This is the Michigan team we've been waiting for
We are now four games into the Jim Harbaugh reign, and his Michigan team already has a signature win. The Wolverines shut out a BYU team that was ranked 22nd in the country after its exciting start to the season.
There was an awful lot to like about the Wolverines performance in the 31-0 victory, particularly since this wasn’t an out-of-the-blue performance — although the score line itself was startling – but rather a continuation of Michigan’s evident game-to-game improvement.
Michigan opened the season with a 7-point road loss against Utah, a game that wasn’t really as close as the score line suggests. The Wolverines followed that up by grinding out comfortable home victories against Oregon State and UNLV — and doing the same against a good BYU team validates those performances.
Under the new staff, a Michigan defense that has been good in recent years has become very good. Part of that has been the development of players, such as DT Chris Wormley (+15.6 overall grade through four games), DE Maurice Hurst (11.4), DE Taco Charlton (8.0), DT Ryan Glasgow (7.9), S Jabrill Peppers (6.6) CB Jourdan Lewis (5.8), and LB Desmond Morgan (4.9). The other obvious reason for the defensive improvement is that the offense has been more efficient at moving the ball, giving the defense more time to rest on the sideline between drives.
The offense remains far from perfect, of course, and far too reliant on its running game — but for now that has been enough. The offensive line is playing better than it has in the last two seasons, with three starters grading positively, and the tackles — Mason Cole on the left and Eric Magnuson on the right — allowing just eight pressures and zero sacks so far.
QB Jake Rudock (-15.4) and the receivers have yet to gel, with some questionable passing and miscommunication issues. Rudock has turned the ball over too often, with five interceptions through the first three games. He did have his first turnover-free game against BYU, but he still missed some throws that should be made and threw one pass that should have been picked off by BYU S Michael Wadsworth. He earned a negative grade against the Cougars, as he has in each of the first four games, and he currently ranks as one of the lowest-graded quarterbacks among Power 5 teams.
There is still plenty of reason for excitement in Ann Arbor, but the win over BYU was something of a perfect storm, and a result that looks even better than it likely was. BYU have had an extremely testing start to the season, traveling across the country to take on strong programs and dealing with several key injuries along the way. They won the first two against Nebraska and Boise State with Hail Mary passes, and lost a close one against UCLA last week – those were three physically and emotionally draining games. So it was tough to ask them to cope with an early kickoff in Ann Arbor, and particularly tough to take on a physical Michigan side that has found its feet under Harbaugh. That’s not to take away from Michigan’s performance — the BYU players and coaches did not lean on excuses after the game, instead praising the Wolverines – but it’s important context when evaluating just how good this Michigan team is.
What now for Michigan? That opening day defeat against Utah is not looking too bad right now, given the way Utah performed in its 62-20 road win over Oregon Saturday night. The Big Ten schedule sets up as well as it could for Michigan, with Northwestern, Michigan State and Ohio State all visiting Ann Arbor.
Still, as good as the Wolverines looked against BYU, strong defense and an effective running game can only take you so far. Michigan have taken strides in the right direction under Harbaugh, but the Wolverines will need to get the passing game going to threaten the toughest opponents. Ohio State and Michigan State remain the more accomplished teams, and the likeliest contenders for the Big Ten when all is said and done.