ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The Michigan football team is entering the part of the schedule in which there's much more to lose than there is to gain.
After dropping the opener at Notre Dame, the Wolverines will have to wait several weeks for another chance to prove themselves. During the rest of the non-conference season, which includes games against Western Michigan and SMU, there's not much Michigan can to do change its national perception.
But there are legitimate issues for Jim Harbaugh's team to work on. If Michigan hopes to compete with Big Ten heavyweights later in the season, here's what we need to see from the team against Western Michigan.
1. Avoid disaster
It almost goes without saying, but Michigan can't afford to lose at home to Western Michigan.
The Wolverines can't afford to take any game for granted, especially since they enter this weekend on a four-game losing streak. Western Michigan isn't as talented as Notre Dame, but it has knocked off Big Ten teams in the past, and even gave Michigan State and USC battles last season.
Now is the time for Michigan to stabilize what has been a tumultuous start to the season. Yes, Harbaugh is taking criticism for losing big games. Yes, the many of the problems that haunted the team last season were still present in the opener. But a loss in the next few weeks would make the critics a lot louder.
WMU gave up 55 points to Syracuse last weekend, so this is an opportunity for Michigan to catch its breath, get into a rhythm offensively and cruise to a comfortable win.
Home games against Cincinnati and Air Force were too close for comfort last season, and it was foreshadowing that Michigan couldn't hang with elite teams. The Wolverines have enough talent to dominate Western Michigan, but they have to actually go out and do it.
2. Block somebody
It's been well documented that Michigan's offensive line was a disaster against Notre Dame. There's no reason to belabor the point any further until it takes the field Saturday.
Last year, Michigan had one of the best defenses in the nation and solid skill players on offense, but a bad offensive line and poor quarterback play derailed the season.
If the offensive line doesn't improve dramatically, Michigan is looking at a similar script in 2018, as the schedule is even tougher.
Starting quarterback Shea Patterson was sacked three times and pressured countless others throughout the opener. Michigan was tackled behind the line of scrimmage seven times, and there was no deep threat due to the lack of protection.
The widest gap between a Power Five team and a Group of Five team should be in the trenches, so if Michigan can't protect Patterson the next two weeks, it will be a rough season for the offense.
3. Establish the run
Since Harbaugh took over at Michigan, he's wanted to instill a run-first mentality on offense. It was a struggle his first three seasons, and this year got off to an awful start in that regard.
Michigan averaged 1.8 yards per carry on 33 attempts against Notre Dame. Even if Patterson's minus-21 yards and Will Hart's minus-11 yards (on a botched field goal snap) were factored out, Michigan's two running backs combined for 73 yards on 23 carries -- an average of 3.2 yards.
Michigan's longest run went for 10 yards. Chris Evans had two carries for one total yard.
There wasn't any explosiveness from a rushing attack that showed flashes of greatness in 2017.
The blame is divided three ways between the offensive line, the running backs and the lack of a passing game. Defenses have to respect the threat of a pass to open up the running game, and if that happens, Evans and Karan Higdon need to capitalize.
Look for big games from both Higdon and Evans against Western Michigan as the Wolverines work to establish an offensive identity -- one that will certainly be reliant on rushing attempts and short passes.
4. Take care of the ball at quarterback
Patterson was solid in his first game at Michigan -- completing 20 of 30 passes for 227 yards -- especially considering the offensive line struggles and the atmosphere.
But the one knock on Patterson during his time at Ole Miss was turnovers. His overall passing numbers were strong, but he threw 12 interceptions in 10 career games with the Rebels.
Patterson turned the ball over twice in his Michigan debut, once on a back pedaling interception and then on a scrambling fumble. Both turnovers were largely due to pressure from Notre Dame's pass rush, but Patterson has to be able to avoid even those mistakes.
His interception came on second down and one yard to go, with the Wolverines driving near midfield. If Patterson threw the ball away, Michigan needed only one yard to have a first down near Notre Dame territory.
Instead, Notre Dame got the ball, picked up one first down and eventually punted Michigan down inside its own 5-yard line.
The fumble came on the last meaningful play of the game, as Patterson lost the ball on a sack at his own 29-yard line. Michigan probably wouldn't have driven the length of the field, but it had the ball on the 45-yard line with a chance to tie the game in the final minute.
Patterson deserves little blame for the outcome in South Bend, but those are the types of mistakes that could cost Michigan in close games against Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State later in the year.
He needs to get into the habit of taking care of the football, and that begins against Western Michigan.
5. Get off the field on third down
One of the only major problems with Michigan's defense against Notre Dame was third-down discipline.
Whether it was big plays or untimely penalties, Michigan let a mostly one-dimensional Notre Dame offense convert seven of 15 third-down chances.
The Wolverines had a chance to set the tone early, as Notre Dame's first two offensive plays went for no gain. On third and 10, Brandon Wimbush completed a 16-yard pass for a first down and four plays later, the Fighting Irish took a lead they would never relinquish.
On the second drive, Notre Dame faced another possible three-and-out: a third and nine from its own 5-yard line. Michigan gave up a 26-yard pass and compounded it with a 15-yard penalty.
Instead of punting from inside their own end zone, the Fighting Irish marched down the field and took a 14-0 lead before Michigan realized the game had started.
During Notre Dame's third touchdown drive, the Wolverines had four chances to get off the field. The Irish converted a third and two with a Wimbush run and a third and three due to a defensive holding penalty. Notre Dame turned a third and seven into a first down with runs of six yards and two yards by Wimbush.
On third and goal from the 8-yard line, an incomplete pass was wiped out by a roughing the passer penalty. Notre Dame scored what eventually became the winning touchdown on the following play.
Notre Dame's final score was a 48-yard field goal courtesy of a third and 18 the Irish converted early in the drive. In a common quarterback draw situation, the Wolverines allowed Wimbush to scamper for 22 yards and a back-breaking first down.
Michigan allowed Notre Dame extend drives, flip field position and get into the end zone because of struggles on third down. That has to change if Don Brown wants to field another elite defense.
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