Let the race begin

Michigan coach Lloyd Carr is satisfied with the progress his Wolverines have made in many areas. Still, Carr has concerns heading into the Big Ten race. He also has 10 items to keep an eye on in the weeks and months ahead. Scoring in the red zone is on the list.

Heading into the Big Ten portion of the schedule, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said he's learned much about his Wolverines and, yet, there is much more to he wants to know and will look to find out in the weeks and months ahead.

Michigan (3-1) faces Illinois (1-3) on Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

"I feel very confident based on the people we have played that we can run the football effectively enough to not be hampered with third down and long situations like we were a year ago," Carr said Monday at Michigan's football luncheon. "I feel at this point we have improved dramatically up front. We have protected the passer very well, and Braylon Edwards has really developed as a wide receiver. We have done a good job of getting Bennie Joppru the football."

Carr did not stop there.

"Defensively, we still have to find out where we are," he said. "We have been a physical defense that has played very well in spots. Our challenge is to play very well for 60 minutes.

"Special teams have been excellent with the one exception (placekicking). If we can get that straightened around, then we have a chance. If you can play great defense, have a good kicking game and have an offense that has great balance, you can have a good football team."

Following are 10 items Carr will keep an eye on as the Big Ten race unfolds:

1. The schedule. Nowadays, almost more important than who you play is who you miss in any given year. Michigan does not play Indiana and Northwestern. Ohio State does not play Michigan State and Iowa. Penn State does not play Purdue and Minnesota. Clearly, the edge here does not go for the Wolverines.

2. Philip Brabbs. Michigan's special teams won't be truly special unless Brabbs becomes more consistent kicking field goals. Might Adam Finley get the call to replace Brabbs soon?

3. John Navarre. Can the big guy continue to develop as a playmaker in Michigan's system? Note the choice of the word, "playmaker." Navarre is not now, nor ever will be a game-breaker. Can he get the ball over the defensive line? "When you have a three-step drop, the offensive linemen must protect in a way that they keep the defensive lineman's hands down," Carr said after Navarre had several balls batted down against Utah.

4. Scoring in the red zone. Chris Perry fumbled on the goal line, and Brabbs missed two field goals in a narrow win over the Utes. Perry stretched out and was careless with the football. "The thing he has to learn from that is there is a time you try and extend the ball, but on that early of a down, we still had two downs after that if we don't get in to do that," Carr said.

5. Preventing big plays on defense. The Michigan secondary at times has performed like ex-Cubs pitching ace Ferguson Jenkins. The Wolverines have allowed too many home run balls. Carr and his staff continue to tinker with the lineup. Corner Zia Combs played well vs. Utah.

6. The BCS rankings vs. the conference standings. Said Carr: "One thing that hasn't changed in college football is that on New Year's Day there is no greater place to play than the Rose Bowl. If you are playing in the Rose Bowl, regardless if it is for the national championship, you are having one great experience."

7. Contributions from true freshmen. No, strike that. While wide receiver Jason Avant and defensive lineman Gabrielle Watson have played -- albeit sparringly -- Carr said it's unlikely any more true Michigan freshmen will play. Carr also said he does not expect Watson to be reshirted.

8. Ernest Shazor. He continues to make plays on special teams and continues to push for a starting job at safety. He's big and he's fast. He likes to hit. Said Carr: "Ernest has done a tremendous job on special teams, and it is obviously tougher to get on the field at certain positions. Certainly, safety would be one of those positions on our football team because of the depth at the position. I expect Ernest is going to be an outstanding football player here. I like the way he is competing right now, and his attitude is wonderful. When your attitude is positive and you come to practice with a mindset to get better, that is very positive, and that is where he is."

9. Badgers, Hawkeyes and Gophers, oh, my! The three teams head into play this weekend with a combined record of 12-1. Up in Madison, Wis., coach Barry Alvarez has the kind of team he likes, featuring a big, experienced offensive line, a talented tailback and veteran quarterback. And Lee Evans is expected to return on time for Wisconsin's Oct. 5 showdown against Penn State.

10. Charles Rogers, Maurice Clarett and the Nittany Lions' trio of Mike Robinson, Larry Johnson and Zack Mills. These players Carr will fret over, to be sure. These players have distinguished themselves in the early going as game-breakers. Rogers and Clarett are nicked up. In Happy Valley, Joe Pa is smiling -- and winning once again.

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