Michigan Monday

Michigan Monday: The Pyromaniac’s Dream

Michigan moved to 7-0 on Saturday and 4-0 in Big Ten play with a 52-7 win over an Indiana team (2-4, 0-3) that opened 2023 with a 23-3 loss to Ohio State.

For the first time this year we now have a common opponent between the Buckeyes and Wolverines in which to start making broad, fact-based generalizations on how next month’s game is going to go.

Just like last year when Ohio State beat Iowa by 31 more points than Michigan did, which then told us all we needed to know about who was better between the Buckeyes and Wolverines.

Michigan’s lazy river of a schedule continued against Indiana. Saturday’s game was never in doubt, and became less in doubt once the game actually kicked off. Right up until that moment, there was at least a tiny sliver of hope.

Then the game began, and if Indiana’s hope was a smoke detector, it would have been chirping due to a dying battery. Michigan didn’t immediately run away — in fact they trailed 7-0, but it didn’t take long before hope gave way to, “I wonder how basketball practice is going.”

When Michigan Was On Offense

The Wolverines rushed for 163 yards on 42 attempts (3.9 ypc), but didn’t get much from their top backs. I don’t know how much this is viewed as a concern inside the walls in Ann Arbor, but it shouldn’t be ignored.

Backup running back Kalel Mullings was out this week, which put Donovan Edwards back in the saddle a bit more. He responded by rushing for 20 yards on nine carries. Edwards is now rushing for 3.3 yards per carry on his 60 attempts this season. His long carry is just 14 yards. (Backup quarterback Jack Tuttle’s long carry is 18 yards.)

I still expect Edwards to have a big game somewhere but my batteries may actually be chirping on that one pretty soon.

Blake Corum rushed for 52 yards on 13 attempts. His long carry of the day was just 12 yards. In Big Ten play this year, Corum is averaging just under 5 yards per carry. Again, I still expect Corum to produce in big moments, but at some point Michigan’s running game is what the numbers say it is. I’ll be fascinated to see how they do against Penn State. That will be Michigan’s biggest game of the year. Can the running game rise to the challenge, or is reality more grounded than that?

Quarterback JJ McCarthy continues to bolster the running game, which I began clamoring for a month ago. He was sacked four times in this one and ran it six other times, so now I’m clamoring for Michigan to stop putting him into harm’s way so often.

He makes the running game better when he’s part of it, but does he need to be a part of it in games like this?

As a passer, McCarthy missed his first two throws, then completed 14 of his final 15, finishing 14-of-17 for 222 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

As a playmaker, he was fantastic in this game. The only answer for him right now is to keep him in the pocket and either sack him or hope the coverage holds up. Once he gets out of the pocket the symphony of destruction begins.

On one scramble drill, he rolled right and pointed at tight end Colston Loveland to take up down the sideline. He did, and McCarthy zipped it to him for a 54-yard catch-and-run touchdown. McCarthy pulled every string on the play, and he’s getting better at puppetry by the day.

On a scramble to the left, he threw a backhanded shovel pass about 15 yards to Donovan Edwards inside the red zone for a nice gain. It was backyard football on the biggest front yard in America.

McCarthy’s confidence couldn’t be any higher right now if he was drunk, or hypnotized, or both.

Perhaps most impressively about Michigan’s 222 yards passing and 52 points was the fact that starting wide receivers Roman Wilson and Cornelius Johnson combined for just four catches and 29 yards. They got production from a wide array of players, including Tyler Morris (4-54), and a tough touchdown catch from Semaj Morgan on a screen pass to the sideline.

Morgan dodged and fought through 10 yards of hell on the screen pass. It was like every Waffle House fight you’ve ever seen. When you throw chairs at somebody, you don’t expect them to block one while simultaneously jump cutting to avoid another, but he was Waffle House Neo on Saturday.

Maybe the most concerning thing about this game was the offensive line giving up four sacks. That number could have been more, but JJ McCarthy can escape situations that most quarterbacks can’t. And then he keeps his eyes downfield and burns your house to the ground.

When Michigan Was On Defense

Indiana used a double pass to score their lone touchdown, just as they did against Ohio State in 2019. On Saturday it was receiver (and former QB) Donaven McCulley completing a 44-yard pass to Jaylin Lucas. Michigan’s defense completely bit on the play, which just made them angry for the rest of the game and sent them on a path of revenge that left the kind of carnage that you don’t bother picking up, you just spray it down the sewer grates.

