What We Learned & What We're Asking: Don't Expect Michigan To Go Easy On Rivals

Another Saturday, another dominating win for Michigan. What did we learn and what are we asking.

What we Learned – There is no mercy being offered opponents.

Michigan led the Nittany Lions 28-0 after Brandon Watson’s 62-yard interception return at the end of the third quarter. With U-M outgunning PSU to the tune of 315 yards to 113, Penn State was not coming back on the Wolverines, but that didn’t stop Michigan from piling on (admittedly with some advantageous field position at its own 47-yard line and at Penn State’s 12-yard line following an interception).

U-M probably would have gone for the throat even more had the defense gotten off the field on fourth down with about 4:00 to go in the game (instead the Maize and Blue ran out the final 1:59 following PSU’s lone touchdown).

During the Rich Rodriguez days, Big Ten doormats enjoyed a reversal of fortune – Illinois and Purdue, for instance, went 2-1 apiece against Michigan - and Brady Hoke was supposed to put the world back in order, but managed to lose to Rutgers and Maryland, among others.

Jim Harbaugh momentarily exacted revenge in 2015-16 but then 2017 happened and opponents, like Penn State, relished the opportunity to rub the Wolverines’ nose in the dirt. Up 35-13 midway through the fourth quarter, PSU kept its starters in to score another touchdown, and then hurried its final play to snap the ball with 0:02 on the clock to get one more crack at scoring again (they got stopped).

Michigan didn’t forget.

This isn’t the Lloyd Carr era, where U-M took its foot off the gas pedal as to not show up its opponent. Harbaugh was known for his mercenary tactics when he coached at Stanford, unafraid to upset any coach and team that lined up on the opposing sideline. He took out years of Cardinal frustration on any foe that had enjoyed the upper hand previously, and it appears Harbaugh is doing the same to every Big Ten rival that had taken liberties with the Maize and Blue when they could.

Michigan is reminding the conference it is the big kid on the block. No longer Wisconsin. Not Michigan State. Or Penn State.

In three weeks, the Wolverines will play down in Columbus with a decade-plus of angst from playing the pipsqueak role. If U-M finds the win in hand late, don’t be surprised to find Harbaugh and Co. taking a knife to the jugular.

What We’re Asking – Can Jim Harbaugh’s bully ball take Michigan all the way to the top?

Last week on my radio show, colleague Zach Shaw and I discussed an argument levied by James Franklin wannabe Dave Jones of Penn Live. He said that Franklin’s spread offense was more conducive to winning the ultimate prize – the national title – than the pro-style shenanigans of Harbaugh’s style at Michigan (which held a peak of the Big Ten title).

While I, at first, dismissed such talk and was flabbergasted when Shaw took the opposite stance, Saturday left me wondering: if the day comes when Michigan is in the college football playoff will Harbaugh’s grind-it-out, win-with-defense and a bullying running game be good enough against the likes of Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Georgia?

On Saturday, Michigan squandered three first-half drives that ended in Penn State territory (at the 40-, 31- and 40-yard lines). Why? An insistence on running the football early in downs that put Michigan in poor second- and third-down situations. After senior tailback Karan Higdon went off for 50 yards on a first down on the game’s third play, U-M ran the ball on 8 of the next 12 first-down opportunities with a net result of 22 yards (2.8 yards per rush).

The Wolverines entered the half up 14-0 in a game they were dominating in all facets (210-77 yards, 19:43 to 10:17 time of possession, 4 of 8 to 1 of 6 third-down conversions) yet the Nittany Lions felt dangerously close to flipping the script (a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown negated by penalty and QB Trace McSorley missing a wide open receiver for an easy touchdown could have made it 14-14).

The Maize and Blue also left points on the board in the first half against Michigan State (four first-half drives ending in MSU territory without points) and Wisconsin (four first-half drives ending in UW territory with a pair of field goals).

