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Q&A: What to expect from Michigan’s offense vs. Wisconsin

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Part one of a two-part Q&A session with SB Nation’s Michigan site.

University of Michigan v University of Central Florida Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

Another top 10 matchup awaits the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday.

The No. 4 Michigan Wolverines have been impressive through the first third of the season, displaying a balanced offense with bona fide receiving threats in the passing game.

To talk about the beginning of their season and some of those talented offensive weapons, we welcomed Drew Hallett from Maize n Brew to break down the game.

A BIG top-10 matchup in Ann Arbor this weekend with a pair of undefeated teams. What’s driven the Wolverines to a 4-0 record early on?

Led by talented upperclassmen on both sides of the ball, Michigan has been very balanced thus far this season. On offense, the Wolverines have averaged 52 points per game (fourth in the country), though some of that must be attributed to four non-offensive touchdowns. The other stats recognize that by ranking Michigan 23rd in Offensive S&P+ and 38th in yards per play (6.32). Nonetheless, the reason why the Wolverines score so many points is because they do not waste opportunities. They extend drives often in third-down situations (seventh in third-down percentage), and once they are in the enemy’s territory, they pounce and score touchdowns (sixth in points per trip in 40). In fact, for that reason, the only team that has scored more touchdowns than Michigan is Lamar Jackson’s Louisville. And Michigan is capable of doing it on the ground (20th in YPC) and through the air (41st in QB rating), which can make them difficult to stop.

Defensively, Michigan is even better. The Wolverines had one of the nation’s best defenses last season and returned almost everyone to the defensive line and secondary —their two strongest defensive units. Accordingly, the expectation was that Michigan would be just as dominant defensively as it was last season and that the defense would carry this team. For the most part, that has been the case. The Wolverines are 13th in scoring defense (13.8 PPG) and second in Defensive S&P+. That excellence shines through on a down-to-down basis (second in S&P+ defensive efficiency) because they are very disruptive with tackles for losses, forced fumbles and passes defensed (first in S&P+ Havoc rate), so opponents have not been able to string together methodical touchdown drives. Where Michigan has been vulnerable is to giving up the big play, that really happened only against up-tempo spread offenses, which seem to be Michigan’s defensive kryptonite. However, because Michigan has been able to put up so many points, opponents haven’t had enough big plays to keep pace.

It must be noted that Michigan also is 4-0 because it has benefited from a soft opening slate. The Wolverines’ first four games all were at home, just like this one, and there has not been much competition. Hawaii is one of the worst FBS teams, UCF was winless last season and Penn State looks like a complete mess, especially with injuries decimating its linebacker corps. But Michigan took care of business in each of those by building a three or four-score lead in the first 20 minutes. The only opponent that has given Michigan some trouble was Colorado, who had a 14-0 lead in the first few minutes and 21-7 lead after the first quarter. Michigan would bounce back and proceed to win 45-28, but Michigan fans were concerned what that meant for the future because the Buffaloes had been a doormat for a decade. However, after Colorado knocked off Oregon in Eugene with its backup quarterback, Michigan fans have eased up, realizing that the win over the Buffaloes could be great down the road.

Over 52 points per game, ranked in the top 10 in the nation in five different categories and a balanced approached with 229.8 yards per game on the ground, with 238 yards through the air. What is making this Michigan offense so potent, and who are the playmakers?

I touched on it in my previous answer, but Michigan has been potent because it is balanced, moves the chains on critical downs and converts scoring chances. To add to that, Michigan’s offense does not make many major mistakes (only two giveaways) and Jim Harbaugh does an excellent job adjusting to a defense’s schemes and taking what the defense gives him. There is no better example of that than when Michigan faced UCF. The Knights’ plan was to load the box and bring pressure against Michigan, daring Wilton Speight to beat them over the top. So Harbaugh dialed up the play-action passes and Speight made them count, completing 25 of 37 passes (67.6 percent) for 312 yards (8.4 YPA), four touchdowns and no interceptions. Also, the offense may be stocked with tight ends and fullbacks, but that does not mean the playcalling isn’t sexy. Harbaugh has a bright offensive mind and pulls out new wrinkles each week that change run fits, gaps and blocking and make it tough on defenses.

Hawaii v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

There are four offensive playmakers I will mention because, for various reasons, it;s hard to narrow it down to one or two. One is running back DeVeon Smith, who has 39 carries for 259 yards (6.6 YPC) and two touchdowns. Smith is a bruiser of a back who punishes tacklers and racks up yards after contact. However, he lacks top-end speed and is a one-cut-and-go runner that doesn’t always identify the open gap. Also, he is the leader of a running back committee that Michigan will deploy—Ty Isaac, Chris Evans and Karan Higdon may get snaps as well—one reason he doesn’t get as much of the spotlight as Michigan’s trio of receivers.

Wideout Amara Darboh is Michigan’s leading receiver with 17 catches for 248 yards (14.6 YPC) and four touchdowns. Darboh isn’t a speedster, but he has the strength and frame to box out defenders on short routes underneath and fight through tackles for yards after the catch. Darboh also is targeted often on screens. The aptly-named tight end, Jake Butt, is one of the best in the country at his position. He has 20 receptions for 246 yards (12.3 YPC) and three touchdowns. What makes him so special is his ability to run precise routes that create separation from linebackers and safeties and ability to high-point passes in what Michigan fans dub “The Butt Zone.” He also has extremely reliable hands, which have made him one of Speight’s favorite targets, especially as Butt runs slants, drags and posts across the middle.

The last one is wideout Jehu Chesson, who had a phenomenal close to the end of 2015 but has been quiet this season. Through four games, he has only eight catches for 145 yards and no scores. Nonetheless, he is the deep-threat receiver that can blow the top off of defenses. Michigan also likes to use him on jet sweeps and get his speed past the edge to the outside.

Wilton Speight has completed over 63 percent of his passes and has a nice touchdown-to-interception ratio of 9:1. How has he developed under Jim Harbaugh?

Wilton Speight has developed tremendously under Jim Harbaugh if you consider where he started. In the spring of 2015, HBO caught footage of Harbaugh telling Speight to “go f*cking somewhere else,” and it was thought that Speight was out of the picture. Despite the common assumption that Houston transfer John O’Korn would be Jake Rudock’s successor, there were reports this past spring and then the fall that Speight had been the better quarterback. The thought process was that Speight had a better grasp of the offense and was a game manager, while O’Korn had the higher upside. However, because it was known Michigan would have a dominant defense, Michigan needed only a game manager.

This season, Speight has been a game manager with flashes of showing something more. Those flashes came in the UCF game, when he was asked to throw over the top of UCF’s stacked defense for big chunks and delivered. However, in the first quarter of the following week against Colorado, Speight was rocked on a nickel blitz by Chidobe Awuzie and took a shot to his right arm and shoulder. Speight returned on the ensuing series, but he seemed rattled and his accuracy started to waver. Then, this past weekend against Penn State, almost all of his completions were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and most of his deeper passes were underthrown. Given how fierce Wisconsin’s defense is, Speight must be sharp again.

Check back Friday for part two of our Q&A with Drew Hallett from Maize n Brew.