Ohio State has spent the season looking surprisingly vulnerable, even as they hold the top spot in the polls. Michigan State barely got by Purdue last Saturday, the Spartans’ signature win over Oregon no longer looks quite so impressive and they were dropped from #2 to #4. That begs this question—is there room for a third contender to win the Big Ten East and is that team Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines?
Don’t look now, but Michigan is some playing some tough football. They’re running the ball on offense and they’re stopping the run on defense. The Wolverines have given up only 14 points in their last four games, all wins. Michigan’s one loss, a close 24-17 defeat at Utah to start the season, suddenly looks pretty good. Utah is undefeated and destroyed Oregon 62-20 on the road. The Utes, frankly, have a case to be ranked #1 if we base it strictly on games played to date. And the Wolverines had a real chance to beat them on the road.
Here’s what Michigan has done coming out of that opening Thursday night loss…
*Beat Oregon State 35-7, with 126 rushing yards from De’Veon Smith, while holding the Beavers to 1.8 yards-per-attempt (YPA).
*Beat UNLV 28-7, with Ty Isaac is the leading rusher this time, getting 114 yards on just eight carries. The Rebels could manage just 2.6 YPA.
*Rolled over BYU 31-0 in an early afternoon national TV game. This is the same BYU team that had beaten Nebraska on the road, beat Boise State and had UCLA on the ropes in the fourth quarter. Smith rushed for 125 yards and the Cougars managed just 2.3 YPA.
*Opened Big Ten play with another shutout, beating Maryland 28-0. Smith was out with an ankle/leg injury that does not appear to be a long-term problem, while the defense held the Terps to a 1.1 YPA.
That’s called domination in the trenches. The schedule, admittedly, is not a bear, but nor is it filled with cupcakes. All of the above teams have at least two wins. The BYU win was dismissed in some quarters as being a product of Cougar fatigue after those first three games. That’s a reasonable possibility. It’s also a reasonable possibility that the reason that the “fatigue” hit against Michigan rather than UCLA had something to do with the Wolverines.
Michigan is both experienced and talented in its defensive front seven. Each starter is a senior and according to the NFL scouts at OurLads.com, six of them have futures in the pros next spring. Strong safety Jabril Peppers is a sophomore and a big-time playmaking talent. There’s no reason the Wolverines can’t keep stuffing the run throughout conference play in a league where a lot of offenses rely heavily on it.
There are concerns. Jake Rudock, the graduate transfer from Iowa, leaves a lot to be desired. His completion rate of 60 percent is pedestrian in this day and age, particularly when his 6.46 yards-per-pass is weak. If Ohio State or Michigan State could force Michigan into an up-and-down pace, it’s hard to see the Wolverines keeping up. What we’re about to find out, as Big Ten play heats up, is if Michigan can continue to control tempo, like a halfcourt offense in basketball, and if Rudock can at least make enough plays to keep drives alive and avoid mistakes.
The testing time is now. Michigan hosts Northwestern on Saturday and then the big battle with Michigan State goes down in Ann Arbor on October 17. By the time it’s over, we’ll know what the Wolverines are. If they go 0-2, they’re a decent bowl team, nothing more. If they at least beat Northwestern, Michigan is viable to be the third-best team in the Big Ten, which would have at least a Capital One Bowl bid as the prize. And a sweep? Then it’s time to start pointing to Ohio State’s arrival at the end of the season as one with both conference and national title implications.
It would be just like the old days in the Big Ten, and if it happens, it won’t because of a newfangled spread offense or anything fancy. Michigan is making its way back in a way near and dear to the heart of Harbaugh’s old coach, Bo Schembecler—by hitting people in the trenches.