In the three wins, Michigan outscored its opponent 67-20 in the second half (though twice score on interception returns for touchdown, which are statistical anomalies), trusting its bully ball to eventually wear down the defenses, while counting on its own defense to keep opponents at bay long enough for this strategy to work.

Will it work against Ohio State and the likes of Alabama or Clemson (Nos. 1 and 4 nationally in scoring with 51.3 and 47.8 points per game, respectively)? Hopefully, we find out.

And if we get to that point, it will be a great challenge. The Crimson Tide average 19.0 points in the first quarter (best in the nation) and 17.2 points in the second (also best in the country). Clemson is slow out of the gate with just 7.0 points in the first quarter but the Tigers are No. 2 nationally with 16.1 points per second quarter.

Michigan, meanwhile, is surrendering just 3.4 points per first quarter and 3.1 points per second quarter while its offense starts slow (5.7 points per first quarter).

But if the first-half formula can be repeated, Michigan has demonstrated an ability to grind down opponents. In its wins over Wisconsin, MSU and Penn State, the Wolverines rushed 49 times for 293 yards in the fourth quarter (6.0 YPC) compared to just 67 yards on 21 carries a year ago (3.2 YPC) in those contests.

The result: a 47-point margin over those three teams in the second half.

Harbaugh’s method may be a bit maddening to observers (including this one, who admittedly lacks in-game patience!) but it has worked consistently this year, and he might just be the smartest guy in the room. If it leads to four or five more victories, we’ll champion his approach (and you’ll see copycats). If it doesn’t, he’ll spend the offseason knowing he needs to change his style, at least a little bit.

What We Learned – The defense is starting to approach ’97 levels.

On Friday, Phil Steele posted a stat that showed, on average, Michigan’s defense had held its opponents to 217.5 yards fewer than their season output in every other game they had played. Yesterday, Penn State became the latest victim of that trend when the Nittany Lions finished with 186 yards of total offense, 273.5 yards below their season average.

Of those 186, PSU picked up 75 on its final drive. That’s a similar story to Wisconsin and Michigan State, which earned 123 of their total 377 yards on a final meaningless drive. In other words, Michigan’s last three opponents had 365 yards combined in the first 50+ minutes of football and 198 on pointless end-of-the-game series.

For years, we’ve tried to compare every great Michigan defense to 1997. There was 2006 and 2016, but ultimately, losses to Ohio State and subsequent bowl defeats made the point moot.

There has been only one 1997, and to some degree that will always be true – no one is approaching the 9.5 points per game that team allowed (this current squad is at 13.6) – but this is also a different era, with far greater offense across the board, and Michigan’s numbers of 216.2 yards allowed per game, including 93.9 yards rushing, are on par, or better, than 1997 (222.8 YPG and 89.0 rushing yards per contest).

Ultimately, however, making the comparison will come down to Michigan’s performance against the Buckeyes and in the postseason.

In its two biggest games of the season, the 1997 national champions held Ohio State to 154.1 fewer yards and 16.2 fewer points in a win over the Buckeyes, and then held Washington State to 95.5 fewer yards and 23.3 fewer points in the Wolverines’ Rose Bowl victory.

Michigan has shown it is capable of doing that over and over again this season, and it may not seem fair to move the goal posts on the Maize and Blue, but for this defense to share hallowed ground with 1997, it has to perform up to that standard (at least) twice more.

What We’re Asking – Who’s the No. 2 quarterback now?

On an otherwise perfect fall day, Harbaugh announced post-game that redshirt freshman QB Dylan McCaffrey had suffered a broken collarbone during his time in the fourth quarter and would be out for a substantial amount of time.

McCaffrey had been a revelation this year, easily the most capable backup quarterback since Devin Gardner took over for an injured Denard Robinson in 2012.

He showed his mettle on the road at Notre Dame and was dynamic in limited reps against Western Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin. He looked so good that if quarterback Shea Patterson suffered an injury, fans were almost unanimously convinced McCaffrey could do the job.

