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Big Ten preview: Michigan Wolverines

Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock (15) completes pass to tight end Jake Butt (88) in the second quarter against Oregon State at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Sept. 12. Michigan won, 35-7. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock (15) completes pass to tight end Jake Butt (88) in the second quarter against Oregon State at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Sept. 12. Michigan won, 35-7. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan

2014 record: 5-7

Head coach: Jim Harbaugh (first year, 3-1)

2015 record so far: 3-1, No. 22 in AP poll

Record vs. OSU since 2005: 1-9

What’s happened so far in 2015: For a team projected to finish around .500, Harbaugh’s Wolverines are exceeding expectations. After dropping the season opener to the Utah Utes 24-17, the Wolverines have won three straight. In the home opener against Oregon State, Michigan, led by a stout, suffocating defense, dominated 35-7. The following two weeks, the Wolverines took care of UNLV, 28-7, then blanked the then-No. 22 Brigham Young Cougars 31-0 — the third-largest shutout victory by an unranked team over a ranked team in 30 years. Now ranked No. 22, the Wolverines have looked strong out of the gate, led by the nation’s sixth-best defense.

Key offensive player: Michigan has weapons, including a pair of savvy wide receivers: seniors Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, and a premier junior tight end, Jake Butt. Its offense, however, is predicated on the running game, which is why junior running back De’Veon Smith — the player that makes the offense go — is the player to watch. Through four games, the Warren, Ohio, native has rushed for 331 yards, including two 100-yard games and four touchdowns. At 5-foot-11 and 228 pounds, the power back is a bulldozer who excels at getting yards after contact. In a crowded backfield with three other backs, Smith is undoubtedly No. 1 and carries the load.

Key defensive player: Michigan’s defense has been stifling thus far, holding teams to an average of 204 total yards and 9.5 points per game. Senior defensive end Chris Wormley is leading the tough unit. Contributing to the run defense, which ranks 10th in the country, Wormley has tallied 14 total tackles, seven tackles for loss and a sack. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound defensive lineman has blossomed so far in 2015 and will continue to fluster opposing offensive lines.

Weaknesses: The passing game, led by redshirt senior quarterback Jake Rudock, is a glaring weakness. Averaging 194 yards through the air, the passing attack ranks No. 96 and is often unreliable. Rudock, who was Iowa’s starting quarterback the past two seasons before transferring to Michigan, has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns and can’t be relied on to consistently move the ball downfield. The Wolverines will rely heavily on their defense to keep games low scoring so they can avoid shootouts in which the game would fall in Rudock’s hands.

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