The defense led the way for the Wolverines in the first half, but can it hold up while navigating a tough stretch of Big Ten games?
Despite the minor setback against Michigan State, all of Michigan’s goals are still right out in front of the Wolverines in the second half of the season. There is just one tiny, little detail – this offense still stinks!
While the defense has continued its championship-level play despite losing numerous starters to the NFL, the offense has been a disaster, especially the passing game. If Jim Harbaugh and the staff does not remedy this issue in a hurry, Michigan could be looking at another third-, or even fourth-place finish in the Big Ten East Division.
Below is a quick look at where Michigan has been this season and what is on the horizon heading into the second half of 2017.
Offensive MVP: RB Karan Higdon
If I could choose “none” here I would as the Michigan offense has been dreadful for much of the season. But one player emerged just this past week that single-handedly carried the Wolverines to a victory against Indiana. After garnering sporadic carries the first six games, the junior running back (above, right) had a career day against the Hoosiers with 200 rushing yards on 25 attempts and three touchdowns, including a 25-yarder on the first play in overtime. For a team that lacks playmakers, Higdon’s potential emergence could certainly aid the Wolverines in the second half of the season.
Defensive MVP: LB Devin Bush
There are certainly a number of options to choose from here considering the Wolverines are ranked first in the country in total defense, allowing just 223 yards per game. But Bush is the choice here as the sophomore linebacker he has been outstanding all season long in his first season as a full-time starter. Bush currently leads the Wolverines in solo tackles (26), is third in tackles for a loss (5.5), and second in sacks with 4.5. A highly regards, four-star recruit coming out of high school, he has certainly lived up to the expectations.
Best Moment of First Half: Strip-sack by Chase Winovich against Florida
The Michigan defense was absolutely lights out in the opening week against the Gators, allowing just 192 yards of total offense and only 11 of those on the ground. The Wolverines stormed back in the second half after trailing Florida 17-13 at halftime and capped the game off with a bang as Winovich came off of the edge and sacked quarterback Malik Zaire in the end zone. The ball came out and wound up in the hands of linebacker Noah Furbush, effectively ending the game for good and sending the Wolverines to 1-0.
Best Newcomer: K Quinn Nordin
With the offense struggling as it has, Nordin has probably been used far more than the staff would like, but he has been practically automatic in his first year as the starting placekicker. Nordin is now 14-of-16 on field goal attempts this season and a perfect 17-for-17 on extra points. The sophomore kicker has been excellent from long range as well, hitting four of his five attempts from 40 yards or more. Nordin is already one of the top kickers in the country in just his first season starting.
Biggest Surprise: The secondary
I wanted to pick just one player but the entire group has been impressive as a whole considering all four starters had to be replaced from last season. Tyree Kinnel was the only returning player in the group with any experience and has been seamless in his transition to a starting role. Second-year cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill have had very few bumps in the road through six games, while junior Brandon Watson has provided excellent depth as the No. 3 corner. Sophomores Josh Metellus and Khaleke Hudson have both lived up to their reputations at safety and rover, respectively. After seven weeks, this young group has helped lead Michigan’s defense to a No. 3 ranking overall against the pass, allowing just 138 yards per game through the air.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. The Gauntlet
It is no secret the second half of the schedule is brutal for the Wolverines, starting this week with a Saturday night trip to Happy Valley to take on an undefeated Penn State squad looking for revenge from last year’s blowout loss. The Wolverines also will travel to Madison to face Wisconsin the week before The Game against the Buckeyes. It seems highly, highly unlikely that Michigan can get through that remaining schedule unscathed.
2. Can the D keep it up?
It truly is unbelievable what this Michigan defense has been able to do through six games considering all the NFL draft picks the Wolverines lost from last year on that side of the ball. Yet this defense is ranked in the top 10 nationally in all four of the major statistical defensive categories. With the previously mentioned gauntlet looming, can this young Wolverines defense continue to play lights-out football through a full 12-game slate?
3. Does Peters get a shot at QB?
The Michigan fan base has been clamoring for some time now to see what this team has in redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters. Despite major struggles between Wilton Speight and John O’Korn, Peters has never sniffed the field besides late-game situations when the outcome has already been decided. Does he see time in the second half if O’Korn continues his poor play? Michigan fans are ready.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 25 Ohio State
The offense for Ohio State seems to have turned a corner of late, and quarterback J.T. Barrett is playing some of his best football this season. Tough to say which team will be better at the end of the season between OSU and Penn State, but this game gets the nod still as Michigan’s most difficult on the schedule.
2. Oct. 21 at Penn State
Arguably the most challenging game remaining on the schedule as playing at night in Happy Valley is certainly no walk in the park. Penn State has the clear front-runner to this point in the Heisman race in running back Saquon Barkley and a veteran quarterback in Trace McSorley that is having another stellar season.
3. Nov. 18 at Wisconsin
It was a defensive struggle last year, and I would expect much of the same in 2017. The difference between this year and last is that this game is in Madison. Michigan has lost in each of its last three appearances in Camp Randall Stadium.
4. Nov. 4 Minnesota
Expect the Gophers to lean heavily on the ground game with their two talented running backs, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Getting wide receiver Tyler Johnson involved is a good idea as well considering he ranks third in the Big Ten in receiving yards and tied for second in touchdowns. Having success in the Big House against this Michigan defense, however, appears to be a tall order for Minnesota.
5. Nov. 11 at Maryland
Round 2 of disciple vs. previous boss as former Jim Harbaugh assistant DJ Durkin gets another crack at his old employers. The Michigan defense will have its hands full with wide receiver D.J. Moore, who is leading the Big Ten and has accounted for a touchdown in every game this season.
6. Oct. 28 Rutgers
This won’t be the 73-0 drubbing like last season, but at the Big House on Homecoming, the game will likely not be very competitive.
— 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.