Maize and blue skies are on the horizon for Michigan coach Brady Hoke because youth, his most valuable asset, is developing for later use toward serious contention for Big Ten titles.
Yes, youth is the Wolverines' MVP, not the upperclassmen.
Who is UM's MVP?
Senior kicker Brendan Gibbons may beg to differ, however. Combining with holder Drew Dileo, Gibbons split the uprights with a 44-yarder during a run-and-slide play as regulation time expired, tying the game at 9-9 and helping Team 134 scrape its way to a 29-17 3OT victory over Northwestern.
Had Gibbons missed, Hoke and his staff would have had to face of a wall of criticism for the the third straight week. That being said, Hoke would probably, at least right now, cast an MVP vote for Gibbons, who's kept his team in the fight with his left foot.
But he's also cost his team; he missed two field goals during a 43-40 4OT loss to Penn State. There goes that vote.
Veterans have made plays this fall, sure. But make no mistake, the children are the future of Michigan football, which has crept to a 7-3, 3-3 Big Ten record.
Young RBs Make Difference vs. NW
Some may argue for left tackle Taylor Lewan as MVP. There's a case for that, sure. Imagine Michigan without its All-American blind-side protector. Instead of barely breaking even on the ground, Wolverines running backs would further struggle without their senior anchor and team captain.
Saturday, Team 134 showed signs of life on the ground, but those heartbeats came from Derrick Green and DeVeon Smith, a pair of underused freshmen who represent the future of offensive coordinator Al Borges (or someone else's) pro-style system.
Green ran for 79 yards, and Smith followed with 41. Together, they combined for 120 yards, a much better clip than consecutive weeks in the red after losing to Michigan State and Nebraska.
The offensive line may have held a little tighter Saturday, but don't discount the efforts of Green and Smith. Green, from this vantage point, earned the No. 1 role with his 23-yard burst up the left sideline in the third quarter.
Should Green be the No. 1 RB based on Saturday?
Fitz Toussaint, a senior, has rattled off comparable runs in terms of yardage, but the real proof of his inferiority came when a Wildcats defensive back bounced of Green at the end of the run.
Toussaint wouldn't have rebounded like nothing happened. Green did.
Along with Smith, Green contributed effective carries late in the game. With two totes on the game-winning drive, Green prepped quarterback Devin Gardner for the go-ahead touchdown and subsequent two-point conversion.
Again, the line helped out on that play, but Michigan's flurry from the backfield pushed Northwestern on its heels, confusing the defense and tricking it into shifting its focus from Gardner, who was sacked no fewer than six times, to the backfield.
So was it really the line? No. It was the running backs who changed the landscape Saturday night. Want further proof? Run this scenario through your mind: Toussaint plays instead of Green and Smith, only to again spin his wheels in the quicksand while running side to side rather than vertically.
Michigan wouldn't have won without adding another dimension to the ground-and-pound. Fresh legs made all of the difference—fresh, youthful legs.
Case in point: During a late third-quarter drive, Green broke off for 23 yards on first down, only to follow with a three-yard gain that led to an eight-yard connection from Gardner to Jeremy Gallon.
Those three plays just clicked. Michigan's pro-style offense was clearly evident, and so was its potential efficiency. The Wildcats were forced to respect Green's abilities, leaving Gallon open for the short throw, which happens to be tailored for his skill set.
A step toward the right direction was shown during that drive, despite the fact that Gardner was sacked twice and Michigan punted.
The time for the backs-in-waiting is now. It's been "now" for two months.
Michigan finally unleashes Derrick Green-De'Veon Smith and gets real results at Northwestern http://t.co/ghvBdwOleD— Wolverines News (@WolverinesMLive) November 17, 2013
Youth at TE/WR
Michigan happens to be somewhat deep at tight end and wide receiver.
Devin Funchess is on the verge of becoming Michigan's top playmaker on offense. He's certainly one of the better underclassmen in the Big Ten. Saturday, the 6'5", 235-pound sophomore had seven catches for 61 yards.
Despite dropping a would-be touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter, Funchess has been one of the few consistent options for Gardner, who came in a little hot when targeting Funchess on 2nd-and-goal from the 11-yard line.
Look back to his 151 yards against Minnesota. Look back to his game vs. the Air Force in 2012. Funchess is "next," whether at tight end or receiver. And he has time on his side. Gallon and Dileo are seniors, so there go two reliable sets of hands.
Jake Butt, a true freshman, scored his first collegiate touchdown Saturday with an 11-yard grab the first overtime vs. the Wildcats (UM led 16-9 after Gibbons' PAT).
After practice this past Tuesday, Butt said the following to Maize and Blue News about his personal progression and that of his team:
The best things are ahead. We’ve got a lot of weapons—not only at the tight end position, but the offense as a whole.
We know if we play 11 men together, no one can beat us. … If we get 11 guys together, we’ll show the country what we can really do.
Add in existing freshmen such as DaMario Jones and Jehu Chesson, and throw in a healthy Amara Darboh to complement incoming recruits, and the road at receiver looks smooth for the Wolverines.
Don't Deny Underclassmen
Michigan lives and dies with Gardner, a redshirt junior who's in his first year as starter. He gutted out a game-winning on the road in triple-overtime, but he nearly threw at least six interceptions. Maybe even seven. He's had problems completing passes in the past, but Saturday, he had trouble completing picks.
He provided fireworks with 504 passing yards vs. the Hoosiers, sure. But he's also become a liability for an offense that hasn't scored more than 13 points in regulation during the past three weeks.
Lewan's presence on the line has been crucial. As mentioned earlier, Gardner's sack total could be much higher if not for Lewan, who's prevented a few. Most have been on Gardner, who's been sacked no fewer than 20 times during the past three weeks, but give the left tackle some credit for saving his quarterback's backside on occasion.
Willie Henry has provided push in the pass-rush department. The redshirt frosh has picked up playing time by hawking the ball. Jibreel Black, a senior, has contributed of late, but Henry has stood out from the crowd.
The Wolverines' MVPs are the guys fighting for No. 1 reps, not the guys getting them.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81