ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan is playing its best football of the season heading into the game against Ohio State, and recent improvements combined with home dominance should give the Wolverines a chance against their hated rival.
It’s been well-documented how Michigan started the season before ripping off seven wins in eight games. Jim Harbaugh was under heavy scrutiny before he righted the ship and put his team in position to play a meaningful game against the Buckeyes.
The turnaround can’t be traced down to one player or position group. The entire team has made strides since September. Here’s a look at why it feels like Michigan -- once an insurmountable underdog -- might have a shot this weekend.
1. Shea Patterson’s accuracy
Nobody has improved more since the start of the season than Patterson, who bore the brunt of the criticism when the offenses sputtered through the first half of the year.
Some of it was deserved. Patterson was a fumbling machine, regularly missed his receivers and couldn’t execute the read option. He was either lost in the new offense or injured -- or perhaps a little of both.
But now Patterson appears to be comfortable, healthy and completely locked in. A week after shattering Tom Brady’s school record for passing yards in a single game against Michigan State, Patterson went out and threw for 366 yards and five touchdowns against an Indiana defense that ranked in the top 20 against the pass.
In the last two games, Patterson has completed 44 of 65 passes (67.9%) for 750 yards, nine touchdowns and an interception.
Take a look at the Indiana highlights above to see how much Patterson has improved his accuracy. He was on target on deep balls to Giles Jackson (at the :40 mark in the video) and Nico Collins (2:26) and had perfect touch on delicate passes to Ronnie Bell (1:03) and Donovan Peoples-Jones (1:30) in the end zone.
The biggest improvement, though, has been in his ability to hit receivers in stride and allow them to run after the catch. Look at Collins’ 76-yard touchdown at the 3:46 mark. Collins caught the ball just 12 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, but Patterson’s pass led him perfectly into the open field and allowed him to gain 64 yards after the catch.
Bell racked up 150 receiving yards last week against MSU because Patterson was giving him the ball in position to make plays. He didn’t catch many passes deep downfield. This is the type of “speed in space” offense Josh Gattis was touting in the off-season, and now Patterson is executing it.
The throw at 4:35 is another example, as Patterson threw Mike Sainristil open despite tight coverage. It couldn’t have been located any better.
Quarterback has been an issue for Michigan over the last decade. There’s been no stability and inconsistent play-making ability. Ohio State has had a massive edge at the most important position on the field, and that’s the main reason the rivalry has been so lopsided.
But if Patterson’s 2019 trajectory is any indication of what’s to come, he’ll be able to move the ball against the Buckeyes.
2. Nico Collins becomes No. 1 target
Collins gets his own subheading for catching three touchdown passes. That’s the rule.
Michigan came into the season with a deep and talented receiving corps, but it wasn’t clear who would take the reins as the No. 1 target. Even heading to Indiana last weekend, there was a sense that Bell was the guy, though Collins had been most effective in his opportunities.
On Saturday, Collins made it clear he’s the best receiver on the team. He gained 165 yards on just six catches to improve his season average to 20.9 yards per catch. He now leads the team in receiving yards, touchdown catches and yards per catch.
Most people knew Collins was the best receiver on the roster. Now we’re finally seeing the stats match his ability.
In the first 10 games, Collins only topped 70 yards once -- against Penn State. That was also the only game in which he had more than three catches.
As much as the offense improved, it was never going to reach its full potential without more emphasis on Collins. That became obvious in Bloomington.
Collins has a rare combination of size, reliable hands and speed. He torched the Indiana secondary on the 76-yard touchdown run, but he also out-classed cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage whenever Michigan went to him in the end zone.
When Collins has single coverage, Michigan should throw him the ball. When it’s third down and Michigan needs to move the chains, he should be among the first reads. That has always been the case, but now Michigan is actually cashing in.
3. Deep arsenal of weapons rounding into form
As Michigan pounded the likes of Illinois and Maryland, it did so with an uninspiring, run-first offense that methodically wore down lesser competition and showed very little in terms of explosive plays.
Gattis has started to show a more diverse offensive playbook in recent weeks, however, and that doesn’t just give Michigan more options on the field, it also gives Ohio State more to think about leading up to The Game.
Peoples-Jones is the most obvious example. He caught just 12 passes for 121 yards in the four games prior to Michigan State. In the last two weeks, he’s caught nine passes for 121 yards.
Bell had a huge game against Michigan State. Collins took over at Indiana. With Peoples-Jones as a third consistent target, the receiving corps is becoming more of a problem for secondaries.
It doesn’t stop there, either. Tarik Black was a factor early in the season and still gets the ball on important third-down plays. He had three catches for 30 yards against the Hoosiers.
