What We Learned & What We're Asking: Michigan Beats Northwestern

Michigan’s performance in a 20-17 win at Northwestern revealed plenty about this team heading into its critical stretch.

What We Learned: Michigan’s road woes haven’t been solved.

More than 60 percent of Michigan fans have thus far agreed with me that the three-point win caused even greater concern about going on the road this year (particularly to Michigan State and Ohio State) after the Wolverines fell behind 17-0 to a Northwestern team that had lost to Akron at home and was without its best offensive threat, RB Jeremy Larkin.

For those following me on Twitter, you saw this stat: in two road games this season, Michigan has been outscored 24-0 and outgained 244-90 in the first quarter. U-M was outscored 31-7 in the first half of the two games.

The Maize and Blue put themselves in another huge deficit, thanks to strange play-calling, poor execution -- a dropped pass plus two pass interference penalties -- mental miscues, and largely being unprepared for Northwestern’s game plan, which focused on crashing the edges to prevent Michigan’s pulling guards from creating the running lanes for tailback Karan Higdon he's enjoyed this year.

Give NW credit for some of that, but U-M was slow to respond, finally waking up in the second quarter, when it trailed 17-0.

Give Michigan credit that the defense dominated in the final three quarters and that the offense made a few plays necessary to win, but the Wolverines also wasted two red-zone opportunities, settling for field goals, and didn’t give great reason to be inspired by their victory. Not when U-M must play in far more hostile environments in East Lansing and Columbus.

What We’re Asking: Can Michigan beat MSU or OSU?

Even the most ardent program loyalist would have to admit they don’t feel confident about the Wolverines’ prospects of doing that.

Michigan is 5-5 in its last 10 road games under Jim Harbaugh since pantsing Rugers 78-0 in 2016. Harbaugh’s, and this program’s, road struggles have been well-chronicled, and we don’t need to rehash them here.

Simply put, until Michigan goes out and does it, there will be no reason to pick the Maize and Blue in either contest.

What We Learned: Michigan will survive without Rashan Gary someday.

If Gary does, in fact, go pro after his junior season, the Wolverines look like they’ll be OK. Junior rush end Joshua Uche and sophomore defensive end Kwity Paye each recorded two sacks and they combined for five QB pressures against Northwestern, Uche providing the final nail in the proverbial coffin with his game-ending QB takedown of Clayton Thorson.

Incredibly, both Uche and Paye now have as many two-sack games in their careers as Gary does (one), with far fewer career snaps as Gary, a two-year starter.

Gary missed the fourth quarter and part of the third after appearing to suffer injury to his right shoulder (it has been rumored he’s been hurting all year) but at the time of his exit, had a single tackle for loss.

Gary is an enigmatic player, with critics and supporters alike. I recognize that he impacts the game in more ways than statistics (though I have debunked talk that he gets double- and triple-teamed consistently) but his numbers have been disappointing: 4.5 tackles for loss this year, 21.0 in his career, just 8.5 career sacks.

Meanwhile, across the line, fifth-year senior Chase Winovich puts up big numbers – 10.5 TFL this year and 28.5 over the past two years in 18 games – and deserves to stop living in Gary’s shadow. It’s an insult to Winovich to say he only produces because he benefits from the attention Gary draws. Winovich plays more snaps, draws as much interest from opponents, and is way more productive.

What We Learned: Shea Patterson IS the quarterback Michigan fans have been clamoring for.

Patterson hasn’t beaten Michigan State or Ohio State yet, or even Wisconsin for that matter, and the Wildcats were not supposed to be a formidable foe but however the Wolverines found themselves in a tight, one-score game, they needed a spark to rally the team, and Patterson delivered.

On four scoring drives, the junior QB connected on 9 of 12 attempts (75.0 percent) for 150 yards (12.5 yards per attempt) and ran for 24 yards on four carries, including a pair of first-down runs on 3rd-and-6.

With thread-the-needle throws and a pair of playmaking scrambles to keep drives alive, Patterson would not be denied, and he lifted the Maize and Blue to a win on a day when his teammates neither blocked well in the running game nor made the most of their pass-catching opportunities.

What We’re Asking: Where was Devin Bush?

Playing at an All-American level this year, Michigan’s junior linebacker recorded a single tackle and one QB pressure. He hasn’t had such little impact on a game since the Orange Bowl against Florida State, as a backup linebacker. His lowest tackle output as a starter has thus far been five (twice in 2017) while he’s averaged 7.9 tackles per game in 17 previous starts.

What happened? Clever scheming by the Wildcats.

In games against Notre Dame, SMU (in the second half when freshman QB William Brown took over) and Nebraska, Bush was often tasked with spying a mobile quarterback, keeping him in the box. However, Bush’s other role is to defend running backs leaking out of the backfield to run routes.

In most of Michigan’s games this season, the opponent has kept its running back in protection for added safeguards against the Wolverines’ relentless pass rush, allowing Bush to attack. NW, however, put that RB in motion or sent him out on a route constantly and almost immediately, removing Bush from the box.

In run blocking, the Wildcats also did a superb job combo blocking to the second level, getting a center or a guard on Bush, outmuscling him and keeping him from the ball carrier.

Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown will have to adjust, at least in the passing game, while Bush must show greater initiative to avoid or fight through those blocks. A year ago, teams began using this same approach in October and Bush’s numbers dipped. It’s time for a counterpunch.

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