Alex: Welcome back to another week of this series and Michigan is coming off of, in my opinion, their best win of the season, a 56-10 beatdown against Nebraska. We received a fair bit of ridicule in the lead up to the game for both predicting big blowouts while others will predicting a close game. But I guess that’s why you should go to wcbnsports.org for analysis, eh?
Evan: I didn’t really clap back much to anyone who criticized us. The game spoke for itself… I still don’t know how good this team is, but this might have been the best Michigan performance in 2 seasons.
Alex: Well the 56 points scored is the most since November 5, 2016, so it has been awhile.
Evan: Does this mean we are going to lose another heartbreaker in double OT in Columbus to end our playoff hopes?
Alex: I’m just going to ignore that and keep going to retain my sanity. There isn’t too much to look at in this game, to me. It was just so one-sided on both sides of the ball, with Michigan decisively winning the battle at the line of scrimmage. On every play, Michigan was either gaining yards and putting up points, or making the Huskers run for their lives. Do you have anything to take away from this one?
Evan: Devin Bush is still very fun to watch. Khaleke Hudson should not have been in the game in the second half. Khaleke Hudson needs to learn how to hit. Shea Patterson has great chemistry with the recievers. The special teams are very good. I still don’t know how good this team is. That’s about it. Should we move on to Northwestern?
Alex: I do have a few things I want to bring up. First off, for all we talked in the season preview about the punting situation being a liability, Will Hart has been pretty damn excellent through 4 games this season. He’s currently 4th in the NCAA (!!!!!) in average yardage per punt, at 52.6. It’s also been three straight games where Michigan’s tackles have successfully handled bad competition with very few misses. Will be interesting to continue to track going forward though the real test of course won’t come until Wisconsin. Finally, how about those backups, Dylan McCaffrey in particular?
Evan: I really wish that his touchdown run had counted. That was one of the most electric plays of the season. I’ve also been really impressed by Ronnie Bell as a receiver and Tru Wilson (although he isn’t really a backup anymore) as a running back. The backups on defense haven’t been quite as reliable, and poor old Brandon Peters looks rough. I really hope we get to see Joe Milton this season though. How about you?
Alex: I was just impressed by some of the downfield throws he made. The TD to Bell was right on the money and he had two others to Martin and Thomas that were either drops or excellent PBU’s by the opposing defense that were also very accurate. With his athletic ability on the ground, McCaffrey looks like a really exciting prospect for next season.
Before we talk about Northwestern, I do want to discuss a topic that we’ve brought up on the Podcast but one we haven’t talked about on this space yet. Through four weeks, would you say that you’re opinions of the team are better, worse, or the same compared to preseason expectations?
Evan: I would say that the defense is a bit worse than I expected, mostly because of the secondary. The offense is on par with what I expected, but close to exceeding expectations as the offense continues to improve. Special teams is much, much better than I expected. Will Hart has been excellent, Quinn Nordin struggles with extra points but has the leg for 60+ yard field goals, and both Ambry Thomas (KR) and DPJ (PR) have returned kicks for touchdowns already. Overall, the team is about what I expected. Since going down 14-0 to Notre Dame, Michigan has outscored its opponents 167-43. This team might be really good. We won’t find out for sure for a couple weeks, but I expected a national title contender with double digit regular season wins and it looks like that is what we are going to get from this team. What about you?
Alex: I mostly agree. I’m about where I was entering the season in terms of confidence in this team. The Notre Dame game was always going to be a strange barometer for the team because it’s an opening game with a new QB and a reshuffled coaching staff on the road, under the lights, against a top 15 opponent. How the team does against Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan State in October and November will say a lot more about this squad. I think you’re being a bit unfair to the defense. Again, we need to see it matched up against tougher opponents, but it really tightened up against Notre Dame after the early punch to the jaw. Yes there have been some issues against one James Proche but altogether, this is the #4 defense in S&P+ with a chance to be better. Patterson has been better than I expected, the rest of the offense has mostly lived up and Michigan is #5 in S&P+ altogether. They need to actually translate those fancy metrics into wins but this is a team that is very much capable of winning out. It’s also capable of coming up short in a bunch of close games and going 8-4 or 9-3. Only time will tell.
Shall we move onto Northwestern?
Evan: Sure. I can give a quick analysis of Northwestern: they are not good. Time to pack it up and go home.
But seriously. This is a team that has had two weeks to think about a loss to Akron. Despite out gaining the Zips by 127 yards and having 105 less penalty yards in that game, Northwestern lost due to some bad turnovers and a failure to convert on 4th down. Had it not been for a terrible personal foul at the end of their game against Purdue, they might be 0-3. Clayton Thorson is proving everyone who laughed at the idea of him being a high draft pick very right, and the Wildcats have had very high turnover in their running back depth. If all that isn’t enough, their kicker is 1-3 on field goals for the season, their punter averages 37.3 yards per punt, and they are 3/12 on 4th down attempts. Yikes.
