We're three games into the 2014 Michigan football season and I'm feeling odd. Odd because I witnessed a Michigan team get clobbered by Notre Dame in South Bend only two weeks ago and still somehow feel as if the Wolverines are destined to win nine games. Michigan's ground game is improving at a surprising rate, with Derrick Green learning how to find a hole and his offensive line learning how to create them seemingly as each game progresses. Its defense is rounding into form, just now realizing that it's a good idea to put its best athletes and man-cover guys in when you're running an aggressive scheme. Things seem to be on the up and up.
But these improvements have come in a span one week. Michigan came out looking sluggish against an overwhelmed Miami team that eventually caved under the Wolverines' pile of national recruits, giving me both a depressing and hopeful feeling all at once. The Big Ten is bad this year – I mean, it's really bad – meaning the Wolverines should be able to pull off eight or more regular season wins if they continue to make strides on the field.
But Michigan has one last non-conference foe to battle before it can begin preparing for the B1G
puppy party grind. The Utah Utes haven't played a legitimate opponent yet, but they do have the talent and coaching to test Michigan on Saturday. Let's break down six match-ups you should be watching as the game plays on.
1. Lewis and Peppers vs. Dres Anderson
Dres Anderson is Utah's best player on either side of the ball. Capable of turning a simple throw into a long scoring play, Michigan needs to keep him in check if it wants to keep the Utes' offense as a whole in check. This puts plenty of pressure on Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers, who both looked improved against a Miami team that didn't offer anyone capable of getting behind coverage. Anderson is very much capable.
2. Offensive Line vs. Utah's Multiple 3-3-5
As pointed out by MGoBlog's Ace Anbender, Utah is going to mix its fronts and could give Michigan's front trouble when it comes to identifying who to block on inside zone and pass protections. The key to the Wolverine running attack is second-level blocks that occur after one lineman chips and peels off, which means that Michigan might start slow and finish fast as it learns on the fly.
3. Devin Gardner vs. Pressure
Similar to the story with the offensive line, Gardner will need to identify pressure and make sure to attack it when given the opportunity. The offense needs him to make better decisions, especially if Devin Funchess is watching from the sidelines.
4. Non-Funchess Receivers vs. Utah's Secondary
Whether or not Devin Funchess will play is yet to be revealed, but he won't be completely healthy even if he sees the field. This puts pressure on Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, Jake Butt, Dennis Norfleet, Freddy Canteen.. okay, so Michigan has plenty of options past Funchess, but the group is tasked with replacing the production of one of the most lethal mismatches in the country, which won't be easy.
5. Frank Clark vs. Pass Timing
Three games, zero sacks for Frank Clark. But don't read too far into that: Clark is racking up QB hurries and pressures but can't get into the backfield without the passer gunning the ball out an instant after the snap. He did work against Notre Dame's talented offensive tackles, so the transitive property says he'll do work against Utah.
6. Matt Wile vs. Matt Wile
Argh. Michigan's kicking problem disappeared for quite some time, only to rear its ugly head in 2014 when we all assumed Matt Wile would be decent at worst. He's been terrible despite his great leg talent and should probably stop battling his own mind and kick the damn ball in a straight path.
I'm drinking more Two Hearted this Saturday, but things could take a quick left turn and lead down a dark path of popular light domestics if the game doesn't go as planned.
Drink up. Death to the defeaters of Rich Rodriguez.