Since Michigan lost to Ohio State on Nov. 26, 2016, shifting the tides of the Jim Harbaugh era, there have been few weeks like this one at Schembechler Hall.
Saturday night in Minneapolis, after the Wolverines had dispatched Minnesota, 49-24, Harbaugh spoke with an unbridled joy that has been sporadic at best for the past three years. Since then, six of his players have too, while quarterbacks coach Ben McDaniels raved about quarterback Joe Milton’s first start.
And while most of that optimism is derived from what happened last Saturday, some of it surely lies in a glimpse of what’s ahead. Last year around this time, Harbaugh said to “throw out the records,” praising Michigan State in all facets of the game. This year, his only choice was to deflect and say he hadn’t yet watched the Spartans as of Monday afternoon.
Because after the Spartans’ seven-turnover, 38-27, home loss to Rutgers on Saturday, there’s not much nice for him to say. But despite that result — and a spread that favors Michigan by 24 — the Wolverines have plenty to prove.
Here are some things to watch for on Saturday:
How does Joe Milton follow up his first start?
Milton, by all accounts, was excellent in his debut, throwing for 225 yards and a touchdown on 15-of-22 passing, all while avoiding any turnovers. He also added 52 yards and a score on eight carries.
After the game, Milton said that he was proud of how he performed, especially with regards to putting touch on his throws — a skill that took him years to develop. Harbaugh, meanwhile, praised his command of the offense.
Now, he has to show that he can do it consistently.
“I think there were some snaps in the passing game that I know he would like to see a little bit better than how he executed it,” McDaniels said when asked where Milton can improve. “And that’s going to be a continuous challenge every week of making sure that our eyes start in the right place, we see what we need to see from a pre-snap standpoint and then recognize things from a post-snap standpoint and then the ball goes where it needs to go. That’s every quarterback, and certainly a guy as young as Joe making his first start, that’ll be a continuous process for him in the passing game.”
There’s no reason to believe that Milton can’t replicate Saturday’s showing — Minnesota allowed 24 fewer passing yards per game than Michigan State last year, and that Spartans unit was surely more formidable than this year’s. But Michigan State will have access to tape of 22 pass attempts, all with the first-team offense, a luxury not provided to the Gophers.
Simply put, as Milton goes, so do the Wolverines. So watch how he plays. If nothing else, because it’s fun.
Will Michigan develop go-to playmakers on offense?
All offseason, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’s refrain was confidence in the Wolverines’ versatility. On Saturday, that shone through in spades.
It came through playcalling, with Gattis dialing up deep throws and quick passes, inside runs and end arounds. For Minnesota, there was no solving it. Michigan ran deep passes out of 12 personnel and power runs with Milton out of five-wide sets.
The versatility spread to personnel, too. Other than Milton, no Wolverine carried the ball more than six times, despite 31 total rushing attempts. In the passing game, the story was similar. Milton completed passes to nine receivers. Before garbage time, none of them caught more than two balls.
It’s likely that will be the story for Michigan’s offense all year. With the departures of receivers Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones, there isn’t one obvious standout on offense. But if one is going to develop, it’s likely to happen sooner than later.
Can the run defense dominate as it should?
Entering Saturday, the dominance of Michigan’s pass rushers isn’t in question. Last week, they totaled five sacks against a Minnesota offensive line that’s better than Michigan State’s even without two starters.
The bigger question for the Wolverines comes in the run game. Last year, they finished just 7th in the Big Ten in yards per game allowed on the ground, before losing Michael Dwumfour, a starting defensive tackle. Against the Gophers, the story wasn’t much prettier, with Mohamed Ibrahim picking up 140 yards on 26 carries despite Minnesota’s offensive line absences.
“It is what it is, he can have all the yards he wants, but it doesn’t really matter too much about the yards,” Hutchinson said. “We got the win so we’re happy.”
Against Michigan State, the win likely won’t be in question. But the Spartans managed a mere 50 carries on 39 yards against Rutgers. If the Wolverines can’t shut them down with similar aplomb, it’ll be mildly concerning.
How will the secondary perform?
I suppose this is really two questions. One: If Daxton Hill plays, can the secondary show an ability to dominate? Two: If Hill doesn’t play, can it at least hold its own?
Such is the importance of the Wolverines’ sophomore safety, who exited with an undisclosed injury in the first half of Michigan’s win over Minnesota. Hill, who Harbaugh said might be Michigan’s most talented player last week, dominated in the first half, providing cover help anywhere and everywhere.
“He knows the game at a higher level and he knows what he’s doing out here, he knows our plays,” junior cornerback Vincent Gray said. “So it does give me confidence, knowing that he’s gonna be in his right spots so I can just trust where he’s gonna be at and execute my game from there.”
In Hill’s stead, freshman Makari Paige looked like, well, a freshman in his first career game. Couple that with Michigan State’s receivers looking like their only competent unit last week and you get a worthwhile test for Michigan, with or without Hill.
How they fare with Hill would go a long way toward revealing the Wolverines’ defensive ceiling. How they fare without him would go a long way towards revealing their defensive floor.
Field goal kicking
Last week, junior Jake Moody — who made 16 of his 20 field goal attempts last year — missed from 33, 38 and 48 yards against Minnesota.
After the game, Harbaugh said Quinn Nordin, Michigan’s other option at kicker, had suffered a “setback” during the week. Harbaugh indicated on Monday that Nordin — who is 40-of-53 for his career — will be back this week.
It’s unclear who the Wolverines’ starter will be, or even if they’ll go with a rotation as they did at times last season, but regardless, Harbaugh will need better production from his field goal unit. A handful of field goals here and there didn’t make the difference against Minnesota and it won’t on Saturday, but Michigan needs to be able to consistently get at least three points from trips inside the opponents’ 30-yard-line going forward.
Here’s a bold take: Michigan’s going to win. And they’re going to do it by a lot. If I were a betting man (OK, if I were a betting man who could bet on Michigan games without it being a conflict of interest), I’d take Michigan -24 without thinking twice. Vegas’ implied score prediction is 38-14. That seems a few points off on both sides.
Prediction: Michigan, 45-10