Two weeks from Saturday, the No. 3 Michigan football team will waltz into Columbus for a highly-anticipated clash with Ohio State. This year’s iteration of The Game has the potential to be an all-time great — both teams are on a collision course to enter the matchup as undefeated titans of the Big Ten.
But for the Wolverines to reach that point with an unblemished record, they have to win two more games. That starts this weekend against lowly Nebraska, which will aim to pull off a stunning and unlikely upset.
The Daily breaks down three things to watch for in Michigan’s contest with the Cornhuskers.
Will we see progress in the downfield passing game?
After missing yet another downfield receiver in Saturday’s game against Rutgers, sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy is taking full blame for the Wolverines’ vertical passing woes.
“Every single time, I’ll say that’s on me because they’re getting open,” McCarthy said. “I have to put it on him. So I’d take 100% blame for all of the balls that are missed.”
McCarthy’s inability to perfect the deep ball has plagued him throughout the season. He has completed just one pass over 50 yards — which occurred in his first start against Hawaii — and three of more than 40 yards.
While that deficiency is yet to truly bite Michigan, it still looms large; it’s a valid concern at this point in the season, with all roads careening to a seismic battle in Columbus. Sure, there’s a chance Michigan bludgeons the Buckeyes on the ground again. Realistically, though, the Wolverines will need McCarthy to strike through the air, too.
On paper, the matchup with Nebraska offers McCarthy an opportunity to iron out his kinks. He noted that reps are the best way to improve, and reps against the Cornhuskers should be beneficial — they allow 258.1 passing yards per game, the third-worst figure in the Big Ten. In theory, that should give him plenty of opportunities to air it out.
His performance, then, could be a telling barometer as to where things truly stand with the aerial attack, regardless of how well McCarthy and his coaches insist progress is coming along.
Can Michigan start strong?
Again, there aren’t many blemishes to harp on the Wolverines. Michigan is 9-0, has consistently obliterated the opposition and touts the third-overall ranking in the College Football Playoff poll.
There is, though, a rather obvious area for improvement. And it doesn’t have a direct solution.
For whatever reason, the Wolverines struggle in the early portion of games. Against Rutgers, Michigan trailed at halftime, 17-14. They trailed after one quarter against Michigan State. Penn State and Indiana gave them fits in the first half, too. That marks four consecutive games in which the Wolverines didn’t truly pull away until after halftime.
Monday, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh credited his team’s motor for the second half turnarounds.
“It just screams at you on the tape when I watch it,” Harbaugh said. “Especially on the defense, but the offense, too, and the special teams. It’s so noticeable just how hard guys are playing and it’s 60 minutes of that kind of effort. As the game goes on, conditioning sure factors in, but it’s consistently at a high level. The hustle is there, consistent, at all times.”
Harbaugh’s answer, though, does little to diagnose the first half woes. A slow start at home against Nebraska — who, at 3-6, fired its coach and is one of the more calamitous programs in college football — would certainly raise red flags, especially compounded with last week’s first half performance against the Scarlet Knights.
Again, with two games to go until Columbus, Michigan is running out of time to reverse the trend.
Michigan’s defense may have another field day
The Wolverines overwhelmed Rutgers quarterback Gavin Wimsatt, notching a frenetic spree of three third-quarter interceptions and flipping the tenor of the game in their favor.
The defense has a prime opportunity to put on another show against Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers don’t have a potent offense to begin with — they rank eighth in the Big Ten, averaging 25.6 points per game. Those issues will be amplified this weekend, as starting quarterback Casey Thompson will miss his second consecutive game with an arm injury.
Thompson’s absence leaves Nebraska interim coach Mickey Joseph with a decision to make under center. He can start Chubba Purdy, a redshirt freshman who drew the start last week but struggled, going 6-for-16 with 41 yards and an interception against Minnesota. Or, Joseph can pivot to Logan Smothers, a sophomore who went 5-for-10 with 80 yards in relief of Purdy.
No matter which option Joseph pursues, neither is conducive to success against a smothering Michigan defense, which allows just 12.1 points per game — the third-best mark in the nation. The Wolverines have placed an unrelenting emphasis on generating takeaways, a mindset that bore fruit against Rutgers.
This week’s contest certainly presents a prime opportunity for Michigan to add to its season total of eight interceptions, allowing it to break out the fabled turnover buffs yet again.