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What we learned against Minnesota: Michigan re-established offensive identity

Big play after big play lifted the Wolverines over the Gophers.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

For the second consecutive week, Michigan found itself tied 7-7 with an inferior opponent early in the game, only to completely shift gears and run away with a solid victory. First it was against Rutgers, and then Saturday it was against Minnesota to keep the Little Brown Jug in Ann Arbor.

By this point in the season, the team is starting to shake itself out. For the most part, we know what we’re getting on defense, or on special teams, and now even the offense is starting to come together. But that doesn’t mean from week to week we can’t still evaluate the squad and piece together some observations.

Against the Gophers on Saturday, for all intents and purposes, the Wolverines looked good. Virtually every aspect of the team played well. Were mistakes made? Sure. Would the performance have beaten a top program? Maybe not. But it beat Minnesota, and that’s all that mattered.

Let’s take a look at some of the lessons we learned after Game 8.

Lesson 1: Michigan re-established offensive identity on the ground

A week ago, I talked all about how Michigan’s offensive line was coming along after the Wolverines set season highs in both rushing yards (334) and total yards (471) against Rutgers. Well, for the second consecutive game they tallied more than 400 yards of total offense (427) and set a new season high in rushing (371), thanks in large part to Karan Higdon, Chris Evans and a continually improving offensive line.

Higdon hit the 200-yard mark for the second time this season, while Evans broke two long 60-plus-yard touchdown runs. On the night, only two carries went for negative yards while the other 34 averaged nearly 11 yards per carry.

This is exactly what Jim Harbaugh wanted to do when he came to Michigan — establish an identity as a hard-nosed football program that can run the ball. And over the last few weeks, with the exception of Penn State, that’s exactly what they’ve done.

The Michigan passing game still isn’t quite on track, but being able to run the ball not only opens up the pass but it also takes a ton of pressure off a young quarterback who is garnering his first meaningful playing time in the winged helmet. If the Wolverines can continue grinding opponents down on the ground, they should be able to seriously compete down the stretch.

Lesson 2: Don Brown’s onto something with this “viper” position

When Don Brown joined the program prior to the 2016 season and announced that he’d be using star defensive back Jabrill Peppers at a hybrid linebacker position, it sounded a little odd. Peppers was undersized for a linebacker, but Brown’s schemes leant themselves well to his skill set — particularly his speed and aggressiveness — and the position experiment worked.

The problem following the 2016 season was that Peppers left early for the NFL Draft, leaving many Michigan fans to wonder who, if anyone, could fill the new “viper” position like Peppers did, or if Brown would simply have to adjust his defensive strategy around a more traditional lineup.

Luckily for Brown and the Wolverines, there was a guy named Khaleke Hudson on the roster — a guy capable of tallying 15 tackles, 8 tackles-for-loss and 3 sacks in a game (like he just did against Minnesota).

Now, I don’t want to come out and say “Hudson is better than Peppers,” because, frankly, that would be a little overblown — Peppers did a lot for Michigan on offense and special teams as well. But when it comes to the viper position, through nine games, these are the numbers:

  • Hudson in 2017 — 51 total tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss, 5.5 sacks, 1 INT, 5 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles
  • Peppers in 2016 — 50 total tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss, 3 sacks, 0 INT, 0 pass breakups, 0 forced fumbles

Hudson is right there in line with what Peppers did a year ago. And given the style of defense that Brown likes to run, it is vital that he found a guy like Hudson to fill the void. The viper position keeps offenses honest. It gives you the ability to blitz, attack the run or drop back into coverage.

Oh, and Hudson is just a sophomore. The ceiling is high for this guy.

Lesson 3: Expectations should be tempered on Brandon Peters

Brandon Peters wasn’t asked to do much in his first collegiate start, and that’s okay — even a good thing. He didn’t need to sling the ball all over the field with precision. All he needed to do was manage the offense, and he succeeded. He even took a few big hits, some of those "welcome to college football" shots that will serve to help him adjust to the big stage.

The Michigan running game has been outstanding in the two games that Peters has run the offense, compiling more than 300 yards on the ground in each. That's encouraging, but that doesn't mean it will continue once the likes of Wisconsin and Ohio State are lining up across from the Wolverines.

Moving forward, Peters will need to make plays through the air — and maybe even a little with his feet. Is he ready to do that in big games? Truthfully, I don't know. None of us do for sure. Are my expectations high for him? Do I think he is capable of making big-time throws? Absolutely. But that doesn't mean he will.

The passing game can't get much worse than it was in the few games that John O'Korn started. For Peters, Michigan fans should temper expectations and simply look for continued improvement, week after week, and I'm confident his playmaking ability will come along as well. After all, we potentially may be watching a future three-year starter.

Lesson 4: This team is developing just in time for the final stretch

When the 2017 schedule was first published, many fans took a look at the final two weeks — at Wisconsin and home against Ohio State — and thought they would be a serious challenge for Michigan. Now, only one game stands between the Wolverines and those two contests, and there’s very little that makes me believe those matchups won’t be uphill battles for the Maize and Blue.

That said, this Michigan team that has struggled — more or less — for the majority of the season finally seems to be coming together at the right time. The Maryland game should notch the Wolverines their eighth win of the year, and if they can continue improving — as they’ve done the last two weeks — they should at least be competitive in the final two games, if not able to pull of an upset (or two?).

Would late-season victories over Wisconsin and Ohio State avenge the home loss to Michigan State or the road blowout to Penn State? Not nearly. Those two losses knocked the Wolverines out of the conference championship hunt. However, given the inexperience on this Michigan roster and the challenges that they have faced all season, a strong finish to the season would certainly give the program momentum heading into a 2018 campaign that will see a ton of experience return.