Michigan appeared to be on top — or at least very near the top — of the college football world after beating Notre Dame last month.
With an impressive 41-30 victory taking them to 2-0, the Wolverines had earned some quick street cred in the young season and established themselves as the favorite to win the Big Ten’s Legends Division.
Two weeks later, after another pair of wins, it would seem nothing has changed. Michigan is 4-0 after nonconference play, essentially right where it wants to be.
Except it’s not.
Although the Wolverines edged Akron (28-24) and Connecticut (24-21) to end the nonleague portion of their schedule, those games hardly felt like victories. The team’s shortcomings were much more noticeable than in the previous two games, with the Wolverines defense getting picked apart and their quarterback being harassed. Michigan has turned the ball over eight times in the past two game, five of those interceptions by the typically steadier Devin Gardner.
After the Akron game, it appeared there was serious questioning even among the players, with tackle Taylor Lewan telling media: “This was embarrassing for the University of Michigan football team. … This is on the leadership of this team, and extremely poor, poor leadership, especially on my side.”
So which team will the Gophers (3-1 overall, 0-1 Big Ten) be facing Saturday when they play at Ann Arbor? The Michigan team from the first two games? Or the team from the second two?
Even coach Brady Hoke seems flummoxed.
“That’s a question I don’t know if you can answer,” Hoke said. “We didn’t expect to have some of the up and down and inconsistencies we’ve had.”
It seems likely that the talent level in Ann Arbor will keep the concerning blip from becoming anything more. Michigan’s offense has shown it’s capable of quickly putting points on the board, and the defense is allowing only 79 rushing yards a game. Whether Gardner’s struggles prove to be more than a fleeting problem remains to be seen. Gophers coach Jerry Kill, for one, isn’t counting him out just yet.
“I think it’s pretty evident — some of his best plays come down from broken plays,” Kill said. “Protection breaks down and he steps up and gets around it. … He’s hard to get ahold of. He made a couple great throws against us a year ago, I mean, right on the money.
“They’ve got a very good football team. You can talk to Big Ten Network or anybody who’s gone through there. … They’ve got as good of athletes as anybody in the country.”
Where the Wolverines have been lacking lately is in execution. Michigan will be coming off a bye week that Hoke said couldn’t have come at a better moment. With time to refresh — and an extra week to contemplate the “embarrassment” — he’s hoping his team comes out with renewed attention to small details. In the meantime, the Wolverines are working on their flaws, still without a loss.
“I would say it is a perfect time,” Hoke said of the bye. “The way we’ve practiced and the intensity that we practice with and the time and the speed that we practice with is pretty good. … Some of the miscues we’ve had, it’s been more of making sure our fundamentals are where they need to be on every snap, and that’s part of being consistent.”
The Gophers, of course, are hoping they can keep Michigan inconsistent for one more week.