Michigan Monday

Michigan Monday: East Carolina Reapers

With Jim Harbaugh watching from an undisclosed location due to a university suspension for giving the NCAA the business, Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter assumed the mantle of head coach this weekend and led the Wolverines to a 30-3 season-opening win over East Carolina.

Harbaugh will miss two more games before he is allowed to return to the sideline on Saturdays.

When he does return, however, you can expect the contrition to be palpable because nobody feels worse about breaking NCAA rules than Harbaugh.

The Wolverines had a couple of touching tributes for their missing head coach, including quarterback JJ McCarthy throwing an illegal forward pass for a touchdown.

On the play seemingly in honor of Harbaugh, McCarthy also crossed a line and claimed he didn’t do anything wrong. Unlike Harbaugh, however, McCarthy got away with it.

On the play, McCarthy looked to have gone past the line of scrimmage on a 14-yard touchdown pass to receiver Roman Wilson. The original call was a touchdown but replay wanted to take a look at it. The replay official let it stand because he couldn’t decide if McCarthy’s heel was still behind the line of scrimmage or not.

By the way, it was a terrible week for the former refs who work the TV broadcasts because they were off on a bunch of eventual replay decisions, including the McCarthy throw. Or maybe it was a bad week for the actual referees. The fact that two different professionals can look at at the same thing and see definitively see two different things over and over again is pretty amazing.

Of course, as you may have seen, the Michigan offense had an initial show of solidarity earlier in that drive when they lined up in the “train formation” at the outset of their second possession, held up four fingers for Jim Harbaugh’s favorite Wendy’s order, and then lined up for the snap.

(If they were really in solidarity with their coach, however, shouldn’t they have done it on the first drive when they were backed up on the 2-yard line?)

Aside from the off-field drama, it was a dominating performance by Michigan, but as is often the case in the first game of the year, it was hardly flawless.

Nobody is perfect in week one, not even running back Blake Corum.

This entire non-conference slate for Michigan is simply a sandbox to play in, so we shouldn’t be surprised when the Wolverines happen upon some random cat shit from time to time.

Next week the sandbox will have UNLV, followed by Bowling Green the week after that, so be careful where you dig.

When Michigan Was On Offense

Michigan rushed for 122 yards on 31 attempts against East Carolina, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. It was their worst mark since they averaged 3.4 yards per carry in the playoff game against Georgia in 2021. It was their worst regular season average since a 21-17 win at Penn State in 2021 (3.5 ypc).

The Wolverines struggled to move the line of scrimmage, especially on the first drive when they were backed up near their own goal line. Blake Corum was dropped for a loss of one on the first carry, and then got back to the original line of scrimmage on the second carry. Then, on third-and-10, rather than trust your starting quarterback to throw the ball, the Wolverines ran the ball with Donovan Edwards for no gain.

Corum finished with 73 yards rushing on 10 attempts, scoring once. He had a long run of 37 yards. He is still incredibly difficult to find behind the line of scrimmage, and by the time a defender sees him it’s too late. He has the balance of a gyroscope and the vision of a microscope.

Edwards had a rougher go of it, rushing for 37 yards on 12 carries. Of his 12 attempts, eight of them went for two yards or less. Six of them went for one yard or less. He also caught four passes for 33 yards.

The Wolverines are still trying to figure out their offensive line situation. Jim Harbaugh said that he’d be starting a different pair of tackles against East Carolina and UNLV. This week it was Karsen Barnhart at left tackle and Myles Hinton at right tackle. Curiously, the problem up front had as much to do with established guards Zak Zinter and Trevor Keegan, along with new center Drake Nugent. They also frequently went with an extra tackle (Trente Jones), with mixed effectiveness.

It’s week one, though, so they will correct the correctables. Expect 250 yards rushing against the Rebels next week.

Quarterback JJ McCarthy was nearly perfect. He completed 26-of-30 passes for 280 yards and three touchdowns. He did fumble the ball near the East Carolina goal line on a fourth down, so that was unfortunate and reminiscent of ball-handling issues a year ago.

Other than that fumble, however, he was in complete control all game long. He only played three quarters (which is all I watched … and all I’ll probably watch of each game the next two weeks), and at times it was like watching an And-1 mixtape dude dribbling around a bunch of seventh graders.

Next week I expect him to fake a hand-off, put the football up under the backside of his jersey, and then offer to help the defenders look for the ball.

One area where I’ve wanted to see him improve is hitting tight windows. While he was on point on nearly every throw on Saturday, his receivers were generally too open to provide a small window. These were mostly bay windows he was throwing into, but there were a couple of throws into tight coverage that were impressive.

Roman Wilson led the Wolverines with six catches for 78 yards and three touchdowns. His long catch of the day was just 16 yards. Cornelius Johnson caught five passes for 71 yards. The long completion of the day went to tight end Colston Loveland and was just 24 yards.

