ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan took a big step toward reaching the Big Ten championship game Saturday, knocking off Michigan State 12-10 and taking control of the Legends Division for at least a week until it faces Nebraska next Saturday.
The Wolverines showed, though, they have a definite shot to reach the Rose Bowl, not because of anything they did offensively but because of their defense, which is emerging as one of the better units in the Big Ten and perhaps the country.
It is the defense where we start this week’s version of 3 Up, 3 Down.
1. Michigan’s defense is close to elite: In the past five games, Michigan has held its opponents an average of 9.8 points per game. The Wolverines have allowed one second-half touchdown in that span as well and even when they allow yards, they have tightened up in the red zone. They have begun to force turnovers when necessary and have a true star in redshirt sophomore Jake Ryan, who had 10 tackles and a sack against Michigan State. Ryan also has a capable cohort in sophomore linebacker Desmond Morgan, who mans the other side of the field from the outside and had 11 tackles against Michigan State. While Michigan is not on the level of Alabama or Notre Dame defensively, the Wolverines are starting to reach the top of the next tier.
2. Drew Dileo is Michigan’s surest-handed receiver: He isn’t the fastest, tallest or most talented wide receiver on the Michigan roster. He isn’t the Wolverines’ top target, either, but Dileo has become a reliable target for Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson and it showed Saturday. He had four catches for 92 yards, including a 20-yard catch on Michigan’s final drive to set up the Wolverines’ game-winning field goal by Brendan Gibbons.
3. Winning: Sounds silly, but Michigan picked up its 900th win in program history Saturday and did so in a way that probably would be tough to top -- beating a rival for the first time since 2007. It also put Michigan in good position to reach the Big Ten title game, as the Wolverines are the only Legends Division team without a loss and control their own destiny with games at Nebraska, Northwestern and Iowa over the next month.
1. Offensive predictability: Michigan never really veered off of its game plan Saturday and the lack of success showed. The Wolverines had their zone reads essentially snuffed out the entire game. Their throwback screen to Vincent Smith, which had been a money play for Michigan throughout the Al Borges tenure, did not work well at all.
2. Michigan’s rushing game: Once again, Michigan struggled to really establish a running presence. Fitzgerald Toussaint had 52 yards, but outside of one 38-yard rush, he averaged 1.6 yards a carry. Robinson was contained for the most part, but found some running room in the second half. Unlike against Illinois, Michigan did not use a rotation of backs but stuck with Toussaint and Smith, and Smith only had one carry all day.
3. Michigan’s receivers other than Dileo: The Wolverines had received strong performances from Devin Funchess, Devin Gardner, Jeremy Gallon and Roy Roundtree at points this season. On Saturday, none of Michigan’s top four receivers caught more than one pass and Gardner was on the field for fewer snaps than normal, often in favor of Jeremy Jackson. Michigan State’s defense is quite good, but the receivers will have to find themselves this week.