Michigan is undeniably flying high right now.
The Wolverines bludgeoned No. 15 Wisconsin by 25. Devin Bush and the defense stifled No. 24 Michigan State, all while Donovan Peoples-Jones morphed into Paul Bunyan.
With all that momentum, a nameless and faceless opponent enters the arena: the bye week. Complacency lurks around the corner.
Since Jim Harbaugh came to Ann Arbor, his teams are 2-1 the game after a break. A deeper look at those three games shows that his teams gather some rust with time off.
2015: NO. 15 MICHIGAN 29, MINNESOTA 26
This game took place two weeks after the Trouble with the Snap debacle. The Gophers had recently seen head coach Jerry Kill retire for health reasons.
One team sat with devastation in their stomachs. The other wanted to win one for their mustachioed, Gopher-toothed Gipper.
The Wolverines barely survived.
A way to evaluate bye weeks is how weaknesses of a team improved with the extra practice time. In 2015, the offense struggled on the ground against good defenses, while Jake Rudock had more interceptions than touchdowns (at this point).
Neither problem made progress. Rudock went 13-of-21 for 140 yards, throwing one touchdown and a pick before exiting with a concussion. The backs averaged just 3.7 yards a carry against the nation’s No. 81 S&P+ run defense.
Overall, these issues led to just 296 total yards to Minnesota’s 461. While Harbaugh’s first team somehow gutted out a win in Minneapolis, it’s difficult to argue it won the bye week.
After a glorified scrimmage against Rutgers the next week, that’s when the 2015 squad surged into the form that obliterated SEC East champion Florida in the Citrus Bowl.
2016: NO. 3 MICHIGAN 41, ILLINOIS 8
This is the perfect opponent to play after a bye. Basically, one that serves as an exhibition to hammer out blemishes.
The Illini — en route to 3-9 in Lovie Smith’s first campaign — was forced to start third-string walk-on Jeff George Jr. You know, former Michigan transfer Jeff George, Jr.
In 2016, Harbaugh’s goal was to bolster the confidence of sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight. Until the upset in Iowa City, he mostly succeeded.
After an underwhelming performance — one of the only ones — in the 78-0 slaughter against Rutgers, Speight completed 16-of-23 passes for 253 yards and two scores against Illinois.
This was the first in his most impressive three-game stretch in Ann Arbor. He bombed Michigan State in East Lansing the next week for 244, and then Maryland for 362.
In short, the coaching staff succeeded during the bye, presumably with Harbaugh punching Speight in the chest for 14 straight days.
2017: MSU 14, NO. 7 MICHIGAN 10
There was once a two-week span when many people thought John O’Korn was going to work out at quarterback.
He had just come off the bench against Purdue on the road, picking apart the Boilermakers for 270 yards in three quarters. He looked decisive and mobile in the 28-10 victory.
Two weeks later, rain washed away the facade against the Spartans in the Big House.
Harbaugh and the offensive brain trust couldn’t build off O’Korn’s promising debut over the bye week. Instead, their senior signal-caller connected on just 16-of-35 throws for 198 yards and three picks.
Overall, the offense sputtered behind an incoherent game plan all night. Karan Higdon gained 65 yards on just 12 carries, yet Pep Hamilton and Tim Drevno opted to throw time and time again in a monsoon.
Even the defense came out rusty. The Spartans ran right at Maurice Hurst and the tackles, gaining most of their 158 yards rushing in the first half. When Don Brown responded with aggression, Brian Lewerke dumped a screen to Madre London for a 14-3 lead.
Michigan papered over issues in Sep. 2017 due to poor competition. The problems exacerbated after the break, instead of diminishing.
It’s hard to say Harbaugh teams struggle with extra time off, since the sample size is small. However, the 2-1 record could easily be 1-2.
Going into Penn State, what issues need to be addressed? Is this the time where Shea Patterson explodes from game manager to early round NFL Draft pick? Do the receivers, with the possible return of Tarik Black, refocus on getting separation more consistently?
The only certainty: Don Brown will not rest until his defense is ready for Trace McSorley and the Nittany Lions.