Here is what we learned from this weekend’s performance and what we’re now asking.
What We Learned: This Michigan running game looks legit.
It was entirely understandable if you still found yourself a skeptic of the Michigan rushing attack following success on the ground against overmatched opponents like Western Michigan, SMU, Nebraska and Northwestern – average yards per game (242.5); average yards per carry (5.6); average rush defense rank (80.1).
After all, we’ve seen this tired act before of Michigan pounding bad defenses only to come up lame against the better teams it faces.
But there were some positive signs against Maryland in Week 6 when U-M averaged 4.3 yards per carry and senior tailback Karan Higdon finished with 103 yards against an opponent ranked 36th in rush defense.
Wisconsin wasn’t as stout against the run as in past years, but the Badgers were still only yielding 130.2 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry, and in the first quarter Saturday night, it looked like the same old, same old, as UW held Michigan to nine yards on seven carries.
All that talk, all that progress, seemed to be for naught, as the Wolverines found themselves pushed back at the snap, Higdon often having to make his fist cut before he reached the line of scrimmage.
The very first play of the second quarter, however – an 81-yard read-option keeper from QB Shea Patterson – changed the complexion of the battle up front. Michigan gained confidence from the big play, and Wisconsin suddenly was questioning itself.
From that point on, U-M’s offensive line was the aggressor, driving the Badgers’ front seven two, three and four yards backwards in creating avenues for Higdon, who strung together runs of 25, four, nine, 17 and 16 yards in the third quarter.
In the second half, Michigan rushed for 237 yards on 32 carries, averaging 7.4 yards per rush while racking up its first 300-yard rushing performance against a ranked team since the 2000 Illinois game.
The line did allow three sacks, though two were squarely on the shoulders of Patterson.
Overall, the effort and outcome were the best we have seen from this offensive line in the four-year Jim Harbaugh era, and offer the first very real argument that this unit might just become the force that carried Stanford to unprecedented success during Harbaugh’s time there.
There is always something new to prove, and this week, Michigan faces off with the nation’s best rush defense – MSU is allowing just 62.3 yards per game and 2.3 yards per carry, though the Spartans did surrender 205 yards and 6.4 yards per rush this past weekend against Penn State – but for the first time in a long time, there is reason to be hopeful.
What We’re Asking: Is Michigan ready to exorcise some demons?
We might all be sick of the narrative but it remains a narrative because Michigan lost to Notre Dame. The Maize and Blue are 1-6 against their rivals, haven’t beat a ranked team on the road since 2006 (the Green and White come in at No. 24 in this week’s AP Top 25), and have been owned by MSU coach Mark Dantonio, who is 8-3 against U-M and 2-1 against Harbaugh.
All of those mentions can be put to rest (at least until the Ohio State game opens up a cache of other threads) if Michigan goes into East Lansing and wins.
It will snap the road-losing streak against Top 25 foes at 17 games. It will bring Harbaugh to .500 against Dantonio, and while the rivalry record will still be in the negative column, that talk will at least be left for another day.
We should add one more question to this list – is Michigan ready to become a serious playoff contender? The Maize and Blue sit sixth/seventh in the two major polls following their win over Wisconsin, and this is exactly the type of game that they need to win to justify their ranking and pose as a very real possibility for the college football semifinals.
This is also exactly the kind of game MSU lives for, playing the underdog role and the chance to spoil Michigan’s excitement while putting the Wolverines back in their tidy box of “overrated” programs.
What We Learned: Michigan has so many ways it can beat you.
We hadn’t seen Patterson run the football much this year. He had been averaging 5.0 yards per game as he’s been more of a scrambler than a designed runner, but that changed Saturday, with four read-option runs among six total rushes (he was also sacked three times) in finishing with 113 sack-adjusted yards.
Why did we see so much Patterson and the rise of Higdon in the second half? Because Wisconsin did an admirable job not biting on Michigan’s bread-and-butter play-action passing, only once leaving a target wide-open down the field.
In fact, for the first time all year, a Michigan wide receiver failed to catch a ball of 20 yards or more.
With the downfield threat removed, the Wolverines were perfectly OK and adept at changing strategy, relying on their emerging rushing attack to champion their success – on Michigan’s three offensive touchdown drives, U-M did not complete a pass, but rushed 17 times for 204 yards (12.0 yards per carry).
When Michigan did throw, it went away from junior tight ends Zach Gentry, Nick Eubanks and Sean McKeon – they had just two catches on three targets after making 10 grabs a week ago – for sophomore receivers Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones (seven receptions on 12 targets).
Run or pass, tight ends or wide receivers, QB on the ground, tailback or fullback, Michigan has weapons at every position and can beat a defense every conceivable way. Makes it hard to game plan for.
What We’re Asking: Will Rashan Gary return for Michigan State?
We certainly hope so. Gary has missed the past two games while working through a shoulder injury. In his absence, Michigan has recorded just four sacks and seven tackles for loss – though admittedly Maryland and Wisconsin have the two best offensive lines U-M has faced since Notre Dame.
Senior defensive end Chase Winovich hasn’t had a tackle for loss in either of the past two games after notching 10.5 in the first five contests. Now, Gary alone does not make or break Winovich. He isn’t double-teamed “on every down” like many believe to be so, but he does force teams to think about attacking the other side of the line of scrimmage, creating more opportunities for Winovich.
Gary took the loss to MSU last season hard, and cares deeply about his team. His junior season is not going quite the way expected, with preseason NFL Draft Top 10 talk muddled by less-than-impressive stats and now the injury, but there’s reason to believe the best is yet to come with Gary, and you would like to see him have the opportunity in East Lansing.