The Hoosiers had some moments of success with a quick passing attack against a spread-out Michigan defense, but it didn’t lead to anything meaningful. Could other teams exploit it? Maybe the way a survivalist exploits condensation for sustenance.

Hoosier quarterbacks were sacked four times. Three different passers combined to complete 14-of-29 passes for 140 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. The only completion longer than 17 yards came from McCulley.

After allowing 141 yards of total offense on 22 plays in the first quarter, Michigan shut the Hoosiers down the rest of the game.

Safeties Rod Moore and Keon Sabb came away with interceptions. Sabb’s came late in the game. Moore’s came in the first quarter down in the red zone. Nickel back Mike Sainristil tipped a Tayven Jackson pass, and Moore came down with it. Had Jackson added a little pump fake, Michigan’s aggression would have left a receiver all alone in the back of the end zone. But that’s an awful lot to ask of a young quarterback in a stressful situation.

Twenty-eight Wolverines recorded tackles in this game, and that didn’t include starting defensive lineman Kris Jenkins.

I don’t know why I keep writing different versions of the same sentences to describe how productive and exacting this Michigan defense continues to be. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find new words to express how overmatched offenses have been this season.

Indiana did go after starting cornerback Josh Wallace early, but the execution wasn’t there. Bad teams have to be exact. Good teams have to be damn near exact as well, and great teams may not actually exist this year.

If you’re asking me to pick the weak spot on this defense, I’m going to point at the cornerback opposite Will Johnson, whether that’s Wallace or Kechaun Bennett. When they’re in one-on-one coverage with no safety help, taking some shots isn’t a bad go-to.

Spreading this defense out also creates a softer middle. But you have to hold up against the pass rush and the blitzes. Or at least connect on the hot reads. Offenses can’t expect to take advantage of happy mistakes. They have to be able to create them with scheme and execution. So far teams aren’t connecting those dots in any kind of meaningful manner.

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The Michigan Special Teams

Tommy Doman kicked off nine times, allowing just three returns. The longest return of the day was an 18-yarder, which is an acceptable number.

James Turner made his long field goal attempt (28 yards). Tyler Morris had a 27-yard punt return, and Semaj Morgan had a 28-yard kickoff return. The Michigan return game hasn’t been all that special this season, but this was one of their better games.

Neither of Doman’s two punts (36.0 avg) made it inside the 20-yard line.

What Does It All Mean?

It means we shouldn’t be surprised that Michigan is regularly lighting its opponents on fire. That’s what happens when your schedule consists of oily rags and bundles of tinder. And sure, the Big Ten has provided the funds for each of its teams to install state-of-the-art sprinkler systems, but most of those systems have been hooked up to propane tanks because programs would rather pocket the money than hire a licensed professional to do their plumbing.

Try as I might, there is almost nothing more that can be said about Michigan’s schedule. But like it or not, it’s a large part of this team’s story right now. It doesn’t have to be the final draft, however.

If the Wolverines make the playoffs and win it all, nobody’s going to care about their schedule because they would have proven their worth in the postseason. If they don’t win it all, nobody’s going to care about their schedule because we’ll all be too busy talking about their loss.

It also means that Michigan very much looks like the best team in the Big Ten. In JJ McCarthy, they have the one player who can impact a game more than any other in this conference. There is now a wide-open Heisman race happening and wins against Penn State and Ohio State could put McCarthy on top of the leaderboard for New York in December.

Defensively, the Wolverines haven’t shown any areas of weakness, which means that for somebody to beat them, that team will need to have a higher level of execution than they’ve had at any other point this season.

It’s not impossible, but the Wolverines are going to make you earn it. And they’re probably gonna take some skin from you along the way.

The Road To The Game

Sept 2 – Michigan 30 – East Carolina 3
Sept 9 – Michigan 35 – UNLV 7
Sept 16 – Michigan 31 – Bowling Green 6
Sept 23 – Michigan 31 – Rutgers 7
Sept 30 – Michigan 45 – Nebraska 7
Oct 7 – Michigan 52 – Minnesota 10
Oct 14 – Michigan 52 – Indiana 7
Oct 21 – at Michigan State
Oct 28 OPEN
Nov 4 – Purdue
Nov 11 – at Penn State
Nov 18 – at Maryland
Nov 25 – Ohio State

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