Ahead of last Saturday’s kickoff against Maryland, the weather forced a delay to start the game. While the rain and lightning were a temporary setback, issues near the beginning of the game have been a familiar occurrence for the 2018 Michigan football team.
Six games into the season, the Wolverines are in decent shape with a 5-1 record. Michigan is averaging more than 38 points per game while surrendering less than 16, and that includes 24 points worth of garbage-time scores by opponents. On the whole, the Maize and Blue have been in control.
But while the end results have led to victories more often than not, the games have frequently started out less promising. Halfway through the season, it is clear Michigan has an issue jumping out to early leads. While it has only come back to haunt them once so far, it could play a role against tougher competition down the stretch.
More bad than good
Twice Michigan has stormed ahead in the first quarter, essentially putting the game away. A 21-0 lead over Western Michigan and a 20-0 advantage over Nebraska were more than enough points on the day. However, rushing out ahead of a MAC team in the home opener and a currently winless Nebraska squad is more of an expectation than an accomplishment.
Rather, it is the scoreless quarter against SMU and the 7-3 deficit against Maryland that show signs of weakness. Furthermore, it is the 14-0 shocker against Notre Dame and the 10-0 hole at Northwestern that paint a serious picture. Michigan has not come out ready to play far too often, and clearly there is something amiss when playing on the road.
Looking at the numbers, the Michigan offense should be more productive than the results have shown. The team averages 7.0 yards per carry in the first quarter and tally nearly 10 rushes in this period. The issue, then, lies with the passing game, which sports fewer aerial yards in the first quarter than in the next two frames and the team’s lowest passer rating of the game.
Simply running the ball more would not solve all woes, though. The first drive against Notre Dame and the first two possessions against Northwestern featured heavy doses of Karan Higdon, but still ended in punts. In fact, the third series against the Wildcats ended on a fourth-and-1 stuff of Higdon near midfield.
It seems more like an execution issue than anything for the Michigan offense early on. The team faced third-and-shorts against SMU and Maryland and could not convert, and Sean McKeon’s drop against Northwestern and Shea Patterson’s pick against the Mustangs are examples of bad mistakes that should not happen.
It starts with defense
While offensive struggles are frustrating, it is inexcusable for the defense to give up 14 points to Notre Dame in the first quarter and leave the team in a 10-0 hole in Evanston that soon turned to 17-0. Both times the unit bounced back impressively, but it did cost Michigan a loss and almost led to a second.
The run defense has not been significantly worse in the first quarter, giving up just 2.22 yards per carry, which is slightly higher than the second and third quarter numbers. Instead, it is the pass defense — which has given up more than 300 yards in the air in the first frame — who is most at fault. This is 100 yards more than the Wolverine defense has allowed in any other quarter of the game.
What sticks out most are the big plays. Michigan has given up 16 passes of at least 15 yards this season, and eight of those have been in the first quarter alone. Similarly, the defense has allowed nine passes of at least 25 yards, five of which have come to start the game. This simply cannot happen. For a team built around its defense and excellent secondary, allowing big plays early in the game is a killer.
Most of these plays are memorable. Notre Dame hit a 28-yard pass on the fourth play of the game to get into Michigan territory. On its next drive, they threw for 26 yards on third-and-long before connecting on a 43-yard bomb into the end zone to make it 14-0. Northwestern had a 36-yard completion on its first possession, which got the Wildcats down to the one-yard line to set up their first score.
The offense needs to figure out how to start a game at full speed and cut out the mistakes in the first quarter. Until that happens, the defense must carry the load, and that starts with eliminating the big pass plays. Building an early deficit against weaker competition may be survivable, but Michigan cannot afford to keep playing with fire. The team is too good to not grab early leads and control the game from the start.