Michigan has passed every test so far this season, but the biggest challenges of the season remain on the other side of the bye week.
Michigan State is explosive at every position on offense and physically imposing on defense. Ohio State has corrected early-season woes, and the Buckeyes’ offense is again firing on all cylinders. And if Sean Clifford returns for Penn State, they could win out and seek revenge against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship.
The Wolverines are right in the thick of it in the best division in college football. However, these are three areas where they must improve if they have Indy aspirations and beyond.
Will Someone Answer the Bell?
In less than a half of football against Western Michigan, it’s safe to presume Ronnie Bell was on track to be a combination of Jerry Rice and Randy Moss, and would unify this country across party lines, while winning the Heisman and Presidential Medal of Freedom in the same year.
Unfortunately, the football gods had other plans and Bell was lost for the season. So who is the No. 1 receiver? Cornelius Johnson? Roman Wilson? Daylen Baldwin?
Five games after Bell went down, the answer remains unclear. Johnson is the team leader in yards and touchdowns (282, 3), but struggles with 50/50 balls and physicality. Despite having not found the end zone this season, Wilson appeared to have taken a step forward against Wisconsin, but was sidelined against Nebraska with an injury.
Baldwin has flashed in two of the most electric plays of the season, but both of those came in garbage time with no stakes. His volume increased against Nebraska in place of the injured Wilson and while serviceable, he was only that — serviceable.
None of these players are Bell. While I was hyperbolic in the opener, Bell was clearly the dynamic No. 1 receiver this team needed.
One of these receivers has to assert himself as a reliable playmaker in the final six games.
“I’m not an ambi-turner, Maury.”
Last season, Michigan was ranked 12th in pass defense in the Big Ten and looked lost at times in coverage. This season, the Wolverines have improved to fourth in the conference with a new scheme and philosophy under defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald.
Long gone are the days of Don Brown and his philosophy of “Give me man coverage or give me death.” While Arizona may not be death, 0-5 in the Pac-12 is close enough.
The entire defense has improved, but there is still room for growth, especially at the cornerback position. Vincent Gray and Gemon Green are no longer being left on islands for entire games, and the two have grown because of the varying coverages. However, the duo must improve in man-to-man situations with these receivers left on the schedule:
-Chris Olave, Ohio State, 1 in Big Ten receiving touchdowns (7)
-Garrett Wilson, Ohio State, 1 in Big Ten in receiving yards (546), T-2 receiving touchdowns (6)
-Jahan Dotson, Penn State, 1 in Big Ten in receptions (43), T-2 in receiving touchdowns (6)
-Jalen Nailor, Michigan State, T-2 in receiving touchdowns (6)
-Jayden Reed, Michigan State, 2 in Big Ten in all-purpose yards (942)
Positioning has not been an issue for the corners, but sometimes I wonder if they suffer from Zoolander syndrome and just can’t turn left. If Michigan’s corners can improve upon getting their heads around and tracking the ball in the air, these future matchups become less daunting.
If not, the Wolverines could find themselves in several shootouts down the stretch against these dynamic passing attacks.
Special Teams Spark
Michigan’s kicking portion of the special teams unit has been a welcomed plus in 2021. Jake Moody and Brad Robbins have both become weapons in terms of points, clutch performances and field position.
However, the return portion of special teams leaves room for improvement heading into the back half of the season.
The return game has long been a staple of excellence for Michigan. Desmond Howard, Charles Woodson, Steve Breaston, Jabrill Peppers and Donovan Peoples-Jones are some that come off the top of the head.
But even less heralded returners like Ambry Thomas and Giles Jackson each found the end zone at least once. Remember, it was Thomas’ electric return against Notre Dame in 2018 that sparked the Wolverines’ comeback attempt.
A special teams touchdown could swing one of these last six games, and the season, for Michigan. Blake Corum has been close on a few kick returns, but the creases and opportunities have been less prevalent in recent games.
A.J. Henning had a game from hell against Nebraska, but he remains a special player with the ball in his hands as a punt returner — after the ball is secured, of course.
Improvement of this special teams aspect is not simply judged as “touchdown = good, not touchdown = bad.” No. While touchdowns are welcomed, improvement is field position; starting a drive on your own 45-yard line as opposed to the 20. Improvement is sparking a team’s energy at a low point in a tight contest. Hell, improvement is consistent ball security.
There is too much talent on the field for this not to be a strength in the second half of the season.