Michigan’s Defense Stands Strong with Win over Wisconsin

As Michigan Football starts the season 5-0, sports writer Jake Thorne dives into the highs and lows of the year so far.


Courtesy of ESPN

As a sports writer, I love dissecting and analyzing college football’s most closely contested matchups, and this past week was no exception.  With third ranked Louisville falling to Clemson in the final minutes, North Carolina knocking off twelfth ranked Florida State, and Indiana shocking the Spartan Nation, the NCAA’s best gave me plenty to enjoy — although, I’m sure fans on the receiving end of defeat may not sympathize with my viewpoint.

That being said, as a Michigan fan, a “good” football game is a living nightmare.  In the moment, as I stand anxiously on the bleachers of the BIg House, nothing terrifies me more than the thought of a Wolverine loss.  Call me insane or hypocritical — I prefer to think of myself as “passionate”.

Thus far, Harbaugh’s squad has already subjected me to two such agonizing contests, the first against a better-than-expected Colorado Buffalo team currently ranked first in their division of the Pac-12.  Down by 14 in only the first quarter, I feared the worst; however, Michigan calmed such fears as the game progressed, scoring 17 unanswered points in the 2nd quarter and keeping the Buffaloes to only a touchdown the remainder of the game in a 45-28 victory.

Michigan’s more recent contest against eighth-ranked Wisconsin was, once again, another tense, hard fought contest between Big Ten titans.  Above all else in the low scoring affair, I saw the Wolverines combat adversity, band together as a team, and overcome previous setbacks and mistakes to capture their 14-7 victory.  It’s this sense of resiliency and poise that will hopefully carry the team to victory throughout the year.

In a strict statistical sense, Michigan should have dominated the Badgers.  The Wolverine offense put up nearly 200 more yards on offense, earned thirteen more first downs and held possession for nearly 60% percent of the game.  Despite this numerical successes, multiple missed field goal attempts by kickers Kenny Allen and Ryan Tice kept the contest close and the crowd on edge.

Ultimately, a beautifully placed 46 yard pass from Wilton Speight to WR Amara Darboh put Michigan on top late in the fourth quarter.  Combined with a shutout performance by the defense, the Wolverines came out on top after a grueling 60 minutes of gridlock.

In preparation for Michigan’s 137th year on the field, my biggest concern was how consistent our offensive production would be, following the loss of Iowa transfer Jake Rudock.  Although Speight proved to be a clutch performer in a nail biting win over Minnesota last year, I initially doubted his abilities as a starter — especially considering the comparative merits of transfer John O’Korn from Houston.  Even further, my worries grew as he took the field as starter over O’Korn in the season opener against Hawaii.

I should never have doubted Coach Harbaugh’s expertise.  Overall, Speight has amassed an impressive 145.8 rating per ESPN statistics, including a 63% completion percentage and ten touchdowns on the year with only two INTs.  Most impressive to me has been his improved mobility in the pocket as the season progresses.  With his first matchup against Hawaii, Speight seemed reluctant to leave to pocket in situations of pressure, leading to some rushed throws and sloppy play.  Now, Speight’s mobility in pocket combined with an unexpected ability to shed defenders’ tackles has improved his play considerably.  He may not be perfect, especially considering his shaky start against Colorado, but his calm, not too flashy demeanor under center has kept the Wolverine offense consistent, on track and productive.

As for the backfield, RBs DeVeon Smith and Chris Evans have shared time with the ball with respectable results, averaging 5.8 and 6.7 yards per carry, respectively. Most impressive to me has been the performance of senior Ty Isaac, with two touchdowns on the year.  Isaac has already seen more playing time in five games than he did all last year, and has definitely made the most of it — particularly in a read option format with LB and wünderkind Jabrill Peppers.  I hope to see his role develop further as the season progresses.

Of all the successes of this Michigan squad, our defensive unit has by far been the most dominant.  Against Wisconsin, the Wolverines held the Badgers to only 159 total yards, as well as forcing three turnovers.  Most notable was CB Jordan Lewis’ unfathomable one-hand interception to seal a Michigan victory late in the fourth.  Defensive coordinator Don Brown must be proud — his squad has the third best third down conversion percentage in the NCAA at only 27%, combined with a rush defense allowing only 122 yards per game on average.

Additionally, special teams have been remarkable at blocking both kicks and punts.  Against UCF, Michigan managed to block an astounding four kicks in the contest, with two coming from DE Chris Wormley.  When asked if he’d need to ice his fingers after all those blocks, Wormley dismissively remarked:

You don’t think about it, especially because your adrenaline’s going. You just blocked a kick. You’re super excited. None of that. It doesn’t hurt — maybe if it was 20 degrees and the ball was a little harder and my hands were numb … but it was a nice day in Ann Arbor.”

Of course, any article about Michigan Football would be incomplete without a mention of Jabrill Peppers’ continued success on the field.  Peppers has already accrued 7.5 tackles for loss on the defensive side of the ball, adding to his 24 all-purpose tackles on the year.  However, arguably his most statistically impressive impact on the field comes from his kick and punt returns.  Currently, he averages over 20 yards per punt return, which increases to over 30 on kickoffs.  While he may only have brought one back for a touchdown, with such staggering production on special teams, more scores and dazzling moves are sure to follow.

While many are mesmerized by Peppers’ remarkable athleticism and passion on the field, I’ve been more impressed with his awareness, intelligence and versatility of use.  In particular, Harbaugh has utilized Peppers as an offensive weapon in the “wildcat” formation under center on multiple occasions, particularly against Wisconsin.  Running the read option, Peppers clearly bothers opposing defensive coordinators, who fear giving him any room for a big gain and place much attention on extinguishing his explosive potential.  But instead he never ran the ball, opting to test Ty Isaac’s abilities with immense success.  Such restraint and selflessness is admirable of any player, but especially of Peppers, who plays a whopping seven different positions

Looking ahead, Michigan stands as a strong contender for the Big Ten title, currently ranked first overall in their division and fourth in the most recent AP poll.  The season is still young, and challenging matchups still remain against both tough Ohio State and resilient Michigan State teams.  Additionally, with the loss of LT Grant Newsome to a season-ending knee injury last game, the offensive line will have to band together to sustain offensive success and protect Speight in the pocket.  Despite this, Michigan remains poised to be a high favorite for a College Football Playoff berth.

Up next, the Wolverines face a struggling 2-3 Rutgers squad at 7PM on ESPN2 before heading home to take on Illinois  With all the tension and anxiety of last game behind us, hopefully this matchup should produce a win by a comfortable margin, keeping the team on pace for what could be a special year.

Jake Thorne can be reached at jnthorne@umich.edu

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About Jake Thorne

Jake Thorne was editor in chief of the Michigan Review.