Of the 10 halves played at Michigan Stadium this season, the second half of this week’s showdown against Wisconsin brought out the most anxiety.
The only other time this year when Michigan faced adversity was the first two quarters against Colorado, but by the end of that one, the Wolverines had taken the lead back and looked to be in good shape for the remainder of the game.
But this game was a slugfest, as expected. Michigan faced its first true bump in the road, but played through it and improved to 5-0. The Wolverines should handle Rutgers and Illinois easily in their next two games, setting up a huge trip to Michigan State, where they will likely be 7-0 and searching for their first win in East Lansing since 2007.
First, there’s plenty to glean from Saturday’s game. Here are five takeaways:
1. Michigan can win the big one.
If this were called “One Thing We Learned,” this would be it, and if Michigan had one thing to prove, this is that, too. The bottom line is that the Wolverines weren’t significantly tested — at least not after Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau left the game with an injury two weeks ago — in their first four games of the season. Wisconsin, meanwhile, had already played two top-10 teams and dispatched both.
But Michigan proved its mettle by coming out with a big win despite sloppy performances on offense and special teams. It picked up contributions from a variety of players, which it will need at some point the rest of the season. And, as usual, the defense carried the load, forcing nine punts and intercepting three passes — two on Wisconsin’s last two possessions of the game — and allowing just 159 total yards. That kind of performance will win a lot of football games, no matter what the other two units do.
Was it the prettiest game? No. Was it Michigan’s best performance of the season? Probably not. But the Wolverines survived. And they will keep rolling onto the next game.
2. Michigan officially has a kicking issue.
When normally reliable fifth-year senior Kenny Allen missed two of three field-goal tries Sept. 17 against Colorado, it wasn’t quite enough to cause concern. Allen didn’t kick a field goal against Penn State, but he missed both of his attempts Saturday. Harbaugh benched him for the third try, which Ryan Tice missed.
The Wolverines will now have an open competition for the job this week, not a vote of confidence after five games of the season. They managed to pull out Saturday’s win despite the misses. Next time, they might not be so fortunate.
3. The offensive line is going to need some help, too.
At this point, injuries have tested the depth of most of the units on the team, and the offensive line probably has the least to spare in that department. The line has been much improved in every game this year, having its best season since at least 2012, but it has been doing it with mostly the same five guys: Grant Newsome, Ben Braden, Mason Cole, Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson from left to right.
That rhythm went into jeopardy in the first half Saturday, when a Wisconsin defender rolled into Newsome’s right leg and Newsome awkwardly fell. Harbaugh said after the game that the injury “doesn’t look good” and may require surgery. The 6-foot-7, 318-pound sophomore has started every game this season at left tackle.
Michigan has several options to replace him, all of which require inserting an inexperienced player into the offensive line. One is redshirt sophomore Juwann Bushell-Beatty, who took over for Newsome on Saturday but has not played consistently yet in his career. Another is Ben Bredeson, who competed with Newsome for the left tackle job during camp but is also a true freshman.
A third may be moving Mason Cole — who started at left tackle in 2014 and 2015 — back from center to left tackle. But that would require a new center such as redshirt sophomore Patrick Kugler, who has also not played significant time in his career.
Whoever steps in, the offensive line will need to be better after giving up four sacks Saturday.
4. Jim Harbaugh still has some weird tricks up his sleeve.
One day last week, Harbaugh and some of his assistant coaches walked into the team meeting room, each smiling. It turned out they hadn’t yet rolled out everything from their playbook.
The result was the “train” formation, a play that started with 10 players lined up in a straight line under center, with Speight walking down the line calling out instructions. They then quickly shifted into a normal formation and picked up a first down by rush.
“We knew something was going in that they liked, and it happened to be that play,” Speight said. “The bottom line is that if you do something like that, you’d better not mess it up. You’d better pick up the first down, and we were able to do that.”
Harbaugh credited his son, tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh, with the idea for the play. Seemingly every week, the Wolverines show a new wrinkle in their playbook.
“I’ve never played defense, but if you see 10 dudes in a line, that’d probably throw you off a little bit, make you think,” Speight said.
Then he turned to fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow, who said with a smile, “I think that’s fair to say, yes.”
5. Bold Prediction: Harbaugh goes for two after every score against Rutgers.
OK, maybe not every score. But a year ago against Rutgers, Harbaugh showed his willingness to go for two-point conversions. In Week 9 at Michigan Stadium, the Scarlet Knights made the mistake of talking trash while going into the tunnel for halftime down by “only” 19 points. Then, the Wolverines went for two after their first score of the second half and went on to win, 49-16.
While at Stanford in 2009, Harbaugh also famously went for two against Southern California while ahead 48-21 in the fourth quarter, prompting USC coach Pete Carroll to ask him “What’s your deal?”
Michigan and Rutgers established a bit of a mini-rivalry this summer on Harbaugh’s satellite camp tour, when Harbaugh held a camp at Paramus (N.J.) Catholic and Rutgers coach Chris Ash held another the same day at Fairleigh Dickinson. Perhaps Harbaugh has another statement in mind for the Scarlet Knights.