Michigan football: Big Ten’s spoiler

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  • Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh gives instructions to his team during first-half action against Oregon State at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015. Michigan won, 35-7. (Diane Weiss/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

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By Dan Escalona

Ignore any idea that Michigan will simply be a steady work in progress this season. 

After a surprising shutout of then-No. 22 BYU, Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines have announced themselves as perhaps the third-best team in the Big Ten as well as a potential spoiler to Ohio State and Michigan State.

Michigan’s victory over the Cougars on Saturday was the Wolverines’ first win over a ranked opponent in two seasons and clearly shows the positive impact Harbaugh’s philosophy has had upon the team.

In his time at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers, Harbaugh developed a football philosophy that stresses a strong ground game, a stout defense and an efficient quarterback. All three of these aspects were on display for Michigan on Saturday, as well as during the team’s three-game winning streak.

Michigan rushed for 254 yards Saturday, including a 125-yard performance by starting running back De’Veon Smith. It was the third-consecutive game in which the Wolverines ran for over 200 yards.

Quarterback Jake Rudock played his best game so far of the young season throwing for 194 yards and one touchdown. More importantly, it was Rudock’s first game of the season without an interception — a welcome change from a three-interception performance against Utah in the season opener.

Michigan saw key contributions in the receiving game from wide receiver Amara Darboh, who finished with 57 yards and a touchdown catch, as well as the top spot in SportsCenter’s Top 10.

Defensively, the Wolverines were masterful Saturday, limiting the Cougars to only 105 yards of total offense. They didn’t force any turnovers, but the defense made BYU quarterback Tanner Magnum uncomfortable all day.

Michigan is sowing the seeds of a prototypical Harbaugh-coached team; a team with a balanced offensive attack and a defense strong enough to hang around in any game.

A win over a BYU squad, who had recently given playoff contender UCLA all it could handle, as well as a seven-point loss in the opener against Utah, which recently pummeled Oregon on the road by 42 points, means that Michigan could be the spoiler the Big Ten needs. 

The Wolverines could make things interesting for the Buckeyes and the Spartans.

With the Big Ten’s two best teams not playing their best football, it’s looking more promising that Michigan poses a threat to their prospects for an undefeated season.

The Spartans recently were sluggish offensively against Central Michigan as well as only posting a three-point victory over a now overrated Oregon team.

Michigan State’s biggest concern – which makes their in-state rival much more of a threat – is its rash of injuries to three important players: offensive lineman Jack Conklin, tight end Josiah Price and defensive back RJ Williamson.

Ohio State, on the other hand, while its defense looks dominant, has yet to find consistent offensive production. The Buckeyes have certainly shown flashes in the season’s first four games, though their recent performance against Northern Illinois represents a blueprint on how to best neutralize their scoring ability.

Before the freshlyranked Wolverines can solidify their “spoiler” status, the team have a big test coming on Oct. 10 against the other big surprise in the conference: No. 16 Northwestern. 

This will be the best way to prove if Michigan can legitimately challenge the Spartans and the Buckeyes in the Big Ten East.

Now with Michigan surprising many around the country, their trip to East Lansing on Oct. 17 is looming large for playoff implications.

As the first four weeks have proven, Michigan State and Ohio State are not invincible powers in the conference: they won’t inevitably steamroll through the rest of the Big Ten.

Thanks to Harbaugh, attention is finally back on Michigan for on-the-field exploits — and these recent exploits should force those in Columbus and East Lansing to consider the Wolverines an actual threat.

Dan is a senior in Media.
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