Call it the “Harbaugh-effect” or call it “vintage Michigan football” finally shining through, but the fact is this: The Michigan Wolverines football program is officially back on the map and they’re coming into Kinnick this Saturday with their sights set on bigger and better things — a National Championship.
There’s no sugarcoating this: The Hawkeyes are MASSIVE underdogs in this game.
The Blue Curtain
As a lifelong Iowa football fan, I can’t recall the Hawkeyes ever facing off against a defense with as much talent as what this Wolverines defense possesses; that’s not hyperbole, that’s the honest truth.
Coming into this contest, the Wolverines on defense are as veteran-heavy as they come, as 10 of their 11 starters are seniors and the only non-senior is junior outside linebacker and versatile weapon Jabrill Peppers.
When you look over this defense, it’s nearly impossible to spot any real weakness other than maybe at linebacker outside of senior Ben Gedeon and Peppers.
Upfront, the Wolverines are legitimately — again, not using hyperbole — six talented players deep on the defensive line with senior defensive ends Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton leading the way alongside true freshman and former five-star defensive end Rashan Gary, as well as senior defensive tackles Ryan Glasgow, Maurice Hurst, and Matthew Godin.
Across the board, Michigan is generating a great deal of pressure both on the edge and inside on opposing quarterbacks and, in many instances, are turning those pressures into sacks. Although Wormley and Charlton are the two renowned pass rushers of the group, each individual on the defensive line is fully capable of exploding through the line. In addition, the interior portion of the defensive line has been rock solid all season against the run, as they currently rank 10th nationally in rushing yards per game allowed.
With such an excellent front seven, you’d think that maybe, just maybe it would be easier to target the backend of this defense. However, it’s not.
If you are someone who thought that this might’ve been the week that the passing game would turn things around … who am I kidding? None of you were thinking that this week or any other week for that matter. The passing game is what it is at this point — ineffective and inefficient.
just don't even bother trying to throw on Michigan's secondary... pic.twitter.com/D9x35i5ds8— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) November 7, 2016
With that said, the Wolverines secondary is arguably the best in college football, as they’re led by senior cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling. This season, Lewis and Stribling have been about as lockdown in coverage as you can ask for, as they’ve accounted for a combined 4 interceptions as well as 15% completion percentage when targeted 10 or more yards downfield. As a Hawkeye fan, prepare yourself for even more screens.
Things Michigan ranks first in:— Brad Muckenthaler (@MaizeBlueNation) November 6, 2016
1st down Def
3rd down Def
As a unit, the Wolverines defense excels in every area imaginable and like I mentioned earlier, finding a weakness to exploit is nearly impossible when you consider how much talent this defense possesses. However, there’s one player that has been so dynamic for the Wolverines this season that I felt he deserved a section all to himself:
Coming into the season, one of the players I was most excited to see in action was a junior from East Orange, New Jersey, named Jabrill Peppers. And now, as we head into week 11 of the college football season, I can confirm, he has not disappointed me one bit.
Jabrill Peppers (@UMichFootball) played 55 def snaps, 4 off snaps. Lined up as CB, LB, nickelback, S on def, wildcat QB, RB, WR on off pic.twitter.com/gVGRqc2djM— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 6, 2016
What Peppers brings to the table is a skill set of ultimate versatility, which allows him to not only contribute, but shine on all three phases: offense, defense and special teams.
Because of this, Peppers has some analysts and Michigan faithful thinking about an opportunity for him to hoist the Heisman Trophy come this December. With that said, at this point, I think it’s certainly fair to say that he’s not viewed as the Heisman favorite, nor should he be. However, Peppers has put together a more than impressive 2016 campaign so far and what he’s done for this Michigan team should not be overlooked.
As a linebacker or line of scrimmage presence this season, Peppers has been as efficient of a tackler as they come, as he’s recorded 49 total tackles with only 3 missed tackles, giving him an impressive 94.2% tackle rate, which comes in as one of the best in the country.
Jabrill Peppers has averaged 17.1 yards per punt return this season. That's the highest average in Michigan history (min. 15 returns).— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) November 2, 2016
In addition, Peppers’ punt return numbers this season have arguably been the best in school history, as he’s averaging 17.1 yards per punt return, a mark that puts him atop Michigan’s single-season record books with a minimum of 15 attempts.
