Wojo: Rolling Wolverines ready for the tough stuff

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
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Ann Arbor — Play time is just about over. Pay time beckons.

Michigan running back Karan Higdon, left, and quarterback John O'Korn celebrate Higdon's fourth quarter touchdown run.

The Wolverines spent another afternoon frolicking and flexing, trotting out all sorts of funky formations, many involving Jabrill Peppers. It was a festive homecoming, a tidy 41-8 beating of Illinois, and like most of Michigan’s victories this season, it felt like a perfunctory punishing.

Michigan is 7-0 and ranked third, brutally efficient on both sides of the ball. And yet it’s still largely untested, loaded with promise but without a signature moment. That time is coming, when we find out if the Wolverines can turn payback into paydirt.

Michigan State is next, and while it certainly appears to be a mismatch, Michigan won’t look past a rival that has dominated, winning seven of the past eight, including last year’s muffed punt, 10-second miracle. It’s one thing to crave revenge, quite another to prepare for it, and Jim Harbaugh looks like he has a team taking form and gathering strength.

The Wolverines weren’t talking boldly after the game Saturday, but they know what awaits.

“All I can say is, those last couple of seconds are still boiling,” running back De’Veon Smith said. “We still taste it in our mouth. We’re gonna give Michigan State our all.”

And the battered Spartans will give their all, whatever that is now. It’s hard to imagine Michigan State and an unproven quarterback denting this daunting Michigan defense, but all the standard unpredictable elements of a rivalry still apply.

Speight, crushing defense lead Michigan over Illinois

For the Wolverines, this isn’t just about beating a rival. It’s about staying on track for a long-awaited championship, and finding out how far they’ve come. The schedule has been fruitful but hardly fulfilling, and big margins against weak opponents may have inflated expectations — or confirmed them. What have we learned through six home games, one road game and a bye? That Harbaugh doesn’t let up, adding pieces each week, giving opponents stuff to think about.

In just the first series against the Illini, Wilton Speight took snaps at quarterback, then third-stringer Shane Morris took a snap, then Peppers took a snap. At the end of the drive, Michigan used its train formation, where 10 players line up in a vertical row, then spread out upon Speight’s command. It resulted in a 3-yard touchdown pass to Jake Butt.

It was 21-0 after one quarter, and Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr. didn’t complete a pass until the second half. By the end of this televised scrimmage, the Wolverines almost looked bored, although Harbaugh sure wasn’t. You can send messages without saying anything, as he did by faking a punt with a 34-0 lead in the fourth quarter. It didn’t work but it didn’t matter, just something else for an opponent to consider.

'Execution was outstanding'

With 2:04 left in the game, Harbaugh challenged the spot of the ball that denied Michigan a first down. It wasn’t overturned and he was still exasperated afterward. Beyond that, he couldn’t muster up any complaints, and remained relentlessly positive.

“Our team played really well, the execution was outstanding,” Harbaugh said. “I thought Wilton Speight may have had the best game of his career. When he was throwing the intermediate deep stuff, 30, 35, 40 yards, he was on the money. Impressive.”

Wolverines have revenge over MSU on their minds

Speight was very impressive, with the same caveat we use almost every week — Illinois was very unimpressive. Speight has to keep growing if the Wolverines are to keep going, and the signs are there. He said he spent the bye week watching every snap this season, took notes and made adjustments.

“I can make every throw, in my opinion, but sometimes I was short on passes,” Speight said. “That’s what I wanted to focus on.”

He completed 16 of 23 for 253 yards against Illinois, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He did it behind a shuffled offensive line, as Harbaugh and coordinator Tim Drevno realized they couldn’t hold back freshman Ben Bredeson and started him at left guard, pushing Ben Braden to left tackle — Ben there, done that.

The Wolverines ran for 270 yards with a trio of backs — Smith, Karan Higdon and Ty Issac — and got touchdowns from five players. They keep searching for ways to improve, and Higdon shows terrific feet and cutback ability, and rushed for 106 yards. Peppers was used at linebacker, at quarterback, at running back, as a receiver and as a returner, and touched the ball on offense six times. It’s more each week, although the persistent attempt to get Peppers an offensive touchdown fell short.

Eyes on past power

In case it’s not clear how deeply Harbaugh hungers for a return to nostalgic power, he wore a new pair of old-school glasses, exactly like the ones Woody Hayes used to wear. He called them an ode to Hayes, Michael Douglas (in the movie “Falling Down”) and Malcolm X, and if there’s a connection other than eyewear, good luck figuring it out.

So now comes the stretch that will define the Wolverines’ season, and near as we can tell, they look ready. Since trailing Colorado 21-7 in the first quarter on Sept. 17, Michigan has outscored Colorado, Penn State, Wisconsin, Rutgers and Illinois by a staggering 220-32.

Outslugging Wisconsin 14-7 looks more impressive as the Badgers keep playing well. Rallying to beat Colorado, 45-28, looks more impressive as the Buffaloes contend for the Pac-12 title.

But that’s not how the Wolverines will be judged, and they know it. They face Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State on the road, and Maryland and Indiana at home. And no matter the size of their talent and experience advantage over the Spartans, nothing gets exorcised until they exercise muscle against a rival that has tormented them.

“It’s definitely a game we want badly, we haven’t been able to beat our two biggest rivals,” defensive end Taco Charlton said. “It’s not just because of the way the last game ended, but because of our goals, and Michigan State is standing in the way of them. We’re gonna get their best shot. We’re gonna be ready.”

They’ve been preparing for it all year, for more than a year. They’ve shown a lot so far. Soon, they’ll get their chance to show much more.



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