Michigan is certainly better than last year.
How much better?
I guess that depends on how good or bad you thought the Wolverines were in 2014.
Brady Hoke’s last team had a losing record and some obvious flaws, but it was also still fairly young. To a certain extent, this Michigan team is about as much better physically as it should probably be simply thanks to age -- especially on both lines -- while a couple of newcomers have had a big impact, too.
While Jake Rudock is still no world-beater, he’s been more consistent than the much more talented Devin Gardner. It would seem he’s gotten a lot better guidance and help, too.
Having a healthy Jabrill Peppers is also a huge plus in all three phases of the game. Not that a true freshman Peppers would have likely had the same impact he is having this season, but he would have been an upgrade for a team that lacks skill guys.
That lack of skill guys is why Peppers is such a factor on offense and special teams. He helps establish field position, and he is someone a defense has to game plan for. The only other guy on the offense of which that is true is tight end Jake Butt, who is a big, athletic guy who is tough to match up against.
Rudock is in his third year as a college starter, so he knows what he’s looking at and can use that knowledge to get more out of his natural ability than he probably should. He kind or reminds me of Jon Kitna in that he runs hot and cold. He can be very tough to stop when he is seeing the field, playing in rhythm. The offense lends itself to that. He can also make wonky throws and bad decisions at times if things aren’t going in the right direction.
Michigan does not have a field-stretching wide receiver, but Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both reliable possession guys who can get open short and run after the catch.
The running back room is also largely bereft of playmakers, but De’Veon Smith is a pile-mover who can be effective if he doesn’t have to read a block or make anyone miss. He’s physical and runs very hard. Drake Johnson’s chances have been limited, but he’s still the most effective back when healthy as he is shifty and has good vision. Peppers lined up at tailback some last week against Penn State and could probably be an all-conference guy there if he only played that position because he has great change-of-direction, runs hard and is of course pretty fast.
Michigan also has a pair of really good fullbacks in Sione Houma (who also lines up at tailback at times) and Joe Kerridge. They can run, block and catch the ball.
The running game struggles at times because the offensive line is still nothing close to a dominant unit. They can lean on people and wear them down, but it’s not a group that makes much of a positive difference, as was the case last year. That is reflected in the play calling.
So what’s different this season? Well Michigan’s progression on offense is almost the opposite of Ohio State’s. While last year the Buckeyes made a lot of adjustments as the season went on to put guys in position to succeed and have not done that this year, the Wolverines have a much more diverse attack within a similar general philosophy.
Coach Jim Harbaugh’s running game is really diverse in terms of types of plays and blocking schemes. They will utilize misdirection and trap people, run inside and outside. They also supplement the running game with end arounds, reverses and a variety of screen passes. And they have a quarterback who can make basic reads and take what the defense gives him.
It’s a great all-around package that manufactures opportunities for players rather than just putting them in space and telling them to win a one-on-one matchup, which is what Ohio State’s offense has boiled down to this year too often.
Michigan was already pretty good defensively last year and has turned into an elite unit in 2015 thanks in large part to the emergence of three guys: Peppers, Jourdan Lewis and Willie Henry.
The latter two showed some flashes earlier in their career but have really blossomed this year. Lewis isn’t real big, but he is very aggressive and has great man coverage skills. He has a short memory and really battles elite receivers.
Henry is a monster on the defensive line who looked like a good space-eater early in his career but appears slimmer and more explosive, which allows him to play 5-technique or 3-technique. He’s very powerful and quick for his size. Maurice Hurst and Taco Charlton have also flashed while Christ Wormley is having a productive season.
Exactly how much they miss injured nose tackle Ryan Glasgow remains to be seen.
Indiana gashed Michigan repeatedly with its spread-based running game two weeks ago, but Penn State’s pitiful offensive line couldn’t do anything outside of one run last week whether it tried to run from the gun or pro sets.
Michigan still lacks a pure speed rusher but will bring the blitz and has some productive packages when it has a team behind the chains.
At linebacker, Joe Bolden, Demond Morgan and James Ross III are a productive group of veterans who thrive when they can operate cleanly.
Peppers will play corner, safety or nickel back depending on game situation. Pure man to man is definitely not his strength, but he can be a general force against the run and will make plays as a zone defender.
Others have seen time at different spots in the secondary with mixed results. Safety Jarrod Wilson is a standout hitter who is third on the team with 53 tackles while Dymonte Thomas has seven pass breakups in nine games played.
This unit is physical in all three levels and really just plays hard.
It has had some ups and downs late in the season, particularly against Indiana, but overall when it gets on a role can be nearly impenetrable, particularly in the red zone.
Red zone defense it could be argued has made the biggest difference in three of the last four games for Michigan (not counting Rutgers since, well, you know).
Michigan is also pretty strong on special teams with Lewis and Peppers contributing big returns that have given the offense some short fields and made its job easier.
Overall, Harbaugh has refined what the Wolverines do and has them playing with great emotion and confidence compared to the last couple of seasons, when they more often seemed to go through the motions or wait for bad things to happen.
Bottom line: Michigan is winning more in the margins last year after not doing so the last three.