Michigan opens its Big Ten conference schedule at 4 p.m. ET Saturday at Purdue. The Boilermakers are 2-1 and have emerged as one of the early surprises in college football, under first-year head coach Jeff Brohm. No. 8 Michigan (3-0) defeated Air Force 29-13 in its final nonconference game last Saturday in Ann Arbor, Mich. Here are three keys to the game and predictions from Land of 10 Michigan writers Rachel Lenzi and Kevin Goheen.
Score touchdowns in the red zone
This is Michigan’s most glaring issue. The Wolverines are 1 for 10 inside an opponent’s 20-yard line in their first three games this season and must produce scoring offense at close range. To do this, Michigan has to be decisive, and it has to be strong on the run in such a small area of real estate. Michigan is averaging less than 2 yards a carry inside the red zone, and more often than not, the Wolverines are settling for field goals and leaving points on the table — points that could be that much more valuable in Big Ten games. Michigan can’t count on kicker Quinn Nordin to get things done in the red zone. This is where Michigan needs to execute.
Wide receivers must rise to the occasion
Michigan announced this week that leading receiver Tarik Black (11 catches for 149 yards and a touchdown) is out indefinitely after undergoing surgery on his left foot, an injury sustained Saturday against Air Force. The loss of Black means Michigan’s receivers, particularly its younger receivers, must continue to find their stride with quarterback Wilton Speight. The key between Speight and Michigan’s new receivers is developing confidence and trust between each other. With the absence of Black, expect to see true freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones get more passes, along with sophomore Kekoa Crawford and junior Grant Perry. Purdue’s pass defense isn’t overwhelming; it’s allowed an average of 244.7 yards per game, including a season-high 378 against Louisville and a season-low 133 against Missouri.
Purdue may also force Michigan to the pass, which is where Speight will need to shine; Purdue has allowed 129.7 rushing yards a game.
Be prepared for lots of movement by Purdue’s offense
When it comes to its offense, Purdue is a fan of misdirection, maybe as much as Air Force is. While the Boilermakers run a spread offense instead of the intricate triple-option offense, they like to mix it up. This means the Wolverines defense will have to stay on its toes. Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown said earlier this week that Purdue’s offense is “gimmick crazy” and said of first-year Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm that “I don’t think he’s seen a trick play he doesn’t like.”
Case in point: Purdue’s double-reverse play in a 44-21 win Sept. 8 against Ohio, a touchdown that became a viral sensation.
Establishing a pass rush will be key, as the Boilermakers almost rely on their passing game. Purdue handles its running backs (Tario Fuller, Brian Lankford-Johnson and D.J. Knox) by committee and its rushing offense averages 173 yards a game while its passing offense, led by quarterback David Blough, averages 286.7 yards (third in the Big Ten) and 3.3 touchdowns a game.
RACHEL LENZI — Michigan 29, Purdue 24
KEVIN GOHEEN — Michigan 30, Purdue 14