Michigan Monday: Wolverines Surpass Expectations In Opener

The 2021 edition of the Michigan Wolverines opened their season on Saturday in front of 109,295 fans and came away with a resounding 47-14 win over Western Michigan. The Broncos are supposed to be one of the favorites in the MAC, so this was a convincing performance by the Maize and Blue. Yes, it is just one game. And yes, season openers have gone well in bad seasons before, but let’s think positive because there’s already enough negativity in the world.

I mean, did you hear Brian Kelly after Notre Dame’s win last night?

This was a good win for the Wolverines and it was exactly what the coaches and fanbase were hoping for, save for the injury to receiver Ronnie Bell who was having a hell of a game before suffering a knee injury.

The offense was balanced and the defense wasn’t a liability. It was a competent performance all around.

It was like when you would pick the house up in a panic before your parents got home and you’d be sitting on the couch waiting for them. Television turned to PBS, reading the letter C edition of the encyclopedia. You were the picture of calm and composure.

At first blush, it sure looked like Jim Harbaugh picked everything up and put it in its place. In the coming weeks, however, we’ll find out if things really are cleaned up, or if he just threw everything into the hall closet and when somebody goes to grab a coat in October everything will spill out and once again his grand plan will turn into a mess.

But for one game — and possibly beyond — the Wolverines not only looked competent, they looked relevant.

When Michigan Was On Offense

The Michigan offense dominated on Saturday, doing pretty much whatever they wanted to do. The Wolverines rushed for 335 yards on 43 attempts (7.8 ypc) and passed for 216 yards on 17 attempts (12.7 ypa). Michigan went over 500 yards of total offense for the first time since the 2018 season. And this was just the second 500-yard performance since the 2016 season.

It was the third time in the past 10 seasons the Wolverines ran for 300 yards and threw for 200 yards in the same game. The other two times were also season openers — Hawaii in 2016 and Appalachian State in 2014. (Ohio State has done it 19 times in that same span, if anybody is keeping score.)

Redshirt sophomore Cade McNamara got the start at quarterback and looked very good. He completed 9-of-11 passes for 136 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was 8-of-10 for 130 yards with two TDs in the first half. McNamara isn’t exactly a new starter, and he didn’t look like it.

Under Harbaugh, even with relatively solid performances, a Michigan quarterback usually reveals future errors to come via odd overthrows or questionable decision making. McNamara didn’t really have any of those moments. He didn’t “get away” with bad throws that should have been intercepted or anything like that. He was solid, under control, and his offensive line gave him time to throw.

The Western Michigan defense wasn’t really a test and shouldn’t have been. The Wolverines did what they were supposed to do. Upcoming defenses will get better, of course, so the tests will get more difficult.

The passing game took a big hit with a season-ending knee injury to receiver Ronnie Bell. Bell was incredible in this game before his injury. He only caught one pass (technically), and it was a 76-yard catch-and-run bomb from McNamara. He also snagged a one-handed sideline pass that was overturned due to an offensive pass interference call.

Bell was then injured on a 31-yard punt return, which further showed his explosive abilities for this team.

Without Bell, the Wolverines are going to have to get more help from outside receivers Cornelius Johnson and Daylen Baldwin. Johnson caught two passes for 15 yards, but Baldwin’s lone catch went for a 69-yard touchdown. That pass came from true freshman JJ McCarthy, who showed off his 5-star arm when he escaped a sack and rolled right, stopped, and zipped a pass downfield to the opposite hash mark, which Baldwin caught at the 36-yard line and then ran it the rest of the way in for the score.

One of the great things about this play is that Baldwin and his defender were basically standing together when McCarthy stopped to unload. He then threw Baldwin open and Baldwin simply ran to the ball. It was impressive for both players, though we may never see that throw be as successful again. (At least not as successful for the offense.)

The running game may have revealed Michigan’s next star on offense. Sophomore running back Blake Corum was really, really good. He’s not the biggest guy, but whatever he is, it was working on Saturday. Corum rushed for 111 yards on 14 carries, scoring once. He had a long rush of 30 yards and was never tackled in the backfield.

Last year Corum was seen as a change-of-pace, quicker guy, but he didn’t really have the strength to be an impact player. This past weekend, however, he showed tremendous vision and agility. He gets going downhill immediately and doesn’t have to slow down in order to avoid defenders. It will be interesting to see how he performs against Power 5 opponents this season, but everything he showed on Saturday was impressive. He was also useful in the passing game.

Starting running back Hassan Haskins went for 70 yards on 13 carries. He’s almost always solid. Haskins broke through some tackles for a 22-yard touchdown following Ronnie Bell’s injury.

Haskins and Corum worked perfectly together in this game. The “Thunder and Lightning” cliche is over used. To me, Haskins is a pugilist. He comes in and he throws some punches. Sometimes it’s just body punches, but over the course of 60-minutes, it all wears on you. Corum, meanwhile, has some ninja to his game. Haskins punches a bit, then comes out of the game. Corum, meanwhile, moves deftly behind the line of scrimmage looking to strike silently. And then out of nowhere a linebacker ends up with a throwing star in his forehead. Corum then throws a smoke bomb on the ground and picks up 17 yards.

The slot receivers were also used in the running game on end arounds. AJ Henning went 74 yards for a touchdown and Roman Wilson went 43 yards to get Michigan into scoring range. The skill players did a nice job blocking downfield on these plays as well. I also like the fake jets and how they slow down defenders. Wisconsin has done this successfully for years.

It was also good to see tight end Erick All have a successful day. He only caught three passes for 23 yards, but catching was half the battle for him last year.

