The non-conference season has come to a close, and frankly, it hasn’t been very convincing.
The No. 8 Michigan football team is fresh off a 29-13 victory over Air Force that went far worse than the point differential would suggest. The Wolverines didn’t score an offensive touchdown until just over a minute was left in the game, redshirt freshman Quinn Nordin needed to hit five field goals and freshman standout receiver Tarik Black suffered a season-ending foot injury.
Now, they are opening Big Ten play on the road against a Purdue team that has been playing above its expectations. The Boilermakers started the season with a narrow seven-point loss against then-No.16 Louisville, just before blowing out Ohio and Missouri.
In short, what was once a rollover game is now a legitimate contest.
Here’s what to watch for when Michigan opens its conference season Saturday afternoon:
1. The secondary’s first true test
For the most part, things have gone off without a hitch for Michigan’s secondary through its first three games.
The Wolverines have surrendered just two passing touchdowns — one of which came against Air Force when the defensive unit was lulled to sleep by the run-heavy triple option. The 64-yard pass and catch certainly hurt, but defensive coordinator Don Brown described it as a correctable issue Wednesday afternoon.
Teams have a 40-percent completion rate against Michigan and are averaging 125.7 yards, while the secondary has already registered three interceptions — two of which were returned for touchdowns against Cincinnati.
Then again, the Wolverines are only now facing their first real passing threat. Purdue employs a two-quarterback system with David Blough and Elijah Sindelar, and both look impressive.
Blough boasts a 76.1 completion percentage with 597 yards and six touchdowns. Sindelar, though holding a 50-percent completion rate, has thrown four touchdowns of his own and racked up 263 yards.
Put simply, the Boilermakers have the same amount of passing touchdowns as Michigan has red zone trips.
The Wolverines are about to face a gunslinger in Blough. And people may finally find out just how good safety Tyree Kinnel and cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill are.
2. Can Nordin continue to lead the Big Ten in scoring?
Maybe this Heisman hype has some legitimacy.
Through three games, Nordin is leading the conference with 42 points. The next closest candidates are Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, both of whom have 30.
It may be a bad sign for Michigan’s offense, but Nordin probably won’t be complaining. With 11 field goals through three games, he is on pace to surpass the program record set by Remy Hamilton when he hit 25 in a single season in 1994. He has missed just two attempts while also converting two from 50-plus yards.
Heisman? Probably not. But it’s at least fair to joke about for now, right?
3. Who replaces Tarik Black?
Much conversation has revolved around who will take Black’s place in the offense now that he is out for the year with a foot injury.
That spot will likely be awarded to fellow freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, with sophomore Eddie McDoom seeing an increased role as well.
But it’s also worth noting that Grant Perry and Kekoa Crawford will need to rise to the occasion.
Black led the unit with 11 receptions and 149 yards, but Perry doesn’t trail by much — boasting 10 receptions and 124 yards of his own.
Crawford, meanwhile, hasn’t fared as well. His five receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown are noteworthy, but he has shown an affinity for dropping balls lately — the most notorious of which came on what was arguably Wilton Speight’s best throw of the game against Air Force.
The offense has struggled enough in the red zone, and with Black out, things are only going to get harder. Keep an eye out for Peoples-Jones, but bring your binoculars for Perry and Crawford.
4. Is this when people see the real Wilton Speight?
It may sound like a broken record, but the Wolverines’ red zone offense has been abysmal this season. Michigan has gone to the red zone 10 times and only scored one touchdown.
Speight and Harbaugh attributed the struggles on the goal line against Air Force to deceptive blitz schemes, but it’s troubling nonetheless.
With Black out and the outside chatter escalating with every incompletion, Speight may be facing more pressure than he has in a long time.
Still, we know Speight can play on the road. He did it at Minnesota in 2015. He did it at Ohio State with an injured shoulder last year. He should be able to do it now.
The Wolverines’ offense is being questioned more than ever, and with whispers of an upset in West Lafayette, it’s up to Speight to right the ship.