Things happen when you’re a football team with a .500 record or when you’ve committed six turnovers in your most recent game. Things like being just a three-point favorite against Purdue.
The unranked Michigan football team’s first Big Ten game looks a lot more questionable than it did four weeks ago when it was ranked No. 8. It’s not just the two losses this early in the season, losses that came against two top-10 teams. It’s not the record so much as how the Wolverines have arrived at that record.
At times, the defensive line has been gashed in the running game and the offensive line has been bullied.
Michigan has missed too many assignments and turned the ball over too many times. Last year’s glut of turnovers for the defense has turned into a famine. Redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint has stalled.
Yet despite it all, a wide-open and talent-deficient Big Ten beckons. The Wolverines remain one of the favorites to win the conference, but the gap between the Michigans and the Purdues of the Big Ten world is as close as its ever been.
Michigan pass offense vs. Purdue pass defense
In the pass game, Michigan can expect quite a different look than it saw against Notre Dame. That cannot possibly be a bad thing for the Wolverines.
Two weeks ago, the Fighting Irish defense pressured senior quarterback Denard Robinson into four consecutive interceptions. On three of those interceptions, Robinson was hurried or knocked down, and was hustled into poor decisions. (His final interception was a Hail Mary).
Purdue tends to not bring pressure at all, though defensive tackle Kawann Short, who averages a sack per game, can wreak havoc all by himself. Instead, the Boilermakers will rely on its talented secondary to shut down Michigan’s receivers while Robinson enjoys time in the pocket.
Cornerback Josh Johnson should shut down any Michigan receiver he covers — he has recorded two of the team’s eight interceptions this season — and there isn’t much drop off in the rest of the secondary. Robinson’s best option will likely be freshman tight end Devin Funchess who should exploit Purdue linebackers that have struggled in coverage.
Notre Dame and Marshall had success through the air against Purdue this year, combining for 763 passing yards, mainly because the Boilermakers couldn’t get to the quarterback. Still, Michigan has a lot to prove in the passing game. The edge goes to the team that has generated plenty of interceptions this year.
Michigan rush offense vs. Purdue rush defense
The Purdue rush defense begins and ends with Short, who commands attention from the offensive line. Other than Short, though, Michigan has the advantage.
The Wolverines’ plan will be something like this: run away from the big scary man in the middle of the line. That means edge runs should be effective.
Robinson should have success on designed runs, but the lack of blitzes frees up Purdue linebackers to spy and limit Robinson’s scrambling ability.
Toussaint’s production could dictate the outcome of the game. Last week’s game showed the effects of shying away from the run on the road. Michigan must control the edge and spring Toussaint.
Purdue pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
The big question mark entering Saturday’s game is the status of quarterback Robert Marve
Marve tore his ACL for the third time of his career in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame on Sept. 8. Purdue coach Danny Hope said that he “could be ready” for Saturday’s game.
Caleb TerBush has played in Marve’s absence, as he did for much of last season, and he has performed solidly, if unspectacularly. TerBush has completed nearly 64 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and 531 yards, with four interceptions. But as Michigan and its five consecutive interceptions against Notre Dame can attest, four interceptions isn’t too bad.
Purdue runs a spread offense, but TerBush is not much of a threat to run. Marve has more mobility but will likely be limited if he does see the field. As a passer, Marve has excelled, completing 73 percent of his passes before the injury (granted, he does have a small sample size).
Whoever gets the start will have plenty of speedy options at wide receiver. Antavian Edison (24 receptions, 285 yards and five touchdowns) is the main target, though O.J. Ross has hauled in 27 receptions and Gary Bush adds four touchdowns.
The Michigan pass defense hasn’t been tested much, but it has limited big plays. The secondary hasn’t allowed a touchdown since the opener against Alabama.
The screen is the staple of the Purdue offense, though. They love slip screens. They love tunnel screens. They love bubble screens. That puts pressure on the secondary to make tackles in space against some shifty ball carriers, something it has struggled to do this year.
Purdue rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
Michigan’s line play has been frustrating this year. Purdue’s has too.
Despite the mediocre play in the trenches, Purdue averages more than 200 yards per game on the ground, largely due to running back Akeem Shavers, who averages 4.1 yards per carry.
The Boilermakers’ rushing stats become much less impressive when you take out the 392-yard anomaly against Eastern Michgian. Purdue gained just 90 yards on the ground against Notre Dame, for example, significantly less than Michigan’s total against the Fighting Irish.
The Michigan defense has been slowly improving and had its best showing of the seasons last week. A forgettable Purdue rushing attack won’t reverse the trend.
Remember that Short guy? He even dominates on special teams.
Short has blocked a mind-blowing three kicks in just four games this year, adding to the two he blocked in 2010 and the one he blocked in 2011.
Purdue’s place kickers are even less tested than Michigan’s. Sam McCartney and Paul Griggs have each made the only kicks they’ve attempted this season.
Return man Raheem Mostert has struggled to get going this season, averaging less than 23 yards per return. Last year he averaged 10 yards more per return and a scored touchdown.
Michigan has many questions to answer on Saturday. How will it respond to the tough loss to Notre Dame? Can it play well on the road? Will Toussaint be a factor?
The bye week helps. Plus, Michigan recognizes its road struggles and has taken steps to correct past mistakes. The Wolverines’ goal is always a Big Ten title, and that campaign starts Saturday.
Michigan gets the edge.
FINAL SCORE: Michigan 31, Purdue 21