A year ago, Michigan was en route to a potentially great 2015 season. But a couple of key injuries on the defensive line proved costly in the second half of the season.
Now the Wolverines have arrived at a similar tipping point in 2016. Quarterback Wilton Speight is reportedly done for the regular season with a broken collarbone. That only added to Michigan’s woes after a dreadful performance in a stunning 14-13 loss at Iowa this past weekend. The coming weeks be a test of the gains Jim Harbaugh and his staff have squeezed out of this veteran roster.
On the one hand, this remains one of the most talented teams in the nation. Michigan has one of the two best defenses in the nation and a big, veteran offensive line. That should be enough to give the Wolverines a chance to beat Indiana, Ohio State and the Big Ten West champ. That would put Michigan in the College Football Playoff. And it may give Speight enough time to heal before a semifinal contest on New Year’s Eve.
The problem is, that kind of thinking also made people believe this talented, veteran team was incapable of stumbling against an inferior opponent just because it was a night game and not in Ann Arbor. Iowa got demolished by Penn State the week before. But the Hawkeyes rallied to smother Michigan’s offense and find enough ways to get Akrum Wadley the ball.
That’s the part that might be most concerning for Michigan in the next three weeks, even more so than needing to find a new quarterback.
Iowa ran for 30 yards against Penn State, 34 against North Dakota State and 79 against Northwestern. The Hawkeyes gouged Michigan’s incredible defense for 164 rushing yards. If the Hawkeyes can get that many on this defense with basically one player doing all of the work, what happens when Urban Meyer and J.T. Barrett, Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel are on the other side of the field in two weeks?
Speight was rapidly improving, and with each performance seemed to increase Michigan’s chances to winning a national title. The Iowa game was a pothole, and now the Wolverines likely need three victories without him to keep their CFP hopes alive.
While the focus on offense will be on John O’Korn, a graduate transfer from Houston, maybe it should be on the five guys in front of him and the assortment of players who line up next to or behind him. O’Korn could be fine. He’s got two solid receivers and an All-America tight end. If he can just be “early-season Speight” and avoid crippling mistakes, Michigan has a chance.
The bigger issue could be the running game.
Michigan is second in the Big Ten in rushing at 236.3 yards per game. But the Wolverines have been far from consistent on the ground. Last season, Jake Rudock and the passing game improved as the season progressed, but the running game did not.
A similar storyline has developed in 2016. Speight was getting better, but the rushing attack was starting to look less explosive. Iowa held Michigan to 98 yards on 30 carries. Michigan State and Illinois contained the Wolverines, too, yielding less than 4.6 yards per carry.
The Wolverines have dominated bad (or depleted, in the case of Penn State at the time) defenses. But they have been far from great on the ground against better foes. This line is too experienced and the collection of tailbacks (including Jabrill Peppers) is far too talented to get stymied like that.
Last season, the Michigan defense showed signs of decline. Then Indiana lit it up, though the Wolverines won 48-41 in overtime. It foreshadowed what Ohio State would do in the season finale.
Now the Wolverines face a very different Indiana team. This Hooisers squad is actually pretty good on defense, particularly against the run. They just held the best running back in the Big Ten, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, to 60 yards on 33 carries.
If the report about Speight is true, there will be plenty of focus on O’Korn. But Michigan’s loss to Iowa revealed a couple of other flaws that need to be cleaned up if the Wolverines want to avoid a repeat performance against Ohio State and keep their hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff alive.