The No. 7 Michigan Wolverines played with their food a little bit on Saturday, but easily defeated the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders 40-21.
The Blue Raiders got the first score of the game following a fumble in UM territory by Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson, but the Wolverines would then go on a 40-7 run to end any confusion about how this game was going to go.
Middle Tennessee got a meaningless score late, which moved them over the 250-yard total mark and cut the score to just 19 points.
The game was only separated by two scores for almost the entire third quarter, but there was never any danger of the Wolverines losing the game or losing control.
Execution was lacking on offense, which isn’t unusual for the first game of the season. It also doesn’t help when you’re without your two starting offensive tackles and one of your top three wide receivers.
Defensively, it is going to take some time to replace the personnel losses, but depth is a very real concern here.
As the football gods have decreed, the biggest improvements for players and teams is from game one to game two, and there were some things to correct and get cleaned up individually. No sweeping judgments should be passed down just yet, but there will be some things to watch for next week against Army.
When Michigan Was On Offense
If you weren’t aware, Michigan went and got a new offensive coordinator in the offseason. Josh Gattis came over from Alabama, where he was the co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach. Saturday was his first time calling plays.
In Gattis’ new up-tempo offense, Michigan ran 78 plays, which is a number they hit only once in the previous two seasons. They did it four times in 2016, by the way.
The tempo may not have seemed all that much faster to some people, but I can promise you that it was. For example, I generally watch the games on YouTube and I use the ‘L’ key to fast-forward 10 seconds after every play. In previous years, I would just hit the ‘L’ key three times quickly to move ahead 30 seconds. By that point, a quarterback would just about be ready to call for the ball. Now, I can still get two ‘L’ mashes in, but if I go a third, I’ll usually have to back up a bit. So there you go — scientific proof that this offense is legitimately faster than in previous years.
The Wolverines rushed for 233 yards on 45 attempts against Middle Tennessee, averaging an okay 5.2 yards per carry.
I was surprised by how much Michigan’s quarterbacks carried the ball. I believe this offense is better when Shea Patterson runs the ball, but I’m not sure they needed to run the ball 18 times with their quarterbacks in this one. Granted, 17 of those were split between Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey, but it just felt like a lot in a game where they could have gotten freshman running back Zach Charbonnet more action.
Charbonnet led the Wolverines with 90 yards rushing, but only had eight carries. He busted a 41-yarder for the bulk of his yardage, but he was never stopped in the backfield.
Charbonnet was a bright spot for sure. I was impressed by his vision in finding the right holes. He’s fast enough to make defenses pay, but he just seems very natural and comfortable. Backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey also had eight carries, and the next time these two players have the same number of carries, it better be because Charbonnet put up 200 yards rushing and put the game away early for Michigan.
Charbonnet was also solid on pass protection, which reminded me of Ohio State’s last two true freshman starting running backs Maurice Clarett and JK Dobbins. One of the reasons they could be relied on to start is the same reason Charbonnet can be relied on — all three could hold up as pass blockers against the blitz, or chipping, or whatever you needed.
Moving forward, Gattis just needs to make sure he gets him the ball more than he did this week. (Go ahead and mark me down for 200 yards next week if he gets 20+ carries.)
Backup Christian Turner — just a sophomore — ran well, picking up 49 yards on 11 attempts. He had some nice moments. Those two look like the top two guys right now, which is a positive sign. Tru Wilson only had a couple of carries.
I’m not sure what to make of the way Dylan Martellfrey was used — sorry, McCaffrey. He threw it twice, but was used mostly as a runner, picking up 42 yards on eight attempts. He also caught a screen pass for some reason for one yard.
If Patterson wasn’t a senior, I’d say this was Transfer Portal Playcalling. My only other guess is that McCaffrey simply deserves to play. Nothing I saw on Saturday disputes that, I just wouldn’t have him carrying it as much as Anthony Thomas 2.0.
The Michigan passing game had some nice moments. There is still a downfield passing threat with tight ends Nick Eubanks and Sean McKeon, so that will continue.
