The Michigan Wolverines are 2-0 following a dominant 35-7 victory over UNLV. For the second consecutive game, the nation’s No. 2 team was never challenged or even mildly inconvenienced by their opponent. Michigan understands its first three opponents are less than formidable and have implemented a preservation-centric game plan.
Have you seen the 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall? In this timeless classic, Peter (Jason Segel) vacations to Hawaii to get his mind off a recent breakup. However, he runs into his ex and her new boyfriend at the resort and comedic hijinks ensue.
In one sequence, Peter is trying to stay busy and takes a surfing lesson from the resort’s instructor, Kunu (Paul Rudd). Kunu offers hilariously cryptic advice when teaching Peter the fundamentals of surfing epitomized with, “The less you do, the more you do.”
This is Michigan’s approach to the non-conference schedule.
The Wolverines want to do as little as possible to win comfortably and protect their players for the long conference stretch. Against UNLV, there was again overwhelming evidence to support this notion.
Firstly, three players in the secondary were held out with minor injuries that would have been played through if this were the middle of the season. All-American hopefuls Rod Moore and Will Johnson are yet to play this season and Makari Paige — who played briefly in Week 1 — joined Moore and Johnson on the unencumbered road to recovery and sat out against UNLV.
This isn’t the first time head coach Jim Harbaugh has sat key players to start a season either. In 2016, All-American corner Jourdan Lewis was held out during the three non-conference games and made his season debut against Penn State in Week 4. But even for the participating players on Saturday, the workload was intentionally limited.
Players were frequently rotated across the entire defense and most starters — especially on offense — didn’t play a single snap in the fourth quarter. Running backs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards combined for only 21 carries, the fewest amount in the last two seasons when both players started and finished a game. The previous low was 22 set last week against East Carolina.
Quarterback J.J. McCarthy attempted his first two (and only) rushes of the season and he is still yet to take a sack in the first two games. The coaching staff understands no player is more valuable to Team 144 than McCarthy, and they are purposely keeping him in risk-averse situations.
From a play-calling standpoint, Michigan is operating with a limited playbook during these early games to avoid unnecessarily putting explosive plays or play-calling counters/wrinkles on tape for opponents to scout.
For example, no deep shots have been called in the first two games. Michigan feels supremely confident in its passing attack, as evidenced by the fluidity and other-worldly efficiency displayed against East Carolina and UNLV, but still doesn’t want to expose its true potency until they need to.
From a rushing perspective, the Wolverines are fine-tuning and expanding on a few concepts rarely seen last season. Against East Carolina, Michigan ran more power-based runs from under center, and against UNLV, outside zone was a focus.
The Wolverines know they can run counter, pin-and-pull, inside zone, split zone, and, the team’s favorite, play duo to perfection. But by expanding the playbook and refining these additions in the glorified preseason, Michigan can unleash a diverse and polished rushing attack when Big Ten conference play begins in Week 4.
Lastly, Michigan is shrinking these games. With the institution of a running first-down clock this season, the Wolverines are taking advantage by milking the game. The Wolverines have been a ball-control type of offense the last three years and they are taking it to a new level this season by running the antithesis of the hurry-up offense.
Currently, Michigan averages the seventh-fewest plays (61.5) per game among Power Five teams and probably wants to run less. The prevailing thought behind this is that with fewer plays there will be fewer opportunities for injury.
On Saturday, we learned Michigan has fully embraced that style points do not matter and covering the spread does not matter; only winning does. Expect more of the same against Bowling Green. At this point in the season, teams can’t win a championship, but they can lose it.
Until Michigan gets into the conference portion of its schedule, this team will continue to do less because the less they do now, the more they’ll do later.