After two weeks of near-daily news drops about alleged sign stealing activities and other off-the-field issues, Michigan finally returned to action Saturday night, hosting Purdue in a rematch of last year’s Big Ten championship game. For those who wondered how Michigan would respond to being in the center of such a maelstrom, it didn’t take long to find out.
The Wolverines came out of the gate fast, playing as if they had something to prove, and raced to a 17-0 first quarter lead. After one quarter of play, Michigan had outgained Purdue 168-23 in total yards and recorded eight first downs to Purdue’s one. The Wolverines tacked on a field goal to extend their lead to 20-0 midway through the second quarter, but then went through a bit of a lull, not reaching the end zone again until deep into the third quarter.
Was Michigan a little rusty coming out of its off week? Were its players distracted by the ‘noise’ surrounding the program? Or was it just a lull?
Whatever it was, it didn’t last long. The Wolverines rebounded (if you can call needing to respond to a six-point Purdue run a rebound), and scored three second half touchdowns to extend their lead to 41-6. Purdue finally found the end zone in the final minute of the game, cutting Michigan’s margin of victory to an even four touchdowns.
When all was said and done, Michigan looked a lot like … well, Michigan.
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy was asked if it was difficult to prepare for Saturday’s game, given the firestorm surrounding the Wolverines. “Surprisingly, it wasn’t very hard at all,” McCarthy responded. “We’ve got a one-track mentality. The outside noise is just that, noise.”
Michigan’s defense once again set the tone, keeping the Purdue offense from doing much of anything. The Wolverines held the Boilermakers to 269 yards on the night – with 75 of those coming on the game’s final drive, after the contest’s outcome had long been decided.
Michigan’s defensive performance was the latest in a season of dominant defensive performances. Just how dominant has Michigan’s defense been this season? The 13 points surrendered to Purdue are the most points Michigan has given up to any opponent all season.
On offense, Michigan was once again led by McCarthy. It wasn’t McCarthy’s best game, by his own admission. “There were a couple of throws, for sure, that I’d like to have back. My guys were getting open, it’s on me to get them the ball.” Yet despite a few errant throws, McCarthy still completed 24 of 37 passes for 335 yards and directed Michigan to touchdown drives of 76, 67, 62, 45 and 57 yards.
It’s a testament to the season that McCarthy is having that a game in which he completed 65% of his passes for more than 300 yards can be seen as an off game. “For a lot of guys,” Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game, “That’s a career game. Myself included.”
Harbaugh was effusive in his praise for his junior signal-caller. “The true measure of a quarterback’s greatness,” Harbaugh said, “Is how he performs on third down. And J.J. was great. He’s been great all year, but particularly great tonight.”
That he was. For the game, Michigan converted seven of 14 third downs (compared to one of 14 for Purdue), many of which were third-and-long.
That there were so many third-and-longs, however, is a bit of a concern.
Despite accumulating nearly 450 yards of offense, Michigan is still struggling to get its running game on track. Michigan has been among the nation’s leading rushing teams each of the past two seasons. This year, however, the Wolverines rank outside the top 50 nationally. Put another way: The engine that drove the Wolverines the past two seasons can’t seem to get out of second gear.
Blake Corum found the end zone three times against Purdue, giving him an NCAA-best 16 touchdowns for the season and 47 for his career, but rushed for only 44 yards on 15 carries. As a team, the Wolverines mustered only 110 rushing yards, a total that was bolstered by a 44-yard jet sweep by receiver Semaj Morgan.
The struggling running game was something that Michigan’s players and coaches acknowledged, but didn’t fret over. “We want to be as balanced as possible,” McCarthy told reporters after the game. “It (the running game) isn’t to the standard we have at Michigan, but we’ll clean it up.” Harbaugh echoed his quarterback’s nonchalance. “We’ve got some things to work on,” Harbaugh said.
Michigan will want to do so, because while McCarthy’s play-making ability gives Michigan an element it hasn’t had in … I don’t know how long, the Wolverines will need more production from their running game when they face Penn State and Ohio State in the coming weeks. McCarthy was spectacular at converting third-and-longs against Purdue, but that won’t be as easy a task against the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes.
But for now, the Wolverines celebrate a return to action - and celebrate a victory. “You know,” McCarthy told reporters after Saturday’s game, “When you have a game where you don’t play your best, are able to identify areas to improve and still win 42-13 … life is good.”
And with the focus back on the field and away from the seemingly endless barrage of headlines, life was good for Michigan Saturday night.