ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It’s not like a 3-0 start — complete with blowouts of Hawaii and UCF, and a gutsy come-from-behind win versus Colorado — is a bad thing for the No. 4-ranked Michigan Wolverines.
Having done all of that with three injured high-level/star players — Jourdan Lewis (CB), Bryan Mone (NT) and Taco Charlton (DL) — and a new starting quarterback — Wilton Speight — says something about Jim Harbaugh’s team.
Factor a new left side of the offensive line into the equation, and yeah — Michigan has done well through the first quarter of the regular season, touting the No. 4-ranked scoring offense in all of college football (53 PPG).
The Wolverines also lead the way in terms of third-down defense and red-zone defense. They’ve gotten their mitts on at least seven kicks/punts, too. A Michigan athletic department spokesman couldn’t confirm, but he said that the seven alterations could be a school record through the first three games.
But major changes need to be made if they’re going to compete for a Big Ten title and playoff spot. Major changes. They’ve only been tested once, and the conference schedule will certainly have plenty of more hurdles lined up down the road.
No more Hawaiis or UCFs. Lots more Colorados — and betters — for the rest of the time.
Special teams have been great. The defensive line has played well most of the time. Jabrill Peppers has lived up to mega-star billing. Those areas, alone, should all but guarantee a successful season for a team with enough pieces to win at least 10 games in 2016.
But there are weaknesses. Plenty of them, really.
Running Game Woes… Again…
Michigan hasn’t run the ball with massive authority on a consistent basis. However, Michigan has broken off big plays (already two 40-yard plus rushes).
Michigan has had a true freshman, Chris Evans, put up a dazzling debut with eight carries for 112 yards and two touchdowns. Not every team can say that about a new kid.
Michigan has also had a senior, De’Veon Smith, run hard with 11 carries for 87 yards and a touchdown during a difficult game versus Colorado.
But there has been very little regularity from the Wolverines backfield. Despite 168 yards versus one of the best defenses, statistically, in the nation this past Saturday, Michigan needs an extra kick from running backs.
Redshirt senior Drake Johnson hasn’t dressed. Kareem Walker, a true freshman/early enroll, has been put on some type of academic probation by Harbaugh and the program. The Wolverines need as many contributors as possible, and not having Johnson and Walker impedes that process.
Unless Smith quickly seizes control, Michigan will continue to struggle running the ball — something that it’s gotten used to doing over the past few years.
— Sports in the Mitten (@SITMBigAndKid) September 21, 2016
Left Side Issues
Quarterback Wilton Speight has taken a beating during the past two weeks. Also note the trouble with establishing the ground game.
Guys up front need to perform better, plain and simple. The left side has been on the wrong side, giving up sacks and allowing early contact with running backs. Sophomore left tackle Grant Newsome and true freshman left guard Ben Bredeson have incredibly high ceilings, but they noticeably struggled this past weekend against Colorado.
That doesn’t mean that fifth-year seniors Erik Magnuson, the right tackle, and Kyle Kalis, the right guard, have been perfect throughout the past three games. On Monday, Magnuson reported that he hadn’t given up a sack all year — but he didn’t address his team’s ability to run the ball. He’s the best pass-protector, but he also needs to “play big” in all phases.
Early, very-much-correctable stuff. But stuff that needs to be addressed, nonetheless.
Secondary Needs Jourdan Lewis
This past Saturday, Buffaloes quarterback Sefo Liufau picked apart Wolverines safeties and cornerbacks for 246 yards and three touchdowns. Completing 16 of 25 passes, Liufau knew exactly where, when and how to throw ball versus a Jourdan Lewis-less secondary.
Lewis remains sidelined with a lower-back issue. No real return date has been set; however, Harbaugh continues to monitor Lewis’ progress on a daily basis.
Don’t think for one second that the Buffaloes would have tested Lewis the same way they tested Jeremy Clark and Channing Stribling. The absence of Lewis — who may or not be available this Saturday versus Penn State — basically invites quarterbacks to amp-up their levels of bravery.
Liufau found his, tuning up Michigan for three 37-yard-plus passes — the 37-yarder was a touchdown to Devin Ross during the opening drive. Bobo Bryce notched a 50-yard catch. Shay Fields made Michigan pay with a 70-yard touchdown.
They had chemistry on Saturday, said Stribling, who diagnosed the ins-and-outs of his secondary’s performance versus the Buffaloes.
“Just knowing who’s deep, who’s not — playing technique,” Stribling said. “In the game, you’ve got to play your technique every time. You miss technique, somebody faster than you, stronger than you, will outplay you.”
Safeties Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas missed tackles, coverage and appeared to be out of place versus the Buffaloes, who, oddly enough, flexed their Wolverines-like secondary in Ann Arbor, nearly picking off Speight four or five times.
“They were good. Their secondary was good, too,” Stribling said. “I’m not going to say better than ours (laughs)… it was a good secondary. They all looked like they knew what they were doing. They focused up. And they wanted to come in and beat us — they were a good team.”