ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Jim Harbaugh must be quite satisfied these days. Thus far, his Michigan Wolverines have continuously performed at a high level — that’s “coach talk” for “these guys are legitimate.”
Through six games, players such as linebacker/do-all Jabrill Peppers and quarterback Wilton Speight have earned “A-plus-plus-plus” grades from their coach at some point this year. Not sure if an extra “plus” was added or one had been omitted. But you get the point — Harbaugh, who is in his second year at Michigan, has witnessed stand-out play from two of his brightest pupils.
Peppers and Speight. Chris Evans at running back. Amara Darboh at receiver. The entire D-line of Ryan Glasgow, Maurice Hurst, Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton.
Michigan, undefeated at 6-0 (3-0), has reached the halfway point of its regular-season schedule, taking this week to rest up for a homecoming clash Oct. 22 with Illinois. Six games into the thing, six more remaining on the docket.
It’s report-card time for the No. 4-ranked Wolverines, who have a more-than-decent shot at 11-1 or maybe even 12-0, per information researched by noted Michigan stat-man Drew Hallett.
Offense — A
Unless otherwise noted, all stats and rankings come from NCAA.com
Despite not having a top-50 passing offense, the Wolverines have the No. 4-ranked total offense, averaging an even 50 points per game. Of course, disposing of Rutgers, 78-0, this past Saturday helped pad that statistic — but the Wolverines have put up 45 or more four times this year.
There is no doubting the potency of their offense.
Thanks to the emergence of a running game, Michigan appears to have all of the major components of a juggernaut. The running backs aren’t “there” yet, but they flexed their power to the tune of 481 rushing yards against Rutgers. Evans, a true freshman, and Karan Higdon, a sophomore, combined for 261 of those yards.
Ty Isaac, a redshirt junior, rushed for 99 yards — his best game of the season and arguably his best at Michigan. Per the usual, Khalid Hill got the most out of his carries — he had two touches for two touchdowns. To date, he has a team-high seven rushing touchdowns and 21 total yards. The senior fullback has added a powerful dimension to the Wolverines’ ground attack.
A ground attack that continues to evolve each Saturday.
“We’re just hungry and looking to do better every week,” said Evans, who debuted with 112 yards and two touchdowns during a 63-3 season-opening win over Hawaii. “During the game (vs. Rutgers), we had a bet going on between running backs on who would get the longest rushing attempt.
“We just feed off of stuff like that, and going back and forth with it. Karan [Higdon] had a 53-yarder and I had a 57-yarder so I won that bet.”
Michigan isn’t top-10 or -25 in every statistic. But it shows well in most major categories.
Steady QB in Speight, who has thrown for 1,194 yards, 11 touchdowns and just two picks. Improving ground game with the No. 14-ranked rushing offense. An offensive line that’s done enough to protect assets. Jake Butt, a senior tight end, and fifth-year seniors Darboh and Jehu Chesson — slap an easy “A” on this offense.
Defense — A+
Michigan held Rutgers to 39 yards of total offense on Saturday, five coming by ground. The No. 1-ranked scoring defense rests in Ann Arbor (10. 3 PPG). So does the No. 1-ranked total defense, which has given up just seven touchdowns and 3.58 yards per play.
Opponents convert just 12.2 percent of third-down attempts, too. On Saturday, the Scarlet Knights found that out the hard way.
“I don’t know how many three and outs it was,” Harbaugh said, according to a press release from Rutgers. “I know there were only two first downs and not until late in the game. We were playing on half the field all night. The guys up front had a great game. There was constant pressure. The team has been tremendous.
“Didn’t allow a third down conversion all night defensively. There’s been incredible play on third down. (Defensive Coordinator) Don Brown is an amazing coach. I know I’ve been saying that a lot. It’s obvious to everyone, to our team, to our whole defensive staff.”
Here’s another credit to Brown: Michigan hasn’t given up rushing touchdown in the red zone. Michigan has the No. 13-ranked total rushing defense, giving up 99 yards per game.
One more: Michigan arguably has the best defensive line in college football. Depth on depth, stars on stars. This past week, Harbaugh said the D-line was the “spine” of the Wolverines.
This one goes to defensive backs coaches Mike Zordich and Brian Smith: The Wolverines have the No. 3-ranked team passing defense efficiency rating, meaning that teams haven’t really gone aerial too often. When they do, they average 87 yards per game.
Thank senior Jourdan Lewis, a repeat All-American to be, and Channing Stribling, who has been one of the most engaging corners in the Big Ten through the first six games.
Special Teams — B+
Field goals were an issue versus Wisconsin, with fifth-year senior Kenny Allen and walk-on Ryan Tice going 0-for-3 during a 14-7 win over the then-No. 9-ranked Badgers in Ann Arbor.
While he didn’t get a chance to rebound with a field goal at Rutgers, Allen knocked down seven of seven point-after attempts and has converted 46 of 46 of extra-point attempts this year (he was 31-for-31 in 2015).
This past week, Harbaugh said he would challenge Allen and Tice — with the winner getting field-goal duties. Allen has made 18 of 22 in 2015. This year, he’s made four of eight.
So there’s that one area of concern. Maybe they’ll continue to battle throughout the bye week.
But then there’s Peppers, the gem of the No. 2-ranked overall special teams unit in the country, per ESPN. There hasn’t been anyone who’s done anything with a kick or punt versus the Wolverines.
Having a Heisman candidate who influences all phases of the game, such as Peppers, adds a little extra luster to an already shining Michigan program and up-and-coming special teams.
They haven’t even reached full-tilt, but the Wolverines — as a whole — have certainly had an “A”-worthy first half of the season.