Michigan Football: Highlighting Key Games on Wolverines' Quest for Big Ten Title

John Rozum@Rozum27Correspondent IFebruary 15, 2013

Michigan Football: Highlighting Key Games on Wolverines' Quest for Big Ten Title

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    Brady Hoke has the Michigan Wolverines on the brink of a Big Ten championship.

    After going 11-2 in his inaugural campaign and winning the Sugar Bowl over Virginia Tech, Hoke finished 8-5 last season. Interestingly enough, the team had a 6-2 conference record as the Wolverines dropped games to Alabama and Notre Dame prior to conference play.

    In short, there's no reason to feel disappointed when two non-Big Ten losses came against the BCS national title participants.

    Entering the 2013 college football season, Michigan reels in another excellent recruiting class and isn't getting hurt regarding the NFL draft.

    Hoke's team ranks No. 2 on Scout.com and No. 5 on Rivals.com for this year's class rankings.

    Even better, Wolverines fans found out in early January that offensive tackle Taylor Lewan plans to return for his senior season, per Kyle Meinke of MLive.com:

    The junior All-American left tackle announced Wednesday he will turn down certain NFL riches to return for his senior season with the Wolverines.

    "When you really go into detail about it and think and take the time to sit down, turn your phone off and think to yourself about all the things that are best for you, there was no doubt in my mind I have to return to the University of Michigan."

    As a result, the journey to a conference title becomes a smoother path for the residents of Ann Arbor, MI this fall.

Expected Big Ten Conference Victories

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    Minnesota Golden Gophers

    Not only do the Golden Gophers offer a weak passing game, but offensive playmaker Marqueis Gray was a senior in 2012.

    The Wolverines also bring in a much better recruiting class and Minnesota went just 2-6 in the Big Ten last season.

    Until the Gophers prove they can score consistently, Michigan keeps the Little Brown Jug.

    Indiana Hoosiers

    Indiana gave up an average of 35.3 points per game last season and barely won over Indiana State at home. Although the passing game was impressive in 2012, that's also because the defense couldn't stop anyone.

    Michigan is simply too physical and efficient for the Hoosiers to match up front on either side.

    (at) Michigan State Spartans

    Sure it's a rivalry game on the road, but Michigan State has been on a gradual decline since Kirk Cousins and Co. moved to pro football.

    As for 2013, cornerback Johnny Adams was a redshirt senior, and three underclassmen left early, according to Josh Mansour of the State News:

    William Gholston told head coach Mark Dantonio of his decision to forego his senior season for the NFL Draft.

    And [he] joins running back Le’Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims as juniors that will leave MSU early.

    The Spartans don't present the offensive prowess to match Michigan, and the Wolverines are improving defensively. Ranking No. 20 in points allowed last season, Michigan is the more complete team compared to its in-state rival.

    (at) Iowa Hawkeyes

    Kinnick Stadium isn't always an easy place to play.

    Then again, Iowa has fielded some solid teams under Kirk Ferentz since 1999. Unfortunately, 2012 was not one of those teams as the Hawkeyes went 4-8 and 1-3 at home in the conference. Without reliable ball movement, Iowa has much work ahead to compete with Michigan.

    And even though the Hawkeyes typically field a sound defense, it won't prevent the Wolverines from controlling the tempo.

At Penn State Nittany Lions

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    New head coach Bill O'Brien definitely has the Penn State Nittany Lions headed in a positive direction.

    Given the circumstances in which he took over the program, O'Brien got Penn State to finish 8-4 last season including impressive wins over Northwestern and Wisconsin.

    Fielding a stout defense that allowed just 19.1 points per game in 2012, the Nittany Lions ranked No. 23 in rush defense as well. In turn, the Wolverines need to utilize quick developing pass plays for a slightly faster pace from snap to snap.

    Possessing the ability to slam the rock up front, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner also presents the athleticism to make plays off play action and out of the pocket.

    The Nittany Lions play tough defense, so widening the zones and then setting up the power game will result in efficient movement. Defensively, Michigan must stack the box and play press coverage.

    Matt McGloin was a senior last season, so expect Penn State to field a run-oriented offense. Factor in the crowd at Beaver Stadium and Michigan does itself a favor by moving the chains and winning the possession battle.

Vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Don't sleep on Taylor Martinez, Bo Pelini and the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

    Since Pelini took over the program in 2008 the 'Huskers have been consistently solid each year.

    Last season Nebraska held Michigan in check with a 23-9 victory at home. Ironically, Nebraska ranked No. 1 in pass defense, but No. 96 against the rush in 2012.

    Therefore, Michigan attacks Pelini's defense in the trenches for a more traditional offense.

    And the Wolverines can still hope to rely on Fitzgerald Toussaint. Per Kyle Meinke of MLive.com earlier this week, there is good news on the running back:

    Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson said he saw Toussaint running this week and was "shocked" at how well he was moving just three months after breaking his leg.

    Will he be ready for the start of his senior season?

    "You know what -- I really do, because when I saw him running around, that was shocking," Jackson said. "He's ahead of schedule, and people in the training room feel good about him. I'm not sure, but you asked me if I expect him (to be ready) -- and I would say yes."

    Regardless of who punches the gut of Nebraska's defense, though, Michigan needs to hit this weakness of the Cornhuskers. Controlling the tempo will be vital, as Martinez is a great dual-threat quarterback capable of exploiting Michigan's run defense and gaining the field position advantage.

At Northwestern Wildcats

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    Northwestern is a dangerous team to watch for in the Big Ten next fall.

    Coming off a 10-3 campaign, the Wildcats logged two victories over SEC schools (Vanderbilt, Mississippi State) and all three losses were by a combined 15 points.

    Against Michigan, running back Venric Mark totaled 104 rushing yards and one score while averaging 4.5 per attempt. The Wolverines managed to steal the victory, though, as Devin Gardner accounted for 286 passing and 47 rushing yards (four total scores).

    A similar approach will suffice in 2013, because the Wildcats ranked No. 98 in pass defense last year.

    Factor in Gardner's throwing talent, time to develop better and the rushing threat and Michigan can get Northwestern on its heels early. On the defense it has to be about isolating Mark.

    The Wildcats don't present a stellar passing game, despite Kain Colter's versatility, so blitzing will generate turnovers. Michigan just needs to push the pace from opening kickoff and get aggressive defensively.

    Increasing the tempo forces Northwestern away from its strengths to keep up.

Vs. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    After nearly upsetting Ohio State in Columbus last November, Michigan welcomes its bitter rival to Ann Arbor in 2013.

    The answer to victory here is obviously shutting down Braxton Miller.

    He completed 77.8 percent of his throws against Michigan in 2012's win, so firing up more pressure will be needed to create turnover opportunities. On the bright side for Michigan's offense, Johnathan Hankins and John Simon were seniors.

    Although the Buckeyes bring in an excellent recruiting class, Michigan must smack Ohio State between the tackles. Pull tackle Taylor Lewan from outside in for traps and counters, which will also set up quarterback bootlegs.

    From there, Gardner then has the run-pass option after the ground game gets established.

    The Wolverines present the offense to respond/match anything from Ohio State. It's the defense that must stuff the run and contain Miller with discipline for a chance to appear in the conference title game.