Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines are 10-1 entering the biggest week of the year. The path to 10 wins wasn’t smooth and simple; sure, there were some blowouts along the way, but there were a also handful of nail-biters the Wolverines narrowly escaped (and one they didn’t).
With The Game a mere two days away, let’s look at the struggles Michigan had in the close games and what can be done to correct the mistakes.
Cade McNamara and the Michigan offense has been praised effusively all season long for not turning the ball over, and deservedly so. However, the few turnovers they have had couldn’t have come at worse times. McNamara’s first interception of the season came in the middle of the second half against Nebraska to give the Cornhuskers all the momentum. Luckily, Brad Hawkins and the Michigan defense had a timely takeaway to seal the game.
Against Michigan State, J.J. McCarthy’s fumble proved to be an absolute back-breaker late in the game. Shortly after, McNamara was picked off to seal the deal for the Spartans. More recently, McNamara’s fumble to Penn State late in the fourth quarter led to the Nittany Lions taking the lead prior to Erick All’s heroics.
I say all this to point out Michigan has only committed a rare few turnovers, but a majority of them have proven to be very costly. It’s doubtful the Wolverines can survive the Buckeye offense if they give them repeated attempts in the red zone in the fourth quarter.
The answer here is simply to protect the ball better. The offensive line, specifically, needs to protect the quarterbacks in late-game situations. Strip-sacks could be the undoing of a promising Michigan offense.
Red Zone Efficiency
Just the other day, Jake Moody was named a finalist for the Lou Groza Award. While this is all fine and dandy, the less we see Moody on Saturday kicking field goals, the better. Field goals won’t beat Ohio State, touchdowns will. Michigan has actually improved in this area incrementally as the season has gone on, but it was a major concern against Nebraska and Michigan State.
When the field shrinks, it gets harder for McNamara to find open receivers. To fix this, we need Josh Gattis and Jim Harbaugh to pull out all the stops in the red zone. The touchdown pass to Luke Schoonmaker against Maryland was a new wrinkle we hadn’t seen, and it worked to perfection. In the absence of a true fullback (we miss you, Ben Mason), Michigan needs to get the ball to its playmakers on the perimeter (#SpeedInSpace) and let them make a play. I expect Donovan Edwards and Blake Corum, if he plays, to be huge parts of the game plan against the Buckeyes.
Converting on Short-Yardage
Two weeks ago, Michigan fans had a legitimate gripe for the third-down play call to run Hassan Haskins into a stacked right-side of the line against Penn State. This was just one of the countless times the Michigan offense, which is predicated on running the ball, wasn’t able to run the ball on third and fourth and short.
Michigan will need to run the ball effectively and control the clock against Ohio State. To do this, the Wolverines likely need to go for it several times. How well they convert will likely determine how much success the team has as a whole. Haskins will bounce back from his subpar — for his standards — performance against Maryland, but the offensive line must get some sizable push against a movable Buckeye defensive line.
Bonus: Two-Point Conversion Defense
Against Michigan State, the Wolverines blew a 16 point-lead by giving up not only two touchdowns, but also consecutive two-point conversions. Against Penn State, the Michigan defense gave up a two-point conversion to tie the game late in the game. This is a small sample size, of course, but it’s beginning to become a trend that Michigan can’t defend conversions. Hopefully if a situation like this happens on Saturday, the Michigan defense can actually stop this one.