What do normal people do on weekends? Asking for a “friend” whose girlfriend wants to do things like “hike” and go to a “pumpkin patch,” since the Michigan Wolverines are idle this weekend. Sigh.
Yes, the Wolverines are enjoying a much deserved bye week to refresh and prepare for the final five-game stretch of the regular season. A five-game stretch that will define legacy, rivalry positioning and the foundation of the future of football in Ann Arbor.
But as fans we are left purposeless, forced to watch Indiana vs. Rutgers like Alex DeLarge with our eyes propped open. While the drought is only a week, it feels like an eternity with how well Michigan is playing at this point in the season.
The Wolverines are rolling at 7-0 — the third time reaching this mark under head coach Jim Harbaugh — and with the statement victory over Penn State last weekend, everyone is starting to take notice of Team 143. Even those in Columbus.
But despite Michigan’s unblemished record, a few questions remain for the Wolverines and for rivals. Questions we will have answered if Michigan is going to win the next five-to-eight games of the season.
With “improvement week” upon us, Michigan can begin to find answers.
Can J.J. McCarthy find his deep ball?
Even this year, in his first career start against Hawaii, we were privy to two deep shots: one to Hawaii native Roman Wilson on his first pass attempt, and another on a rope to Cornelius Johnson. But since then, McCarthy has struggled to find the touch on his deep ball. So, what happened?
The logical explanation is McCarthy is still working out kinks in his rehabilitation process from a shoulder injury he suffered in the spring. McCarthy was not 100% again until the Maryland game in late September, and up until then had to over compensate on his deep throws to even reach receivers.
Rediscovering touch is difficult, but with his arm fully healthy and an extended practice period, McCarthy can devote increased effort on his long ball mechanics and his chemistry with his wide receivers.
If the sophomore can keep defenses honest with 1-2 deep shots a game — safeties have to play more disciplined, boxes become lighter and the entire offense can take another step forward.
Can the Michigan offense improve in the red zone?
Despite the dominant offensive showing last Saturday, four of Michigan’s red zone trips against Penn State resulted in field goals instead of touchdowns. That is 16 points left on the field; 16 points that could prove the difference against better competition in the second half of the season.
Red zone struggles have been a common concern at Michigan, but the numbers have actually improved from last year. In 2021, the Wolverines scored on 89.6% of all red zone possessions, and scored touchdowns on 61.2%.
This year, Michigan is coming away with points on 92.3% of possessions in the red zone, and scoring touchdowns 66.3% of the time. For comparison, Ohio State is currently leading all of FBS scoring on 100% of red zone possessions, and scoring touchdowns on 93.1% of them.
Granted, Ohio State has played a favorable schedule, it is imperative for Michigan to cash in and not leave any points on the board with an offensive juggernaut looming.
Can the defense take away the big plays?
Last year, a staple of the Michigan defense was eliminating the big play, and it was never more evident than against Ohio State. But this year, while the defense could actually be better overall, the unit has shown uncharacteristic weaknesses on third down situations due to a lack of discipline.
Against Indiana, the Wolverines had the Hoosiers dead-to-rights on third down with a free rusher in the face of IU quarterback Connor Bazelak. Off his back foot, Bazelak chucked up a prayer hauled in by Cam Camper for a 32-yard gain. Michigan cornerback DJ Turner had decent coverage, but was unprepared for the burst of Camper. Due to Turner’s lack of awareness, Indiana completed a third-and-13 and tied the game a few plays later.
Facing Penn State, quarterback Sean Clifford recognized Michigan defensive end Eyabi Okie crashing down when Penn State ran the ball. On third-and-one, Clifford pulled the ball on a zone-read for a 66-yard run inside the five-yard line. Penn State scored four plays later.
This is slightly nit-picking, but the bye week is the perfect time to identify and eradicate these mental lapses, and keep points off the board.
Is Tuck comin’?
Harbaugh has never beaten Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker. Not even in 2014, when Tucker was the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears and Harbaugh was the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Tucker has always had Harbaugh’s number.
After last year’s surprising 11-2 season, which included an upset of the Wolverines in East Lansing, Tucker was rewarded with a massive $95 million fully-guaranteed contract, which is the third largest ever given to a coach by a public university.
His “Tuck comin’” moniker was everywhere in the offseason: a trendy hashtag for his perseverant recruiting efforts and a rallying cry for Green supporters. Tucker’s approval rating in Year 2 matched any season previous head coach Mark Dantonio ever received.
But after a 3-4 start to the 2022 campaign — including only one win over a Power Five opponent — the magic is quickly wearing off. The Wolverines present an in-state Super Bowl type of opportunity for Tucker to right the ship and regain his lost momentum.
Michigan had four goals entering the 2022 season, and beating Michigan State is the first one it can check off. Simultaneously, Harbaugh can finally overcome Tucker and make “Tuck Going” dominate the next offseason.
Was Ryan Day born on third base?
During the post-game press conference last year after beating the Buckeyes, Harbaugh said, “Some people are born on third base and act like they hit a triple,” presumably alluding to Ohio State head coach Ryan Day inheriting a well-oiled machine from Urban Meyer.
Now, can you imagine the chaos in Columbus if Michigan beats Ohio State for the second-straight year? Day could post a 33-3 record from 2021-22 and find himself on the hot seat (or hot corner if you like third base puns) if he falls to Michigan in consecutive years — a feat that has not occurred since 1999-2000, with the latter year also marking the last time Michigan won in Columbus.
If Day cannot find a way to beat the Wolverines, he will validate two of Harbaugh’s proclamations from last year. 1) Day was born on third base, and 2) Last year was only the beginning.