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October 18, 2013

Friday Thoughts: Midway musings

Michigan was a hair away from finishing the first half of the season with a 6-0 record - perfect on paper, but it would have been far from it upon closer examination. As it stands, the Wolverines are 5-1 heading into a Big Ten contest with Indiana before facing a murderer's row November schedule.

Here's a look back at the first half of the season and a look ahead at what's in store for the rest of the fall.

Low Point: A 43-40, four-overtime road loss to a depleted Penn State - a team coming off a 44-24 setback at Indiana. Fifth-year senior kicker Brendan Gibbons had three chances to ice it, including a 33-yard, straight on shot in overtime No. 3, but he couldn't convert. The Michigan offense went into a shell in the OT periods and the defense allowed a four-play, 23-second touchdown drive at the end of regulation that contributed to U-M's first loss. Needing a goal line stand to beat woeful Akron is a close second.

Turning Point: Michigan led by 10 with 10 minutes to go at Penn State when junior linebacker Desmond Morgan was flagged for a bogus pass interference penalty on third and long. PSU kicked a field goal, Michigan gave the ball back with 52 seconds remaining on a punt following a delay of game penalty that negated a field goal try, and the Nittany Lions drove the field to tie. They eventually won it in four overtimes.

High Point: Michigan handled Notre Dame in Under the Lights II behind five touchdowns from redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner. Gardner was wearing the No. 98 jersey for the first time and put on a show, leading the Wolverines to their fourth win in five games against the Fighting Irish.

Offensive MVP: Gardner. The redshirt junior has struggled at times, having thrown 10 interceptions in six games, but think about where the offense would be without him. He's Michigan's best running threat, having racked up 439 yards and 5.5 per carry, and he's thrown for 1,276 yards and 11 touchdowns in six games.

Defensive MVP: Redshirt sophomore Blake Countess has given up a few plays in the passing game, but his four interceptions lead the Wolverines. Two of them came in the win over Notre Dame, one a game changer and the other a clincher in the end zone. He'd be the choice in the absence of many worthy candidates, though junior Brennen Beyer has been solid.

Top Storyline: An offensive line that was supposed to be better this year - well, isn't. Former walk-on Graham Glasgow replaced redshirt junior Jack Miller for Big Ten play, and the left guard position remains a revolving door.

All-Big 10 caliber players (in order): 
1. Taylor Lewan, LT 2. Devin Funchess, TE/WR 3. Jeremy Gallon, WR 4. Michael Schofield, RT 5. Blake Countess, DB 6. Jake Ryan, LB

Key injuries: Redshirt junior linebacker Jake Ryan returned from a torn ACL against Penn State and should play more and more. Sophomore wide receiver Amara Darboh is out for the year with a foot injury suffered in preseason, and sophomore DT Ondre Pipkins will miss the rest of the year with a torn ACL.

Stepping Up: Beyer played well in Ryan's absence, notching four tackles for loss and two sacks among his 18 stops. They'll find a place for him even with Ryan back. Junior cornerback Raymon Taylor has played well through six games in elevating his game, nothing three pass break-ups, two picks and 35 tackles.

Top Playmaker: Sophomore tight end/receiver Devin Funchess adds another dimension to the offense when he splits out wide. He and Gallon provide a one-two punch many wouldn't have envisioned before the season. Gardner, though, is U-M's best.

Play of the Year: Junior linebacker Desmond Morgan's leaping, one-handed interception at Connecticut was not only impressive physically, it helped bring the Wolverines back from 21-7 down to complete a comeback and avoid a disastrous loss.

Player to help in second half of season: Ryan, of course, now that he's healthy, but look for more from redshirt freshman DL Chris Wormley, too. Wormley came on against Penn State to notch four tackles, one sack and two tackles for loss.

Unsung Hero: Freshman tight end Jake Butt has only caught seven passes for 67 yards, but he's been U-M's best blocker at tight end and has been a reliable pass catcher when thrown to.

Predicted finish the rest of the season: 3-3. What once seemed like a 10-win team now looks at though it could limp to the finish. The offensive line still isn't set, the Wolverines continue to turn the ball over and the meat of the schedule is still ahead of it. That includes road games at MSU, Iowa and Northwestern, and Nebraska and OSU at home.

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