The Wolverine

November 2016

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Page 30 of 83

NOVEMBER 2016 THE WOLVERINE 31 BY CHRIS BALAS " O ne game at a time." "The biggest game on the schedule is the next one." We've heard all the clichés, and there's some truth to the importance of not looking ahead on the sched- ule. Through six games, however, it appeared more and more likely that Michigan and Ohio State are headed for a showdown to rival the epic No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup in 2006, a 42-39 Buckeyes win in Columbus. Halfway through the season, six teams had separated themselves from the pack in the polls, in control of their destiny (in order of AP ranking): Ala- bama, OSU, U-M, Clemson, Washing- ton and Texas A&M. The five other unbeatens — No. 8 Nebraska, No. 9 Baylor, No. 12 West Virginia, No. 14 Boise State and No. 20 Western Michigan — were all considered long shots to remain undefeated and would need signifi- cant help to rise in the polls. P r o F o o t b a l l Focus, a website dedicated to grad- ing every player during every game during the season, ranked the Wolver- ines fourth on its short list of contend- ers at the halfway point. "It's all about the defense in Michi- gan as they boast the nation's deepest defensive line, a playmaking second- ary and an all-everything Heisman candidate in [redshirt sophomore] Ja- brill Peppers," the website wrote. As expected, it all starts up front with the D-line. "Like Alabama, they've laughed at the NCAA average of pressuring the quarterback on 29.5 percent of drop- backs, getting into the backfield 54.0 percent of the time," the website added. "It's [fifth-year senior] defensive end Chris Wormley leading the way with 19 pressures, but Michigan features seven players with at least double-digit pressures as they've spread the wealth along the defensive front. "The pressure has helped the sec- ondary, which is grading well across the board. Their leader is cornerback Jourdan Lewis, who has been targeted 10 times in his three games and sur- rendered only two catches for seven yards." Lewis missed the first three games of the season due to an undisclosed injury, but returned in time for the Big Ten slate, shaking off rust in a 49-10 win over Penn State before dominat- ing a 14-7 victory over Wisconsin. His one-handed interception to seal it was ESPN SportsCenter's No. 2 play of the day, and then he continued to impose his will. Pro Football Focus reported that quarterbacks had notched a 0.0 passer rating on throws his way since the senior returned. He wasn't alone in his defensive backfield dominance, though. Fellow senior cornerback Channing Stribling picked off a pair of passes against the Badgers, as well, and head coach Jim Harbaugh cited him as every bit as valuable. "How about him?" Harbaugh said days after the Wisconsin win. "He was our defensive player of the week. He doesn't get as much of the recognition, but there's been a guy who is in the lineup every single week. He's got to be our leading interceptor over the last year and a half since I've been here; he gets pass break-ups … "He's a long, linear, tall corner, just what they're looking for in the NFL. He's got all the size, speed, attributes and physical measurables anybody would want in a corner. He is blue col- lar, hard working, just goes out there and plays and doesn't get in the lime- light as much as some other players across the country, but people should not sleep on Channing Stribling. This guy has a fine future and will probably play 10 years in the NFL." A TEAM EFFORT Lewis and Stribling would probably be locks to make All-Big Ten teams at the halfway point, and Lewis is on track to earn All-America honors for the second straight year. Fifth-year se- nior Jeremy Clark, too, had been play- ing extremely well before suffering a season-ending knee injury during the win over Penn State, one of the few disappointments in the season's first half for Michigan. "I almost cried on the sideline, re- ally," Lewis said. "He worked his butt off this whole season to have a great year and he was having a great year. We just told him at least it happened in a quarter of the season where he can get redshirted." Harbaugh has indicated U-M would pursue a sixth year for Clark. Redshirt sophomore Brandon Wat- son has been asked to step up in his absence and has played relatively well, per corner- backs coach Mike Z o rd i c h , w h i l e more could be asked of freshmen Lavert Hill and David Long in the near future. The veteran safe- ties and lineback- ers, meanwhile, have been as solid and steady as hoped. Senior safeties Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas have had very good years, solid in run support and coverage minus a few ex- ceptions (including a long ball over Hill's head for a touchdown in a 45-28 win over Colorado), while Ohioans Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray have been everything hoped for and more after proving their wares in spring and fall camps at linebacker. The redshirt junior McCray was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week following the Sept. 3 opener with Hawai'i, while the senior Gedeon was all over the field in a 78-0 win over Rutgers, notching five tackles (two for loss, one sack) and a quarterback hurry in one half of work. He might be the unsung hero of the season's first six games. Peppers, meanwhile, has proven defensive coordinator Don Brown's hunch that a position switch from safety to outside linebacker might be his best fit on defense. RIGHT ON SCHEDULE Michigan Looks The Part Of A Playoff Contender Through Six Games Redshirt sophomore linebacker Jabrill Peppers is beginning to emerge as a seri- ous contender in the Heisman Trophy race, thanks to his contributions in all three fac- ets of the game. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN

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