Last season, I shifted away from my “Inside the Numbers” column to devote more time to re-watching the Wolverines’ prior game and analyzing the game film. This season, I will be pivoting back to “Inside the Numbers” because of time constraints in other areas of my life. Simply, now with a full-time job unrelated to Michigan athletics, I do not have the time to review 120 plays at a reduced speed multiple times and then pen two columns that contain annotated screenshots breaking many of those plays down. Instead, I will use this weekly column to highlight stats, numbers, and nuggets from each game that I find encouraging, concerning, or just downright fascinating.
And there were plenty from the Wolverines’ 63-3 victory over Hawaii in Week 1.
Michigan’s 60-point win against Hawaii marked the Wolverines’ largest margin of victory since a 69-0 win against Northwestern in 1975. It was somewhat surprising to see Michigan tack on points at the rate it did on Saturday. Last season, the Wolverines tended to take their foot off the pedal after building big first-half leads, not beating an opponent by more than 38 points. However, against Hawaii, it did not matter whether the Wolverines had their first-, second, third-, or even fourth-stringers in because the Rainbow Warriors could not slow them down whatsoever. After Wilton Speight’s interception, Michigan scored a touchdown on each of its next seven drives, — it likely would have been eight straight if Michigan didn’t run out the clock — while Hawaii had one trip to Michigan’s red zone and needed a 55-yard field goal to score.
It was a dominant win — against an overmatched opponent — in every sense.
To those who have been paying attention, it wasn’t a surprise that quarterback Wilton Speight led the offense onto the field to open the 2016 season. But it probably was a shock to see him throw an interception just seconds later during Michigan’s first offensive play. However, Speight bounced back in strong fashion. He finished 10-of-13 (76.9%) for 145 yards (11.2 YPA), three touchdowns, and just that one pick. As a result, Speight tallied a quarterback rating of 231.38, which would be the fifth-best nationally and best in the Big Ten if he qualified by attempting at least 15 passes against Hawaii:
Does that mean Speight will be a top-five quarterback in 2016? No, almost certainly not. He benefited by facing a Hawaii pass defense that was 107th in S&P+ last season and torched by Cal’s Davis Webb to the tune of 441 passing yards and four passing touchdown one week earlier. For example, Speight’s third touchdown pass was a wobbler to Amara Darboh, who was wide open after a Hawaii mental miscue. And most of his throws were simple as he took one deep shot, which fell incomplete while Jake Butt was alone underneath, and his longest completion (31 yards) was a screen pass.
However, Speight managed the game well and had some throws that suggested Michigan will be fine at quarterback this season. He threw a tight 21-yard pass to Jehu Chesson on a post before tossing a perfect dime to Grant Perry on a corner route for a 12-yard touchdown. He also flashed some mobility when he evaded a Hawaii pass rusher, rolled to his left out of the pocket, and directed Maurice Ways to an open area for a 22-yard reception. Speight will need to continue to make plays like that — and more of them — especially when the opposing defenses become faster and better.
But, for now, it was a good first career start for Speight.
My biggest question mark for Michigan entering the season was how the run game would perform. However, after watching Cal’s big men maul Hawaii’s defensive line, I realized that we would have an answer only if the Wolverines struggled to move the ball on the ground against the Warriors. There was no struggle whatsoever. Michigan carried the ball 39 times for 306 rushing yards (7.85 YPC). This 7.85 average was the Wolverines’ best in a game under Jim Harbaugh and second-best since Denard Robinson was sprinting past defenses in Rich Rodriguez’s spread offense in 2010. The Wolverines were efficient on the ground against Hawaii. Only four of their 39 runs lost yardage (10.3%), and two of those were in the fourth quarter when they held a 56-3 lead. They were also explosive as 11 of their 39 carries gained at least 10 yards (28.2%). For comparison’s sake, only 47 of Michigan’s 491 carries in 2015 went at least 10 yards (9.6%), and only seven other teams had more 10-plus-yard runs in their first game. This was the type of performance needed to hint that the run will be improved in 2016.
Of course, this was still just one game against a bad opponent. The best YPC Michigan has had in a game since 2010 was 9.72 ... against Appalachian State in 2014. And we know what happened the rest of that season. So, again, we don’t have an answer yet.
It would not be right to discuss Michigan’s performance on the ground against Hawaii without mentioning Chris Evans. The true freshman dazzled in his debut, earning eight carries for 112 yards (14.0 YPC) and two touchdowns. As Inside the Huddle’s Michael Spath reported, it was the most rushing yards ever by a Michigan true freshman in a season opener. He was also the first Michigan true freshman to score two rushing touchdowns in game since Denard Robinson against Eastern Michigan in 2009 and the first Michigan true freshman running back to do it since Kevin Grady against Indiana in 2005. Evans posted those numbers because he demonstrated some traits that the Wolverines’ other running backs do not seem to possess. He was elusive, spinning off a Hawaii defender in the backfield and turning it into a seven-yard gain. He was explosive, bursting through an, albeit, large hole for a 43-yard touchdown that likely would have seen DeVeon Smith dragged down after 12 yards. He was decisive, reading his blocks and making quick cuts into the second level. Evans looks like he can be a great change-of-pace back for Michigan as well as a weapon as an H-back or in the slot. And, if so, he could continue to put up similar stats. All aboard the Evans’ hype train.
