It's been a strange season in Ann Arbor, a college football-crazed town that regularly packs the 109,901-seat Michigan Stadium to capacity. The national hype hasn't been there this year for the No. 22 Wolverines, who were dealt a crushing blow in season-opening 41-14 shellacking against then No. 2 Alabama and dropped an ugly 13-6 decision against then No. 11 Notre Dame. But the maize and blue still occupy the top spot in the Big Ten Legends division, over Nebraska, Northwestern, and Michigan State.
What has been the key to success for the 5-2 Wolverines? We all know about Denard Robinson and his incomparable skill set, but there is more to this team than just the quarterback.
Brendan Gibbons, K
Finding a consistent kicker in college football always seems to be a tough task for coaches. The mechanics of the craft, the high amount of pressure, and the unique field dimensions make kicking in the NCAA a hard thing to depend on.
Luckily for the Wolverines, they have a very consistent kicker in Brendan Gibbons. Gibbons was frustrating in 2011, but knocked in three field goals in the Wolverines' close victory over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. He kicked the game winner in overtime, and hasn't looked back. The junior is 10/12 so far this year with a long of 42 yards, and has yet to miss an extra point.
Gibbons came up huge against Michigan State last week, kicking a 38-yard field goal with five seconds left to down the Spartans 12-10. His consistency cannot be understated: If the Wolverines want to win their division and make a bowl game, they will need Gibbons to keep splitting the uprights.
Who will win this week's matchup?
In this week's game against Nebraska, the Wolverines will have to depend on winning the field position battle. If Gibbons can make his kicks, it will keep the Huskers from taking over in good position. His role will be huge if the Wolverines want to come out victorious in a critical game.
Quinton Washington and Will Campbell, DT
These guys aren't necessarily under the radar in Ann Arbor, but their position makes them naturally under-covered across the country. Defensive tackle isn't a sexy position to play, and it's looked at as more of a unit than anything else.
But make no mistake, Quinton Washington and Will Campbell are there. This Michigan defense, so maligned just a few years ago, has transformed into one of the premier units in all of college football. The stats are staggering: Michigan has 9.8 points per game in the last five contests, and the Wolverines have held four straight teams to under 250 yards of total offense. In the game against Michigan State, the front held the Big Ten's leading running back, Le'Veon Bell, to 68 yards on 26 carries—a paltry 2.6 yards per run.
Washington and Campbell anchor a defense that ranks 16th in the nation in points per game. They will be especially important in the game this week against Nebraska: the Huskers boast the nation's sixth-best ground attack, going for 272 yards per game. With the bruising Rex Burkhead in the backfield and the ever-dangerous Taylor Martinez under center, the two big guys in the middle will have to play their very best if Michigan hopes to win.
Fitzgerald Toussaint, RB
Every player's nightmare is to fall out of the spotlight, but Fitzgerald Toussaint has done just that. He was superb for the Wolverines last year, rushing for over 1,000 yards and showing explosiveness while scoring nine touchdowns.
In 2012, Fitz has fallen off the map. He sat out of the loss to Alabama due to a suspension and hasn't regained his form. Against Michigan State, he showed signs of life but still only ran for 52 yards on 10 carries. His lone good game came against FBS newcomer Massachusetts, and he still only produced 85 yards.
The casual fan might not realize this but the Wolverine's defense has far outplayed their offense in 2012. In fact, the offense has struggled for much of the year. The rushing yards are O.K. but that's only because Denard Robinson can go off for 200 on the ground against a mediocre team on any given week.
If Michigan wants to beat Nebraska, Toussaint will have to show up. Robinson's abilities are old news and capable teams have shown the ability to defend him. The passing offense isn't there, so Toussaint will have to be at his best in order to give the Wolverines diversity in the running game and keep the pressure off of Robinson, who can't be Superman every week.