After a season-opening loss to Notre Dame in week one, Michigan football bounced back this past Saturday with a 49-3 win over in-state foe Western Michigan.
In just 53 plays on offense, the Wolverines produced 451 yards of total offense (8.5 yards per play). It was an efficient afternoon that needed to happen against a vastly inferior opponent.
Defensively, Western Michigan managed just 208 yards of total offense in their 74 plays.
This game was never in doubt and this was expected to be a bounce-back game for the Wolverines. They did what they were supposed to do and they looked good doing it. The game was so out of hand that there was no point in watching the fourth quarter.
They’ll do the same thing this week against SMU, but then after that, Big Ten play gets underway and we’ll find out how much of a fluke the loss to Notre Dame actually was.
And maybe it wasn’t a fluke, maybe Michigan will just get better over the course of the season. That’s how things are supposed to go, after all.
As noted Michigan killer Jim Tressel used to say, “September is for pretenders and November is for contenders.”
October is for survival, but it doesn’t really rhyme so nobody has a saying about it.
If the Wolverines get through September and October unscathed, that loss to Notre Dame will barely exist.
This is assuming Michigan doesn’t regress once again when the talent level of the team they are playing resembles their own, of course.
When Michigan Was On Offense
I don’t think Michigan’s offense is fixed, but if it was, it would look a lot like this.
The Wolverines rushed for 308 yards on 35 attempts (8.8 ypc). They were led by Karan Higdon (13-156-1) and Chris Evans (10-86-2) over the first three quarters.
There were some discussions last week about the meshing of quarterback Shea Patterson’s skill set in the spread offense with Jim Harbaugh’s desire to stay in the “clump” offense. I think Patterson’s good enough to play in any kind of offense, but things will expand as Michigan’s offensive coaches slowly convince themselves that there are 53 yards to their right and left, and generally even more than that in front of them.
I did find the rushing yards over the first three quarters very interesting. Michigan gained 260 yards on the ground over the first three quarters and 181 of those yards came out of the shotgun. They rushed for 181 yards on 13 carries (13.9 avg) from the shotgun and 79 yards on 12 attempts (6.6 avg) from under center.
The 6.6 yards per carry from under center is great, but you have to realize that 61 of those yards came on two carries, which means they averaged just 1.8 yards per carry on the other 10 attempts.
From the shotgun, there were big hits of 67, 19, 27, 27, and 16 yards. There was only one negative rush from the shotgun (not counting sacks). Four of the 13 attempts gained less than three yards, as opposed to seven of the 12 attempts from under center gaining less than three yards.
Why the disparity? Perhaps it comes down to predictability and a defense that isn’t packed near the line of scrimmage expecting the run.
The Michigan offensive game plan has to do something to help their players out and this week the shotgun did that. Even Patterson had a nice 16-yard run on the read keeper. I should go back and chart this same thing against Notre Dame to see if there was a disparity there as well, or if this was just a Western Michigan deficiency.
In terms of the passing game, after watching some of the throws that Patterson made on Saturday, it seems wasteful to only let him throw the ball 17 times against Western Michigan. He made some incredible throws on the run in this game, which only makes me think even more that spreading the field would be a welcome step for the skill players on this offense.
(I don’t know how the offensive line would feel about it, though.)
Patterson completed 12-of-17 passes for 125 yards and three touchdowns. Most importantly, however, he was only sacked once.
More good news — for the first time in 364 days, a Michigan wide receiver caught a touchdown pass. In fact, three of them got in on the act. The first came on a 44-yard dime to Nico Collins, then came a 5-yarder to Donovan Peoples-Jones, then in the fourth quarter, backup Dylan McCaffrey found walk-on Jacob McCurry (from Solon) from 18 yards out. Or maybe it was a screen and McCurry ran it in. As I said, I didn’t watch the fourth quarter.
Collins had just the one catch on the day, which also seems pretty wasteful. Two of Collins’ four catches this season have gone for over 40 yards. If you have an offense that has difficulty moving the ball down the field, maybe involve the guy who leads the Big Ten in receptions of 40 yards or more.
After catching six passes for 38 yards against Notre Dame, Peoples-Jones went 4-31 against Western Michigan. DPJ is eighth in the Big Ten in receptions, but 32nd in receiving yards. Only one Ohio State receiver has more catches than Peoples-Jones, but five of them have more yards.
With 10 catches for 69 yards this season, either he is being used somewhat improperly or he can’t create yards after the catch. I will forever find it difficult to believe it is the latter. There are receivers who have trouble tracking the ball downfield. Perhaps that describes DPJ as well. Defenses still need to respect him because of his speed and athleticism, but I bet they are all happy with how he is being used right now.
