Evan: I’m curious to see how Wisconsin’s season goes from here, but the Michigan offensive line was incredible on Saturday night. The Wolverines rushed for 320 yards (out of 444 total yards) and essentially pounded Wisconsin into submission in the second half. Also, Alex Hornibrook is bad. Also, Josh Uche is an excellent pass rusher. Also, Michigan has a good (and athletic) future at quarterback. Also, James Franklin is a horrible in game coach - that isn’t related to Wisconsin, but I had to get it in there.
Alex: You brought up a lot of thoughts there but the offensive line is by far the most important one. We expected Michigan to beat Wisconsin through the air, and while the passing game wasn’t bad, it just didn’t need to be leaned on because of how the Wolverines were paving the Badgers in the second half. Michigan simply wore down its opponent and then steamrolled them, something we hadn’t seen in awhile. It’s true that Wisconsin is not a great defense this year, but it is worth looking at how far this offensive line has come under Ed Warinner. We won’t know how good it is until later but compared to the Notre Dame game, and especially last season, it’s been a very successful coaching clinic.
Evan: Ed Warinner was a phenomenal hire by Jim Harbaugh. Do you have any comments on all of my “Also, …” statements?
Alex: I don’t have much to say about Hornibrook. I don’t think he was particularly bad in this game. He is who he is. And when he’s under siege and can’t set his feet, he doesn’t perform well. That was the case in this game. Josh Uche has become a really good weapon to throw in on third downs and it has helped to mitigate the loss of Rashan Gary. And finally, the read option and QB mobility, if used as it was in this game, will bring another dimension to the offense that Michigan has not had under Harbaugh and will be very exciting to watch bear out. We can get to James Franklin when we talk about MSU.
Evan: That’s all fair. Another big takeaway I had: Jonathan Taylor is really good. He runs behind a strong offensive line, but he is tough to bring down. If there is a better running back in the country, it isn’t by much. Michigan should have some good film to work off of moving forward. They should be able to break down which techniques worked and which didn’t against Taylor to improve their run defense against the remaining opponents. None of Miles Sanders, JK Dobbins, or Mike Weber are really similar to Taylor, but none are as good either. I don’t see Michigan allowing another 100 yard rusher this season.
Alex: Taylor did have an excellent game. He ran behind his blockers but then also ran through tacklers. Hard not to be very impressed by him. I thought Michigan made good defensive adjustments on the interior. They tightened up a bit and really cut down on explosive running plays against. They also got some help from suspect play calling from Paul Chryst but the point still stands. It was also good to get Aubrey Solomon and Michael Dwumfour back. Michigan is getting closer and closer to fully healthy.
Evan: The team is close to fully healthy, and it will be interesting to see how much Tarik Black and Rashan Gary add when they potentially return from their injuries. In related injury news, it was interesting to see Nick Bosa decide to end his college career. His draft stock is more solid than Gary’s, but it would be interesting to see how that impacts when Gary returns, if it does at all.
Alex: One thing that is true when comparing the two is that Gary has never been as dominant of a player as Bosa has been. I think Gary still has a fair bit to prove when he comes back from injury whereas Bosa really didn’t and that contributed to his decision to shut it down. One last thing to say about the Wisconsin game: Michigan’s pass defense is very, very good. It was last year too, but it occasionally got hurt in big ways on slot fades. They’ve taken that away this year and vaulted to #1 in that category.
Evan: That pass defense will have to be in pristine form against Penn State and Ohio State, so hopefully it is maintained. Ready to talk about Sparty?
Alex: Sure. They got a stunning win against Penn State despite being still riddled with injuries. Do you have any intuition onto how they pulled it off?
Evan: Well, James Franklin played a big role in their win Saturday for sure. They didn’t anything particularly well besides semi-containing the Penn State offense (QB Trace McSorley had his 3rd lowest passing total and 2nd lowest rushing total of the year; Penn State had their lowest point total of the year), not losing the turnover battle, and not losing the penalty battle. I think this game is more on James Franklin than anything else. Credit to MSU for winning, but I’m sure the PSU fan base feels similar to how Michigan’s did after last year’s MSU game.
Alex: Bill Connelly wrote a fair bit about the luck that MSU got in this game and certainly turnovers were a huge factor, as they were last year in State’s wins over both Michigan and PSU. Lewerke had a good enough game and the Spartans leaned on the strength of their receivers, even while the QB was constantly under fire. But yes, James Franklin made a lot of in-game mistakes and the Nittany Lions should’ve put it away when they had a chance. But the fact that they didn’t is a testament to the scrappiness of the Spartans. They’re no joke.