Alex: You alluded to the RB issues, and it’s worth noting that Jeremy Larkin, their best RB, was forced to medically retire this week due to a serious spinal injury, so the Wildcats will be coming in blind at that position. With Thorson continuing to struggle, this is a legitimate opportunity for Michigan’s defense to pitch a shutout. That said, I think it is a real test for Michigan’s offense. A year ago, Northwestern had a top 25 defense in S&P+, mostly on the strength of a stout rush defense coming from an excellent front 7. They return most all of the pieces from that unit, including linebackers Paddy Hall and Nate Hall, as well as defensive end Joe Gaziano. Despite being 60th in S&P+ as a team this year, they are 27th in defense, so this is not a defense that is a pushover, even if it may have a weaker secondary. I’m interested in watching the offensive line be tested against this front 7 unit, in particular.
Evan: I agree, it will be interesting to watch. It’s a good tune up two weeks before an angry Wisconsin team comes to Ann Arbor. My three biggest questions for the offense right now: 1. Is there more to the playbook? The offense has had success the last few weeks with relatively basic run, pass, and play-action plays. It has to get more complex right? 2. Will there ever be real tempo? College defenses struggle with effective no-huddle schemes. I don’t want Michigan to run no-huddle if they aren’t capable, but if they are, now is the time to start practicing in game. 3. After DPJ, Higdon, Collins, and Gentry, what other playmaker is going to step up? There have been flashes from Perry, Martin, Evans, Mckeon, Bell, and even Tru Wilson. Not that Michigan is short on playmakers, but the more fine-tuned weapons they have, the better suited the offense will be for potential shootouts with Penn State and Ohio State down the road.
Alex: Those are fair questions and we may well get answers this week. The one I’m most sure about is question 1. There have been pretty clear references by the coaching staff and the players that there is a very deep playbook that they are not yet digging into. We saw that last year too, with lots of new stuff coming out against Ohio State. I would assume Harbaugh & Co. are saving the best sets for MSU and OSU. For me the biggest question is still about the tackles and the line as a whole. Will this improvement over the last few weeks hold at all against tougher competition?
Let’s wrap this up. Last week I defeated you in the prediction contest thanks to a garbage time TD by Nebraska, so we’re 2-2 through four weeks. As always, give me your prediction/MVP/thing to watch.
Evan: I have never been so upset about a garbage time touchdown. We got to watch that together from up in the press box, and I refused to look at you after, but I’m sure you had as much satisfaction as you could from Michigan giving up a touchdown.
Alex: We never settled what the winner will win at the end of the season.
Evan: That’s true. Let’s keep the stakes high: whoever wins gets second-half play-by-play of the North Carolina basketball game. The loser gets stuck with the first half. Deal?
Evan: Back to football. I’ll start with what I’m watching for this week: What does the run-pass mix look like for the offense? Patterson is averaging just 177 passing ypg which in part attributable to blowouts, in part to injury, but also in part due to play-calling. This should be the first time since Notre Dame when Higdon is breaking 30 yard runs every other player, so I’ll be looking for more early down passing plays.
My MVP is Rashan Gary. He has been awfully quiet due to drawing a lot of double teams and having teams run away from him (speaking of which, Chase Winovich has improved his run-stopping ability substantially, but that’s a conversation for another day). I think Gary has a big game and gets back into the spotlight.
This might be the most difficult score to predict so far this year. Northwestern shouldn’t have any success offensively, but as you mentioned, their defense is formidable. The Wolverines and Wildcats have some weird history; before the most recent affair in 2015 when Michigan delivered a 38-0 haymaker, the previous 3 games were all single digits. The weirdest of the bunch were the 2014 M00N game when the teams were tied at 0 at halftime before Michigan won 10-9 after then NW QB Trevor Siemian slipped on a two point conversion to end the game and the 2013 game Brendan Gibbons kicked a field goal that shouldn’t have counted to send the game to overtime with Michigan eventually winning 27-19 after 3 extra periods. Now that I’m done giving my history lesson, I’ll go with Michigan 37-Northwestern 7. Also, you are picking first the next couple weeks. I know you’re about to come back with Michigan 36-Northwestern 8 or something like that.
Alex: I’m not going to be that obvious in my attempts to game the system, but I am going to hedge a bit. I’ll take Michigan 31, Northwestern 6. My thing to watch, to continue to beat the dead horse, is the offensive line versus Northwestern’s front seven. I’ll go with Devin Bush as the MVP.