There isn’t much reason to spend a bunch of time recapping and dissecting Michigan’s 33-7 win over Northwestern on Saturday.
What happened isn’t really all that important. How it happened is the real story.
The Wolverines rushed for 294 yards, threw for 163 yards, and held the Wildcats to 233 yards of total offense. It was the third time this season that Northwestern failed to reach 300 yards of total offense.
The Wildcats have the worst defense in the Big Ten and one of the worst offenses in the conference, and yet the score at the half still only saw Michigan leading 10-7.
The Wolverines are scoring 31 points per game against Power 5 opponents this season. And those opponents currently have a combined record of 16-20. Wisconsin is the only Power 5 team they’ve played with a winning record this season, but Michigan has been having a much tougher time of things than the No. 6 team should be having against a bunch of squads bordering on .500.
These are games where the Wolverines should be able to branch out and extend what they can do on offense, but they are limited by the mindset of their head coach and the arm of their quarterback.
It hasn’t hurt them in the standings yet, but it will.
Right now this is not a Michigan team that is going to beat Ohio State. Not with this offense.
When Michigan Was On Offense
Hassan Haskins rushed 23 times for 110 yards and two touchdowns and Blake Corum carried it 19 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns. Thus ends the superlatives on offense for the Wolverines.
Haskins only averaged 4.8 yards per carry but did have some nice moments, spinning out of tackles and carrying defenders for an extra 10 or 12 yards. Corum again had some tremendous cuts. They both did a great job of making the first defender miss. The only tackle for loss on the day came on a safety blitz that ended in a sack of quarterback Cade McNamara.
Speaking of McNamara, he finished 20-of-27 passing for 129 yards.
Ten of his 20 completions occurred behind the line of scrimmage.
As I’ve done at times over the years, I once again charted how far down the field McNamara was throwing the ball and it wasn’t far at all. He did attempt consecutive 40-yard passes but both fell incomplete. On the day, he was 1-of-6 passing on throws that went at least 10 yards downfield. The one completion flew for a majestic 11 yards before finding its intended receiver.
The combined downfield distance of McNamara’s 20 completions was just 20 yards. That’s right, his completions traveled an average of just 1 yard past the line of scrimmage before being caught. That’s not exactly a dynamic offensive system. And it doesn’t exactly back the secondary off.
Jim Harbaugh is putting an incredible amount of stress on the Michigan running game and isn’t doing much to ease that stress via the passing game. In fact, some of the more effective passes are the jet sweeps, which are just an extension of the running game.
The Wolverines at least attempt to spread defenses out east and west. It’s the north and south part that needs some work.
McNamara did take two deep shots in the first quarter, then threw two more downfield passes in the second quarter. None of the four passes were particularly close.
I have harped on Michigan’s downfield passing game all season long. Sometimes I relent and just leave it alone because McNamara hits a couple of 50/50 balls to quiet me, but it’s just so clear that the passing game is more begrudging than bedazzling.
Freshman quarterback JJ McCarthy continues to get random snaps throughout the game as a runner and was given an opportunity to throw the ball when the game was no longer in doubt.
When Michigan Was On Defense
Northwestern rushed for 100 yards on 23 attempts and passed for 133 yards. It was as ugly as it sounds.
This is not a good Wildcats offense and would never be mistaken as such. Running back Evan Hull did bust a 75-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, but that was an extreme outlier of a play. Northwestern’s 22 other rushes went for just 25 total yards.
Michigan managed just four tackles for loss, which is a bit disappointing. It would be nice to see them creating more havoc. Instead, they sacked NU quarterback Ryan Hilinski just once.
In terms of superlatives, cornerback DJ Turner got the start and picked up a tackle for loss and an incredible bobbling, one-handed interception. He was flagged for a pass interference, which was a very bad call.
I always have to shake my head when offensive coordinators attack Daxton Hill on screens. It’s the football equivalent of the “What are you gonna do, stab me?” meme.
“What are you gonna do, blow up my screen,” says man whose screen was blown up.
