Michigan is 2-1 after non-conference play, with the only blemish being a seven-point loss at Notre Dame. The Wolverines have a lot left to prove as Big Ten play begins Saturday against a winless Nebraska. There have been glimpses of a complete team on both sides of the ball so far, several questions still remain unanswered. One of them is about the identity as a team and what that really is.
When you look at the stats and opponents, we know the defense struggled against a hyped up Irish team in the first half to open the season. They calmed down and allowed just a 48-yard field goal in the second half, allowing the game to remain close to the end.
Western Michigan was no threat and only scored a field goal, but that was expected. Michigan got the monkey off its back with a handful of touchdowns.
What do we know?
We know Shea Patterson is the quarterback Michigan fans were hoping for and wished they had sooner, but here we are in 2018.
A lot of hype was talked about heading into the season about how talented he is, and many still had their doubts. Trevor Woods posted a story this week about Shea Peterson breaking down his stats so far. He’s the most talented player at that position since Jim Harbaugh arrived and is becoming the leader of the offense. He showed us what kind of player he is and can be on Saturday with his completion percentage continuing to improve each week:
Notre Dame (20-for-30, 66.7 percent)
Western Michigan (12-for-17, 70.5 percent)
SMU (14-for-18, 77.8 percent)
Total stats after three games: 46-for-65 (70.6 percent) with 589 passing yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.
Shea’s accuracy under pressure is impressive and the chemistry between him and Donovan Peoples-Jones is starting to be dominant. He creates plays after initial contact where in the past that would lead to a sack or fumble.
The wide receiver group is having a solid year so far, but they need to be consistent going forward.
We know Donovan Peoples-Jones is living up to the hype after high school as a five-star recruit. Through three games, DPJ has 14 catches for 159 yards and four touchdowns. He’s averaging 11.35 yards per catch, and if the duo of Shea to DPJ continues he is going to have a great season.
The special teams are also playing solid so far, which was another concern in fall camp. The first eight punts for Michigan are averaging for 50.13 yards, helps avoid short field opportunities for the opponents. Ambry Thomas had a phenomenal kickoff return against Notre Dame that is one of the highlights of the season so far.
When Michael Onwenu was asked yesterday about the offense, it sounds like we still haven’t seen much from the playbook.
Onwenu said UM hasn’t even shown half its offense pic.twitter.com/6HdsMlptmL— angelique (@chengelis) September 17, 2018
What does the other half of the offense looks like? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
What don’t we know?
I’d say the biggest concern heading into this season for Michigan was the offensive line, and that’s what will hold this offense back from going from good to great. The pieces around the line are there and Shea has several weapons along with a decent run game that’s coming together with Tru Wilson in the mix as the third string.
The offensive line has three more weeks to compete and gain valuable playing experience to prepare for the Wisconsin Badgers on October 13.
If this team can improve the pass protection and continue to gel as a unit, this could be a lethal team heading into the second half of the season.
Their third down efficiency is at 17-for-37 (46 percent), and their lowest completion percentage was against Western Michigan, which resulted in the most yards per game overall at 451, and 49 points.
The total yards per game average is just below 400 with an average just above 200 in the air, compared to 187 on the ground.
It’s been somewhat of a conservative offense to start each game with a balance of ground and pass attempts. The approach and tempo seems like they want to establish the run game early, which didn’t happen against Notre Dame, with a total of 58 yards rushing for the night.
This offense will not face a tough defense until Wisconsin when they’ll get a true test to show us whether they’re a better overall unit or having the same issues like we saw in the opening game against Notre Dame.
I like how Drew Hallett lays it out here in a recent tweet.
S&P+ projects that Michigan will win each of its next three games by at least three scores (NEB by 17, at NW by 17, MD by 28). If U-M takes care of business, it will be 5-1 before it hits the three-game stretch of the season that will determine its fate (WIS, at MSU, PSU).— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) September 17, 2018
What do we know about the defense?
Michigan started the season with a rough first half at Notre Dame, but bounced back since. They are allowing an average of 276 yards per game, the most coming from SMU with 319 total yards. They only allowed 69 yards in the second half against the Irish after allowing 233 in the first.
This is still a great defense, but their physical play has resulted in penalties. Jim Harbaugh wasn’t happy about the targeting call against Khaleke Hudson last weekend, who will now sit out in the first half against Nebraska. He spoke about it after the game on Saturday, which you can read here.
Speaking of penalties, those have also been an issue for Michigan with a total of 27 for 244 yards through three games.
I like the physicality on defense, but players must be smart on their man-to-man approach and avoid opponent drives due to pass interference.
The Big Ten not yet so mighty in 2018
Wisconsin and Michigan State have a loss against non-conference opponents, so the schedule is still tough, but manageable. Big Ten teams are all going to fight for a shot at Indianapolis and will continue working on their identity. After the next four games, Michigan will have a better idea of theirs.
If Michigan can move through the season without a loss until playing Michigan State, this team will show they are a force in the league and the East Division may come down to the game in Columbus. This being the case obviously if Penn State does not beat both Michigan and/or Ohio State.
The last four of six games will likely be against ranked opponents in the Big Ten, so Michigan will have the opportunity to prove it is better than many think and get over that next hurdle of winning on the road against ranked opponents.
I see Shea continuing to do his thing with an improving offensive line and the salty defense to holds opponents under 24 points. They’re averaging 37 points per game, and I cannot see many teams scoring more than 30 on this defense.
At this point, I’d say their identity is, “A work in progress with a physical defense and half an offensive playbook unopened” with three more games to gain more game experience before Wisconsin.