Michigan football still has plenty to fix as Big Ten title race enters home stretch

Wolverines ride seven-game winning streak into bye week

Jim Harbaugh of looks on during the first quarter against Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 20, 2018, in East Lansing, Michigan. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Pretty much everything has gone right for the Michigan football program over the last seven weeks.

Michigan has won seven straight games, risen to No. 5 in the AP Poll, sits atop the Big Ten East Division standings and has silenced the critics clamoring for big wins.

Jim Harbaugh's team is good enough to win a Big Ten championship this season, but there are still several areas that need to improve. That's exactly what Harbaugh will emphasize during the bye week.

Michigan owns the No. 1 overall defense in the country and an offense that's improving through the air and on the ground. With that said, here are some areas that could improve heading into the final third of the regular season.

Field goal kicking

It's been a strange season for kicker Quinn Nordin, who finished 18th in the country last year with 19 made field goals in 24 attempts.

The redshirt sophomore has made 11 of 15 this year, which is slightly below last year's percentage. He's also struggled from beyond 40 yards -- the situations he thrived in last season.

Michigan kicker Quinn Nordin (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Nordin's most recent field goal attempt was the ugliest: a knuckling liner from 36 yards that never came close to the uprights. It was Nordin's third miss in two games.

Harbaugh recruited Nordin because he has one of the strongest legs in the country, and he's demonstrated that throughout his young career. He converted a 50-yard field goal against Nebraska and a 45-yarder against SMU.

But when Michigan finds itself in a close game, likely against Penn State and Ohio State next month, it needs to be able to rely on Nordin to execute the routine kicks.

Maybe the bye week will be an opportunity for the talented Rockford native to work out of his funk.

Penalties

Flags have haunted Michigan all season, and that was the case again in East Lansing.

Michigan gave the Spartans more yards via penalty than they earned on their own, committing nine penalties for 99 yards.

The Wolverines are the 106th-most penalized team in the country, and they surrender the 111th-most penalty yards per game at 73.4.

Jim Harbaugh has been so close to winning championships at Michigan, but hasn't gotten over the hump. (Getty Images)

With a dominant defense that's holding opponents to a stifling 220 yards per game and an offense that needs to stay on schedule and avoid third-and-long situations, Michigan can't afford to keep committing so many penalties.

Harbaugh's team probably won't replicate its one-flag performance against Wisconsin, but it has to improve its current pace.

Kick returns

Ambry Thomas has the skills to be a solid kick returner, but so far, that hasn't really been the case.

Since his electric 99-yard return for a touchdown against Notre Dame, Thomas has returned nine kicks for 150 yards. That's an average of 16.7 yards per return, which would rank 72nd out of 88 qualified returners.

Ambry Thomas #1 of the Michigan Wolverines returns a kickoff for a touchdown in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 1, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

With the new fair catch rule, Michigan is starting inside its own 25-yard line too often after kickoffs. Harbaugh loves to play the field position battle in big games, so there's a big difference between starting at the 25-yard line and starting inside the 20.

Thomas proved he's a home run threat in the kick return game. If he could become more consistent on a kick-by-kick basis, he could be another weapon for the offense before it even takes the field.

Turnover margin

Before the Michigan State game, the offense was taking such good care of the ball that it masked the lack of takeaways by the defense. But a pair of fumbles by Chris Evans and Karan Higdon let the Spartans back in the game.

Michigan's defense has been dominant in almost every facet this year, but it's only forced nine turnovers. Considering the pressure Michigan's defensive line generates and the number of playmakers in the secondary, that number has room to improve.

The Wolverines have only turned it over seven times in eight games, so they aren't beating themselves. That's a major improvement from last season, but forcing a few more turnovers on defense would increase Michigan's margin for error.

Copyright 2018 by WDIV ClickOnDetroit - All rights reserved.