big House desperate to prove they are still contenders.
Let’s take a look at who’s hot and who’s not heading into Saturday night’s primetime showdown…
Shea Patterson – Shea Patterson had his best game as a Wolverine on Saturday. He finished the day 19-of-27 for 282 yards and three touchdowns. His only blemish on the day was a tipped interception late in the first quarter. This marks the third time this season that Patterson has posted a completion percentage higher than 70%. Patterson was efficient all day, but continued to show off what he can do with his feet. All three of his touchdown passes were on the run outside of the pocket.
If Shea Patterson continues to make plays like he did against Maryland, Michigan is going to be tough to beat. Wisconsin is the 41st ranked defense in the nation and has given up an average of 331.5 passing yards a game since entering Big Ten play. Look for Patterson to continue to elevate his performance this week in the Big House.
Zach Gentry – Zach Gentry got off to a little bit of a slow start to begin the season. Through the first two weeks he had just three receptions for 21 yards. Since Week 3 however, Gentry has been on a tear logging 17 catches for 285 yards and a score. Shea Patterson was looking for Gentry all day against Maryland finding him seven times for 112 yards. Gentry is Patterson’s biggest target by far standing at six feet eight inches and weighing 262 pounds. On Saturday, Gentry proved that he was not only the biggest target but the most reliable as well.
Gentry has become a nice security blanket for Patterson and with a couple of injury scares to the wide receiving corp. on Saturday, Gentry stepped up big when his team needed him. Look for the chemistry between Gentry and Patterson to continue to grow this week as the Wolverines face their toughest test in the Big Ten so far.
Michigan Defense – What can’t this defense do? Seriously, if you find something let me know. Michigan has the number one ranked total defense and is absolutely relentless on the field. Even without projected top five NFL draft pick Rashan Gary, the Wolverines were able to record two sacks and five tackles for loss while limiting the Terrapin offense to just 220 yards, most of which coming in garbage time when the outcome had already been decided. Maryland scored 21 points, although seven were scored off of a kick-off return and the other 14 happened late in the fourth quarter.
Michigan’s defense will have its biggest challenge of the year this week against Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, the NCAA’s leading rusher. Taylor is averaging 169.8 yards per game and will truly put this stout Wolverine defense to the test. If the defense can limit Taylor, it should be another great day in Ann Arbor.
Special Teams – Maryland’s Ty Johnson took a kick return 98 yards to the house late in the first quarter to give Maryland a seven to three lead. Michigan had dominated the game up until that point and it kept Maryland in it much longer than they should have been. This is the type of blunder Michigan must avoid the next three weeks against Wisconsin, MSU, and Penn State. Special Teams touchdowns serve as game changers, especially in a tight game. One mistake could be the difference between a Win and a Loss.
Wisconsin ranks 81st at punt returns and 47th at kick returns. Michigan has struggled defending the kick return all year ranking 88th in the country. They cannot let a sub-par special teams group keep Wisconsin in the game if they want to come out with a victory on Saturday. Expect Harbaugh to get his special teams unit under control and much more prepared this week against Wisconsin.
Injured Players – Injuries continue to haunt the Wolverines on both sides of the ball. Rashan Gary has missed the past two games with a shoulder injury and second leading rusher Chris Evans has been side-lined for the past three. It hasn’t affected the Wolverines on the win column yet, but as the hardest part of their schedule is arriving the Wolverines need to be at full strength in order to compete in the Big Ten.
The Wide receivers have been banged up all season. Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins both went back to the locker room Saturday after taking big hits, but luckily for the Wolverines Peoples-Jones was able to come back in and score a touchdown later in the drive. Tarik Black, who many thought would be the Wolverines number one wide out heading into the year still hasn’t played a snap after injuring his foot before Week 1. Harbaugh said that he is “progressing nicely” but has yet to put a time-table on his return.
Defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour was carted off the field Saturday after what looked like a gruesome lower leg injury. Harbaugh said, “it was better than it looked” but there’s still no update on his outlook moving forward. Michigan will certainly be tested on Saturday and if they miss key players like Gary and Evans yet again, it’ll only make the rest of the season that much more challenging.
Michigan’s First Quarter – I may sound like a broken record here, but Michigan has to come out of the gate stronger; a lot stronger. It took the Wolverines three drives to put up points against a less than impressive Maryland defense and even then it was just a field goal. This is the second straight game the Wolverines have come out flat and one of these times it is going to come back to bite them.
Wisconsin is a team that wants to pound the football on the ground, tire out the defense, and control the time of possession. They are much more comfortable playing with a lead then trying to come from behind. If Michigan comes out slow on Saturday, they will be playing right into Wisconsin’s strength. Jim Harbaugh has no excuse if his team is not ready to play at home, in primetime, against a ranked conference opponent.
Final Thoughts – Overall, I fully expect this to be an all-out slug fest. Look for both teams to continue to run well and play tough defense. In the end, it will come down to which team’s quarterback can make a few big plays late. I’m going to give the advantage to Shea Patterson here. If Patterson plays like he did against Maryland and is able to make some plays out of the pocket, look for Michigan to pull this one out at home and move to 6-1.