If the Wisconsin game last season was a wake-up call, this year’s edition could be when things go off the rails entirely.
For this year’s iteration of Michigan football. And perhaps for the Jim Harbaugh era.
The Wolverines come into Saturday’s game (7:30, ABC) at 1-2 after losses to a rebuilding Michigan State and an Indiana program that broke a three-decade series losing streak last week. They’re down. The Badgers can kick them.
“Our expectation is to win this game,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “My enthusiasm and attacking this with our team is, that’s where we see the opportunity. Win this game, get prepared for it. The expectation is having a great day today.”
Twenty minutes later, he was sparring with a reporter who asked about his longevity at Michigan, and the lack of a contract extension given to him thus far. A drop to 1-3 would only turn up the heat.
“I’m not answering the question,” he said when asked how long he wants to be in Ann Arbor. “That’s my point. My focus is, win the next game.”
Here’s what to watch for in how Michigan might go about doing that.
Can the secondary turn it around?
Of all the position groups that have been a scourge on Michigan over the last two week — and the list is not short — none stands out more than the secondary. Whether it’s the rampant holding and pass interference penalties or opponents taking advantage of Vincent Gray seemingly every time he’s in single coverage, something has to change here.
Much of the messaging from the program has focused on how good things look in practice. Give cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich credit for taking responsibility and giving some specifics here.
“Once the route is vertical, I tell the guys just to be quiet — if it’s a nine, a go route up the sideline, just to wedge and run, stay underneath the route, get in the crease we call it, and just wedge and run, get your eyes back,” Zordich said on Monday’s Inside Michigan Football radio show. “If it’s an inside release on a vertical route, I tell them to be quiet, keep your eyes down, stay on the bottom hip, and be quiet. Don’t get handsy downfield because that’s when you can start losing your body control.
“You run faster by just running — just run, keep your eyes on that hip and match him. His hips go down, your hips go down. His hands go up, your eyes go back and you’re looking for the ball. It is a process. It is a technique. And for the most part, they’re there. It’s just one or two parts to that technique in a game — if it’s not there, it could hurt you.”
If Wisconsin’s offense is healthy — which is a notably big if — Michigan will be going up against a quarterback in Graham Mertz who was 20-of-21 for 248 yards and five touchdowns in his last outing. If Mertz, whose COVID-19 status is unclear, is out, things get a lot murkier. Backup Chase Wolf was in COVID-19 protocols as well and Danny Vanden Boom could start. The Badgers would rather run the ball, as you might guess, but receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor are legitimate threats in the passing game.
And if Paul Chryst has been watching film, he’ll test Gray and Gemon Green early.
Does the offense run more option looks?
One of the reasons the Wolverines’ offense looked so good against Minnesota was how Josh Gattis leveraged Joe Milton in the option game. Since he took over with the promise of speed in space, the stated goal of this offense has been to move the ball via RPOs, putting the defense into conflict and running a modern system.
Milton, who boasts otherworldly arm strength and the frame to make him a threat in the run game, is made to run that kind of system, and in week one, he did it to perfection. Then, for reasons unclear, Michigan went away from it in its next two games.
The result of that has been an inconsistent passing game and a run game that went for 13 yards on 18 carries last week. Michigan has struggled on first and second downs especially, putting itself into third-and-longs that kill drives before they have a chance to really start.
“I think it starts with buy-in to the calls, the scheme, just the scheme and the calls itself,” senior offensive lineman Andrew Stueber said. “The players have to take it upon themselves to get the run game where it wants to be. Come off the ball physically.”
Who’s in, who’s out?
In a game where Michigan looks outmatched on paper, health may be one of its few advantages.
Wisconsin has missed its last two games because of COVID-19 spread within its program, and it’s unclear how many of its players will miss Saturday’s game due to quarantine or positive tests. It’s also unclear how many of those players are starters.
At the center of that is Badgers quarterback Mertz. Wisconsin offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph told reporters on Wednesday that Mertz is still “in the protocol,” but could return by Saturday. He didn’t say which of Wisconsin’s quarterbacks are practicing.
As for Wisconsin’s defense, there was this quote from coordinator Jim Leonhard: “I know we will do our best to make sure there’s 11 people on the field every play. I think in hockey that is full strength, right? That’s all I can guarantee.”
In other words, buckle up.
On Michigan’s side of things, offensive tackles Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes missed last week. In an appearance on the Inside Michigan Football radio show this week, Harbaugh said both were questionable.
Without them, the Wolverines slid guard Andrew Stueber over to tackle, putting freshman Zak Zinter in his place with Karsen Barnhart at the other tackle spot. The line proceeded to struggle, particularly in the run game.
Still, it seems likely that Michigan will at least have more starters on the field than Wisconsin.
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