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Tougher Times Ahead for Wolverines

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As the second quarter drew to a close last Saturday, Michigan fans and casual observers alike looked down at the field and collectively said "uh-oh."  It wasn't - at least for me - ever an "uh-oh" that was going to lead to Michigan losing this game.  The offense averaged 9.7 yards - nearly a first down - every single time they ran the ball, which is skewed a bit due to the Brown Lightening 90-yarder, but a fun stat none-the-less.  The defense, meanwhile, had just finished allowing 17 points on what amounted to Ron English, as he is wont to do, throwing rock.  On one set of downs, the offense saw 3 counter's to the left side of the line in a row.  The last one went, finally, mercifully, for a touchdown.  Caveats in the last-minute suspension of Mouton and all that, it was still a disheartening performance.

Through it all, I kept saying and typing one phrase:  We'll be fine.  We'll adjust.  Don't Panic.

Then, miracles of miracles, it came true.  Eastern Michigan had four possessions in the third quarter that went for a total of 70 yards and ended in punt, punt, INT, turnover on downs.  Their fourth quarter possessions ended similarly.  Even in the first half, the defense was able to put Eastern in third downs, and even forced a fourth down conversion at one point.  Eastern Michigan was aided greatly by a pass interference call that was amongst the worst I've ever seen.  After halftime, the defense allowed only 99 yards of total offense and 0 points.  Graham and Leach would say that there wasn't any schematic shift at half time - just an reemphasis on gap control and playing assignment defense.  Once they settled down, the defense did what they're supposed to do to a team like Eastern Michigan.  They shut them out.  The fact that there wasn't a big schematic shift is reason for optimism.  They just had to settle down and do what they've been instructed to do.  It wasn't like they were pulling rabbits out of hats.

The problems on defense aren't invisible though.  The linebacker corp seems hesitant, and Cissoko is put on an island too often.  What remains to be seen, however, is whether this defense can hold up their end of the bargain if the offense isn't.  In three games so far, the offense has averaged 439 yards of total offense per game, and 38 points per game, good for 2nd and 1st in the Big Ten respectively.  The offense could continue to roll up those kind of averages, but color me skeptical.  Teams that contend for a championship at any level eventually face adversity, and this Michigan offense is not immune to that.  At one point this season, probably more, the weaker points of this team will be asked to win a game.  That's what football seasons do.  Throughout the course of a season, opponents poke and prod and eventually expose whatever weak point your team may have.  Then they attack.  If your weak point is stronger than their attack, then congratulations, you've probably won something big and shiny. 

The weak point of this team is undoubtedly the defense.  They will be attacked throughout the season.  What remains to be seen, however, is whether they can stand up to the Big Ten's best shot, because Penn State, Michigan State, Iowa, and Ohio State are all still on the schedule, and if the defense has another first half like they did against Eastern, the scoreboard is likely to read much differently at half time.  This team CAN contend for a Big Ten championship if the defense gets into 2nd-half-mode from the opening gun, which is a little like saying "I CAN fly if I grow wings and my weight becomes significantly less than the upward force generated by said wings" but after last year, I'll take it.

For now, with conference play starting, Michigan has arguably the best offense in the Big Ten, and certainly the most dynamic.  The defense has played well enough to allow that offense plenty of opportunities to come out and make lightening happen, and Michigan is 3-0 for the first time since 2006.  Enjoy it.  Just know that tougher times are ahead.