Michigan has toughness
Anyone questioning Michigan's drive and toughness before Saturday's game must have been pleased with the effort they saw Saturday. The entire team, from the offensive line to the secondary, played with poise and aggressiveness, showing that they aren't willing to lay down and let the season end. Plays like Thomas Gordon's crushing hit on Kain Colter and Derrick Green's demolition of a Northwestern safety showed both grit and determination, which is something that has been lacking at times in recent games.
Rest assured that every player on the team is hearing about the program's downfalls from multiple angles; coming out and defeating Northwestern by hanging in there until the very end silences some of the many critics this team has.
The offensive line is improving
Northwestern's rushing defense isn't anything impressive, and Michigan still gave up too many sacks and negative rush attempts. That said, Michigan definitely improved up front this week. The power play worked on more than one occasion, as did single-back attempts with both Derrick Green and DeVeon Smith, who both ran for more than 4 yards per carry–a number that many thought was impossible to reach just days ago. Cutback lanes were available for both backs all game long; the opportunity for even more yardage was there.
Fitzgerald Toussaint has been supplanted by two deserving freshman
Toussaint had his share of critics following consecutive poor performances, both as a runner and as a backfield blocker. He hasn't rushed with the same explosiveness as he did in the past, and his blitz pickup has been spotty, as well. The senior's mounting struggles gave way to two freshman in Derrick Green and DeVeon Smith.
Both Green and Smith looked the part on Saturday despite missing plenty of cutback opportunities. Green stood out between the two, flashing quicker feet and better overall awareness. Both showed an improved ability to break tackles and finish runs, making Wildcats pay for squaring up at the end of a run.
The future looks very bright at tailback. Michigan has two of them playing well heading into the end of their first seasons, and Damien Harris will be a true freshman when the current duo reaches junior status. Michigan is also in on Texas running back Vic Enwere in the class of 2014, meaning it could have four great backs spanning three classes.
Mobile QBs and the option remain problematic
The defense continues to struggle against backfields capable of running the speed option, failing to defend the option on a consistent basis for the second straight week. Blame can't be placed on any one position group, as defensive ends, linebackers and safeties were all responsible for failures to defend the scheme on different snaps. This is something that needs more practice; Urban Meyer and Ohio State will surely look to exploit this deficiency.
This win, despite not being worth anything in the Big Ten race, was extremely important. Brady Hoke was in danger of losing three straight games for the first time during his time as Michigan's head coach, and such a streak would have given critics of the program even more to cry about. Instead, a 10-win season remains a remote possibility, and a 9-win season could definitely be had.
Don't expect this team to come out and run over a dangerous Iowa team. Devin Gardner, his offensive line and the defense as a whole all have a ways to go if they want to get to 9 wins and head into next year with any semblance of hope. Ohio State isn't a guaranteed loss, but it's damn close.