It was not outside the realm of possibility that the Michigan Wolverines would return to Indianapolis as Big Ten East winners, but it was certainly not the expected outcome for this season. 12 games later, capped off by yet another manhandling of Ohio State, and the Wolverines are again on the cusp of a conference title, this time with an undefeated record.
As memorable as the 2021 journey was, this season has played out even more convincingly, with most non-Illinois wins coming in dominant fashion. Culminating the regular season with the road upset last weekend and the revelation of the downfield passing game makes this as complete of a team as Jim Harbaugh has featured in Ann Arbor.
Now Michigan must avoid the letdown and obvious trap of the unranked Purdue Boilermakers. This is famously a team that has a reputation for upsets, but it is hard to see the Wolverines lacking concentration at this point of the season. There were similar whispers a year ago, but Iowa was ranked 21st by SP+ last season, while Purdue now sits 47th. The spread is about a touchdown wider this time around, and this squad is determined to make it back-to-back titles.
No. 2 Michigan Wolverines (12-0, 9-0) at Purdue Boilermakers (8-4, 6-3)
Date & Time: Saturday, Dec. 3, 8 p.m.
Location: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, IN
Please, think before you come for the great one
Look, I have been asking for J.J. McCarthy to start for as long as anyone. Even has his completion percentage has dipped in recent weeks, I still questioned the pass catchers and play calling more so than the sophomore. But though my confidence in McCarthy has never wavered, there is just no way that his outburst in Columbus could have been predicted.
Maybe that is not 100 percent the case — so many deep balls this fall have been just a hair too long, and it was clear that McCarthy recognized this by putting a little more air under them last weekend. To really justify this breakout, Michigan will have to prove it was not a one-week flash in the pan, and instead can weaponize the downfield passing game as a legitimate part of the offense going forward. While McCarthy might not need to light it up to beat Purdue, he definitely will need to have it going in the playoff.
Michigan will always have a dominate run game under Harbaugh, and both the long third-quarter drive last week and the lightning strike touchdowns by Donovan Edwards show that this is still the team’s strength. However, Edwards has a club on his hand and Blake Corum appears to be out, so there is no better time to instead lead with the pass.
Against conference opponents, Purdue’s defense ranks 83rd in yards per attempt, 90th in passing touchdowns, and 78th in passing yards per game, and these numbers are mostly against the mighty Big Ten West offenses. While the Boilermakers do rank 11th in interceptions and 28th in completion percentage, these are areas where McCarthy should be trusted, especially since the defense cannot ignore the run game, even with Michigan’s injuries. This matchup is set up for a nice confidence boost for the five-star heading into the College Football Playoff.
They just mad cuz I got the Midas touch
Aidan Hutchinson left. So too did David Ojabo, Daxton Hill, and half of the rest of the starting defense, as well as defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. However, despite all of this talent exiting Ann Arbor, the Michigan defense has not missed a beat this year, heading into championship weekend ranked fourth in the nation by SP+.
If ever there was a case where the sum is greater than the parts, this would be it. While Michigan has plenty of dudes on the defensive side of the ball, there is no reason this unit should be as effective as it has been under Jesse Minter. Shutting down another mid-tier Big Ten offense would be the perfect way to close out this impressive conference campaign.
The biggest question for Purdue is whether quarterback Aidan O’Connell will give it a go after the death of his brother. Should he not ply, it would be a steep dropoff to Austin Burton, who has thrown just 39 passes in two seasons in West Lafayette. The hope and assumption of this article is that O’Connell will be active on Saturday, but it would be absolutely respectable should he choose to step away after such tragedy.
The Boilermakers are led by running back Devin Mockobee, who averages 5.1 YPC and has eight touchdowns on the year, and wideout Charlie Jones, a big-play threat with 12 scores this season. As talented as these players are, the offense as a whole has been pretty limited, sitting just 50th per SP+. There have been very few explosive plays for this season but a decent number of sacks allowed by the line, making this a terrible matchup for the Boilermakers. If Michigan plays anything close to how it did last weekend, Purdue may struggle reaching double digits.
Very important and very pretentious
It seems like the only thing that can defeat Michigan this weekend is the narrative. An unranked Purdue versus the heavily favorited No. 2 team in the country appears to be a story many have seen before, and it is easy to say since the Wolverines are coming off such an emotional win they might just come out flat Saturday night.
However, there is another story we have seen before, transpiring literally a year ago on this same field. Iowa was the plucky underdog with the defense to cause Michigan trouble after its big win over Ohio State, and we all know how that went. While the Boilermakers are a little more competent on offense than the Hawkeyes, there is unquestionably a big gap between the teams this weekend on both sides of the ball.
So as strange as it is to say about a conference championship game, the Wolverines should be able to play it safe without their banged-up stars. A healthy Corum and Edwards probably put up 300 rushing yards on Purdue and an active Mike Morris would be a frequent visitor in the backfield, but even without a full-strength roster, Michigan should be comfortably lifting the trophy for the second time in two seasons by the end of the night.