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ANN ARBOR — The overriding question for the Michigan football team could be, “Where do we go from here?”
The operative question of “How do we get there from here?” might be better, though, given that third-year coach Brady Hoke has stressed the importance of winning a Big Ten championship in his short time at UM.
Despite having only one loss this season, at times this season it’s seemed as if that goal is well out of reach for the No. 23 Wolverines (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten).
Those moments have uncovered some of the Wolverines’ flaws: the inability to cultivate a consistent running game outside of quarterback Devin Gardner, the constant shuffling of its offensive line, and three games in which UM appeared unable to close out what were considered sure wins: a 28-24 win over Akron, a 24-21 win at Connecticut, and a 63-47 win over Indiana, in a game that was Michigan’s highest offensive output of the season.
There's a strange intrigue to this team. Mostly because they've kept the bottom from falling out.
UM prepares to take on the meat of its Big Ten and season schedule, beginning with an in-state rivalry game Saturday at Michigan State, which opened the week as the Big Ten and the nation’s leader in team defense.
The Wolverines enter the weekend third in the Big Ten’s Legends Division standings, behind Michigan State and Nebraska, two of their final five opponents of the season. Furthermore, three of Michigan’s final five games will be played outside of Ann Arbor — Saturday at Michigan State, Nov. 16 at Northwestern, and Nov. 23 at Iowa. The Wolverines are 6-8 on the road in Hoke’s three seasons, and Michigan’s only loss this season came at Penn State.
“We’ve gotten opportunities to make some plays in the last two football games and either it’s a tackle in the hole or playing the ball, or breaking up the pass and intercepting the ball, and that’s what we haven’t been doing,” Hoke said. “It concerns you a little bit. You evaluate where you’re at as a program like you do weekly, but with the bye, you get a chance to do that a little more.”
With Gardner at quarterback, there’s no question he has chemistry with Jeremy Gallon, as evidenced by Gallon’s 831 receiving yards. But Gardner’s decision-making has been questioned, as evidenced by his bevy of turnovers, including 10 interceptions.
Linebacker Jake Ryan has returned to a defense that is sixth in the conference defensively, having given up 99.9 yards a game rushing (fourth in the Big Ten) but an uncharacteristic 255.4 yards passing (10th in the Big Ten).
Following the win over Indiana, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison didn’t mince words.
“I’m not happy with the amount of points given up and the big plays,” said Mattison, whose defense gave up a season-high 572 yards. “That’s not us.
“Your job as a defensive coordinator is to get guys in the right position and make plays.”
While Fitzgerald Toussaint is the clear No. 1 running back, both he and the run game have been inconsistent, despite the grooming of true freshman Derrick Green. It’s likely a byproduct of an offensive line that has been overhauled twice this season. Toussaint leads the team with 575 yards rushing, ahead of Gardner (520), but the Wolverines can’t rely solely on their quarterback to create ground yardage.
“There are things we've got to clean up,” Hoke said. “But I thought the group as a whole was efficient. We had some movement. We've got to be more physical at the point of attack. There's things like that we've got to get better at.”
Above all, creating consistency will be paramount in the final month of the season — a stretch that Hoke considers his team’s most grueling.
“It’s going to be a physical stretch for us as a team,” Hoke said. “I think our preparation from a mental standpoint, because of three games being on road, how we prepare and how we focus is going to be an important part of it.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.