East Carolina came into Saturday’s season opener against Michigan intent on not letting the Wolverines control the game on the ground. Pirate head coach Mike Houston said that his team had prepared for Michigan – and it showed. It also looked like Houston and his defensive coaches had watched game film of last season’s Fiesta Bowl. Much like TCU, East Carolina spent the day sending its second-level (and sometimes third-level) defenders crashing into gaps, sometimes sending eight and nine defenders toward the line of scrimmage.
As a result, Michigan never really got its running game going. Blake Corum returned to action, rushing for 73 yards on ten carries, but other than a handful of chunk plays, the Wolverines weren’t able to generate much on the ground. For the day, The Wolverines rushed for a total of just 122 yards at a mere 3.9 yards per carry.
Credit Michigan interim coach Jesse Minter with recognizing East Carolina’s defensive strategy early and changing tactics – taking what the East Carolina defense was giving. With ECU selling out against the run, Michigan and quarterback J.J. McCarthy took to the air. The result was McCarthy’s best game as a Wolverine – completing 26 of 30 passes for 280 yards and three touchdowns.
McCarthy completed 15 consecutive passes at one point, but it was more than just numbers. The junior signal caller looked like a different player than he was last season.
Leading into Saturday’s opener, McCarthy talked about some of the difficulties he endured last year, dealing with not only a quarterback controversy but also an off-season shoulder injury – both of which limited his time on the practice field. This offseason, McCarthy said, things were different. Free of injuries and distractions, McCarthy was able to spend more time on the practice field with teammates. “Everything is just clear now,” McCarthy told reporters. “Everyone knows what’s going on. Things are effortless right now.” Asked to explain how that translates to his play, McCarthy answered, “Most of it has just been decision-making, play-making. Being faster. On time and more in rhythm.”
All of that was on display Saturday.
What stood out most from McCarthy’s performance wasn’t his efficient stat line, but what the eye test told you. In particular, McCarthy’s pocket presence, decisiveness and accuracy. More than any time last season, McCarthy seemed in control of Michigan’s offense – and the game.
A popular opinion among pundits is that for Michigan to make the next step this season – from Big Ten champion to legitimate national championship contender – McCarthy has to take the next step. It was just one game – and against an overwhelmed opponent – but McCarthy’s performance was enough to suggest that he’s on his way to taking that next step.
The story of Saturday’s game was McCarthy, but if there was another breakout performer, it was senior wide receiver Roman Wilson.
For a wide receiver at Michigan, having the uniform number one bestowed upon you means something. It’s not something that’s handed out, but something that’s earned. In his first game donning the digit, Wilson shone. The speedster from Hawaii looked every part of a number one receiver. Wilson led all receivers with six catches for 78 yards and was on the receiving end of all three of McCarthy’s touchdown passes.
One of the few questions for Michigan this season was how the Wolverines would cope with the graduation of wide receiver Ronnie Bell. With Wilson and Cornelius Johnson (who caught five passes for 71 yards) in the fold, the Wolverines appear to be in good hands.
Not that it was all good news for Michigan. East Carolina’s defensive strategy aside, Michigan expected more out of its running game – and out of its offensive line. Most concerning, facing a first and goal from the six, Michigan stubbornly – and unsuccessfully – attempted five consecutive runs up the middle, coming away with zero points.
East Carolina’s goal line stand did little to shift the momentum of the game, but it did signal that Michigan has some work to do up front. But that shouldn’t be completely unexpected.
Michigan’s offensive line might go two-deep with NFL talent, but it’s still a work in progress. So close was the competition for the five starting spots that head coach Jim Harbaugh hasn’t yet determined its starting line and is rotating starters the first couple of games of the season in an effort to find the right unit. And Michigan isn’t just trying to incorporate two new starters into its offensive line – it’s also adding three transfers to the mix. A team’s offensive line, as much as any position group, needs time to develop. So look for Michigan’s running game to improve as the season goes on.
When all was said and done, Saturday’s 30-3 victory was a pretty successful opener for Minter and his charges. Michigan didn’t run away from East Carolina the way Oklahoma or Oregon did in their openers, but it’s not as if the game was ever in question, either. The Wolverines were up 30-0 after the first possession of the second half and coasted the rest of the way.
Michigan may have struggled in certain aspects of its game, but was in control throughout and behind McCarthy, proved to be more than the one-dimensional, run-only team that many believed them to be. Something that should give Wolverine fans reason for optimism going forward.