It was great to see Tarik Black not just on the field, but making plays deep and also over the middle with some RPOs. Those could become big hits this season as well.
Black matched his season total last year with four catches on the night, posting 80 yards receiving and a 36-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter. It has been a long time coming for Black, who has spent his first two years dealing with injuries, and he stepped up in a big way as Michigan is currently without Donovan Peoples-Jones due to a leg injury of his own.
Receiver Nico Collins added three receptions for 49 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown. He and Black are a nice pair of outside receivers, but if they can get DPJ back, then this offense could potentially take another step forward.
I was also impressed with slot receiver Ronnie Bell, who is a great athlete and was targeted seven times. He only came away with two receptions, however, which is not a great success rate for a slot receiver. He’s like an acceptable version of Eddie McDoom, but he and Patterson need to start connecting.
Patterson completed 17-of-29 passes for 203 yards and three touchdowns. He didn’t throw any interceptions, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Senior quarterback throwing deep into triple coverage. pic.twitter.com/iegzajRj1C
— Tony Gerdeman (@TonyGerdeman) September 2, 2019
Patterson also put the ball on the ground three or four times. Two were legit fumbles, the others were simply fumbling with himself on meshes with tailbacks. It was far from a clean performance from Patterson, who began to get pressured a little bit more as the game went on.
The offensive line played very well early with new tackles Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes. Mayfield has at least practiced with the ones once they lost expected starter Andrew Stueber in camp. Hayes stepped in well for starting left tackle Jon Runyan, who had a surprise injury.
Mayfield and Hayes played well in the first half, but wore down a bit in the second half. It was still a very good performance given the circumstances.
The interior guys continue to move more people than Two Guys and a Truck.
When Michigan Was On Defense
The Wolverines are replacing half of their defensive starters from last season, so there are going to be growing pains and learning curves. That’s understandable. What isn’t understandable is that the cupboard is so bare on the defensive line that former fullback Ben Mason started at defensive tackle.
Mason is listed at 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds, and he got pushed around like you would expect a 270-pound defensive tackle to get pushed around. It’s completely unfair to ask him to be starting interior lineman on this defense. He gets off the snap well for the most part, but Middle Tennessee had no problem moving him around. He’s still learning all of the nuances, but he’s overmatched right now.
Michigan lost tackle Aubrey Solomon to the transfer portal, and was without Donovan Jeter, but this is unacceptable on Jim Harbaugh’s part. Matters were made worse when they lost Michael Dwumfour during the game, and he may be out this week against Army.
To compare this to what happened with the Buckeyes at defensive tackle this week, they were without their backup three technique Taron Vincent, and because they were also without their starting defensive end Jonathon Cooper, they moved starting three tech Jashon Cornell to defensive end. So the Buckeyes were essentially without two defensive tackles just like Michigan — and just like the Wolverines, lost a defensive tackle last year early as Dre’Mont Jones left for the NFL Draft. But you know what Ohio State was able to do? They were able to play five other defensive tackles — and that’s just the scholarship guys.
But maybe that’s Greg Mattison’s fault on the recruiting front.
The other issue I had with the starting lineup — and as I tweeted Sunday night, I’m saying this in the most respectful way possible because both Ben Mason and Jordan Glasgow have had great careers at Michigan — but it’s not a great sign when your starting Will linebacker is a former walk-on safety, as Glasgow is.
Now, to be fair to Glasgow, he was great in the game, finishing with six tackles and two sacks, but how many national title contenders — or even conference contenders — are starting former walk-ons at an inside linebacker spot?
If football games are won up the middle, then Michigan might have a problem.
And I haven’t even gotten to the safeties yet.
But first, let’s remind everyone that the Wolverines allowed just 67 yards rushing on 28 attempts (2.4 ypc) and Middle Tennessee managed 234 yards through the air on 26-of-41 passing.
I’m choosing to believe this was a very vanilla game plan by defensive coordinator Don Brown because the Wolverines only had five tackles for loss, and only one of them came from the defensive line, which is disappointing.
