WEST LAFAYETTE – When the 14th-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes bring their three-ring offensive circus to Ann Arbor next Saturday, they will bring with them a scoring average of 38 points per game. Note to the Michigan defense: If Iowa scores 38 points next Saturday, Michigan will lose.
The pressure will be on Michigan’s defense – not its offense – to win that game, and subsequent games, as the Big Ten season grinds on.
I praise the offense for what is has been able to do. An inexperienced receiving corps has shown signs of excellence, albeit inconsistently, and quarterback John Navarre has shown continued growth. The play calling is typically Michigan – it is conservative and functional. This offense plays within itself, and I don’t expect much more than what it’s been doing because it’s not capable of doing much more. But that means that the Michigan defense needs to step it up.
On Saturday against Purdue, the Michigan offense wasn’t bad, and it wasn’t good. All season long, the offense has been unspectacular; serviceable. It is averaging 27.7 points per game, good enough for seventh in the conference, and against Purdue put up 23. That output is the result of an inability to kick field goals from anywhere beyond the 10-yard line, an inability to move the ball in short-yardage situations, a recurring tendency of its receivers to drop balls and a lack of offensive creativity.
Michigan features a running game that seems to have a different problem every week. If it isn’t fumbles, then it’s dropped passes in the flat. If it isn’t dropped passes, then it’s dysfunction on 3rd-and-short and 4th-and-short (which is as much the offensive line’s responsibility as the backs’). Running back Chris Perry and fullback B.J. Askew are decent – the Michigan running game is averaging 146.4 yards per game and has punched the ball in 11 times – but their inconsistency and above-mentioned errors make them only so good. They help Michigan to a point, but ultimately keep the offense from achieving a consistency that would allow for greater offensive output.
Inconsistency also plagues the receiving corps. There are days when everyone is keeping tabs on Braylon Edwards or Ronald Bellamy; there are days when you forget they’re out there at all. Edwards, Bellamy and the rest of John Navarre’s targets are solid, but unspectacular. They have shown themselves capable of making the play when it’s third-and-game, or fourth-and-game (against Penn State), but have also failed in such situations (against Notre Dame). Edwards in particular has been a model of inconsistency, despite the promise that he has shown on certain days, and on certain plays.
The offense isn’t bad – it’s middle of the road. The 27.7 points per game is fine, but it requires the defense to keep opponents’ scoring low. Through last weekend, Michigan is holding its opponents to 20.9 points per game. That seven point cushion is not enough when you are afraid – rightly – to kick field goals. The games only get tougher, and the margins of victory (or defeat) will only shrink. A statistician will tell you to remove the outliers. So if the highest and lowest scoring games of the season are removed from the equation (10-7 versus Utah and 45-28 versus Illinois) then that difference becomes 27.8 points per game scored and 22.2 points per game allowed. That difference of two field goals is the difference between having a kicking game you trust, or a fullback that is a guarantee on fourth-and-inches.
The defense needs to be as good as advertised. Injuries have plagued the unit at every level, but Michigan does not have the luxury to make excuses if it’s talking seriously about Big Ten titles and BCS berths. Saturday’s 23-21 score against a meager Purdue team was typical. But the offense cannot and will not score much more than 23 against the rest of its Big Ten competition, so the defense will have to find a way to keep opponents below 20.
Say what you will about the offensive weapons – they’re doing what they’ll do. The burden from here on out is on the D.
David Horn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.