Wolverines' goals still in front of them but several challenges remain
It was a rocky start to the 2018 season for the Michigan Wolverines as they looked very much like the 2017 version of themselves in the loss at Notre Dame. Poor offensive execution, questionable play-calling and defensive lapses all reared their ugly heads once again in defeat in a primetime matchup, leading to plenty of overreactions from the fan base and national media.
And similar to last year again, it looks like the ship has been righted for the time being as the offense has woken up, the defense is playing lights out and the Wolverines are dominating teams they should beat.
Now comes the real test with Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State all in the next six games. Michigan has proven it can defeat the Marylands and Northwesterns of the world. Time to see how the Wolverines fare against the top teams in the Big Ten.
Offensive MVP: RB Karan Higdon
The senior running back has had to shoulder much of the workload with the injury to backup Chris Evans, and is currently 13th in the country averaging more than 116 rushing yards per game. Last week against Maryland, Higdon became the 23rd player in Michigan history to reach the 2,000-yard mark in his career, and he will continue to climb the charts as he is currently in the midst of a four-game streak of 100 rushing yards or more.
Defensive MVP: DE Chase Winovich
When it comes to the Michigan defensive line, Rashan Gary typically gets the headlines but it has been the man opposite him who has shined the brightest. Winovich has been an animal, simply put. Second on the team in tackles (35), first in tackles for a loss (10.5) and first in sacks (3). If Michigan didn’t has as much depth along the defensive line, and couldn’t afford to rotate their linemen as much as they currently do, Winovich’s totals might be even higher.
Best Moment of First Half: TD Reception by a Michigan Wide Receiver
It had been almost a full calendar year (364 days to be exact) since a Michigan wide receiver caught a touchdown pass until sophomore Nico Collins hauled in a 44-yard TD against Western Michigan.
Best Newcomer: QB Shea Patterson
Stating the obvious here. While he has his detractors, Patterson has been a dramatic improvement at quarterback from what the Wolverines have had over the past few seasons. Through six games, Patterson has already thrown for more touchdowns than Michigan quarterbacks had ALL of last season with a 69 percent completion rate and just three interceptions. How Patterson performs over the second half of the season will dictate if the 2018 season is a success or not for Michigan.
Biggest Surprise: Offensive Line
This group took an absolute beating after the debacle against Notre Dame where Shea Patterson was sacked three times and running for his life seemingly every passing play. Since then, the protection has improved dramatically and continues to pave way in the ground game as the Wolverines are averaging just under 200 rushing yards per contest. New offensive line coach Ed Warinner has done an excellent job gelling this group into a cohesive unit, but the big tests are still yet to come.
Three Things to Watch in Second Half
1. The gauntlet
The Notre Dame matchup was a good litmus test for the Wolverines to begin the 2018 season, but regardless of the outcome, we knew their season would come down to how they would fare in Big Ten play. After disposing of Nebraska, Northwestern and Maryland, the Wolverines now head into their biggest stretch of the season against the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State all in the next four weeks. The season starts now for Michigan.
2. Continued offensive progression
It hasn’t been perfect, but the Michigan offense continues to progress with every week. After scoring just 25 points per game in 2017, the Wolverines are averaging more than 38 after six weeks and are throwing for 50 yards more per game than they did last season. The defense makes Michigan a good team. A proficient offense combined with that defense makes Michigan a great team. We will see if that can continue against the upper-echelon of the Big Ten.
Through six games, the Wolverines are ranked seventh in the nation in penalties called against them. You can skate by against the middling teams of the Big Ten with that statistic, but not against the top-tier opponents. Jim Harbaugh and staff will need to get that straightened out before the gauntlet ahead.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 24 at Ohio State
The Game. Enough said.
2. Nov. 3 Penn State
Two years ago, Michigan blew out Penn State in Ann Arbor. Last season, it was the Nittany Lions who put the beatdown on the Wolverines in Happy Valley. What does Round 3 have in store? The Penn State offense vs. Michigan defense should be quite the battle.
3. Oct. 13 Wisconsin
The Wolverines get their first “real” test since the opening weekend of the season. We know how the opener turned out against Notre Dame. Michigan has made strides on offense since that disastrous performance. Both teams are still realistically in the hunt to make the College Football Playoff despite each having a loss. Two losses dramatically hurts those chances, making this a compelling matchup this Saturday.
4. Oct. 20 at Michigan State
A road trip to your in-state rival looked like a much tougher task at the beginning of the season. Michigan State’s season is hanging in the balance after an uninspiring performance at home last week in the loss to Northwestern. The Spartans can’t run the football, Brian Lewerke has been inconsistent at best, and the defense isn’t dominating despite boasting numerous returning starters. The Wolverines should be favored next week unless something drastic occurs between now and then.
5. Nov. 17 Indiana
The Wolverines are currently in the midst of on a 22-game winning streak against the Hoosiers, though the last three matchups have all been decided by 10 points or less. Indiana ran the football well early in the season, but it has been the passing game that’s been working of late as quarterback Peyton Ramsey is averaging more than 270 yards through the air and has recorded multiple TDs over the last three weeks. The Hoosiers will need the offense clicking on all cylinders if they want to pull off the upset in Ann Arbor.
6. Nov. 10 at Rutgers
Rutgers. Enough said.
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.