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UNLV at No. 2 Michigan Preview: The 2023 journey is well in flight

The Wolverines were as dominant as ever last week, but introduced a different flair.

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UNLV v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

As expected, the Michigan Wolverines took care of business to open up the 2023 season, dispatching East Carolina in a game that was never really competitive. That story should repeat itself on Saturday, as the Wolverines welcome (back) the UNLV Rebels to Ann Arbor in the second of three lackluster non-conference affairs.

UNLV enters 1-0 after taking down FCS Bryant last weekend. This is actually the second time the Rebels have visited Michigan, with Jim Harbaugh winning 28-7 in his third game as head coach. Of course, Harbaugh will again be suspended for this one, with Jay Harbaugh and Mike Hart splitting the coaching duties in his stead.

The Rebels finished just 5-7 last season and in the bottom half of the Mountain West, though SP+ currently has them sitting three spots higher than East Carolina (93 vs. 96). Vegas expects just as bad of a blowout, though, and with how the Wolverines looked last weekend, it is hard to see anything different happening.

For those at home, at least this game moves off Peacock. Instead, Michigan gets to experience the new Big Ten 3:30 slot on CBS, which feels an awful lot like college basketball, but is the new reality. Regardless of channel, the maize and blue made a statement last week and look to continue that this weekend.

UNLV Rebels (1-0) at No. 2 Michigan Wolverines (1-0)

Date & Time: Saturday, Sep. 9, 3:30 pm ET
Location: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI
TV/Streaming: CBS

Offense: Wish granted, happy?

I was shocked to see J.J. McCarthy throw 30 passes against ECU, many when the game was already out of hand. This was the fourth-most of the junior’s short career and more than the combined quarterbacks attempted in any of the non-conference games last season. For all of the talk about a more balanced attack, Michigan certainly backed it up in the opener, looking like a completely different offense.

McCarthy was excellent, as were Roman Wilson, Cornelius Johnson, and Colston Loveland, and there is no doubt that the passing game could be just as prolific this weekend against the No. 100 defense per SP+. While the UNLV secondary does return a lot of a talent, in addition to Arizona transfer Jaxen Turner, even Bryant was able to move the ball a bit through the air last week.

Still, as much as I loved seeing McCarthy air out the ball, it felt weird to have somewhat modest outings from both Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards. Neither were poor, especially since ECU sold out against the run, but it was not a vintage Wolverine rushing attack. I would still like to see a 50/50 (or better) split again, but getting some production out of the lightning-and-lightning duo will help fuel the good vibes to open up the year.

Defense: It starts up front

The Rebels return Doug Brumfield at quarterback, who comes into the season after completing over half of the team’s games in 2022. His numbers were not elite (1898 yards, 64.6 percent completion rate, 10 touchdowns, five interceptions), but he is serviceable for the Mountain West, and he does have some decent mobility as well. His favorite target last week was slot Jacob De Jesus, who caught four for 50 yards, while former Spartan Ricky White brought in a couple receptions as well.

UNLV does not have anything special long the offensive line, meaning the Michigan pass rush should be disruptive again. While I was wrong to predict a lot of sacks in the opener because ECU was clearly of the mindset of getting the ball out as quickly as possible, it was still a clear win for the Wolverine defensive line all game. That should continue this weekend, as Brumfield will be consistently under duress regardless of lineman rotation or defensive back availability.

New head coach Barry Odom and offensive coordinator Brennan Marion prefer a fast style of play, which has sometimes given Michigan issues in the recent past. Given the talent discrepancy, however, this is unlikely to cause too many issues, though it is a good experience for the defense. It seems like the Rebels will be willing to run the ball, so it could be another strong performance from the Wolverines’ interior defensive line.

All about that rotation

Another pushover opponent, another chance for getting more bodies on the field for Michigan. Last week saw Karsen Barnhart and Myles Hinton start at tackle, meaning LaDarius Henderson and Trente Jones should get some earlier snaps this week. Numerous running backs and wide receivers will see playing time as well, including freshman wideout Fredrick Moore who looked good in his debut.

A whole bunch of defensive lineman saw action against ECU, and that again will be the case; Kenneth Grant and Derrick Moore impressed as reserves and should keep getting playing time. Will Johnson should have a chance to play, but neither he nor Rod Moore will be needed, as Josh Wallace and Keon Sabb got to show off their potential in the secondary.

It might sound greedy that the biggest goals for this weekend are seeing Corum and Edwards light up a few big runs and getting more exposure across the two-deep, but that is the reality of these sort of contests. Good teams dismantle inferior opponents, and Michigan needs to keep its foot on the gas. As much as I want to see the run game back on schedule, if McCarthy sits back and throws for another 280 yards on insane accuracy, I suppose no one will cry too much.