Heading into Jim Harbaugh’s fourth season, many Michigan fans dubbed this “the year,” the one when the Wolverines would get over the hump and compete for a national title. The combination of Ole Miss transfer quarterback Shea Patterson and Don Brown’s suffocating defense, this looked like it could be a good year in Ann Arbor, even though the season began with a trip to South Bend to face Notre Dame.
That Notre Dame game went south quickly, as the Irish marched 75 yards in less than 90 seconds to take a 7-0 lead. Michigan pinned Notre Dame within their own 5 yard line, but a targeting call on safety Josh Metellus helped them to a touchdown and a 14-0 lead early in the game. Outside of those two drives, Michigan’s defense looked solid. They yielded another touchdown late in the half, which would have been a field goal if not for a roughing the passer call on defensive end Chase Winovich on an incomplete third down pass which would have forced Notre Dame to kick a field goal from the Michigan 8.
Ambry Thomas took the following kickoff back for a touchdown, and Michigan trailed 21-10 at halftime. They were unable to capitalize after a Brandon Watson interception put Michigan inside the 50. Notre Dame got a field goal in the half, but the defense held them after that. Michigan scored a late touchdown and forced a quick three-and-out, but fumbled on the next possession as Patterson had nowhere to go with the ball, ending a comeback effort that was too little, too late in a 24-17 loss to open the season.
The Wolverines have turned it around since then and are riding a 5 game winning streak into a tough stretch of Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Penn State.
When Michigan is on offense, they are led by junior quarterback Shea Patterson. While he has not necessarily been the savior Michigan fans longed for when he announced his transfer, he has led the Michigan offense in ways that the quarterback trio of Wilton Speight, John O’Korn, and Brandon Peters simply couldn’t in 2017. His 68.8 completion percentage is 16th in the nation and his 8.6 yards per attempt is good for 26th, but his 1187 yards is only 59th of all quarterbacks. Through six games, Patterson has 10 passing touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Last season, three Michigan quarterbacks combined for 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions over the course of the entire season.
Patterson has not put up big numbers in the passing game because Michigan has relied on the running game and hasn’t needed Patterson to throw for 300 yards per game. His value to the Michigan offense is his ability to make throws on the run, hit open receivers downfield, and occasionally fit passes into tight windows, all of which were unthinkable last season. Even in the Notre Dame game, when he didn’t have a touchdown pass and had two turnovers, he was accurate, completing 20 of his 30 passes. He has also shown his value in his leadership ability as he led the Wolverines to a 17 point comeback against Northwestern with Patterson leading the charge. On the season, he has 7 touchdown passes to 2 interceptions.
The receiving corps has been strong through six games, giving Patterson multiple options on any given play. Tight end Zach Gentry leads all receivers with 306 yards and has added a touchdown. The 6’8” redshirt junior converted from quarterback to play tight end, and has already passed his 2017 total of 303 yards. His height allows Patterson to throw jump balls to him, trusting that he’ll reach over the shorter defenders to come down with the ball. Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones lead the way for the wide receivers as both have more than 200 yards. In total, six Michigan players have caught a touchdown, including 2 by true freshman Ronnie Bell and one by walk on Jake McCurry.
Michigan still awaits the return of sophomore Tarik Black, who suffered his second broken foot in two years before the season. Black, who finished the 2017 season 7th on the team in receiving yards despite only playing three games before the injury, is expected to be back before the end of the season, though the timeline is unknown. He was on track to be Michigan’s best receiver a year ago, and many fans expected him to be that in 2018 before his injury.
The running game has been the most dominant part of Michigan’s offensive attack. Led by senior running back Karan Higdon, Michigan averages just under 200 yards per game at 199.8. Higdon appears to be well on his way to a 1,000 yard season as he has 582 yards in 5 games; he sat out of the SMU game. Junior Chris Evans, the backup running back, has missed the past three games due to injury after getting 172 yards in the first three, so the third string, junior Tru Wilson, has stepped up and strengthened the depth at running back. Wilson, a former walk on, has appeared in every game except for the Notre Dame game and has rushed for 188 yards and scored a touchdown in addition to proving himself as a pass blocker.
Fullback Ben Mason has been an asset in blocking and running this season. He has five touchdowns on 16 carries, and while he only has 41 yards on the year, his name has been called in short yardage situations and has succeeded in getting two to three yards almost every time he touches the ball.
