The last two weekends have not provided much of a test for the Michigan football team, as the Wolverines easily pushed aside Oregon State and UNLV in their first two home games of the season. Things will likely be different this weekend when No. 23 Brigham Young comes to town.
Last week, the Cougars stayed close with then-No. 10 UCLA, losing by one point. The Bruins scored late in the fourth quarter to take the lead for good, and BYU failed to respond.
Here’s what to watch for as Michigan looks to make one last statement in non-conference play.
1. Is this the week Jake Rudock turns things around?
The fifth-year senior quarterback has thrown five interceptions in the season’s first three games, the same number he threw all of last season with Iowa. Despite the rough statistics, nobody in Michigan’s program seems to be concerned about Rudock, at least publicly.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday that Rudock is the team’s best quarterback, “and not by a small margin,” quelling any doubt that he was second-guessing his decision to make Rudock the team’s starter. Instead, Harbaugh, Rudock and some of Michigan’s receivers have said that some of the struggles will fade over time as Rudock and the receivers continue to get on the same page.
Saturday’s game might leave no room for the turnovers that the Wolverines could afford in their previous two games. Michigan may also have to convert on some of the deep balls that have eluded receivers’ grasps so far.
2. How can Michigan’s secondary match up with big wide receivers?
The Wolverines have not faced a pass-happy offense like BYU’s so far this season. So far, Michigan’s secondary has limited big plays through the air, but that will be put to the test this weekend. The Cougars attempted 47 passes against UCLA last week.
What will make the challenge more difficult is that BYU has some size out wide. Mitch Mathews, the team’s second-leading receiver, is 6-foot-6. Nick Kurtz, the Cougars’ fourth-leading receiver, is 6-foot-5.
Michigan junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis, who had four pass breakups last week, is just 5-foot-10. He has insisted that facing taller wide receivers will not be an issue, that he can make up for the height with technique. Harbaugh has said the same.
Look to see if their words ring true Saturday or if height really does matter.
3. Can the defense create turnovers?
The Wolverines’ defense has been preaching the importance of takeaways all week. Michigan had two interceptions last week against UNLV, but it still does not appear to be satisfied. The approach of the defensive coaching staff is that the team’s defenders should be trying to get the ball back for the offense on every single possession, and that has not yet come to fruition.
The Wolverines could have an opportunity to create turnovers against BYU. The Cougars start a true freshman at quarterback in Tanner Mangum. Though he has displayed a great deal of poise early in his career, road games always provide a test for young players.
If Mangum airs it out 47 times like he did last week, Michigan’s secondary will no doubt be looking for turnovers. Whether the Wolverines take advantage is another matter entirely. It will be another opportunity for them to create their desired reputation as ball hawks.
4. Will the Wolverines be able to run the ball successfully for a third straight game?
Michigan has enjoyed great success running the ball the past two weeks, scampering for more than 200 yards in back-to-back games. Junior running back De’Veon Smith led the way against Oregon State, and junior running back Ty Isaac did the same against UNLV.
How exactly carries will be distributed this weekend remains to be seen. But if the offensive line can create holes the way it has the past two weeks, it could bode well for the team in Big Ten play.
BYU’s rush defense is far from daunting. It ranks 74th among all Football Bowl Subdivision schools, but after the struggles the Wolverines have had the last few years running the ball, another successful week would enhance the confidence of the offensive line even further.