Why is Michigan football on upset alert this weekend at Purdue?

Wolverines prepare for first road game of season

Michigan on upset alert against Purdue? Jim Harbaugh's face says it all (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images).

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - At the beginning of the college football season, Michigan was projected to have one of the toughest schedules in the country. The Wolverines played Florida to open the year and still have road matchups against Penn State and Wisconsin in addition to rivalry games with Michigan State and Ohio State.

Those five games are expected to be tough, but a trip to Purdue is not.

My how things have changed.

In just three weeks, Purdue has erased its recent reputation as a Big Ten pushover and become a popular upset pick against Michigan. Let's take a look at how this happened.

Jeff Brohm changed the culture

It's been a decade since Purdue finished a season with eight wins, and in that span, the Boilermakers have had one winning season (7-6 record in 2011) and an overall record of 35-76. Only 13 teams in college football have been worse in that span, and Kansas is the only worse Power Five program.

Purdue Boilermakers head coach Jeff Brohm yells at a player in the first quarter of a game against the Ohio Bobcats at Ross-Ade Stadium on September 8, 2017 in West Lafayette, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

But that hasn't stopped Jeff Brohm, who took over this offseason and has Purdue looking like a much improved team.

Just three games into his Big Ten coaching career, Brohm has brought Purdue its first back-to-back wins for the first time since 2012. The Boilermakers also picked up their largest road victory of the millennium when they went into SEC country and beat Missouri 35-3.

Brohm was a hot coaching prospect after leading Western Kentucky to a 30-10 record over three seasons, including two bowl victories, two division titles and a team that finished the season ranked in the AP Top 25.

Purdue isn't at a level where it can contend for a conference title just yet, but Brohm has his team playing more than competitive football, and Boilermaker teams from the last nine years couldn't even argue that.

David Blough is on fire

Remember the David Blough who completed fewer than 58 percent of his passes and piled up 29 interceptions the last two seasons for Purdue? That player is gone, and the new-look Blough is dangerous.

Purdue QB David Blough (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Through three games, the junior quarterback has completed more than two-thirds of his passes for 597 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. He's been much more efficient, and early indications are that Brohm is putting an emphasis on taking care of the ball.

Blough hasn't faced a defense as strong as Michigan's, but the secondary hasn't been tested in the early going. Florida's passing game is a mess, Cincinnati's offense hasn't woken up this season and Air Force runs the triple-option.

It feels strange to type this, but Purdue is the biggest test Michigan's defense has faced to this point.

In the big road win over Missouri, Blough completed 22 of 28 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for a second score.

Red zone offense

There's no sugarcoating it: Michigan's red zone offense has been absolutely terrible.

Wilton Speight #3 of the Michigan Wolverines drops back to pass during the first quarter of the game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at Michigan Stadium on September 9, 2017 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.(Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

The Wolverines have been in the red zone 10 times this season, and only one of those trips has turned into a touchdown. Michigan's red zone touchdown percentage is by far the worst in the Big Ten, and is among the worst in the country.

Purdue's red zone efficiency has been the polar opposite. In 13 trips to the red zone, the Boilermakers' offense has scored 10 touchdowns and three field goals. As a result, Purdue is averaging more than 35 points per game.

Wilton Speight looked better against Air Force, but once he got inside the 20-yard line, his struggles returned. His offense stalled during all four trips to the red zone, and Michigan settled for Quinn Nordin field goals.

'Unimpressive' victories

Expectations skyrocketed for Michigan after the defense dominated Florida in the season opener, but since that game, the team hasn't been as impressive as some fans expected.

University of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh watches the warm-up prior to the start of the game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at Michigan Stadium on September 9, 2017 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

The Wolverines let Cincinnati get within three points in the third quarter of Week 2 before pulling away, and Air Force also pulled within a field goal in the third quarter of Week 3.

While the spreads were much larger than Michigan's actual margin of victory, the performances were not as bad as they seemed.

Cincinnati only hung around because of a fluky special teams play in the first half. By the end of the game, Michigan had outgained Cincinnati by 214 yards.

Air Force won 10 games last season, and had two weeks to prepare for the game in Ann Arbor. Michigan didn't dominate from wire to wire, but Air Force mustered only 232 total yards and scored its only touchdown on a surprising pass -- the only one the Falcons completed in the game.

Are upset predictions justified?

There's no doubt Purdue is a vastly improved football team under Brohm, and the fan base is excited for the first time in years. It will be a tough atmosphere for a young Michigan team's first road test.

Yes, Purdue is good enough to beat Michigan if the Boilermakers play a perfect game and the Wolverines make mistakes. Think of last year's loss to Iowa: Michigan made mistake after mistake and looked shaky in front of the Kinnick Stadium crowd.

But as good as Brohm has been, Jim Harbaugh is even better. He's loaded Michigan's roster with talent, and Purdue's personnel doesn't match up. If Speight doesn't turn the ball over, Michigan's defense should continue to lead the Wolverines.

At the beginning of the season, this game figured to be a blowout. Now, Michigan will really have to earn a victory to kick off Big Ten play.


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