Michigan football doing 5 'little things' at elite level to compete for Big Ten title

Jim Harbaugh's attention to detail paying dividends for Michigan

Zach Gentry and the Michigan offense celebrate a touchdown against Penn State at Michigan Stadium on Nov. 3, 2018, in Ann Arbor. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Michigan is the last remaining undefeated team in Big Ten play and considered a favorite to represent the conference in the College Football Playoff.

When people around the country watch Michigan, they see an elite defense, an improving quarterback and a hard-nosed runner between the tackles. Yes, Don Brown's No. 1 defense is the driving force for Michigan, and Shea Patterson and Karan Higdon have been the leaders of the offense.

But there's so much more to Michigan's success.

Last season, the Wolverines could never put it all together. When the defense played well, the offense would often stall. At times, even the defense couldn't keep Michigan in big games. Special teams was an adventure.

Now, as Michigan rides a nine-game winning streak into mid-November, everything seems to be falling into place.

Time of possession

It doesn't get much better than Michigan in terms of holding onto the football. The Wolverines are No. 2 among Power Five teams in time of possession, holding the ball for 34 minutes and 35.7 seconds per game.

That's demoralizing for Michigan's opponents, especially when they're playing from behind.

The defense is a major reason for the time of possession success. It forces a ton of three-and-outs, and tackles for loss make opposing teams throw more than they'd like to. With the No. 1 pass defense in the country, allowing a nation-best completion percentage of 47.3, teams are giving the ball back to Michigan minutes after drives start.

The offense is also doing its part, running the ball an average of 43 times per game and demoralizing defensive fronts in the second half. Harbaugh keeps the clock running and moves the chains, averaging more than 5 yards per carry.

Punting

Michigan has made a massive improvement in the punting game after finishing 101st in the country last season with an average of 39.55 yards per punt.

This year, Will Hart has led Michigan to fourth in the nation with 48.29 yards per punt. He's only had to punt 34 times in 10 games, but he's been a weapon in the field position battle.

Michigan punter Will Hart (Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Michigan's stingy defense combined with Hart's powerful leg allows Harbaugh to win the field position battle every week. It's not flashy, but that makes a huge difference in close games.

Turnovers

One surprising trend for the elite Michigan defense is the lack of turnovers forced through 10 games. Michigan only has 14 takeaways, which ranks 72nd in the country.

But that's been neutralized by Michigan's offense, which is doing an incredible job taking care of the football. The Wolverines have turned it over seven times this year, tied for the third fewest in the country.

Shea Patterson throws a first half pass against Maryland on Oct. 6, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Patterson averaged more than one interception per game at Ole Miss, but he's thrown just three picks in 10 games for Michigan.

It's critical for the Wolverines to avoid turnovers and force opponents to drive on its No. 1 total defense. They can't give up short fields and expose the defense's only weakness: red zone efficiency.

The Michigan State game is a great example, as Michigan dominated the entire 60 minutes but allowed the Spartans to tie the game when Chris Evans fumbled on his own 7-yard line. If the offense takes care of the ball, it's very difficult for opponents to score.

Third down conversions

Another area of massive improvement for Michigan's offense is third down efficiency.

Last year, the Wolverines only converted 32.63 percent of its third down attempts, good for 116th in the country. Only Rutgers and Maryland were worse in the Big Ten.

This season, the team has done a complete 180, as Michigan ranks fourth with a 50.35 conversion rate.

The difference has been the running game, which has allowed Michigan to face much shorter third down situations as opposed to third-and-long. When the defense knows Michigan has to pass, the offense is much less effective. But when there's a triple threat of running, passing or Patterson keeping the ball, Michigan is dangerous.

It's crushing for defenses when they're so close to getting off the field only to see Michigan move the chains and extend drives. That's another component of Michigan's time of possession dominance.

Opponents' third down conversions

All the reasons why Michigan's third down conversion rate is so important can be flipped for the defense.

Opponents are only converting 28.24 percent of third down attempts, the ninth-lowest rate in the country.

Michigan's defensive versatility makes it extremely tough to move the chains. It can force long third down attempts with sacks and tackles for loss, or it can stuff opponents on third-and-short situations.

Defensive linemen Chase Winovich and Michael Dwumfour during a win over Maryland. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

All of these numbers are intertwined, as Michigan stops opponents from moving the chains, gets the ball back and drives long enough to win the field position and time of possession battles.

The combination of converting third downs on offense and limiting third down conversions on defense is underappreciated, especially for a defensive-minded team such as Michigan.

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