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November 23, 2013

Roundtable: Will U-M capitalize on momentum?

Michigan ended its two-game losing streak last week and is now looking to cap its year with a winning streak. Can the Wolverines turn last Saturday's victory into the momentum they need to beat Iowa? Our staff answers that question and more in today's roundtable.

Michigan scored 17 points in three overtimes against Northwestern. Will that success translate into a quick start for the Maize and Blue today?

Chris Balas: No. The momentum was built within the game. We saw what happened between Indiana and Michigan State - the Spartans actually play defense. Iowa is solid, it's going to be cold and the crowd is going to be riled up. Michigan will be fortunate to score 17 or more.

John Borton: I don't think there's any carryover. Different team, different defense, much more difficult setting, etc. Michigan has to start from scratch in building confidence against this opponent, and it won't be easy.

That said, the Hawkeyes' offense isn't anything to write Moline about. If U-M's defense can give the Wolverines some chances to score early, then the good feeling from the week before could begin flooding back.

Andy Reid: I'm not sure if starting slow has necessarily been a problem in recent weeks. Three of Michigan's six total points in a loss at Michigan State came on its first drive of the game. Last week at Northwestern, the Wolverines drove 12 plays and 63 yards for a field goal on their first possession of the game - and then settled for two field goals throughout the rest of regulation.

Will Michigan come out swinging? It seems like it always does.

But now the Wolverines have to translate that to more consistent success for four whole quarters.

Time will tell if the overtime success last week woke something up in the Michigan offense. The Wolverines don't have to play perfectly on that side of the ball, because the defense continues to play better and better as the year goes on.

But a handful of field goals isn't going to cut it, either against the Hawkeyes Saturday or Ohio State next week.

A strong start would be nice. A strong finish would be even better.

Tim Sullivan: A quick start? Probably not, but the Wolverines don't need that as much as they need to develop some sort of consistency moving the ball. That was the revelation last week (and not just in overtime). Moving the ball in fits and starts can work, but it's much preferred to flip field position and dominate the ball with the way this team is constructed.

While Iowa has a better defense than Northwestern, it seemed like a lot of Michigan's success was finding something that worked for themselves, rather than beating up on poor competition. The last time this offense seemed to wake up - against Indiana early in the year - that wasn't the case.

If senior Fitz Toussaint is healthy today, who would you start at running back: Toussaint or one of the freshmen?

Chris Balas: One of the freshmen. They earned the right last week in actually moving the ball on the ground a bit. Don't get me wrong - it's not completely Toussaint's fault for the negative rushing yardage. He hasn't been able to get started. But the freshmen are physical and fall forward on contact.

Michael Spath: Left tackle Taylor Lewan said the reason for the running backs success a week ago had less to do with their individual attributes and more to do with the line finally opening some holes. While there is truth to that, both Derrick Green and DeVeon Smith also deserve plenty of credit for hitting holes, lowering their shoulders and falling forward.

Besides, Toussaint has had a long enough audition and has proven he's not the right guy for the job, rushing for 601 yards this season and just 1,115 yards the past two, at an average of 3.7 yards per carry. The offensive line was to blame then too, but at some point, the back has to absorb some of the criticism, and Toussaint has shown, with the exception of seven career games, he's just not the No. 1 back Michigan needs.

Borton: It's going to be one of the freshmen, probably Derrick Green. And I agree with Lewan that it had more to do with the holes up front than the particular backs in the game.

That said, the holes may have had more to do with Northwestern's defense than any huge strides by the offensive line. Today represents a much tougher test, and both the line and the backs have to prove themselves versus a more rugged front.

Reid: Healthy or not, Toussaint will not be starting Saturday. Michigan coach Brady Hoke said as much during his weekly Friday interview on MGoBlue.com, vowing that "one of the young guys" will get the first snap against the Hawkeyes.

Hoke did not specify whether that "young guy" would be Derrick Green or De'Veon Smith, but my money is on Green, who burst off runs of 23 and 22 yards last week, and the Wolverines had been sorely missing runs that broke into the second level before last weekend.