Michigan’s offense excelled at staying ahead on down and distance against Hawaii, which is a major reason why the Wolverines scored touchdowns on seven straight possessions. The Wolverines picked up a large chunk of their first downs on first or second down, so only seven of their 59 snaps were on third down (11.9%). Because Michigan consistently moved forward on first and second down, its average third-down distance was only 3.7 yards, and Michigan never faced a third down longer than seven yards. That is how a team protects itself from dangerous situations in which a quarterback making his first career start has to complete difficult throws to keep the chains moving. And that is why the Wolverines always kept the chains moving, converting all seven of their third downs and never needing to punt to the Warriors. In fact, Michigan was the only team in Week 1 to convert 100 percent of its third downs. It will be interesting to see whether Michigan can continue to excel in this category.
Entering this season, there had been much talk regarding whether Michigan could contend for owning the nation’s best defense. It certainly seemed to be the case for the first 25:07 of Week 1 because that is how long it took Hawaii’s offense to earn its first first down against the Wolverines. The Warriors’ first six drives consisted of five three-and-outs and one interception that was returned for a touchdown. Even more impressive, through those first six drives, Michigan’s defense had held Hawaii to minus-two yards on 17 plays. So Hawaii would have been better on the scoreboard and in the yardage department if it had just spiked the ball three times and punted. The Warriors would find some success on their ensuing possession, recording 74 total yards on 12 plays by spreading out their receivers and attacking Channing Stribling in particular. However, by the time the third quarter had ended with Michigan holding a 56-0 advantage, Hawaii had only 141 total yards on 44 plays for a measly 3.2 yards per play.
And there is no question how Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich feels:
24, 8 & 4
Last season, the weakest unit of Michigan’s defense undeniably was the linebackers, raising concerns because the Wolverines needed to replace the entire group this year. However, Michigan’s new trio of linebackers came out with a bang. WILL Mike McCray, Jr., MIKE Ben Gedeon, and SAM Jabrill Peppers were Michigan’s three leading tacklers against Hawaii, totaling 24 stops. However, what stood out even more was their attacking nature and presence in the backfield. The three combined for eight tackles for loss, four sacks, and a forced fumble. In one game. Last year, Michigan’s starting linebackers (Desmond Morgan, Joe Bolden, and James Ross III) combined for 14 tackles for loss and two sacks. That’s the entire season. Quite the difference. For his effort, McCray (9 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FF) was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, and, suddenly, Michigan seems to feel much better about its linebackers in 2016.
Last week, I wrote a column regarding the five characteristics that the previous 11 national champions shared and how they applied to Michigan this season. The only one of the five traits that Michigan did not 100 percent possess was “Creative Scoring.” Almost all of the prior 11 national champions scored at least four non-offensive touchdowns in their championship season, but the Wolverines had only two in 2015 and were near the bottom of the national leaderboard in takeaways. However, turnovers are volatile, and Michigan got off to a hot start in the “Creative Scoring” department on Saturday. Both Delano Hill and Channing Stribling intercepted Hawaii passes and housed them, providing Michigan with two non-offensive touchdowns and 14 non-offensive points in just Week 1. It was the first time that the Wolverines had scored two defensive touchdowns in a game since “The Brandon Herron Game” against Western Michigan in 2011 and just the fourth time in program history to have two pick-sixes in the same game (1975 Northwestern, 1998 Eastern Michigan, and 1999 Arkansas). If Michigan’s defense can generate turnovers, good luck finding a flaw.
Michigan defensive linemen Taco Charlton and Bryan Mone exited the Hawaii game with injuries. Charlton was seen writhing in what appeared to be a lot of pain after having his leg rolled up on, while Mone was escorted to the locker room after suffering an undisclosed injury. On Monday, Jim Harbaugh shared with the media that he didn’t think “either one will be available this week.” However, for those seeking a clearer answer, The Michigan Insider’s Sam Webb reported that his “gut” tells him that both Charlton and Mone will be out for a 3-4 week timeline ($). If accurate, this is relatively good news for the Wolverines. It’s relative because Michigan would prefer that neither be injured whatsoever. However, the immediate speculation that their injuries could be severe -- maybe season-ending — was concerning because the depth of Michigan’s defensive line was tested in 2015 due to injuries and ultimately wore down. Michigan doesn’t want to go down that road again. That Charlton and Mone could be back for the start of the Big Ten season should cause Michigan fans to exhale and breathe.
You may have heard that Michigan played 17 true freshmen in the opener, setting a program record for the most played in a season. We at Maize n Brew reported it in our post-game coverage, and all three of Anthony Broome, Lance Gordon, and new addition Mark Lennox have opined about it in some capacity. Jim Harbaugh has made it crystal clear that the best players will play regardless of age or experience. It is hard to fault someone for believing in and practicing a meritocracy, but Michigan fans have in the past, blaming Brady Hoke for wasting the redshirts of Dymonte Thomas, Taco Charlton, and others that had a steeper development curve. In many instances, I agreed with Harbaugh’s decision to play a true freshman on Saturday. The Wolverines likely will lose a vast amount of talent to the NFL and graduation in the offseason, and Harbaugh will want members of his heralded 2016 class to have playing experience before 2017. On the other hand, I am having a difficult time understanding the need to play Sean McKeon, Kingston Davis, or Josh Uche — lower-rated freshmen buried on the depth chart and could use that extra year to mold their bodies or improve their football IQ. It’s unlikely that they will see many snaps this season, and their services would be more useful to Michigan as fifth-year seniors in 2020. I am a believer in redshirting and think that it is beneficial to have an older, more mature team — just look at Michigan State and Wisconsin in recent seasons. However, until there is evidence that Harbaugh’s tactics are not effective and not leading to wins, his tactics will not be challenged.