Something Peppers’ critics will point to as a reason for him being possibly being overhyped or overrated nationally is his lack of interceptions. However, although Peppers does spend time on the backend of Michigan’s defense, more often than not, he’s being asked to line up and play up near the line of scrimmage as a blitzer, contain presence, spy, or lane-filler; he’s constantly being asked to attack the ball, thus interception opportunities don’t present themselves as often as they would a full-time player on the backend.
Regardless of whether Peppers brings home the Heisman this December, the fact is this: the Hawkeyes are seriously going to have their hands full with Peppers this Saturday on all three phases.
Much like last week with Saquon Barkley, the Hawkeyes must go into this game acknowledging the fact that Peppers will find a way to get his in this game, but if they any hope of pulling this upset, they better find a way to subdue him when pressed into make-or-break situations.
The Spotlight is on Speight
As the regular season begins to wind down, each week the Wolverines find themselves closer and closer to a possible Big Ten Championship and a solidified spot in the College Football Playoff — Hawk fans know the feeling. And with an elite defense on one side of the ball, a premier head coach on the sideline, and an exuberant fan base offering up their unyielding support, the spotlight falls squarely upon junior quarterback Wilton Speight to lead them to the promise land and in recent weeks he’s answered the call.
Through nine games this season, Speight possesses a 157.98 quarterback rating, which is good enough to lead the Big Ten. In addition, Speight has thrown for 2,053 yards and 15 touchdowns with an impressive 64.5% completion percentage and only 3 interceptions.
Michigan QB Wilton Speight passing 20+ yds downfield— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) November 6, 2016
Last 2 gms: 8-13, (61.5%) 2 TD
First 7 gms: 7-24, (29.2%) 3 TD
However, Speight hasn’t just been “Checkdown Charlie” this season as he’s throwing downfield much more frequently and with much more efficiency compared to his first seven games.
Coming in at 6-6, 243-lbs, Speight has the kind of frame offensive coaches drool over and when you really sit down and begin to analyze his game, you begin to realize that behind that frame, there’s a really impressive football player.
Although I wouldn’t personally place Speight in the tier of some of the more talented passers in college football, he does throw with an impressive amount of velocity and when he’s able to set his feet he can place the ball about as well as anyone. In addition, Speight, even with his frame, is fairly athletic and has the ability to get out of the pocket and extend plays with his legs.
What has impressed me most about Speight this season is that he’s improved almost every week leading up to this game and at this point he looks fully confident in this offense. Last week in a blowout win over Maryland where he accounted for 378 total yards and three touchdowns, Speight looked as comfortable and in control as I’ve ever seen him.
Finally, this Wolverines offense certainly doesn’t lack playmakers, as receivers Amara Darboh (West Des Moines native) and Jehu Chesson have shown to be a dynamic duo on the outside, while senior tight end Jake Butt has once again proven to be one of the more reliable receiving weapons in the country both in and out of the red zone.
Expect this Wolverines passing game to present the Hawkeyes with a major challenge this Saturday.
Not Losing Sleep
Regardless of how the Hawkeyes’ season has gone thus far, there’ll never be a time when I’m not looking forward to the next time the football takes the field and this weekend is no different.
With that said, I can’t recall another instance where the Hawkeyes have come into a contest looking this outmatched on paper. I’m certainly not losing any sleep over this game.
Michigan is almost Top 2 in all major categories on both Offense/Defense. pic.twitter.com/rGZS7khaWp— Anthony Mitchell (@almitch20) November 9, 2016
In all phases of the game, Michigan is the much better team and there’s really no getting away from that. It’s disappointing that this didn’t end up being the matchup we were all hoping it would be coming into the year, but a nice way to look at is: What do the Hawks really have to lose?
As I write this, the Hawkeyes currently sit as 21-point underdogs and nobody in the country is really giving them much of chance, nor should they be. If the Hawkeyes somehow find a way to make this a competitive game for three and half quarters, I’ll be more than satisfied.