Not unexpectedly, kickoff returner/little-used cornerback Ambry Thomas took a jet sweep pass for five yards. If there isn’t room for him on defense right now, he has the skill set to at least concern a defense in packages down the road as he gets more comfortable.
Last week, the Michigan offensive tackles were not good. Left tackle Jon Runyan could have been credited by someone with a heavy red pen with giving up three sacks, but that probably would have been excessive. This week he was better, as was right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty, but perhaps this is the reason why there were only 17 pass attempts for Patterson and just one deep shot to Nico Collins.
The expectation for the offensive line under Ed Warinner is continued improvement. How much better they actually get, however, will only be known during measuring stick games. That won’t be this weekend against SMU, and I’m not sure it will be the week following against Nebraska either.
There may not be a lot to work with here for Warinner, but the offensive line should be quite a bit better on September 29 when they head to Northwestern. They’ll have four games under their belts and the cohesion and experience will begin to set in.
When Michigan Was On Defense
The Wolverines allowed 208 yards of total offense, with 123 coming via the ground and 85 through the air.
The Broncos’ top two rushers averaged 5.9 and 4.9 yards per carry, respectively, which is pretty darn good against this defense. Of course, it led to all of three points, with those three points occurring with 2:34 left in the game.
Western Michigan rushed for 123 yards on 40 carries (3.1 avg), which is more than I think anybody expected to happen. However, Michigan was without defensive tackles Aubrey Solomon and Lawrence Marshall, and they may continue to be without them for a while longer.
Solomon is the bigger loss, but Marshall actually started against Notre Dame. Without either of them, the Wolverines had to turn to junior Carlo Kemp, who was pushed around like an Ikea shopping cart. If you go back and just watch him, I think he lost sight of the ball on half of his snaps because his body got turned completely around. It seemed like an impossible ask for him, but he never stopped trying to put on the brakes.
Western Michigan didn’t have much success throwing the ball. Quarterback Jon Wassink completed 16-of-34 passes for 85 yards with a long completion of just 10 yards. He was sacked twice (Rashan Gary, Jordan Anthony).
What I liked most about the Broncos’ passing attack, however, was the number of deep shots they were taking. Against this Michigan defense, that’s the best chance for a team like WMU. Now, they didn’t connect — or even come close, but I still think this is a smart move for any offense against the Wolverines.
That doesn’t mean it’s an easy thing to do, especially with Michigan’s three-man rotation of Lavert Hill, David Long, and Brandon Watson at cornerback. Like Ohio State’s rotation, the Wolverines’ rotation allows defenders to stay fresh throughout the game, which will also allow them to stay fresh throughout the season.
Now if the Michigan defensive line could do something similar — while still being productive like the corners — then you’d really have something come November.
The Michigan Special Teams
The Wolverines blocked a punt, which is always good news.
Quinn Nordin missed a 40-yard field goal, which almost cost me my fantasy league matchup this weekend, which would have been made even worse by the fact that Karan Higdon was on my bench. But anyway.
Will Hart averaged 56.7 yards on his three punts, which is pretty spectacular, and maybe one of the reasons why Jim Harbaugh likes punting so much.
Donovan Peoples-Jones muffed a punt, but recovered it. It was not a great day for the return game, but Michigan covered returns very well.
What Does It All Mean
It means that Shea Patterson is good enough to carry more of the weight of this offense, even if he’s still only allowed to throw to backs and tight ends.
Don’t treat him like Jake Rudock or Wilton Speight.
Shea Patterson doesn’t want to be fed. He wants to hunt. You can’t just suppress 10 years of gut instinct.
That being said, he’s still going to throw some wonky passes, but that’s why you have a bad ass defense that excels in sudden change situations.
You don’t have to live life like a coach in witness protection trying to win games 20-3 and go unnoticed when you could open things up and make it 37-10 instead.
That is, of course, provided the offensive line can be trusted.
It also means that it doesn’t really mean a damn thing. This was Western Michigan.
In the same way that Ohio State’s two wins look nice on the scoreboard, they don’t really mean anything because they were favored by five touchdowns in both games.
We will know more about the Buckeyes this weekend, just as we will know more about the Wolverines later this month.
The WMU game and next week’s SMU game are confidence boosters, but they also need to be production boosters. Confidence only lasts so long if there is no production along with it. They could roll into the Nebraska game with a ton of confidence, but if they can’t move the ball, then the confidence evaporates.
The hope for the Wolverines is that they use these final two non-conference games to get good enough to keep that confidence throughout the entire game against Nebraska, which they should.
The following week at Northwestern is extremely winnable — just ask Duke.
In fact, the way the Big Ten has performed so far this season should have the optimistic Michigan fans feeling like 10-1 heading into Columbus is a real possibility.
The realistic Michigan fans, however, understand that right now we really don’t know what the hell we are going to see from this offense from week to week.
But at least the defense will be along for the ride.