But Green won't do it all. Smith and Toussaint will certainly take their share of the carries, as well.

Sullivan: It's a freshman - specifically, Derrick Green - and that won't change for the rest of the year. Not all of Toussaint's struggles this season were his own doing, but enough of them were rectified by inserting a more powerful back to run behind that iffy offensive line. Derrick Green is best capable of fixing that, and fellow frosh Deveon Smith is second in line.

Will the offensive line take a step forward for the second straight week or is it destined for a step back?

Balas: Call me a pessimist, but there was plenty the line did wrong against Northwestern. This is a completely different challenge. Guys had better finish blocks better than they did against the Wildcats or we're looking at a long day for the Michigan offense.

This is a game that will be won or lost in the trenches. Expect the defense to hold its own - not so confident about the offense.

Sullivan: There seemed to be a bit of a philosophy shift for the line against Northwestern (one reason that is seems to be repeatable against a better D). Gone are guard pulls left and right, unbalanced formations, and trying to gain the edge. The scheme against the Wildcats focused on inside zone.

That could be the staff finally finding the thing that this offensive line group is good at, albeit a few weeks later than anyone wanted them to. The playbook is less complex, helping a younger group, and they can focus on firing off the ball instead of their assignments and which defensive lineman to target. Against an Iowa defensive front that is good-not-great, that should continue.

Who do you think has been U-M's most improved player this season?

Balas: Redshirt freshman Willie Henry. The big lineman has been a good part of the reason for the linebackers' improvement, too - he's freed them up to make plays by occupying offensive linemen. He's got a great future.

Spath: My money is on senior defensive tackle Jibreel Black. After making the switch to become an interior lineman, Black has been getting better and better. Coordinator Greg Mattison envisioned him one day as a player that was too quick for guards and centers, and strong enough to stand tall against the rush. Today, Black is finally that player, and in a front seven that is improving week to week, he's been a significant catalyst.

Borton: I'm going with Devin Funchess, because of the huge leap he has made in production, along with having to learn two positions each week. That's not to say he's arrived as a blocker, because he hasn't.

But his contributions to the receiving crew have been massive. If not for him, Devin Gardner doesn't enjoy a second consistent big target and Jeremy Gallon finds the going much, much tougher.

Reid: There is something to be said about the offensive line's noticeable step in the right direction last weekend. True freshman left guar Kyle Bosch was making his third-career start. Redshirt freshman right guard Erik Magnuson was making his fourth.

Because of ineffective play and a few injuries, the Wolverines were basically starting over at the guard spots midway through the season. That is certainly not where you want to find yourself as an offensive line - but those young guys fought through it, sometimes with not such great success, and are starting to click.

I think they'll continue to move in the right direction as they get more and more experience.

If Michigan wins today, can it beat Ohio State?

Balas: Michigan can beat Ohio State even if it loses today. It might not be likely, but that's the biggest game on the schedule for the Wolverines, and they'll treat it like the Rose Bowl. The combined Big Ten record of teams OSU has beaten on the road is 0-and-something, and Michigan is tough at home. It will take a great effort, but it's possible.

Spath: With momentum on its side, anything is possible. However, the Buckeyes are one of the best offenses in the country, and it doesn't seem likely that with all of U-M's problems on that side of the ball they will be able to keep pace. I look at OSU much the same way I saw Michigan State -- a vastly superior team this season. That spells trouble for the Maize and Blue.

Reid: Short answer? No. The Wolverines may be feeling really good about themselves with two wins under their belt heading into that game, but the Buckeyes going to be firing on all cylinders, knowing that they have to win big to keep themselves in the national title discussion.

Sullivan: Ohio State is vulnerable, there's no doubt. Despite the eventually lopsided result against Illinois, that game was tight as can be expected through most of the third and fourth quarters. Of course, is this Michigan team the one that can exploit all those weaknesses? I don't think so.

Beating the Hawkeyes is another step in the right direction, but I'll believe this defense can shut down an elite offense well enough to allow the Wolverines' weaker scoring unit to get the win... no time soon, unless it happens on the field.


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