Wojo: Michigan will get its shot in a battered Big Ten

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan defensive lineman Chase Winovich (15) and a host of other Michigan defenders gang tackle SMU running back Xavier Jones for a loss in the second quarter on Saturday.

Ann Arbor — They did what they had to do, flashy at times, sloppy at times, not really dominant against an outmanned opponent. The Wolverines believe they have more to show, and they probably do, but starting now we’ll need to see it.

Despite penalties and broken plays and a sluggish start, Michigan had more than enough Saturday to beat SMU, 45-20. Wrapping up a 2-1 non-conference, the Wolverines answered a few questions about their offense — yes, Shea Patterson is really good and Donovan Peoples-Jones is getting good — and spawned a few new questions about their defense.

And now, the annual critical question: Are they ready for the big boys?

The good news for Michigan is, the number of potential “big boys” in the Big Ten is plummeting at a shocking rate. Wisconsin was stunned at home by BYU. Nebraska fell at home to Troy, and is 0-2 for the first time since 1957. Northwestern lost again at home, this time to Akron. All the conference’s expected powers have struggled at times, except for Ohio State, and only five of 14 teams are unbeaten — OSU, Penn State, Indiana, Minnesota and Iowa.

Michigan and Michigan State haven’t shown they’re ready to win the conference, but then again, only one team has consistently shown it. And the Buckeyes were tested Saturday night before beating TCU, 40-28. You have to be careful judging too early, in a season or a game, but yikes, the Big Ten already is battered beyond belief.

 As the Wolverines were slopping along in a 7-7 tie late in the first half Saturday, you legitimately wondered whether they’d crank it up against a five-touchdown underdog. They did, scoring on seven straight possessions, as Patterson fired three touchdown passes to Peoples-Jones. Michigan’s aggressive defense gave up too many big plays but made a gigantic one, when safety Josh Metellus intercepted Ben Hicks’ pass and weaved 73 yards for a touchdown precisely as the half ended.

'Not quite there yet'

But the Wolverines didn’t completely control play against the 0-3 Mustangs, and were burned by elusive quarterback William Brown and shifty receiver James Proche, who caught 11 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns. Along with an alarming rash of penalties — Michigan had 13, SMU had six — there were too many mistakes to declare the Wolverines primed and ready.

But as college football’s crazy swings always remind us, perceptions and expectations change almost weekly.

“The penalties were frustrating and we’re going to address it,” said Chase Winovich, again a force all over the field. “But I think we’re ready. I think there were a lot of bigger issues we’ve faced in the past, where this (penalty situation) is something that’s surmountable. If someone says we weren’t dominant enough, maybe you could make a case for that. But I’m sure we’ll be better next week. That’s the great thing about football, you don’t have to have it all together in Week 3.”

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That was pretty much the message from Jim Harbaugh, as Michigan prepares to open Big Ten play at home against Nebraska. After that, there’s a trip to Northwestern, home games against Maryland and Wisconsin, and then a visit to East Lansing, not quite the five-game gauntlet it once appeared.

The Cornhuskers have their own touted homegrown coach, Scott Frost, and he’s off to a turbulent start. Without injured freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez, Nebraska started walk-on Andrew Bunch against Troy, and he threw two interceptions in the 24-19 loss.

But be careful. Martinez could be back against Michigan, and it’s foolhardy to assume the conference’s wobbly teams will wobble all year. Just like it’s foolhardy to suggest the flaws shown by Michigan and Michigan State are any more troublesome than their Big Ten brethren.

“It’s always a process, but I definitely see progress, and there’s more to be had,” Harbaugh said. “We’re getting closer to being good, really good, but we’re still not quite there yet. Can’t wait to attack it. Really looking forward to a great week of preparation.”

Finding a balance

And that’s one thing the Wolverines have to do more often — attack. Actually, their defense sometimes gets in trouble because Don Brown attacks relentlessly, and Michigan’s secondary is forced into dangerous one-on-one situations. But when the pass rush is working, and the blitzers are blitzing, it can be suffocating.

We’re still waiting to see the Wolverines attack on offense. In three games, Patterson has thrown 65 passes, completing 71 percent, but only recently has started going deep. He showed his escapability several times against the Mustangs, and it’s apparent he has the accuracy and acumen to be an exceptional play-maker.

Michigan will need more of it, no matter how lame the Big Ten may or may not be. Leading rusher Karan Higdon didn’t play Saturday with a slight injury, and Chris Evans left with either cramps or a muscle strain. Former walk-on Tru Wilson rushed for 53 yards, and truly looks like a legitimate piece of the offensive puzzle.

The biggest pieces are Patterson, Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and tight ends Zach Gentry and Sean McKeon. Michigan’s offensive line isn’t settled enough to hammer away with the running game, although Harbaugh won’t ever stop trying. In a tedious first half, the Wolverines finally scored in fitting fashion, on a 1-yard, fourth-down smash by fullback Ben Mason, capping a drive that featured nine runs and two passes.

There is risk in unleashing a new quarterback behind an unproven line, sure. But when you have skilled weapons, it’s a bigger risk not to take risks. The Patterson connection with Peoples-Jones is growing, and their 35-yard touchdown came on a perfect play-action, with SMU wary of another run.

Michigan ran 41 times and threw 18 times in the game. Better balance will be required against better teams.

“We got off to a slow start, but after that, we were able to get our playmakers with the ball in space,” said Gentry, who had 95 yards receiving. “We got vertical more. Just throwing it up to our athletes is good, and Donovan’s always been an athletic freak.”

Speaking of risk, Harbaugh kept his first-team offense in until the end, when Wilson scored on a 9-yard run with 1:05 left. The points weren’t necessary, but perhaps the point was. The Wolverines used every last chance to get physically ready, because no matter what we think of the Big Ten, the hits and the stakes are about to ratchet.