The No. 2 Michigan football team is gearing up for its second straight Big Ten Championship Game, looking to bring the title home in back-to-back seasons.
No, unranked, four-loss Purdue isn’t the same caliber of opponent as No. 5 Ohio State was last weekend, but regardless, it’s a championship game — and there’s plenty to learn.
The Daily highlights what to look for come this Championship Saturday.
Can Michigan move the ball again without Blake Corum?
Michigan lit up the scoreboard against Ohio State, notching 45 points en route to a statement victory. And the Wolverines did so without the help of its Heisman candidate in junior running back Blake Corum, whose absence made the feat all the more impressive.
Ahead of the Big Ten Championship Game, Corum’s absence will again loom large. Tuesday, in an appearance on Big Ten Network, he described his left knee injury as “nagging pain.” But Thursday afternoon, reports revealed that Corum is expected to have season-ending knee surgery, a devastating blow to Michigan’s postseason fate.
The Wolverines will certainly miss their bellcow, who powered their run-dominant offense. For 11 games this season, the offense was largely one-dimensional, operating without much of a passing threat. In parts of two games without Corum, two different scenes unfolded.
On Nov. 19 in the second half against Illinois, Michigan struggled to move the ball in the wake of Corum’s injury. On the ground, the Wolverines morphed into a shell of themselves, placing more pressure on an ineffective passing game, which failed to capitalize on the opportunity to step up.
Against Ohio State, Michigan fared dramatically better. It notched two touchdown plays through the air via strikes from sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy to senior receiver Cornelius Johnson. It also opened up the playbook with a series of unconventional plays. Plus, with the return of sophomore running back Donovan Edwards from a hand injury, the running game rediscovered its groove.
So, which version of Michigan’s offense shows up against Purdue? The answer to that question may very well determine whether the game is a romp or a nail-biter.
Can the defense contain Charlie Jones?
For all the buzz about Ohio State’s bevy of talented wide receivers, Purdue — at least statistically — boasts the best one in the Big Ten. Charlie Jones has dominated all year for the Boilermakers, leading the conference with 97 receptions and 1,199 receiving yards. He’s also tied for the lead in touchdown receptions with 12.
Purdue doesn’t shy away from getting Jones the ball often, and to keep pace with Michigan’s offense, it’s going to need a big game from its star. The Wolverines believe they have a strategy to keep Jones in check, though.
“Our plan is just going to be to continue to do what we do and know where he is at all times,” Michigan co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale said Wednesday. “We have to have a plan for him because he’s effective and they throw him the ball quite a bit, he’s always involved.”
Last weekend, the Wolverines’ secondary didn’t completely shut down the Buckeyes’ pair of talented wideouts — both Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka had over 100 receiving yards. But they were able to make the necessary adjustments over the course of the game and slow down Ohio State’s aerial attack, particularly in the second half.
A similar approach can be effective against Jones.
One player who could betasked with guarding Jones is freshman cornerback Will Johnson. The former five-star recruit has begun to live up to his billing over the last few weeks and can validate the hype once again by neutralizing Jones. Johnson also spent most of Saturday’s game matched up with Harrison, and he held his own.
If Jones is getting open early and the defense can’t adjust, Purdue has the offensive prowess to keep pace in a shootout. But if the secondary is up for the challenge and Jones becomes a non-factor, Michigan should cruise to a victory.
Can Michigan avoid the letdown
Coming off their biggest win under Harbugh, the Wolverines are in a position of relative safety. Sitting at No. 2 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, Michigan is most likely in the playoff regardless of Saturday’s result. That poses the question then:
What will the Wolverines look like against Purdue?
It’s been a tumultuous week for Michigan. On Thursday, senior defensive tackle and captain Mazi Smith was charged with a felony weapon charge, and news dropped that star running back Corum is out for the season — sufficed to say there are ample reasons for the Wolverines to look shaky. It’ll be interesting to watch Michigan’s energy early on in the game and whether or not it gets up like it did in Columbus on Saturday.
Last season, the Wolverines emphatically avoided the letdown, defeating Iowa 42-3 en route to the Big Ten Championship win. So there is a precedent here, but it’s also important to note that given Michigan already had a loss heading into last year’s game, it needed to win in order to secure a playoff bid.
What the Wolverines look like against the Boilermakers will determine whether or not they can repeat as Big Ten champions and secure a 13th win for the first time in program history.
Were the big plays fleeting, or a sustained threat?
In mid-November, as McCarthy’s deep passes continued to miss receivers, the quarterback, his teammates and his coaches repeated the same phrase: “We’re hitting them in practice.”
At the time, it felt more like a bluff than anything else. The on-field product simply didn’t back that statement up, and there’d been a large enough sample size for people to draw conclusions.
Saturday, in Michigan’s 45-23 win over Ohio State, it looked like there might’ve been at least some value to the Wolverines’ statements.
As a matter of fact, big plays were what won Michigan the game.
“As it turned out, the big plays made it so we didn’t really need to use a lot of the stuff we had saved up that was ready,” co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss said Wednesday. “Really, a lot of the big plays we hit were based on day one training camp stuff.”
The Wolverines had five plays go for over 45 yards — three pass completions and two rushes — all resulting in touchdowns. Explosiveness was the word of the day, and it’s what buried the Buckeyes.
Saturday, against a respectable Purdue defense, Michigan gets a chance to prove that last week wasn’t a flash in the pan, but rather a consistent threat. Without Corum, this method might truly be the Wolverines’ best chance to reach their ultimate goal: a national championship.
The Big Ten Championship Game against the Boilermakers might reveal a lot about McCarthy, his receivers and the Michigan offense.