Big Ten football is in full swing in Ann Arbor. You can feel it in the air. It starts Saturday, with the Michigan football team’s matchup against first-year coach Scott Frost and Nebraska (0-2 overall). Prior to the start of the season, some expected a contentious head-to-head between two resurgent programs. For the 19th-ranked Wolverines (2-1), that remains to be seen. For the Cornhuskers, that ship has seemingly sailed.
Nebraska visits Michigan Stadium coming off a heartbreaking home loss to Troy, while Michigan is riding a two-game win streak with momentum in tow.
The Daily breaks down what to watch for in Saturday’s Big Ten opener.
Patterson’s other peoples
Sophomore wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones finally gave credence to the five-star hype against SMU. The Detroit native scored three touchdowns in Saturday’s 45-20 win in different ways — a deep crossing route, a back shoulder fade and a go route. Now we know what he is capable of, but can he continue doing it (at a more reasonable rate, of course)?
So far, nothing points against the contrary. Junior quarterback Shea Patterson acknowledged an improved rapport with Peoples-Jones that could see more balls thrown his way.
“(Donovan’s) a freak athlete,” Patterson said. “He’s very smart, very fast, great football size to him. I know if I throw it up, there’s a lot of trust in him (to make the catch).”
But Peoples-Jones is only one athlete in the deep wide receiving corps. And with Nebraska’s uninspiring secondary, that depth could become more pronounced. Sophomore Nico Collins made waves with a 44-yard touchdown against WMU and 52-yard reception at Notre Dame, but was quiet facing SMU. Collins, along with Oliver Martin and Grant Perry to round out the next three wide receiver options, have combined for just 16 receptions to Peoples-Jones’ 14.
Their opportunities may come in the future, though. Junior right guard Mike Onwenu said only about half the playbook has been used through three games as the team has more complex schemes drawn up for the latter half of the season. Senior Tyree Kinnel mentioned that trio of receivers as emerging players in practice, too.
The oft-referenced stat of only three wide receiver touchdowns in 2017 has faded into the background. That number has already doubled the past two games, and the new offensive installations could also include expanded receiving roles for the tight ends and running backs. A matchup against the Cornhuskers could be a good litmus test for how other receivers get involved.
The nation’s No. 1 secondary from a year ago, to put it mildly, hasn’t replicated that production with the same, more experienced players thus far. But if walk-on quarterback Andrew Bunch starts under center for Nebraska, the defensive backs could have a field day defending rushed throws.
That’s not to say the Cornhuskers don’t boast talented receivers. Their two primary options — Stanley Morgan Jr. and J.D. Spielman — have over half the team’s receiving production in its first two contests.
Michigan cornerbacks also have shown a proclivity towards giving up big yardage. Just last week against SMU, wide receiver James Proche ran rampant, collecting 11 receptions for 166 yards and two touchdowns. One of Proche’s scores included a 50-yard bomb opened up from a coverage miscommunication between Brad Hawkins and David Long.
“It’s not like they flat out beat us,” said junior safety Josh Metellus. “It was more on what we did. We knew he was a big play guy for them; we knew he was the number one guy for them. And we didn’t do a great job of playing to that. We didn’t do a great job of knowing when he’s gonna get the ball and put on double coverage or just make sure we watch him. He’s a good player, but we go against good wide receivers every day.”
All of Michigan’s defensive shortcomings must also be contextualized. The unit has given up the 16th fewest passing yards per game on average, which is still pretty darn good. But for a Don Brown secondary that was the crown jewel of college football last year, it has to prove that it can continue to play at a College Football Playoff level.
Cleaning up their act
The worst kept secret is the entire defense’s propensity to commit penalties. Michigan has committed an astonishing 27 penalties through three games, 21 of them on the defensive side of the ball. Nebraska’s ability to instigate mistakes by the Wolverines is a tough bet. But after only a week of practice since a 13-penalty game, it’s in the realm of the possibility that the issue persists and keeps Saturday’s game uncomfortably close for Michigan.
“You address each of them,” Harbaugh said of the penalties. “… And penalties are hurting us. That’s something we have to clean up and get better at. We address each one — technique, what we’re using, the discipline that we have. Get them corrected, get them coached, get improved. Don’t want 13 penalties in a game. Don’t think anybody does.”
Kinnel mentioned that the secondary discusses the committed penalties amongst each other. But the senior captain also reinforced the notion that it’s a unit with a particularly short memory, evidenced by Metellus’ pick six against SMU.
But interception return touchdowns are few and far between. If the flags continue to pile up, it could spell trouble in the future as thrown flags become a symptom of an uncharacteristically undisciplined defense.
From strictly a playing perspective, If the offensive line demonstrates improvement, then all of the on-field talent can be Big Ten Championship level. But then, playing with reckless abandon becomes the new top priority. In week four against a Big Ten opponent, we should see the frequency of penalties decline.
Bottom line and prediction
A loss at home to Troy is unexpected. A loss at Michigan with a quarterback facing the most talented defense in his football career is not.
The Wolverines should have another cakewalk ahead of them, with an opportunity for the defense to play disciplined and dominate. Oh, and don’t forget that Shea Patterson guy. He’s been pretty good.
Prediction: Michigan 38, Nebraska 14