With his injury, Michigan turns to redshirt sophomore Brandon Peters. Or freshman Joe Milton.

The smart money is on Peters, who started four games in 2017, leading Michigan to wins over Minnesota and Maryland, and one over Rutgers in relief. But Peters has largely been an afterthought this year, throwing a single pass in the three games in which he has appeared after McCaffrey.

Milton has appeared in just one game, against Wisconsin, when he got seven reps, rushing twice for 22 yards while handing the ball off five times.

Milton, by all accounts, is the real threat to McCaffrey once Patterson’s time is done, but could he be trusted this year if needed? Only Harbaugh and his staff know for sure, but as fans, we probably won’t have to wait for long.

Michigan’s Week 10 opponent, Rutgers, has lost six Big Ten games by an average of 20.2 points, including a 52-3 loss to Ohio State. In three meetings with Harbaugh’s U-M teams, the Scarlet Knights have lost 49-16, 78-0 and 35-14. The Wolverines’ backup QBs have appeared in each of the three games, and should again next weekend.

When Patterson steps out, who does Harbaugh insert? Peters or Milton?

Whoever comes into the game is Michigan’s new backup quarterback.

What We Learned – The biggest offensive threat is … everyone.

In Michigan’s 42-7 win over Penn State, three different ball carriers scored touchdowns while two different receivers reached pay dirt. That doesn’t include sophomore wideout Nico Collins, who had a game-long 47-yard reception, or classmate Tarik Black, who caught a 41-yard touchdown pass only to have it called back by a penalty.

Four different ball carriers and five different receivers have scored touchdowns this season in non-garbage time and while Higdon is clearly Michigan’s horse, with almost three times as many offensive touches (178) than anyone else on the team (61, Chris Evans), U-M doesn’t really have a go-to player on offense.

It’s a smorgasbord of runners, wide receivers and tight ends, leaving defensive coordinators in a bit of a tight spot – who do you try to game plan for and take away?

This past weekend, it was simple, you take away KJ Hamler and you shut down Penn State’s receiving game. You prevent Trace McSorley from running, and you shut down the rush attack. Plenty of teams are like this, but one of the benefits of the Wolverines not having one or two primary weapons is it makes it very difficult for defenses to key on four, five and six guys.

What We’re Asking – Will Josh Uche break the single-season sack record?

Uche is averaging 0.70 sacks per game, and if he kept that pace over the final four guaranteed contests, he would finish with 10 QB takedowns on the year, two shy of the Michigan single-season record of 12 (David Bowens in 1996 and LaMarr Woodley in 2006).

But with five sacks in the past three games, and seven sacks on the year, Uche has a very real chance to tie or eclipse the record. The junior pass-rush specialist has all seven of his sacks in the last five games after barely playing in the first four games. If he maintained his recent rate of 1.4 takedowns per game over the final four contests, he would get to 13.

What’s even more impressive about Uche’s run is that he’s not getting an overwhelming number of snaps – he hasn’t started one of the past five games and largely enters the game only in obvious passing situations.

Defensive coordinator Don Brown is strategically using the defense’s ace, and offenses are stuck having to play Uche one-on-one because either Chase Winovich or Rashan Gary is lining up at the opposite end.

Uche hasn’t suffered a real lull yet – he’s had a sack in four of the five games in which he’s played a big role following an injury to Gary at Northwestern Sept. 29 – but that drought could be coming; Woodley went three games without a sack in November during his record-setting season while Bowens went four games with a sack in November of 1996.

Opponents will account for him eventually, and despite the 1-8 and 4-5 records, respectively, Rutgers and Indiana are better than expected at keeping their quarterbacks upright – Rutgers ranks 26th nationally allowing just 1.33 sacks per game while IU is 64th giving up 2.11 per game.

Of course, Penn State was only ceding two sacks per game and allowed five to Michigan while MSU has allowed just two sacks per game and surrendered four to U-M.

So there’s always a chance …

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