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Michigan vs Michigan State: The Wolverine Defense Takes Center Stage

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As Michigan settles into its conference season, its identity has become clear.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan completed its non-conference season with a perfect 3-0 record, following-up a decisive, season-opening victory over two-time defending SEC East champion Florida with a pair of double-digit victories. Despite replacing ten starters, the Wolverines defense continued its dominant play of a year ago, allowing just three touchdowns through three games. So with the conference opener against Purdue on the horizon, Michigan fans were naturally ... beside themselves. John U. Bacon has often joked that Michigan fans aren't truly happy unless they're unhappy, but is this another case of Michigan fans having unreasonably high expectations? Or is the angst is justified? In this case, it's probably a little of both.

Despite its unblemished record, Michigan struggled through its non-conference schedule, particularly on offense. The Wolverines had trouble making big plays in big moments, as evidenced by their woeful performance in the red zone, where they reached the end zone just twice in ten trips. Bearing the brunt of the criticism was quarterback Wilton Speight. After breezing through the first nine games of last season, Speight hadn't emerged from his late season, injury-induced funk of a year ago. And as Speight has gone, so has the Michigan offense.

Whether the result of Speight's passing accuracy (or lack thereof), growing pains associated with an almost entirely new receiving corps or conservative play-calling, Michigan's offense was sputtering. So much so that in a turn that few could have been foreseen just a month earlier, the conference opener in West Lafayette against a suddenly resurgent Purdue team looked to serve as somewhat of a litmus test for the young Wolverines. Was Michigan the team that dominated Florida? Or was it the team that had difficulty putting away Cincinnati and Air Force? Michigan's first true road game of the season looked to at least partially answer that question.

If the Purdue game was indeed a test for the Wolverines, the early results were not promising. Dressed in all-black and playing in front of a raucous homecoming crowd, the Boilermakers went toe-to-toe with the Wolverines early. In a game that looked destined to go down to the wire, the teams traded defensive stops and punts, with Purdue taking a 10-7 lead to the locker room. With Speight sidelined with an injury, things began to look worrisome for the Wolverines. We all know what happened next, however. Michigan's defense held the Boilermakers to a scant ten yards over the final two quarters (yes, you read that correctly) and led by back-up quarterback John O'Korn, Michigan ultimately found its groove and pulled away with a 28-10 victory.

The story of the day was O'Korn, who passed for 270 yards in relief of Speight and led the Wolverines on four touchdown drives, including going a perfect three-for-three from the red zone. O'Korn provided a spark largely missing from the Michigan offense up to that point. Much was made of his ability to connect with open receivers, or tight ends, as was often the case that day, but equally important was O'Korn's nimbleness in the pocket. This was never more apparent than late in the third quarter, when O'Korn escaped what looked to be a certain sack by Ja'Whaun Bentley, evaded a second pass rusher and ultimately found Grant Perry for a first down completion. While that was a highlight reel-worthy play, there were several other instances in which O’Korn kept plays alive with his feet. And it was O’Korn’s ability to keep plays alive, as much as his accuracy, that keyed the Wolverines' second-half revival against Purdue.

O'Korn's performance didn't erase all of Michigan's blemishes, however. And those blemishes start up front. Michigan surrendered four sacks to a Purdue team that had mustered just one sack through three games. Speight didn't have much success before being injured, but he didn't have a lot of time with which to work, either. Michigan's offensive line didn't fare much better in the running game, as the Wolverines ended the day with 174 rushing yards (adjusted for sacks), a total that was buoyed by a late 49-yard scamper by Chris Evans. Four games into the season, the offensive line continues to be a work in progress for the Wolverines.

But if the Purdue game exposed flaws on one side of the ball, it also reinforced strengths on the other side. Despite its youth and inexperience, Michigan's defense is special. And much like last season, when the Wolverines finished in the top five in the nation in total defense, it starts up front. While not as deep as last year's unit, which went two-deep with NFL talent, this year's defensive line might be as dominant. Maurice Hurst and Rashan Gary are living up to their preseason billing and are impactful even without recording gaudy stats, and Chase Winovich is playing at an all-conference level, currently fifth in the nation with five sacks through four games.

But while the defensive front might be the driving force behind Michigan's defense, if there is a face to the defense, it's sophomore linebacker Devin Bush. Listed at 5'11' and 220 pounds, Bush sometimes looks like an undersized safety. He doesn't hit like one, though. Playing sparingly last year as a true freshman, Bush distinguished himself mainly for his ferocious hits. Coming into this season, the speedy Bush was seen as a key to Don Brown's attacking defense. Through four games, he hasn't disappointed. A whirling dervish of a player who is always around the ball and seems to ne involved in every play, Bush has excelled in Brown's scheme. In fact, with apologies to Hurst and Gary, two NFL-ready linemen who are helping give Bush the freedom he needs, you could make the case that Bush has been Michigan's most important player this season.

So if the Purdue game told us anything about this year's Michigan team, it told us what we should have already known. That with so many inexperienced players at so many key positions, the offense will struggle. Whether it's O'Korn or Speight under center, the offense will likely continue to perform in fits and starts. Michigan's defense, on the other hand, is no work in progress. It's a dominant unit that should keep Michigan in games all year, allowing the offense time to come together. And with games against Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State looming in a back-loaded schedule, Michigan fans will be looking for signs of that "coming together" this weekend against the Spartans.