Five Things the Michigan Wolverines Must Do to Finish Strong
After Team 134 got off to a promising 5-0 start, Brady Hoke's Wolverines have now suffered three losses in their last five games. Their conference losses to Penn State, Michigan State and Nebraska have them in a tie for fourth in the Big Ten's Legends division, and they're well behind where many experts expected them to be heading into the season's final two regular-season games.
The Wolverines' offensive line has struggled mightily, their passing game has been inconsistent and they've had a penchant for giving up big plays on defense.
However, even after all of their struggles, a dramatic win against Northwestern has kept Michigan fans' hopes alive for a 10-win season. While winning out would likely just result in a trip to either the Outback Bowl or the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, it would provide a huge boost to a program that's been recruiting well and showing signs that it may soon be considered elite once again.
Of course, winning out would also mean beating Ohio State in "The Game," which looms just around the corner.
Let's look at five things that Michigan needs to do to finish strong.
Score Touchdowns When They Reach the Red Zone
While the Wolverines escaped with a victory at Northwestern last week, they're going to need to be a lot more efficient in the red zone to get it done at Iowa and against Ohio State in the Big House. They scored just six points in three red-zone visits in regulation against the Wildcats, twice settling for short Brandon Gibbons field goals and turning it over on downs on the other occasion.
In the Wolverines three losses this year, they've scored just two touchdowns in eight visits (25%), while in their seven victories, they were able to punch it in the end zone 26 out of 36 times (72.22%)—as outlined by cfbstats.com.
If the Wolverines want to finish strong, settling for field goals won't cut it.
Stick with the Running Game
Michigan's struggles in the running game this year have been well documented.
After amassing 248 rushing yards against Indiana, the Wolverines proceeded to rack up minus-69 combined rushing yards against Michigan State and Nebraska. The majority of the blame falls on the offensive line, but Fitz Toussaint hasn't looked good, and it wasn't until this past week that the 5-star freshman Derrick Green showed signs of life.
Despite their challenges in running the football effectively, they have no choice but to stick with the running game and work towards achieving balance on offense. If linebackers are able to sit back in coverage and clog Devin Gardner's throwing lanes, it'll be near impossible to move the ball with any sort of consistency.
Green showed enough ability against Northwestern to make him the feature back the rest of the way. Of course, Gardner has a big role in the running game as well.
Limit Big Plays on Defense
While the defense has been playing well as of late, they still have some black marks on their resume this year. They gave up a bevy of big plays to Penn State (40 points), Indiana (47 points) and Michigan State (29 points)—most of which came on deep passes into the Wolverines' secondary.
While they're ranked a somewhat respectable fifth in the Big Ten in overall defense, according to cfbstats.com, they'll have to play their best defensive game of the year to slow down Ohio State's lethal offensive attack led by Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde.
Establish a Reliable Third Option in the Passing Game
While senior standout Jeremy Gallon and tight end Devin Funchess are both having exceptional seasons, the Wolverines have yet to develop a consistent third option in the passing game. Gallon leads the team with 65 receptions for 1062 yards while Funchess has 42 for 684 yards. But after these two,freshman Jehu Chesson is the only other player with over 200 yards receiving on the year.
Whether it's Chesson, Jake Butt, Drew Dileo or Joe Reynolds, someone else has to step up in the passing game and earn the respect of opposing defensive backs. It's far too easy for defenses to key on just two receiving options.
Protect Devin Gardner More Effectively
The most important thing that Michigan must do to finish strong is protect Gardner more effectively. Like Denard Robinson in the years before him, Gardner has taken a beating in Big-Ten play, and even his top-tier mobility hasn't been enough to buy him time.
If he isn't given ample time to operate, we'll likely see a repeat of his dreadful performance against Michigan State when he finished with a QBR of 8.5—per ESPN.com (scale of 1-100). They can try and outsmart the rush with quick passes and screens, but how long will plays like that bail them out?
Iowa, Ohio State and whoever the Wolverines are matched up against in a bowl will certainly try to put intense pressure on Gardner, and the coaching staff will have to find a way to protect him. If they fail to do this, it's likely that none of the aforementioned points will matter.