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Roundtable: Is this team ready to compete for the Big Ten?

NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Ed: Hey, guys. That was far from a pretty win against Air Force last week to close out the non-conference slate. After three games, are we confident this team is progressing at a quick enough pace to compete for the conference?

Eric: The last two games have been pretty concerning. They were in position to potentially lose to both Cincy and AF late in both games. In particular the right side of the O-line has really struggled. And most alarming is that Speight has been off for three straight games; at some point it’s not “off,” it’s what he is. And Black being out takes away another target.

Dan: I’m still confident. The line is a concern, but I’m starting to shift more of the blame of the offense to the play-calling, particularly in the red zone. You have athletic receivers, tight ends that are 3-4 inches taller than anyone covering them, and a dynamic cast of characters in the backfield. The O is having no problem moving the ball, and the defense/special teams are starting to look terrifying. If you capitalize one or two more drives into touchdowns, these games don’t look as close.

Jared: I think the amount of general complaining has actually shifted my perspective, and I am no longer concerned because of it. We all expected this team to have real growing pains, and that is exactly what we are seeing.

The defense is ahead of the offense; that is pretty typical of young teams early in the season. Most of the mistakes being made are by first- or second-year players, and that is to be expected.

The only things that are really concerning to me long-term are the play-calling and Speight. Even play-calling can be written off to inexperience, as it is possible they are keeping things simple for all the freshmen and sophomores we have starting this year. That needs to change this week though, or I am going to change my tune on the jobs being done by Pep Hamilton and Drevno.

Speight needs to be better if this team is going to do anything noteworthy this season however, and that has been the number one complaint of the fans through three games. Sorry guys, we are not Alabama yet; that does not happen overnight.

Colman: Let’s give Air Force credit, they are a well coached and tough team that rolls out an awkward offense and a blitz-heavy defense.

At the beginning of the season I thought a veteran QB would lead the offense in the early going and give a young defense the chance to gel...boy was I wrong. It’s just the opposite. The defense has been great and has been the unit once again to lead the team to wins. My biggest concern going into Week 1 was the CBs, who have played well so far, but haven’t been tested by a good passing attack. That changes this week so we’ll see if that becomes more of an issue, but I’m far less concerned than I was 3 weeks ago.

I am certainly still concerned about Ulizio and Speight along with the conservative and, at times, predictable play-calling. AF had 8-9 guys in the box all day and we didn’t really do much to counter it schematically. Maybe it’s a lack of faith in the young receivers but going 5-wide with a bunch of big receivers and tight ends seemed logical but didn’t really happen much. I predicted Speight to break out of this funk he’s in and we really got more of the same. It’s been noted now that this probably isn’t an aberration and might just be who he is. I hope not, because title hopes will revolve around his stepping up.

Thanks to Brady Hoke’s disastrous offensive line classes they’re dealing with little depth, and I’m sure Ulizio is the best Michigan’s got but he’s been a liability out there. It’s hard to believe we’re still talking about a struggling offensive line but the right tackle position has to be fixed one way or another. The entire Big Ten will send their best at him and Speight just won’t have the time to pass if the RT is a turnstile.

David: I will comment on the units I am not worried about first after the three non-conference games. One of the big question marks heading into the season was, what will this defense look like after losing so many to the NFL draft? I think it's clear that they have been able to respond very well with a solid unit with talent and quickness. Don Brown and the staff have done a great job during camp and preparing this unit for the offenses faced. They held their opponents to less than 233 yards total, which was the lowest for Air Force in 54 games, and have caused turnovers for points.

I am not all that worried about our special teams either, based on the kicking and returns with younger guys starting to make better decisions in the game. There's been pressure put on them and they've responded quite well. Quinn Nordin is starting his career as many would have thought being the top ranked kicker in high school.

I will get to the offense more later, but feel confident in this staff and Wilton Speight to start clicking. I am confident this team is ready for the challenge they face coming up against Purdue and am taking it one game at a time.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Drew: Three games isn’t sufficient time to evaluate Michigan’s progress, but Michigan has shown that it is capable of winning a Big Ten championship. The defense has exceeded most expectations and performed like one of the five best in the country. The unit has surrendered just three touchdowns in three games and held Florida to its second-fewest yards in 45 games, Cincinnati to its second-fewest yards in 144 games, and Air Force to its fewest yards in 54 games. One lingering question is how well Michigan’s secondary will hold up against a competent aerial attack — tune in on Saturday! — but the early returns have been promising.