Mike Sainristil had one catch for eight yards in the team’s first seven games. In the last four games, he has six catches for 129 yards and a touchdown. Against Michigan State, both of Sainristil’s catches had him diving to the ground to secure first downs. His catch against Indiana was a tough over-the-shoulder deep ball running toward the sideline.
Fellow freshman Giles Jackson was a non-factor on offense before the Michigan State game. But over the last two weeks, he’s got four carries for 39 yards in addition to a 50-yard catch.
Sainristil and Jackson are home run threats who add another dimension to Michigan’s offense beyond the top four receivers. Everyone knew Gattis had an embarrassment of riches to work with, and now he’s taking advantage.
4. Ball security
The main culprit for Michigan’s early-season struggles was ball security, as the Wolverines coughed up 13 turnovers in their first six games -- nine fumbles and four interceptions. Fumbles kept the Army game dangerously close and turned the Wisconsin game into an insurmountable blowout.
Michigan has done a complete 180 in terms of ball security, committing just three turnovers in the last five games. Two of those turnovers -- Peoples-Jones’ fumble against Michigan State and Patterson’s interception against Indiana -- came with the games already decided. Only the interception at Penn State proved costly.
If Michigan commits multiple turnovers against Ohio State, it’ll be near impossible to win. The Buckeyes are too dangerous even without being gifted extra possessions, so it’ll be more important than ever for this trend of ball security to continue.
5. Young defensive playmakers
Nobody really knew what to expect of Michigan’s defense coming into the year. Sure, Don Brown has had success at Michigan and there were plenty of solid returning players, but the Wolverines lost Devin Bush, Chase Winovich, David Long and Rashan Gary.
Early in the season, those stars were badly missed. Michigan had no answer against Wisconsin and suffered through puzzling stretches vs. Middle Tennessee, Army and Illinois.
But as the season wore on, young players suddenly turned into stars.
The most notable example is Cam McGrone, who took over as the starting middle linebacker after the Wisconsin game and immediately became one of the team’s best players. McGrone has come closer to matching Bush’s production than anyone could have imagined. His ability to go sideline-to-sideline and make tackles in the open field will be an X-factor against the mobile Justin Fields.
Daxton Hill has also become a strong defensive player, to nobody’s surprise. The true freshman is showing why he was the No. 1 safety recruit in the country, picking off his first pass against Indiana and making plays in space.
On the defensive line, Aidan Hutchinson is among the most disruptive players in the Big Ten. He had seven tackles, a sack and a pass defended against Indiana, bringing his season numbers up to 53 tackles, 4.5 sacks and six passes defended.
All of a sudden, Michigan is allowing just 4.11 yards per play -- third in the country behind Ohio State and Clemson. Brown has his young players to thank.
6. Special teams execution
Michigan’s special teams play can’t be overlooked, either. Over the last three games, Michigan has executed at an elite level in nearly every facet of special teams play.
It began in the first moments of the Maryland game, when Jackson returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. Michael Barrett took a fake punt 14 yards for a first down that demoralized the Terrapins. Will Hart punted five times for an average of 49.8 yards.
Against Michigan State, the Wolverines put on a special teams clinic. Khaleke Hudson blocked another punt -- the fifth of his Michigan career. Peoples-Jones returned two punts for a total of 58 yards. Quinn Nordin secured the starting place kicker spot with five extra points and three field goals -- including a 49-yarder.
Jackson had a 38-yard kickoff return that flipped the field against Indiana. Hart didn’t allow a return on four punts. Nordin made his only field goal attempt and all four extra points.
Special teams play flies under the radar, but Michigan has been dangerous in that regard all season. Two fake punt conversions completely changed the Army and Maryland games. Hudson is always a threat to block punts. Jackson and Peoples-Jones are home run threats in the return game.
Michigan has to find some way to make up the talent gap against Ohio State. Special teams execution is one way to do so.
7. Home success
It doesn’t get as much credit as Beaver Stadium or the Horseshoe, but the Big House has become one of the toughest venues in the Big Ten.
Since a shaky 2017 season derailed by quarterback injuries, Michigan has been among the nation’s most dominant home teams.
The Wolverines went a perfect 7-0 at home last season, beating Western Michigan, SMU, Nebraska, Maryland, No. 15 Wisconsin, No. 14 Penn State and Indiana by an average score of 43-13. The two ranked teams who came to Ann Arbor lost by a combined score of 80-20.
This season has been a continuation of the last. Michigan is 6-0 at home with an average score of 36-12. In the last two home games, Michigan smashed rivals Notre Dame and Michigan State by a combined score of 89-24.
Harbaugh has a chance to finish undefeated at home for the third time in four years (Michigan went 8-0 in Ann Arbor in 2016). Fans haven’t watched the Wolverines lose at home in 731 days -- the last time Ohio State came to town.
For that unbeaten streak to extend into the off-season, the improvements above will need to reach a crescendo on Saturday.