ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When a team beats its opponents by an average of 50 points, boasts one of the nation’s top defenses and one of the most dynamic players in college football — and is undefeated — it’s hard to find flaws.
Following a 78-0 rout of Rutgers on Saturday in Piscataway, N.J., it didn’t seem as if No. 4 Michigan (6-0) could get much better.
Perfection, however, can still be imperfect, and there remains room to nitpick for Michigan as it prepares for the second half of the season.
What will help this team continue to pursue perfection? Minimizing a few imperfections. Here’s what Michigan can fix as it prepares for the second half of its season:
More production from the receivers
Michigan needs more production from quarterback Wilton Speight and its receivers. Michigan’s receivers have been quiet — well, relatively quiet — in two of its last three games. Against Penn State on Sept. 24, Michigan had only 189 yards passing (after averaging 254.3 yards in its first three games).
Against Rutgers on Saturday, the Wolverines passed for only 119 yards, but Speight was lifted early in the second half for John O’Korn (who was replaced by Shane Morris later in the half), and Michigan concentrated on thrashing Rutgers’ already weak rush defense (14th in the Big Ten through its first five games, 227.4 yards).
In its first six games, Michigan either had a great day for rushing or a great day for passing, and only once has it struck a balance: In a 63-3 win Sept. 3 against Hawaii, Michigan ran for 206 yards and passed for 306 yards.
Three of Michigan’s next six opponents are 10th, 11th and 12th in the Big Ten in pass defense: Indiana (205.4), Illinois (207.6) and Michigan State (219.4). Finding a better balance will strengthen Michigan’s offense.
Cultivate offensive line depth
Defensive line coach Greg Mattison has harvested plenty of depth on Michigan’s defensive line, but can the same be done with Michigan’s offensive line?
The offensive line doesn’t have the same number of bodies — or the same experience — as Michigan’s defensive line, but in one-sided games against teams like Rutgers the Wolverines have the chance to get reps for younger players such as Nolan Ulizio and two-way lineman Michael Onwenu.
With recent injuries to left tackles Grant Newsome (season-ending knee injury) and to Juwann Bushell-Beatty (right knee, but returned to play against Rutgers), Michigan had to temporarily shuffle its offensive line, moving center Mason Cole to left tackle and plugging in Patrick Kugler at center until Bushell-Beatty returned.
Minimize special teams penalties
Against Penn State and Rutgers, Jabrill Peppers had a pair of highlight-reel punt returns wiped out by uncharacteristic penalties. On Sept. 24, Peppers’ run was waved off due to a sideline interference call against Michigan; after a 49-10 win against Penn State, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh joked that the sidelines weren’t big enough.
That run would have put the Wolverines inside the Penn State 15-yard-line.
Saturday at Rutgers, Peppers had another lengthy punt return called back because of a penalty for blocking in the back against Delano Hill. That would have been a touchdown.
it counts to my mama so that's alright with me ? https://t.co/L5KfBmz0zr
— JP5 (@JabrillPeppers) October 9, 2016
Wiping out those kinds of penalties would further boost Michigan’s offensive productivity (and it could help Peppers add to his Heisman Trophy video clip portfolio).
Make those kicks
Michigan didn’t kick a field goal in the win Saturday at Rutgers, which rendered that week’s kicking competition moot.
Harbaugh, however, said that if Michigan needed to go for three, Kenny Allen would have been the kicker, ahead of Ryan Tice and Quinn Nordin.
It would have continued the workload Allen has carried so far this season; he also punts and handles kickoffs for the Wolverines. Michigan, however, is 4 for 8 on field goals this season and one has to wonder if the fatigue of such a workload began to show when Allen missed kicks of 31 yards and 43 yards against Wisconsin.
A recommendation moving forward: allow Allen to concentrate on kickoff and punting duties and turn over the field goal kicking to Ryan Tice.
Work the schedule to your advantage
You can’t manipulate a schedule that’s been set for years, but you can work its nuances in your favor. And you can do it without “dumbing down” to an opponent’s level.
The Big Ten has become a conference of haves (Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska) and have-nots (Purdue, Illinois, Rutgers) this season, and there’s a general fear of “dumbing down” against a lower level of opponent.
This was a palpable concern for Michigan, which appeared to wade through a quagmire in the first 5 minutes against the Scarlet Knights, when Michigan had two three-and-outs and running back De’Veon Smith lost a fumble to Rutgers. Was Rutgers that amped to face Michigan, or was Michigan simply feeling out its opponent before running roughshod?
Against upstart teams like Maryland, or against Michigan State, which finds its extra gear for its in-state rivalry game — and wants to keep the Paul Bunyan Trophy in East Lansing for a fourth straight year? — immediate intensity will be vital.