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When Michigan Was On Defense

Michigan held East Carolina to 103 yards rushing on 26 attempts. A pair of Pirate quarterbacks completed 17-of-29 passes for 132 yards with one interception. The Wolverines gave up a long pass of of 19 yards and a long run of 16 yards. They held East Carolina to just 4.3 yards per play. Their worst mark in the non-conference last year was 3.7 yards per play to both Colorado State and Hawaii.

The Wolverines were without starting cornerback Will Johnson and starting safety Rod Moore, but if you didn’t know that, you wouldn’t have noticed it. Their backups covered for them (literally) quite well.

Without Johnson, Michigan went with UMass transfer Josh Wallace and Keshaun Harris at cornerback. Harris walked onto the team in 2019. This was his first career start.

Starting a transfer and a former-or-possibly-still-current walk-on at cornerback is a pretty damning proclamation about the state of the cornerback recruiting at Michigan. Will Johnson was a former 5-star prospect and he’ll be back soon — possibly this coming week, but this is a concerning situation to watch throughout the season for the Wolverines.

Sophomore safety Keon Sabb got the start for Rod Moore. He was joined by starters Makari Paige and Mike Sainristil. Sainristil continues to play an effective nickel. He snagged an interception on a bad throw to a receiver running an out route. Paige, meanwhile, is still a physical defender who tries to be remembered on every hit.

Wallace also had a terrific interception on the sideline that was overturned because the intended receiver touched the ball while he was out of bounds before Wallace secured it.

This was my first opportunity to watch Coastal Carolina transfer Josiah Stewart. Stewart is an edge rusher, but he’s only 6-foot-1 and 237 pounds. He looks like a linebacker, but he showed some incredibly quick pass-rush moves and good speed on the run. Can he be a Josh Uche here?

Reserve defensive tackle Kenneth Grant also flashed a bit. He’s the biggest guy on the defensive line. His pass rush helped make Sainristil’s interception possible.

The defensive line only had one tackle for loss on the day, which didn’t occur until the fourth quarter.

Starting linebackers Junior Colson and Michael Barrett rotated with sophomore Nebraska transfer Ernest Hausmann. Hausmann finished with six tackles, while Colson and Barrett each posted five. Colson also had a pair of tackles for loss. All three of them operated well when in the game. It’s easy to see why Hausmann was seen as one of the top linebackers in the portal.

Michigan started Braiden McGregor and Jaylen Harrell as their outside rushers, and Mason Graham and Kris Jenkins on the inside. Each of those four will have some “wow” moments this season, but that didn’t necessarily happen in this one. They rotated pretty heavily up front all game long.

The Michigan Special Teams

The Wolverines are breaking in a new kicker and new punter. Kicker James Turner came over from Louisville, where he went 47-of-59 on field goal attempts in his four years there. He hooked a 52-yarder in this one, and also hooked an extra point attempt. Other than that, he was pretty good. He did hit from 50 yards out at the end of the first half to make it 23-0.

Punter Tommy Doman had a 45-yard punt and a 44-yard punt, so he seems pretty consistent at this point. East Carolina did nothing in the return game, and neither did Michigan.

Senior walk-on receiver Jake Thaw handled Michigan’s punt return duties. He had two returns for 6 yards. Running back Kalel Mullings was the primary kickoff returner but he had no attempts.

What Does It All Mean?

It means that it is way too early to start making broad judgments on the absolutely terrible new clock rules, but I do wonder how much this is going to impact Michigan’s running game in the fourth quarter.

Michigan had nine possessions in this game. In their three non-conference games last year, they had 10, 14, and 13 possessions, respectively. And in those three games, they had 7, 8, and 8 possessions in the first halves of those games.

So why might this be an issue? Well, last year the fourth quarter was their most effective quarter on the ground. They averaged 5.9 yards per carry in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 touchdowns. The 962 fourth-quarter rushing yards last year was the most of any quarter for the Wolverines in 2022.

The more Michigan ran the ball last year, the better they got. They wore opponents down — just ask Ohio State.

Everybody remembers the 252 yards rushing that helped win The Game for the Wolverines last year, but over the first nine drives of that game, Michigan had rushed for just 35 yards on 15 carries. It was drives 10, 12, and 13 where the Wolverines went 80, 75, and 92 yards

Michigan rushed for 167 yards on their final three drives against OSU alone, not counting the kneel downs at the end of the game.

Fewer possessions for the Wolverines might fit the kind of shortened game that Jim Harbaugh likes, but it will also please every single defense that faces them.

It also means that as long as nobody gets injured and everybody looks as expected, these first three games aren’t going to tell us anything other than what we already think we know.

The Road To The Game

Sept 2 – Michigan 30 – East Carolina 3
Sept 9 – UNLV
Sept 16 – Bowling Green
Sept 23 – Rutgers
Sept 30 – at Nebraska
Oct 7 – at Minnesota
Oct 14 – Indiana
Oct 21 – at Michigan State
Oct 28 OPEN
Nov 4 – Purdue
Nov 11 – at Penn State
Nov 18 – at Maryland
Nov 25 – Ohio State

Lastly, happy 30th anniversary to Jim Abbott’s no-hitter.

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