The Michigan football team enters its bye this week in a position nobody expected entering the season: 6-0 and ranked eighth in the country. To this point, too, most things have come easy for the Wolverines, save for some second half struggles against Rutgers and Nebraska.
But with a trio of top 10 teams in Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State all looming in the second half of the season, life is bound to get more difficult for coach Jim Harbaugh’s surprisingly feisty team. Here are the biggest storylines during the bye week.
Injuries start to emerge
Beyond senior receiver Ronnie Bell’s season-ending knee injury in Week 1, Michigan mostly avoided suffering any serious injuries for the first several games. There are always minor issues — fifth-year linebacker Josh Ross left the Rutgers game with a stinger, and sophomore offensive lineman Zak Zinter started the season with a club on his right hand — but nothing that forced key players to miss entire games.
That changed Saturday, when sophomore receiver Roman Wilson did not travel with the team due to a wrist injury. Still, others managed to fill the hole left by Wilson’s absence, as junior and senior tight ends Erick All and Luke Schoonmaker registered two receptions each.
“I think we got darn near all the tight ends,” Harbaugh said Saturday. “ … The wide delay was really working for us, that got us out of three third-down conversions.”
But by the end of the game, Wilson wasn’t the only casualty. Zinter left the game late in the first half with an apparent leg injury, and senior offensive lineman Trevor Keegan also played limited snaps due to an issue with his shoulder.
While the grind of a full schedule is starting to take a toll, Harbaugh doesn’t see any of those injuries growing into long-term problems.
“I think the bye, not playing this week, is really gonna help,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t think they’re long-term injuries, no.”
Partially brought on by that wear and tear, the Wolverines rotated through more offensive linemen on Saturday than they have in any game prior. Fifth-year senior Chuck Filiaga has generally been the first lineman off the bench all season, and he once again saw extended playing time against Nebraska after Zinter went down.
Sophomore Reece Atteberry also saw significant snaps at guard for the first time, as did junior Karsen Barnhart. Despite that constant rotation along the line, Michigan’s offense still functioned as it was designed to late in the game, racking up 128 rushing yards in the second half alone.
“Karsen Barnhart came in and had an amazing game — he played both guards,” Harbaugh said. “Reece Atteberry — I think we had five guards that played in the game. And not a single negative yard rushing by any of our running backs.”
Added Barnhart: “I think we’re playing pretty good ball, but there’s a lot of things that we can all improve on. To get better would mean better execution every play.”
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line’s normal rotation continued on Saturday. Though not as uncommon as substitutions on the offensive line, those switches reflect the staff’s desire to keep everyone in the front seven as fresh as possible.
“It’s working really well,” fifth-year defensive tackle Jess Speight said. “I think (defensive line coach Shaun) Nua’s really got it down. It’s something he’s had the freedom to do this year, is really rotate us how he wants inside, and we have a really good bond inside. There’s about six or seven of us that are really getting in the game and rotating and everything, and you know we’re always gonna have each other’s backs.”
Undefeated start sparks energy
Harbaugh confused many on Saturday when he referred to Michigan’s victory as a “Clint Eastwood win.” When asked to explain on Monday, he didn’t clarify much:
“There’s so many Clint Eastwood things, whether it was El Camino or Dirty Harry or Unforgiven, just some different things. Suffice it to say, ‘Make my day. Go ahead, make my day’ ”
While Harbaugh’s metaphor probably isn’t as apt as he may think, it does speak to the positive energy surrounding his program right now. Even though it’s most notable on the sideline during games — especially after the third quarter the last two weeks — the team insists that same energy is maintained every other day of the week.
“You see it when they practice,” Harbaugh said. “The energy that they bring, the fun they’re having, the grit. And more of them like that.”
Whether that energy can carry over into the home stretch of the schedule is another question, but for now, it’s more about carrying it through the next two weeks. Barring a catastrophic upset against Northwestern, the Wolverines’ Oct. 30 matchup with Michigan State should be their greatest test to date.
Until then — especially with top 10 teams dropping like flies all across the country — they’ll have to focus on keeping a cool head.
“I try not to look at other teams as much as the next team that we’re facing,” junior offensive lineman Trente Jones said. “Just, if you lose a game, you’re not gonna be in that top 10, so if you’re not focusing on that next team, that next opponent, it really doesn’t matter, ’cause you snooze, you lose, unless you’re number one.
“So until we get there: day by day.”