Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

Rich Rodriguez’s squad played 15 minutes of football on Saturday against Illinois. Unfortunately for Rodriguez and Michigan, games last 60 minutes. Illinois spanked the Wolverines in the Big House 45-20. The loss dropped Michigan to 2-3 on the year, 1-1 in the Big Ten.

The loss wasn’t a shocker. In fact, I had predicted Michigan would start the year 1-4, so they’re ahead of pace. But following the Wolverines’ historic second-half comeback against Wisconsin the previous week, Michigan fans—myself included—were optimistic that this team had turned a corner. Their first quarter performance fueled those feelings even more as quarterback Steven Threet looked sharp, helping lead them to a 14-3 lead.

Illinois scored the final 14 points of the half to lead 17-14 and they never looked back. Michigan’s offense reverted to the team that was shutout for a half versus Wisconsin. That was not entirely surprising. The defense surrendering 45 points and 501 yards? That was not expected, even against a potent Illini offense.

So where do the Wolverines go from here? Well, it starts with a break in the Big Ten schedule as Michigan plays host to Toledo on Saturday. The Wolverines will be favored to win. They’ll have to do so if they want a bowl berth this season.

This is a chance for Michigan to grow as an offense and re-charge on defense. After last year’s Appalachian State experience, the maize and blue no better than to overlook an opponent, but Toledo should signal Hail to the Victors in Ann Arbor.

A win would even their record at 3-3 at the midseason mark. They would then have to go at least 3-3—and maybe 4-2—the rest of the way in the Big Ten to keep their 33-season bowl streak alive.

It’s hardly a given that they’ll make it. Four of the final six will be on the road where the young Wolverines have played just once, losing badly at Notre Dame. Three games are against current unbeatens: Penn State, Michigan State and Northwestern. And the season finale is at Ohio State. Don’t think the Buckeyes wouldn’t love to be the ones ultimately responsible for keeping Michigan at home during bowl season.

Michigan has shown only mild improvement on offense through six games. Steven Threet’s passing accuracy and decision-making is inconsistent. And too often they are losing yardage on first and second down. The defense has bailed them out in their win, but they proved that they’re still vulnerable against mobile quarterbacks.

Rich Rodriguez has his work cut out for him. If he can get this group of players into a bowl game, it’ll be considered a success in my eyes, even if not by Michigan’s usual standards. But if they falter down the stretch and fail to crack .500, watch out. More than anything, this team—especially on offense—needs to show progress through the final six weeks of the season.

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