It’s been a while since the Michigan football program has had much to smile about. Last year’s disappointing, COVID-shortened season and subsequent exodus of transfers led to, with apologies to the Bard, a spring and summer of discontent in Ann Arbor. With Saturday’s season opener against Western Michigan, head coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines could finally turn the page and put 2020 behind them. But while 2021 promises to be a new season, will it be a better one? Will last season’s melancholy extend into 2021? Or will the Wolverines rebound … and find reason to smile?
Michigan introduces an overhauled coaching staff this season - along with a roster that’s hungry to prove that last season was an aberration - but how much can be expected in one year? Particularly with questions surrounding nearly all of Michigan’s position groups. As far as measuring sticks go, Western Michigan isn’t exactly Alabama. In fact, Western Michigan isn’t even Michigan’s week two opponent Washington, but the Broncos would still provide an initial glimpse into what Michigan can be this season.
And as far as first glimpses go, Saturday’s was a pretty promising one.
Michigan started somewhat slowly. Midway through the first quarter, the Wolverines held a 10-7 lead, but looked uneven offensively. The Wolverines had trouble finishing drives and weren’t exactly imposing their will at the line of scrimmage. That began to change, however, at the 9:27 mark of the second quarter when Cade McNamara connected with Ronnie Bell on a 76-yard TD strike. It would be the first of many big plays on the day, the first of five unanswered touchdown for the Wolverines and generally turned the game around. “That play,” Jim Harbaugh said after the game, “really broke the game open.” From that point on, Michigan, while short of dominant, was at least in control, and cruised to a relatively stress-free 47-14 victory.
On offense, Michigan was led by sophomore Blake Corum, who had a coming out party of sorts, rushing for 111 yards on 14 carries on his way to over 200 all-purpose yards. Hassan Haskins pitched in with 70 yards and sophomores AJ Henning and Roman Wilson even got into the act, breaking off runs of 70 and 43 yards respectively. For the day, the Wolverines rushed for 335 yards.
Michigan knew what it had in its running back corps. Coming into the season, running back and safety looked to be Michigan’s strongest position groups, and Saturday’s performance did nothing to dispel that notion. The same couldn’t be said at quarterback, however. Cade McNamara looked good in limited action last season, but it was just that, limited action. How would the junior perform as a full-time starter?
Quite well, it turned out. In just his second career start, McNamara was both efficient and productive, completing 9 of 11 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Wolverines on scoring drives in six of the seven possessions in which he was on the field. On a day when Michigan was having success on the ground, not a lot was asked of McNamara. But when called upon, McNamara delivered.
If there was a pleasant surprise on offense, it was the return of the big play - something long absent from the Wolverine arsenal. On a day in which Michigan gained more than 550 yards of total offense, the Wolverines had six plays of 30 or more yards and tallied five touchdowns of 20 yards or more.
Was this the first real evidence of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’s much-ballyhooed “Speed in Space” offense? Time - and more challenging opponents - will tell. But if you’re a Michigan fan - or one of Michigan’s skill position players - seeing the ball find its way into the hands of its playmakers as often as it did Saturday was an encouraging sign.
Of all of the questions surrounding the Wolverines, perhaps the biggest was what the defense would look like under first-year and first-time defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. Macdonald promised to bring an aggressive defense, but one that was more multiple in its looks and coverages. One capable of adapting and adjusting - and not stubbornly and continually leaving its cornerbacks in harm’s way.
And it mostly did just that.
Western Michigan provided a bigger test to Macdonald and his charges than one might think. The Broncos return a more-than-capable offense and are led by one of the country’s most efficient returning quarterbacks in Kaleb Eleby. And Eleby and the Broncos came out hot.
After a shaky start in which the Wolverine secondary had trouble covering Western Michigan’s receivers on an opening touchdown drive that covered 75 yards in ten plays, Michigan did exactly what fans hoped it could do - adjusted its rushes and coverages and largely locked down the Western Michigan offense the rest of the day. Harbaugh called Macdonald’s debut at Michigan “very impressive” and praised Macdonald and his defense for it’s ability to adapt. “We needed to show some different looks. We needed to disguise some coverages,” Harbaugh said. “And to have all that in the first game, that speaks volumes.”
And while the majority of the defense played well, two players stood out.
The middle of Michigan’s defensive front may have struggled at times, but there were no such issues on the outside, where senior edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson made life difficult for Eleby and his offensive line all afternoon. Continually attacking, Hutchinson seemed to be in the Bronco backfield more often than not. Western Michigan head coach acknowledged Hutchinson’s impact after the game. “Hutchinson got to the quarterback,” Lester said, emphasizing, “He was running by our guys.”
If there was a player as active as Hutchinson, it was junior safety Daxton Hill. Long considered one of Michigan’s most talented players, Hill was finally put in position to showcase what he could do. Which, it turns out, was plenty.
Harbaugh said Hill played a “tremendous” game. “He was all over the field making plays,” Harbaugh said. If you watched the game, that was something you already knew. Cornerback Vincent Gray said, “Dax is the key to our defense,” and he was just that Saturday, mixing in assignments in which he blitzed, dropped back into coverage … and generally disrupted things for the Broncos’ offense.
Midway through the third quarter, it became clear that Michigan was on its way to a convincing victory. That didn’t mean, however, there was an end to the offensive fireworks. With McNamara, Corum and Haskins watching from the sidelines, Wolverine fans got a glimpse of the future when true freshmen JJ McCarthy and Donovan Edwards entered the game. Both played well, but it was McCarthy who brought the crowd to its feet when he completed a 69-yard touchdown pass to Dylan Baldwin. It was a play - and a throw - the likes of which Wolverines fans are not accustomed to seeing and only added to the afternoon’s good humor.
But while it was a a strong debut, it wasn’t all good news for the Maize and Blue, as senior wide receiver Ronnie Bell suffered a knee injury early in the second half. The extent of the injury wasn’t known in the immediate aftermath of the game, but the tones in which Michigan players discussed Bell after the game revealed their concern for their fallen teammate.
“All prayers to Ronnie,” said McNamara after the game. It was a sentiment echoed by all who took the mic. “He’s one of our captains,” said Corum, “he’s going to make sure we’re good.” Unfortunately for Bell and his teammates, he won’t be doing so on the field, as it was revealed Monday that Bell was lost for the season. Michigan has several talented, young receivers on its roster, but Bell was its only proven player, and his absence will hurt.
With a week one victory in hand, there were plenty of smiles after the game. But Harbaugh and company were quick to point out that while he and his team were happy with their performance, they weren’t satisfied. Harbaugh said he told his players after the game, “We’re not going to fall in love with our stuff, because we can get better.” Hutchinson was more straight to the point, telling reporters, “We haven’t done a damn thing yet.”
Hutchinson and his teammates will have a chance to build on their season opening victory when they host the Pac-12’s Washington Huskies this Saturday night, under the lights. Washington stumbled in its opener, inexplicably losing to Montana 13-7. Washington is surely not as bad as they looked against the Grizzlies, however, and after their week one wake-up call, the Dawgs will undoubtedly regroup and present Michigan with a difficult challenge. A challenge that will provide yet another glimpse into what this Michigan team can be.