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Biggest surprises for Michigan football in 2023

Four storylines that came out of the blue and caught our attention this year.

2023 Big Ten Championship - Iowa v Michigan Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

For the most part, the Michigan Wolverines’ 2023 season went just about as expected. An undefeated season and trip to the College Football Playoff were well within the range of outcomes, and they will now play Alabama in the Rose Bowl for a shot at the National Championship.

However, in any season there are always surprises the team and fans don’t see coming. These can be encouraging developments or sudden barriers that make the road ahead tougher — ichigan was presented with both types this season.

Today, we look at some of the biggest surprises for the Wolverines in 2023.

Jim Harbaugh’s Suspensions

What if I told you back in June Jim Harbaugh would only coach six regular season games for Michigan? That would’ve been pretty hard to believe at the time, but that’s what happened.

Weeks before the regular season started, it was announced Harbaugh would be subject to a four-game suspension stemming from the “burger-gate” recruiting violations. This suspension was eventually changed to three-game suspension, imposed by the school. Fortunately, those games were against East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green. The Wolverines got off to a relatively easy 3-0 start despite being down their head coach.

What really came out of nowhere though was Harbaugh’s three game suspension for the end of the regular season. These came against Penn State, Maryland, and Ohio State on the heels of the infamous sign-stealing investigation.

Despite a fight for an injunction on the eve of Michigan’s matchup with Penn State, offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore led the way for the final three games of the regular season, leading Michigan to a 3-0 finish and a major victory over rival Ohio State.

Underclassman Breakouts

Coming into the season, we were wondering which young guys could rise to the occasion and make a big impact. Two players in particular, one on each side of the ball, broke out this year — wide receiver Semaj Morgan and defensive tackle Kenneth Grant.

Morgan, a freshman from West Bloomfield, was not necessarily one of Michigan’s leading receivers with only 17 receptions for 183 yards. However, Morgan found the end zone four times and was used primarily as a gadget player on sweeps and screens. He also showcased his ability on special teams with an 84-yard punt return in the Big Ten Championship.

In Grant’s case, he came out of nowhere to become a force along Michigan’s defensive line. Coming into the year, Mason Graham and Kris Jenkins were the defensive tackles who got most of the attention, but it was Grant who shined the brightest. He compiled 26 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one fumble recovery and one interception en route to All-Big Ten Honors (second-team coaches, third-team media). Next year, him and Graham should form the best defensive tackle tandem in the conference.

Run Game Struggles

In 2021 and 2022, Michigan’s resurgence had largely been driven by its offensive identity as a smash-mouth team that could run the ball at will. That hasn’t been the case this year, though, as Michigan’s rushing offense ranks No. 59 nationally with 161.8 yards per game, a significant step down from last year’s mark of 238.9 yards per game.

There could be a few reasons for this. In the early going, it appeared Michigan’s new-look offensive line was struggling to gel and open up run lanes for the backs. Throughout the season, Blake Corum looked like he didn’t have the same burst to break off those 60-yard runs that seemingly occurred every game in 2022. However, Corum still proved reliable for picking up chunks of yards and was nearly automatic at the goal line, as evidenced by his 24 rushing touchdowns.

Additionally, Donovan Edwards was expected to take another step forward this season after his 991-yard year in 2022. He struggled to find run space on the ground this year and has only mustered 382 yards, but he did make a decent impact through the air with 249 yards on 30 receptions.

Pass Defense

After last season, the departures of D.J. Turner, Gemon Green and R.J. Moten meant the secondary could be seen as a potential weakness. The returns of Will Johnson and Mike Sainristil, who both had good ends to 2022, offered some encouragement, but Michigan was still going to need more.

Well, Michigan got more. Johnson and Sainristil had their solid seasons as we expected. Sainristil stood out in particular with five interceptions, two forced fumbles and two sacks. That helped him earn a spot on the Sporting News All-American Team as a first-team selection.

The rest of the secondary was solid as well to make the nation’s No. 2 pass defense. The unit allowed only 152.6 yards per game and picked off 16 passes, which tied for fifth nationally. Additionally, the unit had the nation’s sixth-best defensive passing efficiency.

The secondary got valuable contributions from UMass transfer Josh Wallace, who earned All-Big Ten honorable mentions from the coaches and media for his work at corner. A rotating cast of characters at safety impressed, too, including Rod Moore, Makari Paige, Keon Sabb and Quinten Johnson.

The secondary was also a big reason why Michigan was able to defeat Ohio State, as interceptions from Will Johnson and Rod Moore turned the tide in the game.