On Saturday, the Michigan Wolverines took home their 44th Big Ten title — the most conference titles from a single league in the country — with a clinical 43-22 victory over the Purdue Boilermakers. The victory also marked the first back-to-back Big Ten championship campaigns for the program since 2003-04.
As for the game itself, each group knew its job and, for the most part, executed it well. One has to walk away encouraged about the prospects for the remainder of the season after this win. But for now, let’s do some grading.
J.J. McCarthy’s maturation has added several new gears to the Michigan offense. Without a doubt, he is the best Michigan quarterback since Denard Robinson and is positioned to take Michigan to heights never before seen in the 21st century.
McCarthy manufactured a solid three-touchdown, 161-yard passing performance. Yet, what we all should be amazed at is his maneuverability. There were a handful of plays in which his ability to keep the play alive paid dividends, displaying a moxie seen in quarterbacks much older and experienced. The foolhardy interception should be forgiven; McCarthy has escapability and arm talent that should have NFL scouts salivating.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: A
For the second week in a row, the tight ends and wideouts played extremely well. They had no problem getting open, exploiting what the defense gave them and making clutch catches when targeted. Just as it should be.
Running Backs: A
Once again, it took until the second half for the rush attack to take off but like the last time, it was worth the wait. I could devote an entire article to how well Donovan Edwards performed. Despite being contained for the entire first half, “The Don” finished with 185 yards, good for 7.4 yards a tote. His vision, toughness and speed will make him a Heisman contender next year, provided he stays healthy.
And let’s not forget Kalel Mullings. The man looks like a tank and plays like one too. With two gritty rushing touchdowns, Mullings has established himself as a viable short-yardage go-to for the Wolverines.
Offensive Line: A
It wasn’t pretty, but the Michigan offensive line did its job. Purdue — like just about every other vanquished foe — loaded the box and found success against the run for the first half. And — like in every other vanquishing of Big Ten foes — the Michigan offensive line bullied the Boilermaker front seven in the second half. No sacks and one tackle for loss were allowed by this Joe Moore-caliber group.
Front 7: A
Jeff Brohm, Purdue’s head coach and offensive play-caller, took a page out of Ryan Day’s playbook and tried to get the ball out of the backfield as soon as humanly possible — and for good reason. Michigan’s front seven notched four total sacks — two by Jaylen Harrell alone — and five tackles for loss. Sacks included, Purdue averaged a pedestrian 2.4 yards per carry, and it never seemed comfortable. I credit the big play potential of this group with holding Purdue to so many field goals: The Boilermakers were playing scared.
Boilermaker quarterback Aidan O’Connell accounted for 366 passing yards with eight different receivers catching the ball. Nearly half those yards — 162 to be exact — are attributable to O’Connell’s childhood friend, Charlie Jones. Simply put, Michigan’s zone-heavy game plan got exposed, and it nearly took Jesse Minter an entire half to figure out he needed to mix things up. However, once Minter switched to a man-zone mix, the secondary was generally able to keep the Boilermakers contained.
A huge shoutout is needed for cornerback Will Johnson. As dominant as Edwards was, I think Johnson’s two interceptions, tackle for loss and overall dynamite coverage should have earned him the MVP recognition. The interceptions — masterclasses in sniffing out plays — came at critical junctures of the game, and Jones was shut down when Johnson was tasked with covering him. He is Michigan’s best cornerback, period.
Special Teams: A
Thankfully, this unit didn’t need to shine for Michigan to bring home the Big Ten crown. Jake Moody only had to make extra points. No disasters or fireworks were found in the punt and kick returns. Brad Robbins saw a little too much action for comfort, but punted well.
Michigan’s Deportment: A
Those who stay will be champions. It might have taken much longer than we would have liked, but Jim Harbaugh has returned Michigan to its rightful place as the top dog in the Big Ten. Last year’s victory over Iowa was the culmination of a magical season. This year, things are different. Michigan has a legitimate chance to win the National Championship for the first time since 1997, and the Big Ten Championship looked and felt like just another stepping stone toward that lofty goal.
A ton of credit needs to go to the coaching staff and the leaders of this team for not overlooking Purdue. The Wolverines played focused football throughout and made the most of the opportunity to sharpen things up in the passing game. Defensively, Michigan didn’t have its best outing, but it handled its business when it was most needed.
This was a memorable win, but the best — I ardently believe — is yet to come for Team 143.