Michigan’s special teams have had their ups and downs, but the ups have far outweighed the downs. Quinn Nordin has been an absolute rock, converting 11-of-13 field goals and drilling three from at least 49 yards at critical junctures, and Donovan Peoples-Jones ripped off a smooth 79-yard punt return for a touchdown last week, demonstrating how dangerous he is.

And even the offense isn’t as bad as one may think. There is no question that Michigan has struggled to string together successive successful plays, particularly in the red zone, and that has been well-documented on our site. However, the offense isn’t completely broken either. They have been able to move the ball in chunks — they’re fourth nationally in 30-plus-yard plays (13) — and have either driven into the red zone or scored touchdowns 14 times.

The key for the Wolverines will be to regularly produce positive plays on first down and finish drives with six points. This will be more difficult with the news that Tarik Black will miss the next six to eight weeks with a broken foot — look for Peoples-Jones to step up — but it isn’t impossible. Wilton Speight needs to improve his mechanics and decision-making by not throwing off his back foot or failing to progress through his reads. He should be able to do this if his offensive line can give him the time to do so — hint: they haven’t — and his receivers can separate on their routes more frequently. The offensive staff also needs to put Michigan in better positions to be successful, by utilizing its plethora of athletic tight ends in the red zone and short-yardage situations and countering when the defense loads the box with nine guys. It isn’t just one thing, but they are all interrelated. If Michigan figures it out, then watch out.

Ed: Michigan has been very poor in the red zone this season (to put it mildly). Drive after drive has stalled and ended in field goal attempts (13 in three games). What do you see as the needed "spark" to get things going against Purdue?

Eric: Again, they struggled against Cincy and AF, so they need to do something. The play selection has been a bit questionable (not much misdirection or rolling Speight out). The lack of involving the TEs in general also hurts even more when you get close to the end zone.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Dan: Touched on it previously, but something has to change. The early-down run is so predictable, you’d think this staff had an NFL background… oh. I want to see more creativity whether that’s play action or even putting someone like Evans or DPJ at the wildcat spot and let them be athletic. Far too many ways for this team to take advantages of matchups that close to the end zone to not be doing so.

Jared: I will immediately contradict my optimism here, because there can be no sugarcoating this aspect of this teams performance. I want to go on a Stephen A. Smith rant about it, because it is unacceptable, it is reprehensible, it is laughable.

Last season through three games Michigan had scored 17 offensive touchdowns; they have 5 right now. Have to wonder why Khalid Hill is not being utilized more in the red zone this year as he was a touchdown machine last year. The Wolverines are 3-0 though, and that is quite literally the only thing that matters at the end of the day.

Colman: What a disaster the red zone has been. Reading those numbers is astounding for a team that was so efficient in the RZ last year. Another thing I was very wrong about was replacing the WRs and Butt. They ran great routes and Speight’s timing and chemistry with them is being missed badly.

However, let’s remind ourselves of the sheer size of the young pass catchers and wonder aloud why they are not being utilized more in the RZ. DPJ - 6’2 (freak athlete), Black - 6’4 (out now, but still), Gentry - 6’7, Wheatley - 6’6, Eubanks - 6’5, McKeon - 6’5, Bunting - 6’7, even throw 6’5 Nico Collins in here.

This is beside the fact that there is a Panda who hammers things and hasn’t been thrown to once that I can remember. DUDE. Throw the ball up in the air to a giant person who is 6 or 7 inches taller than the regular sized person defending him. I’m not talking about fades. I’m talking pure jump ball. Remember playing “500” as a kids and just throwing the ball up there? Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. The big guy almost always won, remember? Line these monsters up together on the field, find the guys who have single coverage, have them box their defender out, and jump ball it.

Speight has thrown a lot of balls out of the end zone and over the heads of receivers, right? So putting taller guys out there should be harder to overthrow, right? RIGHT?! Am I taking crazy pills here?! I remember saying this no less that 1 million times when I’d see a 5’8 corner with single coverage on Devin Funchess.