Northwestern’s offense had no ability to attack any of Michigan’s weaknesses, which also allowed the Wolverines to play depth and continue to get guys experience. There were some mistakes by the linebackers in this one, but only a couple. Other offenses will put them in more conflicts than the Northwestern offense was able to do.
I realize there’s not a lot of effort or insight being put into this week’s Michigan Monday, but what the hell am I supposed to say. This game wasn’t pointless, but it was close. It was the game that had to be played before Michigan could begin the most important stretch of its season. It was a means to an end.
Besides, if Jim Harbaugh’s not going to go all out for Northwestern, why should I?
The Michigan Special Teams
The Wolverines blocked a punt and turned the recovery into a short touchdown drive. They gave up almost nothing in return yardage, but didn’t do much with their own returns.
Jake Moody missed a 47-yard field goal, but that’s not atypical for college kickers. He’s been very good all year long.
Michigan’s special teams continues to be an advantage for them. They execute well in all phases. It will be interesting to see what they choose to do on kickoffs when they play the Buckeyes. Will they elect to kick to freshman receiver Emeka Egbuka, who is third in the nation with a 35.2-yard average on his nine returns? It’s doubtful.
What Does It All Mean
It means that Michigan is now 7-0 on the season and almost nobody saw that coming. No apologies are necessary, no matter how often I demand an apology from Jim Harbaugh.
You’re 7-0. That’s the best record you can have after seven games. Enjoy it, but don’t bask too long.
Michigan is ranked in the top 10 and they control their own playoff destiny.
This is exactly what every Michigan fan wanted.
Or is it?
Did Michigan fans want an offense that averages under 400 yards of total offense in Big Ten play? Did they want a team that looks like it’s more concerned about winning 10 games than winning THE Game? Does Jim Harbaugh really think this is the way he’s going to get it done? Because right now he looks like he’s more interested in saving his job than saving his legacy.
It also means that there is one train track in the Big Ten and Michigan is on a collision course with the Buckeyes. The Wolverines can choose to pick a different path to that destination, but if they don’t, the wreckage is going to be massive.
The Wolverine offense is limited by its passing game. Could JJ McCarthy make things better? Considering the Wolverines are only going to go so far without doing anything, maybe they can go further by doing something.
With McCarthy at the helm, defenses would have to respect both the QB run and the downfield passing game, neither of which currently concern most Michigan opponents.
Jim Harbaugh has been getting McCarthy involved all season long. If he is simply waiting for McNamara to lose a game before making a change, then he will be handsomely rewarded with that anticipated loss. The better question is whether or not McCarthy would have won the game that Harbaugh is waiting for McNamara to lose.
McNamara’s average completion on Saturday traveled ONE YARD in the air past the line of scrimmage.
Twice this year Michigan has averaged more yards per rushing attempt than pass attempt. And that’s not because they were averaging 9 yards per carry.
The Wolverines right now are winning the surest way. It’s straight ahead. The path is clear.
But eventually obstacles will show up. Offenses that can actually stretch a field are coming. What happens if a shootout is necessary?
Straight ahead isn’t going to continue to work every single week, and if Michigan isn’t able to forge a new path, they will soon fall victim to the old path.
This week against Michigan State will be a good test for Michigan. The Finals, however, are still a month away
The Road To The Game
Sept 4 – Michigan 47 – Western Michigan 14 (1-0)
Sept 11 – Michigan 31 – Washington 10 (2-0)
Sept 18 – Michigan 63 – Northern Illinois 10 (3-0)
Sept 25 – Michigan 20 – Rutgers 13 (4-0, 1-0)
Oct 2 – Michigan 38 – Wisconsin 17 (5-0, 2-0)
Oct 9 – Michigan 32 – Nebraska 29 (6-0, 3-0)
Oct 23 – Michigan 33 – Northwestern 7 (7-0, 3-0)
Oct 30 at Michigan State
Nov 6 vs Indiana
Nov 13 at Penn State
Nov 20 at Maryland
Nov 27 vs Ohio State