The offensive line has been an area of concern for Michigan fans this season, especially the tackles Jon Runyan and Juwann Bushell-Beatty. The interior of the line, led by junior captain left guard Ben Bredeson is strong. Center Cesar Ruiz, though only a sophomore, appears to be talented, and played with quarterback Shea Patterson in high school. As a whole, the line has improved through six games after a rough start against Notre Dame. The improvement will need to continue as the level of competition increases, starting with Wisconsin.
The offense has been good enough to get the job done through six games. Improvement has been shown on the scoreboard as they have been able to put teams away in a way that the 2017 team couldn’t. They have scored 40 or more points in each of their four home games, while the most the 2017 team scored at all was 36. They need to start faster than they did in games like Notre Dame and Northwestern, because the Big Ten’s elite will not be forgiving.
The Michigan defense has been led by a dominant front seven that has been able to get after the quarterback and hold opposing offenses to 230.5 yards per game, the best in the country. Their 3.69 yards per play is also number one in the country, and their passing defense allows a nation’s best 134 passing yards per game. When opponents try to run the football, Michigan has held them. They have allowed an average of 96.5 yards per game and 2.6 yards per carry, sixth and third in the nation, respectively. Michigan also has the tenth best scoring defense, averaging 15.8 points per game. The only problem with Michigan’s defense is that they don’t force many turnovers, their five interceptions are good for 44th in the country, while their one forced fumble is tied for 116th in all of college football. Two of their interceptions have been returned for touchdowns, tied for fourth best in the country.
Michigan’s defense is able to hold opponents to so few yards because of a strong defensive line and group of linebackers. Led by defensive ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, linebacker Devin Bush, and Viper Khaleke Hudson, Michigan is able to get to the quarterback and also keep up with running backs. Winovich and Bush each have three sacks on the season, leading the way for the rest of the team.
Michigan’s defense has a tendency to start games slow, which can come back to haunt this team down the stretch. The Wolverines allowed 21 first half points in their loss to Notre Dame before limiting the Irish to 3 points and 64 yards in the second half as they tried to comeback from a 14 point 3rd quarter deficit. They allowed Northwester to score 17 points in the first 17 minutes of the game before shutting them out for the rest of the game, allowing the offense to comeback.
Michigan’s defense is its strongest unit, and they will need to rely on them the rest of the season to come up with stops and carry the team through the Big Ten schedule.
Michigan’s special teams unit has been strong all season, outside of a few errors. They have touchdowns in both return games, thanks to Ambry Thomas’s kick return against Notre Dame and Donovan Peoples-Jones’s punt return against Nebraska. Kicker Quinn Nordin has made 8 of his 9 field goal attempts and has a long of 50 yards on the season. He did miss an extra point against Nebraska, but has been otherwise perfect on PATs. Punter Will Hart may be the most impressive of the special teams unit. As a holder, Hart did bobble what was a little bit of a high snap, but certainly catchable, resulting in a turnover on downs instead of a field goal that would’ve cut the Michigan deficit to 8 points. Other than that, he has been solid as a holder. As a punter, he has been outstanding. He averages 51.7 yards on 18 punts, second in the country, and has a long of 64 yards. He has consistently flipped the field for the Wolverines in what has been generally a good year for their special teams.
Prediction for 2nd Half of Season
Michigan has its toughest stretch ahead of them, when they face Wisconsin, travel to Michigan State, and host Penn State after a bye week. Looking at each game individually, I’d expect Michigan to win both the Wisconsin and Michigan State game before a toss-up against Penn State. The games are consecutive, though, and that adds to the challenge of getting through this stretch and the Big Ten schedule unscathed. Wisconsin and Michigan State don’t look as tough as once believed, and Michigan has gone on a roll since their opening week loss to Notre Dame.
I predict that Michigan beats both Wisconsin and Michigan State and both Rutgers and Indiana, who they face between Penn State and Ohio State. I also think that they’ll win one game out of Penn State and Ohio State, with the home game against Penn State being more likely. Michigan has to turn around their incredible misfortunes in the Ohio State matchup at some point and win even one game, but that looks unlikely this year with how Ohio State has performed through six games.
I’ll say that Michigan ends the year 10-2 with one Big Ten loss.