David: I agree with a lot of what was said above. While hearing the boos in person and the grumblings around me in the stands, it's crazy to think how many are bashing this offense so far. Could they have scored more points? Yes. Do we know Speight can perform under pressure? Yes, just go back to his game on the road in Minnesota when Ruddock was injured.

He's had the opportunity to rise up in the past and deliver when it's most needed, but was also injured and made poor decisions late in the 2016 season. I would like to see more of the playbook against Purdue and use our height and big targets at tight end. With Tarik Black out for now, other guys like Grant Perry, Kekoa Crawford and Donovan Peoples-Jones will have to step up and make plays.

Their defense has been a weak link over the last few years and was ranked 126th in rushing yards allowed in 2016. While Purdue controlled the clock against Missouri last week with over 43 minutes of possession, keep an eye how Michigan's running back unit can help control the clock and create long drives to wear out the defense.

Ty Isaac is averaging 7.15 yards per carry over the first three games with 336 total yards. I also want to see more explosive plays by Chris Evans in there in the rotation this weekend. If the offensive line can play to their talent and protect Speight while creating holes, I think they do just fine against Purdue. I believe Michigan’s quickness on the ground with the run game and with solid blocking can really be a deciding factor without needing a career day by Wilton Speight.

Drew: I’ve written enough about Michigan’s red-zone issues and what Michigan should do to rectify them in “Inside the Numbers” (here and here) and the foregoing section. If you haven’t read them, take a couple of minutes, do so, and then come back here once you are finished.

[whistles]

Done? Okay.

The spark Michigan needs is to punch in a touchdown the first time it enters the red zone against Purdue. The red-zone struggles have been discussed all week with the coaches and players, and it will be on everyone’s mind the first time the Wolverines cross the 20-yard line. Right now, Michigan has that monkey on its back and the burden and stress that comes with it, which is what happens when an offense fails to reach the end zone in eight straight red-zone trips. Once the Wolverines score that next red-zone touchdown, though, the relief will set them free, and it will spark them and give them confidence next time down there.

Ed: Pre-season, this Big Ten opener looked like it would be a breeze for the Maize and Blue, but it's certainly not looking that way anymore — Purdue’s put together a few impressive outings so far. What matchup will you be watching closely that you think will be critical in this one?

Eric: Purdue held its own against Louisville (until a bogus targeting penalty) and totally waxed a Power 5 team (albeit Mizzou). Their lines look good, and they showed some athleticism. They got pressure on Lamar Jackson, so really need to see the Michigan line give Speight time. And then Speight needs to perform.

Dan: Whether it’s Purdue in the Big 10 or the Vandy/Duke/Kentucky surges down south, some bottom-feeder schools are off to impressive starts. Missouri is not a good team, and that entire campus seems like the most toxic place on earth so not putting a ton of stock in that, but Purdue still took them to the woodshed. Both quarterbacks have played well and Tario Fuller is off to about as good a start as a running back could hope for. I think this may resemble last year’s Colorado game.

Jared: I’m pretty sure the last time I was nervous about a Purdue game, Bill Clinton was in office. I am nervous about this game. And the Michigan State game. And Indiana. And most definitely Penn State.

Michigan’s defense is legit, and they are going to keep us in every game they play, but the time for growing pains on offense ends this week. They need to find a way to get in the end zone AT LEAST 3 times this week to win, in my opinion. This is going to be a dogfight. What are ya made of Wilton Speight?

Colman: I’m with you, Jared, and I’m worried about every Big Ten team (Rutgers doesn’t count) at this point almost solely because of Michigan’s offensive inefficiency and inability to finish drives. Michigan’s defense will keep them in games but you have to score touchdowns to win in the Big Ten.

I’ll harp on Nolan Ulizio again and throw in Mike Onwenu as well to make this point. Teams will come after the right side of the line, especially on passing downs. If they can just be average and pick up the blitz Michigan will be alright. They have to give Speight time to read through his progressions and the passing game as a whole will have to be sharp if Michigan expects to win.

Another thing I’m interested to see is Hill, Long and Watson against Purdue’s WRs. This will be the first tough test for these young men and Purdue will be challenging them all day with what looks like a formidable passing attack (although they haven’t played even a decent defense yet, so maybe a bit overrated so far).

