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Michigan beats UNLV comfortably, but some struggles still remain in the margins

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The Wolverines controlled field position, won the turnover battle, and held a huge advantage in negative plays and yet only won by 21 points against a bad UNLV team. What gives?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In 2013 when Michigan was suffering through what we thought was the one of the worst offensive regressions in Michigan history — the actual nadir of which wouldn't come until a year later after we had pretty much all quit feeling feelings — there was a lot of blame to throw around.  Things got so bad that the quick "What Went Wrong" post-game column that I had planned soon sprawled into a full dissection that would have been more aptly titled: "All The Ways In Which Michigan Shot Its Face Off".  The idea was to dig deeper into things outside of yards, touchdowns, and "the eye test" to explore the greater context of the game and try to figure out why all of these different moving parts ground to a halt.

Michigan is in a better place circa 2015 (praise Harbaugh), and hopefully this space will go back to being more about all the advantages Michigan is gaining on the field and less about my neurotic need for catharsis and understanding in the midst of my favorite team imploding spectacularly.

Progress!

Field Position

One of the issues Michigan had in 2013 — and the one that arguably had the biggest effect on the perception of the defense — was the offense's penchant for setting up opposing offenses well for points with field position swings and turnovers.

Of course, this year Michigan has fared better in that regard.  In this game Michigan had a 15 yard advantage in average starting field position.  In fact, Michigan's average starting spot at the 37 yard line is better than all but one of UNLV's starting positions in the game (the Rebels started from their own 40 yard line once.  The next best starting spot was the 36).  Meanwhile, Michigan started five drives from better than its own 40 yard line and two more in UNLV territory.

The Channing Stribling interception to start the game, solid coverage on kickoffs, and a couple really nice punts from Blake O'Neill closed the book on field position in this one.  Michigan's only turnover was an interception that happened at mid-field and led to UNLV's best start of the day at the 40.  Of course, Michigan's defense made short work of that ensuing drive.

Negative Plays

This is perhaps the biggest difference from 2013.  After three games Michigan has lost all of seven yards on running back carries and has given up a total of eight tackles for loss.  Against UNLV Michigan had just two negative plays.  In fact, the most troubling stat in this regard is that De'Veon Smith had four rushes of no gain in the game after pounding out a lot of yards after contact the week before.

On the other side of the ball, UNLV gave up nine tackles for loss with two of those being sacks, and a total loss of 30 yards.

Turnovers

Michigan had a 2-1 advantage in turnovers thanks to a pair of interceptions.

Third-Down

Not everything was so rosy as most of the above, and part of that final total of just 28 points is thanks to the fact that Michigan wasn't all that great extending drives on third down.  The Wolverines saw 13 third-down conversion opportunities and moved the chains six times.  The first half saw Michigan execute the best, converting 4/6 opportunities and nearly getting a fifth when a Jake Rudock scramble for nine yards fell short on third-and-10.  Three of these conversions came with one yard to go and the other was from five yards out on a third-and-goal.

Things didn't go so well after halftime.  Michigan missed on all three third downs in the third quarter, which stalled two drives in UNLV territory.  Furthermore, all three conversions were shorter than five yards, including a third-and-one that would turn into a failed fourth-and-one try a play later thanks to two straight no gainers from De'Veon Smith.

This being a game against UNLV meant the above didn't matter too much.  The Rebels converted five of 15 chances at third down.

So, What Went Right?

I mean, just about everything went right when we are talking about most of these factors.  Michigan kept the advantage in field position all day, shut off the UNLV offense until very late, and won by a comfortable margin in a game that never really looked to be in doubt.  These are all good things, and improvements from what we've seen in recent history.

Of course, the big red flag right now is that third down number.  Michigan's offense still moves in fits and starts, and putting together the kind of 12-plus play drives that Harbaugh's punishing offense is known for hasn't been something Michigan has been able to consistently do so far this year.

Against UNLV these things don't matter much.  Michigan got its two longest plays from scrimmage for the year that supplied two touchdowns and the comfortable margin the Wolverines enjoyed for most of the game.

The question is, what can Michigan's offense do when those big plays aren't there and the third down struggles are?  Unfortunately the answer looks a whole lot more like the Utah game than the last two.

Against a BYU team that just gave up 296 yards at almost eight yards a carry, Michigan needs to see more consistency on the ground in crucial short and medium third down opportunities.  Anything less could bode unwell for the rest of the season.