No matter how plain the playcalling is, your defensive linemen should be able to make some plays. Middle Tennessee did give up some penetration later, but the defensive ends rarely got home.
Central Michigan transfer Michael Danna showed some good burst on the edge, as did designated pass rusher Josh Uche. It will be interesting to see how much they play and how they’re used next week against Army’s option attack.
The best thing I saw from Michigan’s defense was the play of their cornerbacks. Ambry Thomas spent most of camp dealing with colitis, but was back in time to get the start and snag a nice pick. Lavert Hill was his normal don’t-throw-at-him self. But both guys paled in comparison to redshirt freshman Vincent Gray.
Gray is a lanky corner (6-2 185) who had four tackles and a tackle for loss. He did not shy away from any physicality and looked like a future star.
Now let’s talk about the safeties. Senior Josh Metellus is back and he has been joined by Brad Hawkins, a junior.
Then there was this from Josh Metellus (14, on hash, deepest defender), who had to think the play was blown dead because … well, because. pic.twitter.com/SppZvX2Jyn
— Tony Gerdeman (@TonyGerdeman) September 2, 2019
That touchdown play should have been blown dead because Middle Tennessee was moving before the snap, but I don’t know if that really excuses what Metellus did there.
The Hawkins play would have been bad enough even if there was no blocker because he took himself out of the play once he attacked straight up field and lost leverage. He had some other rough moments, but still finished with seven tackles and a PBU. I believe that was his second career start.
Five-star safety Daxton Hill played late but did not make an impact. Five-star defensive end Chris Hinton apparently played as well, but I never noticed him. Maybe it was on special teams.
The Special Teams
Things look pretty good here once again because everybody is back, even though there were a couple of new returners due to injuries and illnesses.
Lavert Hill was returning punts, which seems like a terrible idea. He muffed one and lost it. He’s too valuable to risk back there, and he’s clearly not the security blanket he needs to be if he’s going to be back there.
Ronnie Bell had a nice 27-yard punt return. They should just stick with him until DPJ is back.
Freshman receiver Giles Jackson had a decent 34-yard return and he looks like he could be a guy for them this year. Ambry Thomas might eventually send him back to the bench though.
Punter Will Hart put two of his punts inside the 10-yard line, which was terrific. He reverted back to his old ways late in the game, however, by putting one into the end zone.
Kicker Jake Moody made both of his kicks (34, 27).
Middle Tennessee had no interesting in attempting any kickoff returns.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that when Jon Runyan and Donovan Peoples-Jones get back, Michigan is going to have one of the most explosive offenses in the Big Ten.
Sometimes, however, it’s a poorly-wired explosive.
Shea Patterson is basically a frayed wire who can do exactly what you’re asking him to do most times. But other times, that fray can let a spark loose that dooms the entire operation. You never know when that spark is going to happen and you never know if it is going to catch on to something.
But when it is clicking, the skill is there to put a winning number of points on anybody on their schedule.
It also means that this is still a work in progress on defense, but that’s no different for any other team.
Michigan needs more penetration from their defensive line. If they have to rely on blitzing to get it done, that’s going to put more pressure on the safeties than they can handle.
I still think this was a dialed back defensive game plan because there was no need not to be. And the defense we see next week against Army will have no relevance to any other game moving forward.
Fortunately, Michigan gets a week off after Army to prepare for a Wisconsin offense that is going to find out just how soft Michigan’s middle is or isn’t.
Assuming Army doesn’t just show us on Saturday.
The Road to The Game
Aug. 31 — Michigan 40 – Middle Tennessee 21 (1-0)
Sept. 7 — Army
Sept. 21 — at Wisconsin
Sept. 28 —Rutgers
Oct. 5 — Iowa
Oct. 12 — at Illinois
Oct. 19 — at Penn State
Oct. 26 — Notre Dame
Nov. 2 — at Maryland
Nov. 16 — Michigan State
Nov. 23 — at Indiana
Nov. 30 — Ohio State