In two home games this year, the Michigan football team has faced less than one quarter of adversity. Since the Wolverines forced a fumble early in the first quarter against Oregon State and then scored 35 unanswered points, they have rolled.
But Saturday could be an entirely different test.
This week, Michigan (2-1) faces No. 23 Brigham Young (2-1) at Michigan Stadium in its non-conference finale. The Cougars won their first two games in dramatic fashion, shocking Nebraska in their opener on a game-ending Hail Mary, then topping Boise State on a 35-yard touchdown pass with 45 seconds left.
The Wolverines are in for a tough battle Saturday. Here’s how things break down:
Michigan pass offense vs. BYU pass defense
Fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock has been under the microscope for throwing five interceptions in his first three games. The three he threw against Utah were costly, but the last two were not. If he can have his first turnover-free game of the season Saturday, he will give the Wolverines a chance to win.
He has also established a wider arsenal of targets, though not many have been consistent. Thirteen players have caught passes, but just two have more than five — Amara Darboh has 16, and Jake Butt has 14. Michigan will look to establish more threats in the passing game as well as some deep throws downfield.
The Cougars’ passing defense struggled in the first two games, allowing 308 yards per game, but it locked down UCLA’s Josh Rosen last week, giving up just 106 yards and picking off three passes. BYU is tied for first in the nation with seven interceptions — including four by defensive back Kai Nacua — so keeping the football will be a challenge for Rudock.
Michigan rush offense vs. BYU rush defense
The Wolverines have had more success running the ball this season, and now they might have a host of players to carry it. Junior running back De’Veon Smith leads the team with 53 carries — almost half of the team’s 116 — for 206 yards. But junior Ty Isaac had a breakout game last week with 114 yards and a touchdown, and redshirt junior Drake Johnson continues to work his way back into the fold after he suffered the second torn anterior cruciate ligament of his career last November.
Much of their success comes from an improved offensive line, led by fifth-year senior center Graham Glasgow. That line will face a BYU front headed by 6-foot-8, 280-pound defensive end Bronson Kaufusi.
As with pass defense, the Cougars’ rush defense is in the bottom half in the country. They did, however, slow down Nebraska and Boise State before giving up 296 yards to UCLA last week. Michigan has not yet faced a straight 3-4 defense (Oregon State played with a hybrid defensive end-linebacker similar to Michigan’s buck position).
BYU pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
BYU’s offense has had the most success on the last plays of games, but it has moved the ball well the rest of the game, too. The Cougars recovered nicely from the loss of starting quarterback Taysom Hill to a season-ending foot injury. Hill totaled 340 yards and three touchdowns in the opener before going down and being replaced by Tanner Mangum. Mangum, 22, is still a true freshman following a two-year Mormon mission before college.
He has played more like his age than his year in school, leading BYU on fourth-quarter comebacks against Nebraska and Boise State before the magic ran out at UCLA. At 136, his quarterback rating is 17.5 points higher than Rudock’s. He has the ability to throw from outside the pocket and has a host of big, talented receivers at his disposal. The leader is 6-foot-6 Mitch Mathews, who jumped up and caught the Hail Mary in the season opener.
Though Michigan has touted BYU’s receivers all week, the Wolverines also have a capable secondary to defend them. Junior defensive backs Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark intercepted passes last week, and Michigan has forced the opposing team to change quarterbacks in two straight games. But Mangum is a different animal.
BYU rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
The Cougars have been a pass-first team, largely by necessity — because they’ve faced deficits late in games and because running back Jamaal Williams withdrew from school just before fall camp. BYU ranks 111th in the nation in rush offense, but running back Adam Hine has managed 279 yards and two touchdowns in three games.
Michigan’s stout defensive front will match up against a young BYU offensive line featuring only one senior. Several players have emerged on defense for the Wolverines early in the season. Redshirt junior defensive tackle Chris Wormley has seven tackles for loss, junior defensive end Taco Charlton has forced a fumble and senior linebacker Joe Bolden leads the team in tackles with 26.
The best-case scenario for Michigan is to play tough defense against the run, force BYU into passing situations and then bring the pressure against Mangum to try to rattle him. If the Wolverines can feed off the Michigan Stadium crowd, it would help.
Michigan has made a sizable jump in this area since a mediocre 2014. Senior kicker Kenny Allen is 3-for-4 in limited field-goal opportunities, and fifth-year senior Blake O’Neill is averaging 40.9 yards per punt with a 59-yard bomb last week.
Then there’s the big-play threat: redshirt freshman defensive back Jabrill Peppers, who ran back a punt 24 yards last week and has the ability to score if he finds some space.
BYU is in a similar situation. Punter Jonny Linehan has been solid (42.6 yards per punt), and the Cougars have had limited opportunities in the return game. The difference maker could be kicker Trevor Samson, who is a perfect 5-for-5 on the season, including 3-for-3 from beyond 40 yards.
After two easy wins at Michigan Stadium, the Wolverines are back to being doubted, to some extent. They went to Utah as six-point underdogs and face a tough test with the tall receivers of BYU. Knowing how competitive Saturday’s game will be, Michigan should play with a little extra edge.
The Cougars, meanwhile, were flying high last week after two straight thrilling victories landed them in the top 25. Then they traveled to UCLA and fell just short of a monumental upset of the Bruins. Has the high worn off? The answer will be apparent early on Saturday.
Prediction: BYU 28, Michigan 25