David: I think all three of the opponents so far have given Michigan a different kind of test. Air Force was better than many thought, who is very well coached and a disciplined team.

It's been since 2008 when the Boilermakers had a sellout game, but that will end this weekend. Purdue leads the Big Ten in red zone efficiency with 10 touchdowns in 13 attempts. They also faced a Missouri team that allowed Missouri State to score 43 points in Week 1. They also rank fourth in the conference in scoring at 35.7 points per game and third in passing at 298.7 yards.

Jackson Winthrop is the hot target leading the team in scoring a touchdown in each of the three games. Michigan’s secondary will be tested by the performance of quarterback David Blough.

No disrespect to Purdue and they're a surprise team in the conference so far, but this is a much bigger test for them this weekend. Michigan’s size and talent will dominate in this game and it will not be as close than some think.

Drew: There are two matchups that stand out.

First, Wilton Speight vs. Purdue’s safeties. Speight has not attacked the middle of the field very well this season because the offensive line has not allowed him to find open receivers and step into throws directed towards that area once he does. Michigan needs that to change on Saturday, and Purdue’s defense may just be the one to let that happen. The Boilermakers have generated very little pressure with their defense line. They have recorded just one sack, which is tied for last in the nation, and they’re the only one among those teams that’s played as many as three games. Speight should have time against Purdue to move up in the pocket and go through his progressions. If so, he should be able to exploit the Boilermakers’ safeties, which are more of a weakness on this unit, and connect with his receivers for big chunk gains.

Second, Don Brown vs. Jeff Brohm. This is the one that should have everyone in a tizzy — as long as you do not have a vested interest in either team. Brown is one of the best defensive coordinators in college football and his package of blitzes and controlled chaos have elevated Michigan’s defense to air it hadn’t breathed since 1997. On the other hand, Brohm has one of the best offensive minds in college football. He was a wizard at Western Kentucky, where the Hilltoppers were in the top six in scoring offense in each of his three years there, and has already transformed Purdue’s offense into something … exciting and fun?!! Yes, and SB Nation’s Ian Boyd presented an excellent breakdown of how Brohm has done this faster than anyone expected. How Brohm uses misdirection to try to out-scheme Brown’s designed blitzes should be fascinating to watch. Unless, of course, you are a fan of either Michigan or Purdue.

Then it’s terrifying.

Ed: Alright, prediction time. Let's get your final thoughts on the game.

Eric: Don’t think Michigan turns the corner completely, but think they do just enough to win. 20-17, with a red zone score.

Dan: I think it’s a slow start with a back half that makes everyone feel better going forward (MSU in only two weeks). 34-10.

Jared: Difficult game to predict, as we don’t know as much as we think we do about these two teams at this point in the season. I will say that the Michigan defense wins the day, because Devin Bush was put on this planet to destroy offensive game plans. Michigan 27, Purdue 16.

Colman: I’m starting to think I should predict the scores of future games by multiples of 3. Let’s hope I’m as wrong about that as I’ve been on some other predictions this year.

However, I do still think the offense will be better than we’ve seen. I’m tempering expectations for Speight, 200 yards and a touchdown or two with no turnovers would be great in my opinion as long as Michigan is moving the ball on the ground with ease and controlling the clock. Michigan 27, Purdue 21, in a game that goes back and forth and scares the bejesus out of me until the end.

David: Michigan's defense is dominant and gets the job done again, holding Purdue to under 300 yards total. The offense plays better, led by Wilton Speight, and finds the end zone with three touchdowns on the ground and another in the air. Nordin hits two field goals, making it 13 for the season.

Michigan 34, Purdue 17

Drew: Purdue finally has a pulse, but computer rankings (like S&P+), bettors (Michigan -10), and outsiders do not realize just how strong that pulse is. The Boilermakers will battle with Michigan at home and put a scare into a Wolverines team still seeking its offensive rhythm.

However, it will only be a scare. Two Wilton Speight touchdowns and three Quinn Nordin field goals will provide Michigan with just enough offense as Don Brown and Michigan’s defense yet again demonstrate why they are one of the best, limiting Purdue’s offensive explosions.

Michigan 23, Purdue 17