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What We Learned in College Football’s Ninth Week

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Fans should not be concerned with the late game troubles on defense.

Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

WHAT WE LEARNED: ABOUT MICHIGAN

Another notch on Jim Harbaugh’s belt. Jim Harbaugh continues to do the unexpected at Michigan. He is now 18-3 after inheriting a 5-7 team. It had been 9 years since Michigan won a road rivalry game (MSU/OSU), but Michigan went into East Lansing and rolled. Yes, MSU is having a waaaay down season. Yes, Michigan has vastly superior talent on both sides of the ball. But the fact that Michigan came into East Lansing, took MSU’s best shot, and delivered a convincing win speaks volumes.

Let’s not forget that Michigan came into East Lansing 2 years ago, with no shot to win the game. Since then, the roles have been completely reversed, and then some. Brady Hoke never lost 6 games in a row for Michigan like Dantonio did now, and it could easily be argued that Jim Harbaugh has already put together a team that is better than any year for MSU in the Dantonio era. And he did it all in a season and a half! Michigan will always get MSU’s best shot in the future too, but just like Saturday, it probably won’t matter.

Michigan’s offense CAN be great. Michigan scored on all 5 of their first half possessions - 3 touchdowns and 2 field goals. Wilton Speight was dialed in. He was hitting the short passes to extend the drive. He was hooking up with Amara Darboh in a way that gave me flashbacks to Tom Brady and David Terrell in the Orange Bowl against Alabama. The run game was efficient enough, and you had the occasional Eddie McDOOM jet sweep that punished MSU’s over-aggressive defense. With Michigan’s defense playing the way they do, the team will win a lot of games when they get that kind of production from the offense.

Fast forward to the 2nd half, where 1 play seemingly changed the way Michigan approached the offensive gameplan. On the first drive of the 2nd half, Michigan’s offense was again humming along. However, Wilton Speight made a bad read, MSU had a defensive back in perfect positon, and Speight threw only his 3rd interception of the season. Up until this point, Michigan had been playing very aggressively on offense. They were taking shots down the field, and MSU’s defense was doing little to stop it. However, after this interception, it was like Michigan was scared to call anything with even the slightest element of risk. Lots of inside runs were called, some short passes that were caught shy of the chains, and a very vanilla gameplan was executed.

Though Michigan won the game, this “playing not to lose” plan by Michigan’s offense got MSU back into the game, instead of allowing Michigan to preserve the blowout. MSU’s defense is simply not good enough to justify this fearful gameplan this year. Yes, Michigan won. And yes, Michigan’s win probability (though I don’t put much stock in those things) never drifted below 87% in the second half. But I would have liked to see Michigan show more confidence in Speight to let him continue doing what he was doing in the first half. I prefer the “finish him” approach, as opposed to playing not to lose.

Don’t worry about the defense - yet. MSU marched right down the field on the opening drive and scored a TD. They did this primarily with running plays, riding their big bruising RB LJ Scott. Michigan was unprepared for the way they did this. They loaded up the middle in 2 TE sets, basically running a goal line formation throughout the drive. Michigan did not counter during the drive, but made adjustments to not let a similar drive occur later in the game.

There aren’t many teams on Michigan’s remaining schedule that have the personnel to put together a drive like that. If they do, however Michigan can make adjustments to it. Michigan’s secondary can be trusted to patrol the passing game if the opposing QB tries to attack while Michigan loads the box to stop the run. They can put bigger personnel groupings in play, such as moving Peppers back to safety, adding Devin Bush to the lineup, or even using an extra lineman. And I may just be saying this because I can’t get enough of Devin Bush hitting people.

The 2nd half TDs were a little alarming, but less so when you consider that many team members were dealing with the flu, and endurance was more of an issue than it normally would be. I’ve seen MSU fans claim the illness was an excuse, but it was something being reported by the premium message boards during the week, Harbaugh mentioned it in the press conference, and you had players going out of the game with cramps. Sounds pretty legit to me, and hopefully it was the main catalyst for the less than stellar defense in the 2nd half.

Overall, I would put my concerns about the defense right around 2.5 out of 10.

WHAT WE LEARNED: ABOUT THE BIG TEN

Where does MSU go from here? It seemed to me that MSU had a lot of team chemistry issues that developed during their losing streak. However, they appeared to unite in hatred of Michigan, and play a lot better Saturday. If they can carry this over, they can build some confidence the old fashioned way - playing Illinois and Rutgers back to back. I’m not ready to predict another win over OSU for them after that, especially with Lewerke out for the season, but they should get some of their swagger back. Even if all that means is a 4-8 or 5-7 season - Penn State is looking pretty tough also.

Maryland could be a sneaky tough opponent for Michigan. During the 2nd half of the 2015 season, the wheels started to fall off Michigan’s defense. If the MSU game was the first step of that happening this year, Maryland’s offense could present Michigan with some challenges. Yes, the spread is 29 points, but DJ Durkin knows a lot about this Michigan team. I’m going to go ahead and say Michigan’s defense will make a statement and the team will improve to 9-0. That was last year, and this is a new team this year. Plus, Harbaugh probably wants to get revenge on Durkin for taking the Maryland job during the middle of OSU plan and mailing in the gameplan for the biggest game of the season. The Harbaugh revenge tour continues Saturday in Ann Arbor.

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