Evan: I never expected a Mark Dantonio team to lie down and die, but I also didn’t expect them to win a road game at Happy Valley. I honestly have no idea what kind of team MSU is, but I do know that they will probably have their best gameplan of the year ready for Saturday. I want to take a second to talk about how massive this game is for Michigan. Not only will it set the tone for the rest of the season, but Jim Harbaugh has a chance to put the “can’t beat his rivals” narrative to rest - for a month at least. Michigan HAS to win this game. I know I’ve said a lot of games are the biggest of the season and/or Harbaugh’s coaching tenure, but Michigan HAS to win this game. No excuses. Nothing. This is Jim Harbaugh’s coaching legacy on the line.
Alex: It is a really big game for that reason. It’s also a chance for Michigan to really prove they are the only other B1G Title Contender aside from Ohio State. It’s on the road and winning the game will finally get rid of the 12 year losing streak on the road against Top 25 opponents. All that said, Michigan is the much better team on paper. But as we know, it hasn’t always played out this way when these two teams meet. What’s your gameplan against the Spartans if you’re Jim Harbaugh?
Evan: Do you want my 50% chance of rain and 20-25 mph winds gameplan? Or my optimal conditions gameplan?
Alex: Either one.
Evan: Ok. I’ll go based off the forecast for Saturday then. Given the terrible conditions, you know that you aren’t going to have tremendous success throwing the ball downfield. Offensively, I’d run a lot of read options. MSU has the top run defense in the country, so you’re gonna have to be creative to get first downs on the ground. A mix of handoffs, QB keepers, and short play-action passes might get them off their toes early. Defensively, you know MSU can’t really run the ball, and between the weather and David Long, their best source of offense (Felton Davis) is going to be limited. I would load up the box with 4 down linemen, 3 linebackers, and a safety, and dare Brian Lewerke to throw the ball. The only thing I’ll note is, if this game were being played in optimal conditions, I would plan for Shea Patterson to throw the ball 40 times or more.
Alex: I think that’s right. I would mention that you need to leave a QB Spy because Lewerke is mobile enough to hurt you with his feet and he did that last year. Because this is the biggest game on MSU’s schedule, the Spartans are going to have a gameplan with a lot of stuff ready to go. If you remember the 2016 game, Michigan was a much better team than MSU but the Spartans actually led early on in that game. It’s about overcoming some of the early stuff Dantonio will throw at you and letting your athletes win out. This game will be a very good test to see just how far Michigan’s offensive line has come. Last year they had trouble protecting the QB and MSU has an elite run defense. If the Wolverines still have success with pass protection and running the ball, that’s a sign to get excited.
Evan: There is no way Michigan should lose this game. It’s very possible that they do, but there is no way that that should happen. For me as a fan, as a member of a sports media organization, and as a human being, I need Michigan to win Saturday. Aside from the two basketball national championship games, 2006 OSU, and 2016 OSU, I don’t remember a game I cared as much about as this Saturday. I don’t think I can stress enough how important this game is to Harbaugh, the players, the fanbase, and the program.
Alex: The other thing is like, what Michigan needs to do to win is rather simple. Don’t turn it over. Score 20 points. If you do that, you probably win. Michigan State was held to 14 points a year ago by Michigan and that’s with the Wolverines turning it over 5 (!) times in that game. We saw the Wolverines play with a certain fire against Nebraska and Wisconsin and there’s been talk of a so-called “revenge tour”. If they can carry that energy and that chip on their shoulder into this game, they should be alright.
Evan: This game should not be close. It will be, at least for the first half, but it should not be. Shall we do scores, MVPs, and what to watch for?
Alex: I’m gonna say Michigan 24-13. MVP is Shea Patterson. Thing to watch is how Michigan’s rushing attack does versus the Spartan run defense.
Evan: You say 24-13, Vegas says 24-17. I really don’t know what to think of this game. If the rain and wind are under control, Michigan will score a lot more points. With nastier weather, it might be a score closer to last year’s 14-10. I’ll go Michigan 27-MSU 14. MVP is Devin Bush. I’m watching for Harbaugh to finally out coach Dantonio. Take that for what you will.
We’ll be back next week. I’ll either be ecstatic or insufferable. Absolutely nothing in between.