Continue Improving Up Front
Michigan's offensive line still has quite a ways to go in both run blocking and pass protection, giving up another five sacks to a Northwestern front that isn't known for disruptive play. No one expects the unit to make a full turnaround in a matter of two games, but the young interior players can continue to build on what was a solid performance last week given the atrocious outings that came before it. Rushing for 150 yards or more would go a long way toward building confidence; keeping Gardner from being sacked four times or more might be an even bigger indicator of improvement. Every missed assignment and poor use of technique needs to be reviewed on film and applied on the field.
Control the Ball
Ball control always boils down to two things: the run game and turnover margin. Michigan won't have a dominant running attack any time soon, but the team must continue to build on the strides it made on the ground a week ago against Northwestern. Outside of improving on the offensive line, Michigan's young backs have to continue to run with confidence. This shouldn't be an issue after last week, when both Derrick Green and DeVeon Smith put Northwestern defenders down with punishing blows. It wouldn't surprise me if both ball carriers flashed even more power this week following a game in which they realized they aren't helpless after all.
Second, and more importantly, stop throwing the ball on routes that are clearly covered by defenders. Devin Gardner was this close to throwing an interception against Northwestern time and time again, and most of them came on basic underneath routes that defenders had a jump on. Part of this goes on Al Borges, who we'll get to in a second, but much of it is on Devin Gardner's shoulders. Take the snap, drop back, scramble if you can and take the sack if necessary, because a dozen punts always top four interceptions.
Play All-Around Defense
Although Michigan did improve last week against the zone read and speed option, I still believe they could have played much stronger. The read hand-off continues to be problematic at times for the interior of the defense, and poor tackling on the edge allowed more than one Northwestern drive to continue. Iowa doesn't offer up a dual-threat passer who can exploit a defense on the ground, but we all know Ohio State has more than one of them.
Other than that, continue the aggressive play. Thomas Gordon gave Big Ten ball carriers a reminder that Michigan defenders can still bring the heat, and Frank Clark came flying into the backfield via a spin move that was reminiscent of Brandon Graham. The more aggressive plays one individual player makes, the more that aggressiveness will spread to his teammates and ignite a defensive fire. That fire was lacking at times before the Northwestern game, but it looks to be back for good now.
Use an Unpredictable Game Plan
I say this knowing it won't happen: Michigan needs to change its game plans dramatically in order to rid itself of predictability. Devin Gardner was throwing to receivers -- who, mind you, are all physically capable of creating separation in some way -- with defenders draped all over them. Curl routes on the edge have been run to the point that corners and dropping defensive ends are able to get a jump on them. Tight end pop routes are being clouded by linebackers. Sooner or later, something has to give.
Borges has options here. Use Gardner sparingly in zone-read runs that are attached to bubble screens. Run power, zone and isolation plays. Use the middle screens to Devin Funchess that have worked well at times. Or, better yet, sprinkle in different parts of the route tree earlier on in games to put more pressure on defensive backs. All it takes is one successful deep route to make a defender pay homage to a receiver for the remainder of a game, and Michigan has two daunting targets in Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess.
Another game, another week full of wishful thinking. Michigan needs this game to keep its remote hopes of a ten-win season alive, which would help quiet many of the critics surrounding the program. Hell, even a nine-win season with losses against Michigan State and Ohio State wouldn't be seen as horrific given the issues on the offensive line. A loss would only point to inevitable doom against Ohio State, propelling the team into a poor bowl game named after some chain food joint.
This contest is winnable; I think Vegas is favoring the Hawkeyes a bit too much with its -6 Iowa line. Michigan has all the tools needed to step up and smash this one out of the park, giving us just a sliver of hope for next weekend's game against the Fighting Urban Meyers. If Borges comes prepared and the defense rides the momentum it has built from the Northwestern game, Michigan could put Vegas to shame -- but that's one big if.