Heading into the season, I wrote that with all the uncertainty surrounding its offense, for Michigan to have a successful season its defense would have to play well and would have to keep the Wolverines in games while its offense found its footing. Fortunately for the Wolverines, that's exactly what happened. More so actually, because as the season progressed, the defense did more than just keep the Wolverines in games, it often looked dominant. Through six games the Wolverines were holding opponents to less than a touchdown a game and recorded the program's first back-to-back-to-back shutouts in 35 years.
Not unexpectedly, the offense, despite the occasional gaudy point total, struggled at times. This was particularly true of quarterback Jake Rudock, who threw five interceptions in his first three games and repeatedly missed receivers. The turnovers hurt, but the missed opportunities proved even more damaging, as with little threat of a downfield passing attack, opponents were able to load up against the run with little risk of getting beat over the top.
Despite the Wolverines' good start, Michigan's Achilles heel was that Rudock seemed incapable of completing downfield passes. It was an issue that first surfaced in the season opener against Utah, a game in which had Rudock connected with any number of open receivers, the tide might have swung in the Wolverines' favor, and continued though the Michigan State game, when a fourth quarter connection to a painfully open Jehu Chesson might have rendered the game's final punt moot. Through the first half of the season, Rudock was best defined as a game manager who was having difficulty managing games.
Rudock's leadership was never questioned. Nor was his grasp on the starting job. Despite the missteps and the lack of a downfield passing game, there was never any doubt that Rudock was Michigan's best option at quarterback. Jim Harbaugh said as much on multiple occasions, and anyone who'd seen any of Michigan's other quarterbacks play should have also known that accuracy issues or not, Rudock was the best choice to lead the Wolverines. And anyone who'd been in Rudock's presence could feel his ... presence. It was no wonder that teammates, particularly receivers, spoke so glowingly of the leadership he provided. In fact, interceptions and misses aside, with apologies to Jourdan Lewis, Jake Butt and Jabril Peppers, Rudock has been the team's most important player this season. A downfield passing attack, it seemed, just wasn't in the cards this year.
But then a funny thing happened. Michigan's defense, which began the season so stout, started getting gashed. In the past month, the Wolverines gave up 461 yards to Minnesota and 527 - including 307 on the ground - to Indiana. Michigan's running game also struggled, averaging just over 100 yards over the past five games, and began to resemble running games of past seasons. Regardless of who was getting the carries, De'Veon Smith, Drake Johnson or Karan Higdon, the offensive line seemed incapable of generating a consistent running attack.
And in this storm, when Michigan's season seemed on the brink of circling the drain, Rudock found his groove. Instead of checkdowns, safe passes and underthrows, Rudock began to find a downfield passing game. Whether it was the result of opposing defenses focusing more on the Wolverines' running game, an increasing familiarity with his receivers or the cumulative effect of having Harbaugh in his ear all season, with help from Butt, Amara Darboh and Chesson, Rudock was becoming the driving force behind Michigan's offense.
So much so, that in Michigan's double-overtime win over Indiana, with Michigan's defense offering little resistance to Indiana and running back Jordan Howard, after Michigan took a one-point lead with 6:30 remaining to play, it was pretty clear that Michigan's best chance for victory that day was to let the Hoosiers score as quickly as possible, and give Rudock as much time as possible to respond. The defense cooperated, and facing a seven-point deficit with less than three minutes to play, Rudock produced perhaps his signature drive of the season, leading the Wolverines on an eight play, 66-yard drive culminating in a game-tying touchdown pass on the game's final play. Suddenly, Michigan seemed better off with its fate in the hands of Rudock than in the hands of a defense that just a few games earlier was ranked among the nation's best.
Rudock's transformation as a downfield passing threat has been as dramatic as it has been swift. Not long after some fans comically questioned his eyesight and depth perception, Rudock was suddenly piling up all-conference accolades. While those honors will surely go to the likes of Michigan State's Connor Cook, Iowa's CJ Bethard or Indiana's Nate Sudfeld, just to be in the discussion speaks to Rudock's sudden improvement. And now, after being credited as the first Michigan quarterback to pass for 250 yards in three consecutive games (a stat that seems like it can't be correct), Rudock has not only added an element to Michigan's offense, but the biggest question heading into the Ohio State game might not be "Can the Wolverine defense keep Michigan in the game?" but "Will Rudock be able to do enough to keep Michigan in the game?"
That will be a tall order against a certain-to-be-angry Buckeye team looking to prove that last week's offensive malaise had more to do with the weather and Michigan State's defense than it did with play-calling or complacency. And without a proven running attack, it will be tough-sledding for Rudock. So whether Rudock will be able to do enough to keep up with the Buckeyes is uncertain, one thing is clear, at this point he stands not only as Michigan's most important player, but also its key to victory. And who would have thought that a month ago?