ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan didn’t need overtime to beat Wisconsin. However, that wasn’t the case for Ohio State, which escaped with a 30-23 extra-frame victory Saturday in Madison.
What does that mean for the No. 3-ranked Wolverines?
Well, based on a common opponent, it means that Jim Harbaugh’s team just needs to duplicate its first-half performance during the second half of 2016. It means that the final Saturday of November may not be all-Buckeyes in Columbus.
Yes, this one might actually be a game for Harbaugh, who lost 42-13 in 2015.
Ohio State’s win over Wisconsin proved it’s still a team to beat in the Big Ten. But it didn’t prove that it’s the team to beat — that team could be Michigan.
Video note: Tempo teams have given Michigan problems during recent years, but Michigan handled UCF with relative ease this year. Michigan’s defense has taken care of pro-style offenses, tempo and things in-between through six games.
With the No. 1-ranked total defense, the Wolverines (6-0, 3-0) should continue to build brick walls between opponents and first downs. And the red zone. With exception to Ohio State, Michigan won’t face an overly potent offense for the rest of the season.
Indiana has the No. 28-ranked passing offense, led by Richard Lagow. Michigan State has the No. 48-ranked passing offense, led by… nobody… right now. Tyler O’Connor? Brian Lewerke? The Spartans have problems up front — problems that trump any issues with quarterbacks.
Regardless, the Wolverines have answers for whomever and whatever. Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling have the corners handled. Michigan’s safeties have improved, with Delano Hill leading the charge.
Good luck to those who try, right?
Illinois has the No. 49-ranked rushing offense, averaging 189 yards per game. Ohio State has the No. 4-ranked rushing offense, averaging a staggering 300 yards per game. However, Michigan has the No. 8-ranked rushing defense, allowing 99 per Saturday. The Wolverines have bent on the ground (see UCF game), but they’re more than capable of handling an aggressive set of running backs.
Opponents have entered the red zone six times against Michigan, scoring thrice by way of the pass. Iowa, which hosts Michigan on Nov. 12, has converted 23 of 24 red-zone attempts. That’ll be a matchup to watch.
Again, and easier said than done, but the simple maintenance should work out the rest of the way for Michigan’s defense. Several other factors, such as continued dominance from the D-line, should also be considered. In short, an top-to-bottom, Michigan has proven that it has the best defense in the Big Ten.
Despite having his “worst” game — statistically speaking — against Rutgers, redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight has time and time again delivered for the Wolverines, who rushed for 481 yards against the Scarlet Knights — they didn’t need Speight’s arm during the 78-0 win.
Six of 13. Nothing special. And Harbaugh only opted to throw thrice in the second half, so that factor must also be considered. So far, Speight has held steady as one of the most efficient passers in the game, having thrown only two interceptions — the least of any Big Ten starter — and 11 touchdowns. Fourteen QBR points separate Speight (145) from Big Ten-leader JT Barrett of Ohio State (169).
Again, Speight has started just six times. He’s in the middle of his first year as full-time starter and has already weathered the storm. He’s made mistakes. He’s also learned. He’s been rocked by UCF. He’s already torn up Penn State. He did enough to beat Wisconsin.
Another case of more of the same. At this point, Speight can only ascend — he’s already established a baseline: Roughly 60 percent completion rate, some deep throws to recievers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, a couple 20-yarders to tight end Jake Butt.
Two weeks ago in New Jersey, the Wolverines revved their rushing engines for four quarters. It was a clinic, led by true freshman Chris Evans — who leads the team with 443 all-purpose yards (one yard more than Jabrill Peppers’ 442). Evans holds the key to quick strikes. Sophomore Karan Higdon, who combined with Evans for 261 yards versus Rutgers, should also be thrown into that equation.
The Wolverines desperately need a lethal run game before being considered a true-blue national contender. They’re in the conversation for the Big Ten — no doubt. But can they run with the Buckeyes? One huge display against the worst team in the league doesn’t guarantee such success — but Michigan certainly turned on something while pounding Rutgers.
With 107 yards against Penn State, senior De’Veon Smith again flashed the high-end of his skill set. He bounced off tacklers, carried defenders for extra yards and, simply put, looked like a ballet bulldozer. Grace and power. All of it was shown during that 49-10 victory.
But he’s been cold lately. He took a backseat to the youngsters while in New Jersey. Along with fifth-year senior fullback Khalid Hill — who leads the team with eight rushing touchdowns — Smith holds they key to the power game. Don’t forget Ty Isaac, a redshirt junior who, despite having already rushed for a career-high 276 yards, has yet to reach his peak.
Five of the six remaining games appear to be tune-ups for the marquee season-finale with Ohio State in Columbus, leaving a relatively simple to-do list: Continue to take care of business, nurture the run game, allow Speight and Peppers to do their things…
And don’t remove the foot from the gas.
The Big Ten’s No. 1-ranked scoring offense, No. 1-ranked defense and the rest have already done the work. It’s time for Harbaugh to throw this thing into cruise control.