The offensive line played really well. No Michigan ball carriers were ever tackled in the backfield, save for a sack on McCarthy early in the fourth quarter.

When Michigan Was On Defense

Michigan held Western Michigan to just 310 yards of total offense. The Broncos went for 119 yards on the ground and 191 through the air. The run defense could have been better, as WMU’s top two runners combined for 93 yards on 20 carries. I do think overall the defense did a solid job on quarterback Kaleb Eleby, holding him to 20-of-37 passing for 191 yards and a touchdown. Eleby is mobile and he kept plays alive. The Wolverines only sacked him once on the day.

It’s hard to pass too many judgments on Michigan’s new defense after just one game against a MAC opponent. It was interesting to watch, however.

New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald had the Wolverines playing both odd and even fronts. They also had single-high and two-high safety looks, and spent most of the game in a nickel package.

Sophomore Daxton Hill played the nickel and was as fantastic as expected. He can do so many things for this defense, and this spot could be a good one for him. We saw what Ohio State was able to do in 2019 when they had Shaun Wade in a similar slot corner role. He was a lockdown player for the Buckeyes. When they didn’t have anybody of that caliber last year, you saw the differences.

Hill led the team with six tackles. When it comes to defending receiver screens, he ruins the moment like a heckler at a funeral. He fights through blockers and keeps his eye on the ball. Hill is one of the Big Ten’s best defenders and could be the best by the end of the season.

The Wolverines played two other safeties most of the time. Brad Hawkins is back for his third year as a starter. He did well but wasn’t really tested. Same for the other starting safety RJ Moten. We have seen Hawkins have rough moments throughout his career, but he’s unlikely to be tested until maybe Michigan State in late October. We’ll see what Rutgers can do offensively too, I suppose.

By the time Moten and Hawkins play a team that can legitimately throw the ball, they should be even better than they are right now. I just wonder how much nickel we’ll see throughout the season from Michigan. There will be times when they need to go with a heavier set, such as the road trip to Wisconsin in a month.

If they are ever in a non-nickel look for a game and both Moten and Hawkins are solid, I’d move Hill to corner and sit Vincent Gray.

The cornerbacks were better, but there are still some signs of vulnerability there. At least for the offenses that can throw the ball downfield.

The linebackers were fine but untested. Veteran Josh Ross started at one inside spot and he was joined by redshirt freshman Nikhai Hill-Green at the other. They combined for 10 tackles, which is good. Overall, however, it’s too early to have deep thoughts at this position because they really didn’t have much to do. Business will eventually pick up for them, however.

The defensive line had its moments, and those moments usually involved senior Aidan Hutchinson creating havoc. He finished with four tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble. Hutchinson is now a stand-up defensive end and is one of the outside guys in both odd and even fronts. Redshirt freshman David Ojabo plays opposite Hutchinson and he had a couple of nice moments.

Michigan played some depth up front, which is smart. The starters are going to need as much rest as they can get this season as they progress towards November.

I still have significant concerns about the interior of Michigan’s defensive line holding up against a running game like Ohio State’s — especially if they stay in nickel to do it. There was one Wolverine lineup where they had five linemen (including the “outside linebackers” in their 3-4 look) and only had one linebacker in the middle of the field. The old 5-1-5 defense, if you like. I don’t know how much we’ll see that alignment against Ohio State, but probably not as much as the Buckeyes would like.

The Michigan Special Teams

The Michigan special teams may have been the most impressive unit of the afternoon.

Kicker Jake Moody made both of his field goal attempts (37, 20). Punter Brad Robbins put one of his two punts inside the 20-yard line and averaged 43.5 yards per boot. No punt returns were allowed.

Replacing Ronnie Bell at punt returner will also be important.

Blake Corum nearly housed a kickoff return, taking it 79 yards before getting tackled.

For an offense that has had its ups and downs, if the Wolverines can get some firepower from their return game, that will only make things more explosive. It will also cause opponents to try to counter Michigan’s return game, perhaps getting them to do things they aren’t entirely comfortable doing.

The Wolverines also blocked a field goal.

What Does It All Mean?

It means that the entire receiving room is now going to have to step up in Ronnie Bell’s absence. Slot receivers have to be more than just jet sweepers and screen catchers. They need to stretch a defense vertically just as much as they do horizontally.

As a group, they need to mature quickly and provide the leadership on the field that Bell will provide off of it. They are also going to have to provide production. This Michigan offense hit some big plays on Saturday, but they need to remain consistent.

Michigan’s running game will depend on the passing game remaining a balanced part of the offense. If they struggle throwing the ball because of Bell’s absence, Jim Harbaugh will see his running game struggle as well. This is an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing.

It also means that confidence is high, which it should be. It’s just sometimes things need to be a little tempered. Yes, coaches want confident players, but they don’t want arrogant players. That thin Maize and Blue line between confidence and arrogance has been blurred at times over the years, so Jim Harbaugh and his staff will need to make sure the team keeps this one win in perspective.

Of course, given the fact that it’s a win, somebody may need to remind Harbaugh and his coaches to keep things in perspective as well.

The Road To The Game

Sept 4 – Michigan 47 – Western Michigan 14 (1-0)
Sept 11 vs Washington
Sept 18 vs Northern Illinois
Sept 25 vs Rutgers
Oct 2 at Wisconsin
Oct 9 at Nebraska
Oct 23 vs Northwestern
Oct 30 at Michigan State
Nov 6 vs Indiana
Nov 13 at Penn State
Nov 20 at Maryland
Nov 27 vs Ohio State